breaking news from the world of ideas

by Peter Franklin
Monday, 12
April 2021

Why we won’t cancel Yuri Gagarin

Sixty years ago today, we became a spacefaring species. It was, of course, Yuri Gagarin who took that giant leap — becoming the first human being to reach outer space.

It wasn’t a long trip. Lift off was at 6.07 am and he landed back on Earth less than two hours later. However, during his time away he orbited the planet, endured eight gees of acceleration (without blacking out) and completed the last ten minutes of his journey by parachute (having ejected four miles up).

What did you do before breakfast?

His achievement surely places him among the great explorers. However, if he were a Columbus, a Livingstone, or a Lewis and Clark, you can be sure that today there’d be an effort to ‘contextualise’ Gagarin and the Vostok 1 mission. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 8
April 2021

Can Jennifer Lopez tempt you back to work?

Have you heard about the WELL Health-Safety seal?

If not, here’s the high profile promo. It features Jennifer Lopez. And Lady Gaga. Not to mention Robert De Niro, Michael Jordan, Venus Williams and Deepak Chopra. Oh, and Dr Richard Carmona too — the seventeenth Surgeon-General of the United States of America.

It’s basically a certification scheme for buildings — promising high standards of, well, wellness. Which is all well and good, but why are so many celebs and experts promoting it? More to the point who’s paying them to do it? (I’m assuming they’ve been paid. Well paid, most likely.) ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 7
April 2021

America’s disturbing death statistics

Before Covid, there was another epidemic — the opioid epidemic.

In fact, as Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University have shown, the problem isn’t only the fatalities caused by opioid misuse, but also other forms of drug overdose, suicide and alcohol-related liver disease.

Described by Case and Deaton as “deaths of despair”, these scourges have had a measurable impact on mortality trends in America. Indeed, the problem was serious enough to send a century-long trend of ever-increasing lifespans into reverse.

It is not an equally distributed phenomenon. The rise in deaths of despair is overwhelmingly concentrated among poorer Americans. The size of this effect is shown in new research from Case and Deaton published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Friday, 2
April 2021

Make the Church weird again

A year of Covid has crushed the texture from our lives. For the millions of working-from-home-workers, life is especially flat. One day is much like the next — the same surroundings, the same people, the same routine.

I’m not sure that we’re quite prepared for the shock of the great unlocking. If all goes well, then by the summer we’ll be back to the way things were before the pandemic. Whereupon, a painful discovery awaits us: which is that our pre-Covid lives were pretty humdrum too.

However, there is one institution that could and should re-texture the passage of time: The Church. The great Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter still provide annual landmarks for believers and non-believers alike; but there’s so much more that our churches could do to re-infuse the calendar with shared variation. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 31
March 2021

Where Viktor Orbán leads, the EU follows

Last year, the Hungarian government raised eyebrows when it moved to secure supplies of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine — thus circumventing the European Medicines Agency.

Another example of the EU’s rogue state going rogue again? Not quite. The truth is rather more disturbing and it’s this: where Viktor Orbán leads, the EU follows.

Yesterday, it emerged that Austria is in advanced negotiations with Russia to obtain a million doses of the Russian vaccine. Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian Chancellor, telephoned Vladimir Putin to get the ball rolling.

Not coincidentally, Kurz is among the EU leaders most critical of the EU’s joint procurement programme — and the fact that countries like Germany have exploited loopholes to obtain extra supplies for themselves. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 30
March 2021

We need memorials for murdered buildings

Highly recommended: an eye-opening, heart-breaking tweet thread from Create Streets entitled ‘the world we’ve lost’. It is dedicated to the landmark buildings that were destroyed during the 20th century — some of them by the Luftwaffe or by city planners or by a combination of the two. 

The world we have lost.

The C17th “Dutch House” stood on the corner of Bristol’s High Street & Broad St. Saved by the Lord Mayor from traffic engineers in 1900, it was badly damaged but not destroyed by bombs on 24 Nov 1940. It was needlessly demolished 3 days later.

— createstreets (@createstreets) March 27, 2021 ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Friday, 26
March 2021

It’s not just the Suez Canal, our world is full of choke points

We really ought to bring back geographical literacy — a basic familiarity with the shape of countries and continents. I realise that this sort of thing went out with the British Empire. But just because there’s no more pink on the map it doesn’t that we shouldn’t make the effort. We especially need to get into our heads that the world is full of choke points — through which the arteries of global economy must pass. The Suez Canal is a topical example. This week — and, possibly, for weeks to come — we’ve had a painful reminder that we can’t take the free passage of trade for granted. Things can so easily go sideways — literally, in the case of the Ever Given.
The backlog of boats unable to pass through the canal as a result of the stuck Ever Given (Ever Green)

But it’s not just one canal we need worry about. For instance at the other end of Red Sea, there’s a second choke point: the Bab Al-Mandab strait. It’s about 20 miles wide, so there’s more wiggle room than a canal. On the other hand, it’s got Yemen on one side and the Horn of Africa on the other — both of which have got wars raging. Moreover, Djibouti, on the African side, is currently an arena for the superpower rivalry between China and America (both countries have military bases there). By the way, Bab Al-Mandab means ‘Gate of Tears’ or ‘Gate of Grief’

If you manage to get out of the Red Sea, you can sail along the Arabian shore all the way round into the Gulf. Except that to reach the oil ports of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi you have to go through a third choke point — the Strait of Hormuz.  This is also about 20 miles wide at its narrowest point — and has the Arabian peninsula on one side and Iran on the other. What could possibly go wrong? ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 25
March 2021

What is your ideological blindspot?

Are you hearing only one side of the story? For Twitter users, there’s a new way to check. It’s called Blindspotter — and it’s free and easy to use. You just enter the name of your Twitter account and it analyses your interactions with other Twitter accounts (or at least those recognised as “news sources”).

It then tells you what percentage of those interactions are with Left-wing, centrist and Right-wing news sources.

You can do this for any Twitter account, not just your own. For instance, here’s the readout for Donald Trump Jr. (his father not being on Twitter these days):

It won’t come as any surprise that Don Junior leans to the Right. Joe Biden, on the other hand, leans to the Left. In fact, he doesn’t seem to interact with any Right-wing news sources at all: ...  Continue reading

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