Sunday 31 March 2019

Non-Japanese people are poorly represented in Japanese media: That needs to change

For almost a decade, the Japanese TV show “Why Did You Come to Japan?” has operated on the premise of finding foreign tourists and asking them the titular question. It might seem like an innocent query at first, but in fact this show and its ilk embody everything that is wrong with the depiction of non-Japanese in Japanese media.

Close contact with non-Japanese people in Japan, while increasing, remains a rarity for a majority of the Japanese population despite a rise in tourists from overseas (their numbers reached 31 million last year). That means most Japanese people’s knowledge of non-Japanese has been left almost entirely in the hands of the mass media — and the results have not been good.

Life as a panda
Dave Spector, one of the most well-known and established foreign media personalities, famously likened non-Japanese who appear on TV to pandas in an interview in 1980.

“They are cuddly, you can go have fun with them and throw a marshmallow, and that’s about it,” he said, adding that “since I’m making half a million dollars a year, I’m very happy to be a panda.”

Despite an increase of non-Japanese and first- or second-generation immigrants landing gigs as TV personalities it appears that not much has changed since Spector’s observation from almost 40 years ago. To a large extent, we remain exotic elements or comic relief. The exaggerated image of people from other cultures is maintained by stereotyping and caricaturing. The West become the Far West, and “foreigners” are reduced to “others” — the ones who are not “us.”

Not ready for prime time
“Why Did You Come to Japan?” became so popular when it first aired in 2012 that it got a prime-time spot on TV Tokyo the following year. The concept is simple: Find foreign-looking people, mainly tourists, and interview them about why they are in Japan. The targets are nudged to say what they find cool about Japan and what makes the country unique. These clips are then edited together and aired to the general public.

The show features appearances by Nigerian-born TV personality Bobby Ologun, who often stars as comic relief in variety shows by making banal mistakes in heavily accented Japanese. Although he is fluent, Ologun has made a living through his persona, acting the confused foreigner.

A similar show on NHK titled “Cool Japan,” named after the ongoing government initiative to promote Japan since 2005, gathers non-Japanese in a panel to discuss what is great about the country. Thus, non-Japanese in Japan are either depicted as silly (Ologun) or eternally fascinated.

On the flip side are TV shows in which a Japanese crew travels to other parts of the world in order to “get to know other countries.” However, the reality that people lead generally similar lives overseas holds little entertainment value and, instead, shocking customs and items from other countries are presented to a Japanese panel who comment on how strange they are. And this is what audiences are left with: The outside world is strange, often dangerous, and other.

Toxic TV: The stereotypes and caricatures on Japanese television pollute attempts to encourage internationalization. | GETTY IMAGES
The gap between reality and the manipulated reality spliced together in the editing rooms of major TV networks contributes to many misconceptions among the Japanese public, one being that non-Japanese people are all eternal visitors.

Earnest efforts toward internationalization are constantly undermined when people from other countries — or who just look like they might be from other countries — are reduced to being objects or ignorant tourists. At a time when Japan is taking initiatives to open up and increase immigration, the integration and normalization of interaction between the Japanese and non-Japanese people is crucial. Since non-Japanese are a minority in Japan, media outlets hold a great amount of power in shaping the public’s opinion and perception of them. The tendencies that can be observed in TV shows are a real issue that essentially stunts progress in real life. This kind of othering is harmful to Japan, because it builds on the idea that there is an unbreachable gap between “us” and “them.”

If Japan wishes to invest in non-Japanese people long-term, the aspect of cultural assimilation and internationalization is at least as important as decent working conditions. Linguistic and cultural barriers should be overcome rather than enforced. The foreign nationals who participate in these types of shows are within their right to take the opportunities presented to them and live as they wish. In an ideal world, everybody would just represent themselves. Unfortunately, this is not the case with media, and one non-Japanese person can end up representing an entire country — or sometimes an entire continent. Our choices have consequences, whether we like it or not, and if we hope to get past the era of “you are good with chopsticks” comments, effort is needed from all sides.

Japanese exceptionalism
These shows focusing on “foreigners” did not appear out of thin air, and Japan’s long and complicated history with the rest of the world — and particularly the West — modernization and imperialism have all played a part. Several books would not be enough to cover this topic, much less a short article, but it can be said that Japan’s ambivalent relationship to the outside world has given birth to a somewhat bipolar attitude to it.

In modern-day media items, distinct pieces of nihonjinron, which can take the form of discussions of Japanese exceptionalism, can be seen in the way “Japaneseness” is constructed through highlighting differences with other countries. Furthermore, shows that push foreign people to praise Japan are essentially creating an inflated sense of the national self.

On the other hand, advertisements have a tendency to depict non-Japanese people as cool, aloof and worldly. Japan has the world’s third-largest advertising industry and use white people in no less than 14 percent of its advertising — a demographic that compromises only around 1 percent of its non-Japanese population. The white people we see in these ads are long-legged, carefree and out of reach. In fact, this representation is oddly reminiscent of the postwar era when Westernization was considered a desirable goal. Feelings of national pride mix with feelings of inferiority and awe, but the result is the same: These people are presented as being “others.”

Television is far from the only outlet that indulges in this kind of representation. Sometimes the signs are subtle, but they’re still there.

The Tokyo Metro Cultural Foundation has run the subway poster campaign “Good Manners, Good Tokyo” for almost a year, in which non-Japanese people postulate while being either fascinated by Japanese rules and norms or ignorantly breaking them.

Bookstores include entire sections that cover nihonjinron arguments. One successful series, titled “Japan Class,” depicts foreign caricatures gawking at Japanese customs and culture. These types of media, while not as widely read, also contribute to the “othering” of a portion of the population.

The road goes both ways
A healthy internationalization progress also requires people to step outside their usual routines and environments to see new places and meet new people for themselves.

However, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60 percent of people surveyed thought that Japanese nationals having to travel overseas for work was a “moderate/very big problem.” This is also reflected in student statistics; a majority of Japanese students who study abroad do so for just under a month — and sometimes for only a few days. While there are a number of underlying reasons for this — including economic deterioration, the decline in numbers of young people, language barriers and the educational system — the result is a nation that has had little interaction with other cultures apart from seeing them on TV.

Fostering understanding, mutual exchange, and genuine and deep relationships is in the interest of everybody who lives in Japan. Tossing that responsibility to a profit-minded entertainment industry will make the creation of a diverse society an even-more distant dream.

Of course, the onus is on viewers just as much as it is on the TV networks to look beyond what they see on the small screen.

(Source: JT)

Saturday 30 March 2019

Report calls for reform of 'unhealthy' land ownership in Scotland

Commission set up by Scottish government recommends new powers to split monopolies

Scottish land ownership rules must be radically reformed to reverse the concentration of the countryside in the hands of a small number of ultra-wealthy individuals and public bodies, a major review has warned.

The study by the Scottish Land Commission, a government quango, says that in extreme cases where landowners abuse their power they could face compulsory purchase or community buyouts.

The commission, set up by Scottish ministers who are likely to look closely at its conclusions, found that major landowners behaved like monopolies across large areas of rural Scotland and had too much power over land use, economic investment and local communities.

Drumlanrig Castle on the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch, who owns more than 80,000 hectares of Scotland. Photograph: Alamy
It found that about 1,125 owners, including Highland lairds and major public bodies such as Forest Enterprise and the National Trust for Scotland, own 70% of Scotland’s rural land, covering more than 4.1m hectares (10m acres) of countryside.

That includes 87 owners whose holdings total 1.7m ha, with some estates owned by the same family for more than 400 years. Scotland’s two most powerful private landowners – the Danish clothing billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife Anne; and the Duke of Buccleuch – each own more than 80,000 ha (200,000 acres), spread across multiple properties.

Describing the worst effects of that monopoly power as “socially corrosive”, the SLC warned: “In some parts of Scotland, concentrated land ownership appears to be causing significant and long-term damage to the communities affected.” The eventual goal of the commission would be to break up many large estates.

The commission, which has not singled out any specific landowners, said owners in many areas had a positive impact, increasing the vibrancy of communities and investing in the local economy. Some were selling off land, increasing diversity of ownership.

 Scots Pine trees in Strathspey. Photograph: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images
However, in the worst cases, owners were demolishing cottages, planting large-scale conifer forests, damaging the environment by focusing on deer stalking and grouse shooting, converting homes into holiday lets or cutting the amount of land available for small tenant farmers.

One crofter complained about an unnamed conservation charity keeping the village she lived in “like a museum” and refusing to allow her to build a home on her croft. As a result, she lived in a caravan for several years.

Among a series of recommendations that will be bitterly resisted by many landowners, the commission has called on ministers in Edinburgh to introduce:

Legal powers to subject large land sales to public interest tests in special cases in order to stop owners having excessive power.

A requirement for owners of large estates to draw up management plans that involve local communities.

Powers to investigate cases where landowners abuse their power, which could lead to compulsory purchase or community buyouts.

New ways to increase the number of small and privately owned estates, farms and forests.

Hamish Trench, the commission’s chief executive, said large landowners did not need to behave badly for their power to be an issue. Concentration of ownership decreased economic opportunities and diversity. “That is an unhealthy position to be in,” he said.

The Competition and Markets Authority, the UK government agency that investigates monopolies, told the commission Scottish land ownership patterns met the test for monopoly power. That included bodies such as the Forestry Commission, which owns 638,600 ha and the National Trust for Scotland, a conservation charity, which owns 76,000 ha.

“It is fundamentally about changing the system to a more productive and dynamic system of land ownership, and change is needed across [all] these sectors,” Trench said. In rural Sweden, he said, there are strict rules about protecting the public interest in land sales.

Sarah-Jane Laing, the executive director of Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, said many already upheld the policies recommended by the commission. She said there were already significant community buyout powers still to come into force from previous reforms.

Accusing the commission of focusing too narrowly on ownership rather than land use practices, she said: “We want to see more detailed and compelling examples to support the report’s claim that concentrated land ownership is damaging fragile communities. The stereotypical view of landowners held by some simply do not reflect current-day reality.”

Scottish ministers are already under heavy pressure to speed up land reform. The Scottish Green party MSP Andy Wightman told Holyrood last week that Scotland’s land ownership registry was badly out of date and only covered 33% of the country’s land area.

“Land reform to date has tinkered at the margins for too long,” Wightman said. “If Scottish ministers approve these recommendations, then we could be on the brink of resolving the central problem of Scottish land ownership, namely the centuries-long persistence of hegemonic landed power.”

Calum Macleod, from Community Land Scotland, the membership organisation for community landowners, said the proposed reforms were essential. “The whole land reform agenda needs to be framed very explicitly around public interest arguments, and land being owned and used for the common good,” he said.

 A forest worker near Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA
Scotland’s top landowners
Church of England
The Church of England has quietly become Scotland’s largest private forestry owner. In December 2014, its investment fund bought 13 forestry plots, and two in Wales, for £49m, doubling its forestry holdings to 13,215 ha. One 300 ha plot had recently been converted from farmland.

A commercial plantation’s uniform blocks of spruce and conifers are disliked by conservationists but loved by investors because they attract grants and offer reliable profits.

The Church Commissioners, the body that runs the church’s investments, insists community engagement is an important part of its decision making. But a sale of that size could trigger new tests proposed by the SLC to involve local people in a management plan or even prove the sale was in the public interest.

Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen
Late last year, a Danish clothing billionaire, Anders Povlsen, and his wife Anne, became Scotland’s largest private landowners after buying a small 1,100 acre estate near Aviemore. They already had six estates in Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland, and Glenfeshie, one of the most famous estates in the Cairngorms.

They now own 89,000 ha (220,000 acres) across the Highlands, where they champion re-wilding, heavily restricting deer and sheep grazing. Povlsen, reputedly worth £4.5bn, also spends heavily on community facilities.

Ecologists applaud their habitat restoration but their acquisitions could easily trigger the SLC’s proposed public interest test as even the most beneficial owner could stifle local enterprise by controlling policy.

Duke of Buccleuch
The Duke of Buccleuch, who was Scotland’s largest landowner until overtaken by the Povlsens last year, has been downsizing in the south-west of Scotland. He put 3,626 ha (8,959 acres) of farmland near Langholm on sale last year, reportedly valued at more than £19m.

The SLC wants major landowners to start selling off land but Buccleuch Estates said the 18 plots on sale could be sold as a single package. The plight of their tenant farmers caused controversy. One elderly couple, the Telfers, face eviction because they cannot afford to buy their farm. Buccleuch also said the farmland could be converted into forestry: a valuable commodity for investors.

(Source: The Guardian)

Mushrooms may 'reduce the risk of mild brain decline'

Eating mushrooms more than twice a week could prevent memory and language problems occurring in the over-60s, research from Singapore suggests.

A unique antioxidant present in mushrooms could have a protective effect on the brain, the study found.

The more mushrooms people ate, the better they performed in tests of thinking and processing.

But researchers said it was not possible to prove a direct link between the fungi and brain function.

The National University of Singapore study's findings were based on 663 Chinese adults, aged over 60, whose diet and lifestyle were tracked from 2011 to 2017.

Over the six-year study, the researchers found that eating mushrooms lowered the chances of mild cognitive impairment, so that roughly nine out of 100 people who ate more than two portions a week were diagnosed, compared with 19 out of 100 among those who ate fewer than one portion.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) can make people forgetful, affect their memory and cause problems with language, attention and locating objects in spaces - but the changes can be subtle.

It is not serious enough to be defined as dementia.

The participants in the study were asked how often they ate six different types of mushrooms: oyster, shiitake, white button, dried, golden and tinned.

Mushroom eaters performed better in brain tests and were found to have faster processing speed - and this was particularly noticeable in those who ate more than two portions a week, or more than 300g (10.5oz).

"This correlation is surprising and encouraging," said assistant professor Lei Feng, the lead study author, from the university's department of psychological medicine.

"It seems that a commonly available single ingredient could have a dramatic effect on cognitive decline.

"But we are talking about a combination of many factors - tea, green leafy vegetables, nuts and fish are also beneficial."

The researchers point to the fact that mushrooms are one of the richest dietary sources of ergothioneine - an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory which humans are unable to make on their own.

Mushrooms also contain other important nutrients and minerals such as vitamin D, selenium and spermidine, which protect neurons from damage.

But there is still a long way to go before evidence of a direct link can be established.

Diet and lifestyle factors
This study relied on self-reported information on mushroom intake and other dietary factors, which may not be accurate, the researchers acknowledged.

Dr James Pickett, head of research at Alzheimer's Society, said: "There are lots of factors that contribute to the development of dementia and it's estimated that up to a third of cases could be prevented by changes in lifestyle, including diet.

"Dementia is one of the top 10 causes of death, but people can take action to reduce their risk, so it's important that we base our advice on consistent evidence that's built up over multiple studies, and don't get carried away with the findings of any one single study.

"So while eating a diet full of fruit and vegetables, including mushrooms, is a great starting point, our best advice is to also cut down on sugar and salt, be physically active, drink in moderation and avoid smoking."

(Source: BBC)

Friday 29 March 2019

Neo-Nazi groups allowed to stay on Facebook because they ‘do not violate community standards’

International white supremacist groups remain online, spreading same conspiracy theory that inspired New Zealand attack 

Neo-Nazi groups have been allowed to remain on Facebook because the social media giant found they did not violate its “community standards”, it has been revealed.

Pages operated by factions of international white supremacist organisations including Combat 18 and the Misanthropic Division were reported, but Facebook refused to remove the content and told researchers to unfollow pages if they found them “offensive”.

A Counter Extremism Project report, seen exclusively by The Independent, showed the same response was received for chapters of Be Active Front USA, a racist skinhead group, and the neo-Nazi British Movement.

Several of the pages unsuccessfully reported included racist and homophobic statements, such as calling non-whites “vermin” and gay people “degenerates”, images of Adolf Hitler and fascist symbols.

Facebook refused to take down a page used by Combat 18’s Greek wing, despite its cover photo showing a man performing a Nazi salute, in front of a wall sprayed with a swastika.

The cover photo on the Facebook page for the Greek branch of neo-Nazi group Combat 18, which was reported to Facebook but not removed 
Another page for Combat 18’s Australian faction complained that after the New Zealand terror attack, the “media and leftists would carry on for months”, while spreading the same ideology that inspired the shooter.

Originating in the UK as a neo-Nazi street-fighting group, Combat 18 has units in dozens of countries and has been suspected in the murders of immigrants and ethnic minorities.

Others pages left online were being used to sell neo-Nazi merchandise and music, which generates funding for extremists.

Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director of the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), said Facebook and other platforms were allowing hate groups to “network and build echo chambers worldwide”.

“Facebook services a third of the world’s population [2.32 billion monthly active users[, it’s the biggest platform there is,” he added.

“But the company’s business model is content on the platform, not content off the platform, [so] unless there is clear, sustained public pressure on the right-wing extremism issue, we will not see significant progress.”

Mr Schindler called for legal regulation, as the British government prepares to publish a white paper on tackling “online harms”.

The fresh controversy comes after Facebook was condemned for failing to stop the New Zealand attacker’s livestream until it was reported by police.

Days later, The Independent revealed that anti-Islam group Britain First had set up three new pages a year after being banned for hate speech.

Mr Schindler said that although Facebook and other social media firms have dramatically improved their response to Isis propaganda and other Islamist material, the response to far-right extremism was lagging behind.

“Terrorism is terrorism, and Christchurch unfortunately proved our point that both sides of the equation are equally concerning and equally dangerous,” he warned.

“In the west, we have right-wing nationalist extremist groups who feel encouraged at the moment to take action.”

The alleged Christchurch shooter published an online document that said he got his views from “the internet, of course”, and the white genocide conspiracy theory cited as his main justification was being spread by several Facebook pages reported by the CEP.

One, a Canadian branch of the Blood and Honour neo-Nazi music network, claimed to condemn the New Zealand terror attack but openly stated its belief in “cultural replacement tactics that are plaguing Western civilization” in a public post.

The page, which remained online on Sunday, called the atrocity a “misguided effort to make a positive change in the world”.

The Facebook page for the neo-Nazi Blood and Honour Canada group, which was reported to
Facebook but not removed
It was one of 40 Facebook pages belonging to right-wing extremist groups and retailers, which were monitored by CEP researchers between September and November last year.

The sample included 22 groups “that promote the ideology of neo-Nazism and white supremacy”, and 18 Facebook stores promoting extremist music and merchandise.

By the end of the period, five of the 40 pages monitored had been taken down for unknown reasons and the remaining 35 had increased their audience by more than 2,300 likes.

When the CEP reported the 35 online pages, Facebook said it would remove six but dismissed reports for others with a generically-worded response that read: “We looked over the page you reported, and though it doesn’t go against one of our specific community standards, we understand that the page or something shared on it may still be offensive to you and others.”

Facebook advised researchers to “avoid things like this” by blocking or unfollowing the pages. Several have subsequently been removed.

One American retailer reported by the CEP was selling T-shirts with the slogan “kill your local drug dealer”, alongside stickers showing antifascists being shot in the head.

The Facebook page for the Australian branch of neo-Nazi group Combat 18, which was reported to
Facebook but not removed
Factions of the international neo-Nazi group Green Line Front also remained on Facebook, alongside antisemitic “Christian identity” groups and the US National Alliance Reform and Restoration Group, which calls for supporters to mount a “white revolution … and take back our homeland from the invaders”.

Facebook’s community standards define hate speech as a “direct attack” on characteristics including race, national origin, religion and sexual orientation.

“When neo-Nazi groups that clearly violate the platform’s policies are allowed to maintain pages, it raises serious questions regarding Facebook’s commitment to their own policies,” the CEP’s report concluded.

Facebook figures show it removed 12.4 million pieces of “terrorist content” in six months last year. Around 2.5 million pieces of hate speech were deleted in the first quarter of 2018.

A spokesperson said: “We want Facebook to be a safe place and we will continue to invest in keeping harm, terrorism, and hate speech off the platform.

“Our community standards ban dangerous individuals and organisations, and we have taken down the content that violates this policy. Every day we are working to keep our community safe, and our team is always developing and reviewing our policies.

“We’re also creating a new independent body for people to appeal content decisions and working with governments on regulation in areas where it doesn’t make sense for a private company to set the rules on its own.”

(Source: Independent)

Kachin women from Myanmar 'raped until they get pregnant' in China

Women from Kachin minority are allowed to go home only if they leave baby behind, says HRW report

Burmese and Chinese authorities are turning a blind eye to a growing trade in women from Myanmar’s Kachin minority, who are taken across the border, sold as wives to Chinese men and raped until they become pregnant, a report claims.

Some of the women are allowed to return home after they have given birth, but are forced to leave their children, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, titled Give Us a Baby and We’ll Let You Go.

One survivor said: “I gave birth, and after one year the Chinese man gave me a choice of what to do. I got permission to go back home, but not with the baby.”

China is grappling with a severe gender imbalance; the percentage of the population who are women has fallen every year since 1987. Researchers estimate that factors including sex-selective abortion, infanticide and neglect of female babies mean that there are 30 to 40 million “missing women” in China, who should be alive today but aren’t.

That means millions of men are now unable to find a wife, and there has been a rise in trafficking across the borders of neighbouring, poorer nations.

 Refugees in Myitkyina, Kachin state, northern Myanmar. Photograph: Khin Maung Win/AP
Many of the Kachin women are trafficked out of Myanmar by their relatives, friends or people they trust; in one case a woman was betrayed by someone from her bible study class. They are often promised jobs across the border in China, and discover only after they cross over that they have been sold into sexual slavery.

“My broker was my auntie, she persuaded me,” a woman who was trafficked aged 17 or 18 told Human Rights Watch. Over three years, HRW spoke to nearly 40 victims who had escaped, or been allowed to leave but without their children, many still struggling to deal with the emotional impact.

All came from, and had returned to, Myanmar’s northern Kachin state or neighbouring Shan state, where the ethnic Kachin have been fighting the government for decades. A 17-year ceasefire ended in 2011, and the renewed conflict has displaced more than 100,000 people and left many struggling to survive.

With men taking part in the fighting, women often become the only breadwinners for the families, and with jobs badly paid and hard to find, many feel that they have no choice but to pursue work in China where wages are higher even for illegal migrants.

“Myanmar and Chinese authorities are looking away while unscrupulous traffickers are selling Kachin women and girls into captivity and unspeakable abuse,” said Heather Barr, women’s rights co-director at Human Rights Watch.

“The dearth [of work or legal] protections have made these women easy prey for traffickers, who have little reason to fear law enforcement on either side of the border.”

Myanmar’s government reported 226 cases of trafficking in 2017, but experts told Human Rights Watch they believe that the real number is much higher.

There are few incentives for trafficked women or their relatives to seek official help. Families seeking police aid to track missing daughters, sisters and wives were turned away in Myanmar, or were asked for money, HRW found.

Many of the areas where the women are trafficked from are controlled not by authorities in the capital, Yangon, but by the opposition Kachin Independence Organisation, so the government has no record of what is happening there.

In China, when some survivors tried to seek help from security forces, they were jailed for immigration violations not supported as crime victims.

Those who were repatriated were often simply dumped at the border, stranded far from their community, the report found. And if they do make it back, they face social stigma, and little chance of getting justice, even if they tried to seek it.

“When Myanmar authorities did make arrests, they usually targeted only the initial brokers in Myanmar and not the rest of the networks in China,” the report found. “Police in China almost never to our knowledge arrested people that knowingly bought trafficked ‘brides’ and abused them.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Automation could replace 1.5 million jobs, says ONS

Some 1.5 million people in England are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

It says 70% of the roles at high risk of automation are currently held by women. Part-timers and the young are the next most at risk.

The ONS analysed the jobs of 20 million people in 2017 and found 7.4% of these were at high risk of being replaced.
Women are at the highest risk of seeing their jobs taken over by robots
It has developed a "bot" to show the risks for particular occupations.

The ONS defines automation as tasks currently carried out by workers being replaced with technology. That could mean computer programs, algorithms, or even robots.

The three occupations with the highest probability of automation are waiters and waitresses, shelf fillers and elementary sales occupations, all of which are low-skilled or routine.

Those at the lowest risk are medical practitioners, higher education teaching professionals, and senior professionals in education.

"It is not so much that robots are taking over, but that routine and repetitive tasks can be carried out more quickly and efficiently by an algorithm written by a human, or a machine designed for one specific function," the ONS said.

It added it had looked into the automation of jobs as it could have an impact on the labour market, economy and society.

The ONS says there are fewer jobs at risk of automation now than was thought in 2011, from 8.1% to 7.4%, but the proportion of jobs at low and medium risk of automation has risen.

It says the exact reasons for the decrease in the proportion of roles at high risk of automation are unclear, but it is possible that automation of some jobs has already happened: "For instance, self-checkouts at supermarkets are now a common sight, reducing the need to have as many employees working at checkouts."

The statistics body says that while the overall number of jobs has increased, the majority of these are in occupations that are at low or medium risk.

That suggests, it says, that the labour market may be changing to jobs that require more complex and less routine skills.

Maja Korica, associate professor of organisation at Warwick Business School, said: "What is most concerning is the speed at which the biggest players are introducing these changes.

"If you take a company like Amazon, it introduced more than 50,000 new robots in 2017, a 100% increase from the previous year. Estimates suggest 20% of its workforce may already be made up of robots.

"Policymakers and business leaders need to be thinking about how they work together to deal with these problems."

By Jonty Bloom, business correspondent

Automation is not just about robots or self-driving cars, it can also involve computer programs and algorithms, but the message from this analysis is clear: the better trained and educated you are the lower are the chances of you losing your job.

So although all those self check-out terminals at your supermarket are taking a lot of work and jobs from shop staff, the head of marketing at Sainsbury's is probably safe; for now.

It is routine and repetitive tasks that are better done by a machine, be it adding up long columns of numbers or filling boxes with baked beans, but it is also true that more and more complicated tasks can and are being broken down into a series of simple tasks, each of which can be done by a machine that needs no training, holidays, tea breaks or sick leave.

So increasing numbers of factory workers are at threat of losing their jobs, even if they are highly skilled and that also means that the young are worst affected.

After all, experience, qualifications and promotion all take time, the longer your career the more likely it is you are doing a job that is safe from the rise of the machines.

(Source: BBC)

America should allow other countries to vote in the 2020 election

This is a country which calls itself 'leader of the Free World' and has huge global influence in terms of foreign policy and economics. Now that Trump won't acknowledge basic things like climate change, it's time other countries had a say, writes Clémence Michallon in Independent. Read on: 

I was nine years old when I first seriously pondered the result of a US presidential election. It was 2000 and my father suggested we bet on who would win the 2000 vote – George W Bush or Al Gore. In the kitchen of our apartment in the Paris suburbs, I bet a piece of gum that it would be Gore. Two months later, the Supreme Court decided otherwise, and I didn’t realise until many years later how close I had come to being right.

Perhaps that’s when it originated: the idea that maybe other countries shouldn’t just be left wringing their hands every four years and waiting to see who US citizens had chosen to appoint as (to speak like a White House staffer on Scandal) the leader of the Free World.

And perhaps that seed of an idea continued to gestate in 2004, when we waited to find out whether John Kerry would deprive George W Bush of a second term; then in 2008, when T-shirts bearing Barack Obama’s red and blue “Hope” poster started cropping up on the streets of the French capital; and again in 2012, when we learned the names of his Republican challengers.

Then, of course, came November 2016, by which time I had moved from my native France to the US. I came home from work at approximately four the morning after the election and spent an hour or two on the phone with my mother (it was mid-morning in Paris) talking about Donald Trump’s ascent to power and what it meant for America as well as for the world.

One election after the next, we have seen how much the results of the US presidential vote impact not just the 50 states, but the rest of the planet too. And if the future of foreign countries is shaped to a significant extent by what goes on on US Election Day, shouldn’t they get a say in who gets to lead the most powerful nation in the world for the next four years?

In other words: shouldn’t foreign countries have a right to vote in the US presidential election?

I know, I know. The idea sounds so absurd, so outrageous that it’s hard to know where to begin your rebuttal. I have floated it around, timidly, in bars and at various dinner parties over the years, and let me tell you – it’s hard to get people to agree with me. And I get it: it’s never been done. I will probably never be done. But last week, a terrorist killed 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The alleged gunman, who had referred to himself as a white nationalist, viewed Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity”. So, yes, I think it’s high time to acknowledge the fact that what happens in the US has immense, tangible consequences on the rest of the world, and I am tired of crossing my fingers hoping that American voters will do the right thing.

A country with such huge global influence should be prepared to share its elections with other citizens of the world ( Getty )

I remember the Iraq war debate, and how George W Bush expressed his disappointment at my country and others for deciding not to align with US forces – while insisting that he was “not mad” we had decided to opt out of the invasion. I remember our collective bewilderment at the term “freedom fries”, and I remember lacking clarity on some of the details, on account of being 11 years old at the time. But the feeling that the US, more than any other nation, shapes our collective future has only grown clearer and stronger since.

Perhaps it helps to imagine America as the pot in which tomorrow’s ideas are brewed, for better or worse. Perhaps it helps, too, to look at the more tangible signs of how US politics contribute to shaping all of our lives. The most convincing example may be global warming, and Donald Trump’s overt skepticism when it comes to climate change. In January this year, the president of the world’s most powerful nation infamously tweeted: "In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can't last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming [sic]? Please come back fast, we need you!"

It goes without saying that whatever the US does or does not do to limit the effects of global warming impacts every single being, human or otherwise, on this planet.

Then comes the economy: in June last year, we were warned that tensions between the US and its main trading partners could precipitate global trade turmoil similar in scale to the 2008 financial crisis. Whoever gets to sit in the Oval Office, then, plays a major role in shaping the state of our wallets as well as the state of the planet. Is it really that outrageous that people around the world might want to have a say on who runs the show?

I am, of course, aware that the US is extremely unlikely to go along with my idea. This isn’t a country that’s particularly known for avidly seeking external input. And of course, there’s the idea that the right to vote is intrinsically tied to residence, and that those who don’t live in a given country aren’t qualified to make a call on what goes in said country.

Except things are more complicated, and more nuanced than that. Take, for example, the idea that living in a country is a condition to having the right to vote there. Permanent residents such as myself, also known as green card holders (also known as people who aren’t US citizens but live and work in the US full-time) pay the same income tax as US citizens, but don’t get to vote. Naturally, US citizens (like citizens of many other countries) still get to vote for their president even if they permanently move to a different country. All this to say: there is an established disequilibrium between who gets to vote in the US presidential election and who arguably has the most skin in the game.

How would it work, then? If the US were to entertain the possibility of letting foreigners participate in the presidential vote (and again, I’m not holding my breath), how would we make it happen? Does each foreign country get the same weight as each of the 50 states? Surely, that would be giving too much weight to the outside world. Do we restrict the vote to member states of NATO and/or historical allies? This seems slightly more realistic – as realistic as it gets in this purely hypothetical scenario – but also somewhat unfair to those whose voices would be left out.

I have clearly disclosed my status as a French citizen, so I know the question will be raised: how would I react if someone proposed to let other countries vote in the French presidential election? Well, France is currently about five spots behind the US in the ranking of the world’s most powerful nations, and its GDP is more than seven times lower. But sure, should France ever have the kind of political and cultural influence the US currently yields, then I’d be inclined to let others have a say. In fact, I might even vote in favour of it.

Bride finds secret message from late mom on wedding shoes

‘Wanted you to have a gift from me on your wedding day’

A bride was shocked to discover a secret message engraved on the soles of her wedding shoes, written by her late mother prior to her death.

In December 2016, Emma Letts, from Kibworth Beauchamp in Leicestershire, became engaged to her fiancé Richard Wilson.

But just a month later she was informed her mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and given just one to two years to live.

Ms Letts' mother passed away in 2017, before having the chance to see her daughter walk down the aisle.

Unbeknownst to the bride, however, the older woman had organised a surprise with the help of Ms Letts' wedding shoe designer, Lace and Love.

On Saturday 9 March, Ms Letts, whose wedding is due to take place in August this year, received her wedding heels in the mail.

As she inspected them, she spotted the message her mother had arranged to have engraved on them, with the assistance of Lace and Love's Amanda Weise.

The shoe manufacturer, Lace and Love, received an 'emotional phone call' from the bride when she received the bespoke heels (Lace and Love)
"Wanted you to have a gift from me on your wedding day. Your wedding shoes are my gift to you," the message reads.

"Hope you have a magical day. Lots and lots love and big hugs MUM xxxx."

Ms Letts explained there have been "lots of tears" while planning her wedding without her mother, and so to receive the message on the shoes was an "absolute shock". 

"I started to cry... I was just absolutely in bits. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't talk," she told the BBC.

'I am so glad I could be a part of this,' says Lace and Love's Amanda Weise (Lace and Love)
Ms Weise told The Independent that adding personalised messages to shoes is a service the company offers.

She said: "I asked her mother if she would like to send one to be put on the soles and the message you see was exactly what she sent me. I am so glad I could be part of this and make these shoes for her that mean so much not only to her, but to people all over the world."

Ms Letts' mother also paid for the heels, without her daughter's knowledge.

Lace and Love shared a series of photographs of the shoes on its Facebook page, prompting many to praise the shoe designer for providing the bride with an "amazing gift for her to treasure".

"I don't think anything could have prepared me for the response they would get," Ms Weise said. "It's the perfect illustration of how a personalised service like mine can mean so much to people."

She added she had received messages of goodwill from people around the world.

"The response to the shoes has been nothing short of mind blowing, I'm honestly so shocked and amazed with the amount of people the story has reached," she said.

(Source: Independent)

Thursday 28 March 2019

Doomed Boeing jets lacked 2 safety features that company sold only as extras

As the pilots of the doomed Boeing jets in Ethiopia and Indonesia fought to control their planes, they lacked two notable safety features in their cockpits.

One reason: Boeing charged extra for them.

For Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers, the practice of charging to upgrade a standard plane can be lucrative. Top airlines around the world must pay handsomely to have the jets they order fitted with customized add-ons.

Sometimes these optional features involve aesthetics or comfort, like premium seating, fancy lighting or extra bathrooms. But other features involve communication, navigation or safety systems, and are more fundamental to the plane’s operations.

Many airlines, especially low-cost carriers like Indonesia’s Lion Air, have opted not to buy them — and regulators don’t require them.

Standard 737 Max planes are not equipped with a so-called angle of attack indicator or an angle of attack disagree light. The indicator will continue to cost airlines extra, but the light won’t.CreditCreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

Now, in the wake of the two deadly crashes involving the same jet model, Boeing will make one of those safety features standard as part of a fix to get the planes in the air again.

It is not yet known what caused the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10 and Lion Air Flight 610 five months earlier, both after erratic takeoffs. But investigators are looking at whether a new software system added to avoid stalls in Boeing’s 737 Max series may have been partly to blame. Faulty data from sensors on the Lion Air plane may have caused the system, known as MCAS, to malfunction, authorities investigating that crash suspect.

Federal prosecutors are investigating the development of the Boeing 737 Max jet, according to a person briefed on the matter. As part of the federal investigation, the F.B.I. is also supporting the Department of Transportation’s inspector general in its inquiry, said another person with knowledge of the matter.

The Justice Department said that it does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigations. Boeing declined to comment on the inquiry.

The jet’s software system takes readings from one of two vanelike devices called angle of attack sensors that determine how much the plane’s nose is pointing up or down relative to oncoming air. When MCAS detects that the plane is pointing up at a dangerous angle, it can automatically push down the nose of the plane in an effort to prevent the plane from stalling.

Debris from Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed on March 10. The angle of attack features could have alerted the pilots if a new software system was malfunctioning.CreditJemal Countess/Getty Images
Boeing’s optional safety features, in part, could have helped the pilots detect any erroneous readings. One of the optional upgrades, the angle of attack indicator, displays the readings of the two sensors. The other, called a disagree light, is activated if those sensors are at odds with one another.

Boeing will soon update the MCAS software, and will also make the disagree light standard on all new 737 Max planes, according to a person familiar with the changes, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not been made public. Boeing started moving on the software fix and the equipment change before the crash in Ethiopia.

The angle of attack indicator will remain an option that airlines can buy. Neither feature was mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. All 737 Max jets have been grounded.

“They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install,” said Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at the aviation consultancy Leeham. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”

[After a Lion Air 737 Max crashed in October, questions about the plane arose.]

Earlier this week, Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive, said the company was working to make the 737 Max safer.

“As part of our standard practice following any accident, we examine our aircraft design and operation, and when appropriate, institute product updates to further improve safety,” he said in a statement.

Add-on features can be big moneymakers for plane manufacturers.

In 2013, around the time Boeing was starting to market its 737 Max 8, an airline would expect to spend about $800,000 to $2 million on various options for such a narrow-body aircraft, according to a report by Jackson Square Aviation, an aircraft leasing firm in San Francisco. That would be about 5 percent of the plane’s final price.

[The F.A.A.’s approval of the Boeing jet has come under scrutiny.]

Boeing charges extra, for example, for a backup fire extinguisher in the cargo hold. Past incidents have shown that a single extinguishing system may not be enough to put out flames that spread rapidly through the plane. Regulators in Japan require airlines there to install backup fire extinguishing systems, but the F.A.A. does not.

“There are so many things that should not be optional, and many airlines want the cheapest airplane you can get,” said Mark H. Goodrich, an aviation lawyer and former engineering test pilot. “And Boeing is able to say, ‘Hey, it was available.’”

But what Boeing doesn’t say, he added, is that it has become “a great profit center” for the manufacturer.

Both Boeing and its airline customers have taken pains to keep these options, and prices, out of the public eye. Airlines frequently redact details of the features they opt to pay for — or exclude — from their filings with financial regulators. Boeing declined to disclose the full menu of safety features it offers as options on the 737 Max, or how much they cost.

But one unredacted filing from 2003 for a previous version of the 737 shows that Gol Airlines, a Brazilian carrier, paid $6,700 extra for oxygen masks for its crew, and $11,900 for an advanced weather radar system control panel. Gol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The three American airlines that bought the 737 Max each took a different approach to outfitting the cockpits.

American Airlines, which ordered 100 of the planes and has 24 in its fleet, bought both the angle of attack indicator and the disagree light, the company said.

Southwest Airlines, which ordered 280 of the planes and counts 36 in its fleet so far, had already purchased the disagree alert option, and it also installed an angle of attack indicator in a display mounted above the pilots’ heads. After the Lion Air crash, Southwest said it would modify its 737 Max fleet to place the angle of attack indicator on the pilots’ main computer screens.

United Airlines, which ordered 137 of the planes and has received 14, did not select the indicators or the disagree light. A United spokesman said the airline does not include the features because its pilots use other data to fly the plane.

Boeing is making other changes to the MCAS software.

When it was rolled out, MCAS took readings from only one sensor on any given flight, leaving the system vulnerable to a single point of failure. One theory in the Lion Air crash is that MCAS was receiving faulty data from one of the sensors, prompting an unrecoverable nose dive.

In the software update that Boeing says is coming soon, MCAS will be modified to take readings from both sensors. If there is a meaningful disagreement between the readings, MCAS will be disabled.

Incorporating the disagree light and the angle of attack indicators on all planes would be a welcome move, safety experts said, and would alert pilots — as well as maintenance staff who service a plane after a problematic flight — to issues with the sensors.

The alert, especially, would bring attention to a sensor malfunction, and warn pilots they should prepare to shut down the MCAS if it activated erroneously, said Peter Lemme, an avionics and satellite-communications consultant and former Boeing flight controls engineer.

“In the heat of the moment, it certainly would help,” he said.

(Source: NYT)

An image of hope: How a Christchurch photographer captured the famous Ardern picture

Kirk Hargreaves reveals lucky break behind a picture of the New Zealand prime minister that symbolised the nation’s grief

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, stunned residents were looking for images of hope.

They found it in a photograph of prime minister Jacinda Ardern, clad in a black headscarf and overlaid with flowers reflected on the glass outside.

She is listening with clasped hands to the Muslim community in Christchurch, not 24 hours after 50 of their number had been gunned down by an alleged terrorist. Her face attentive, compassionate. On New Zealand’s “darkest day”, she was showing its best qualities.

Kirk Hargreaves’ picture of Jacinda Ardern. ‘A blend of different religions as well as her incredible body language.’ Photograph: Kirk Hargreaves/Christchurch city council
The photo was taken by Christchurch city council photographer Kirk Hargreaves at the Phillipstown community centre at about midday on Saturday.

Ardern had just flown into the city along with the leaders of other political parties and a contingent of Wellington media. She went straight to the community hub to meet representatives from the Muslim community.

They gathered in a small, converted classroom. Hargreaves, formerly with Christchurch paper The Press, arrived late and could not get inside.

“That’s how I got to be outside taking that photograph,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t a good feeling to be stuck out there by myself not getting any imagery.”

Hargreaves tried to photograph the meeting through the window but the glare from the sun meant he couldn’t see through. Then Ardern stood up, and he could see her face through the glass.

 The full image of Jacinda Ardern. Photograph: Kirk Hargreaves/Christchurch city council
“I couldn’t actually photograph her at first because there was so much reflection,” he said. “So I tried to put on a filter which is called a polarising filter … it didn’t work but I just thought ‘oh, bummer, I’ll leave it’.

“But then I found this kind of angle to photograph through … and I was then starting to get hit with her amazing body language and then all the reflections of the flowers and trees outside had done this incredible stuff … the whole thing was such a blend of different religions as well as her incredible body language and I thought: I have just got to get these pictures.”

The image was uploaded on the council’s Facebook page and has been widely shared across both social and traditional media as a defining image of Ardern’s leadership.

In a bleak period in the city’s history, Hargreaves said the image is one of hope.

“When I took it I was so moved by the humanity,” he said. “I probably didn’t know how well it was going to go, but as a photographer I knew that this was a cranking shot. It just sums up what she’s doing, how she’s offering her humanity in a way to those people and she’s listening, she’s concerned, she’s loving.”

He said the image would be interpreted in the same way in “any religion, any culture in the world”.

It is not just Ardern’s stoicism on display: also in frame is the face of James Shaw, the co-leader of the Green party, sporting a black eye from being punched by an angry voter as he walked through Wellington.

“When they came out of that room I was amazed at the way all the politicians, the leaders, they were all jamming on the same page, they were all in it together,” Hargreaves said. “It wasn’t just her … it was such an example of what people should be looking for in their leaders.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Anglesey man's autism helped by mountain hikes

Spencer Kay is 47 and cannot wash, feed or dress himself - but put a 3,000ft mountain in front of him and he will comfortably conquer it.

While every day is a challenge for a man who has autism and a cognitive age of three, set him free in a mountain range and Spencer comes into his own.

"It makes him happy and there is few things that Spenny can comprehend," said sister and carer Charlotte.

It has been a 40-year battle to keep their eldest brother out of mental institutions.

And while he has limited communication, seeing Spencer happy on the hillsides of north Wales is all the thanks and justification they need.

"Spencer has severe anxiety disorder," added Charlotte.

"And for anybody who is feeling stressed, depressed or have any kind of mental health problems, intense physical exercise is incredibly powerful and the effects it has on him are wonderful."

Charlotte would know.

The 39-year-old has taken over from her mum to care for her big brother, whether it's making him breakfast or walking with him among the mountains of Snowdonia.

Spencer's brother Mikey Kay (left) filmed the home-made documentary over three years
She and husband Simon have also decided not to have children so Spencer can flourish in the freedom of living with family.

Mum Nicola - known as Nicky - had Spencer aged 19 in 1972 and spent her life fighting to keep him beside her in the family home on Anglesey.

He was aged two when doctors realised he had learning difficulties and it was first discussed whether Spencer should be institutionalised.

"Born with severe autism in the 1970s, it was an unforgiving era for those with any kind of mental challenges," said brother Mikey.

"Back then you could be separated from your family and be institutionalised just for being different."

As Charlotte explained, her mum fought an "endless battle", not just with Spencer "because he was difficult and she didn't always know how to deal with him" but with the health authorities.

"He was her son, her responsibility," said Charlotte. "She had so much love in her that there was no other choice than him to stay with her."

Mum Nicky (right) thought walks in the mountains would help Spencer
Nicky's way of helping her son was walking - and plenty of it.

"It's very therapeutic and Spencer appreciates it," said Charlotte.

"I think to a much deeper level because of his lack of understanding elsewhere."

Younger brother Mikey has made a documentary about his family's "almighty struggle to get Spencer the only medicine he needs - his freedom to roam these epic mountains".

"Put Spencer onto a mountain and he turns into a powerhouse," said the 45-year-old former helicopter pilot turned journalist.

"Out here he becomes unstoppable because this is the place he truly finds his peace."

Spencer Kay regularly walks the mountains of Snowdonia
Social services and health professionals, however, started to once more discuss Spencer's care as his behaviour deteriorated in his late 20s.

He was sectioned under the Mental Health Act in 2001 after being accused of being aggressive towards a child, and spent time in a mental health unit on Wales' mainland about an hour from home.

"Mum was heartbroken, she had devoted her life to someone very vulnerable," recalled Charlotte.

"I visited him and Spencer was behaving really oddly. What was really sad was he would wait by the window for mum to come and visit."

His family understand routine is key and, as brother-in-law Simon said: "When you upset the routine, that just throws his whole world into chaos."

Spencer struggled and his carers acknowledge an institutionalised setting "wasn't the best thing for him" nor was being looked after in the community by those who he didn't know and who didn't understand his needs.

It also transpired, the family said, that there was a flaw in the paperwork that had led to him being detained, and the section was not valid.

So the authorities came up with a bespoke proposal for in-house care with carers he knew and liked.

Spencer blossomed before their family's world was turned upside down in 2007 - his mum, "his world" was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Nicky Kay regularly took her family for walks in the mountains of Snowdonia
A two-year battle followed before Nicky died in 2009 - and once again Spencer's care was thrust into the forefront of the family's mind.

Charlotte stepped forward as a joint carer in a similarly selfless way her mum did - despite concerns.

"I had scepticism about the commitment required of a young women to commit her life to helping her brother," said Dave McDonald, who was in charge of assessing Spencer's care for the North Wales Health Trust.

"It takes a lot of soul to do that."

Charlotte, like mum, knows what makes Spencer tick and what makes him happy - basically, walking.

It's Snowdon one day, Y Garn the next, for brothers Mikey and Spencer
"She has stepped up and he trusts and loves her more than anyone else in the world," added fellow carer Steve Hughes.

But she acknowledges it's not without challenges.

"Spencer is gentle when you learn what Spencer needs and work out how he is interpreting the world," said Charlotte.

"I would love babies, and children would be a lot of fun to have around. I don't resent Spencer but if I had a child that needed 24-hour care, that'd be too much.

"So Simon and I have decided to not have children. So the future for Spencer is he will stay with me and Simon - and we will get old together."

(Source: BBC)

Monsanto loses millions of dollars after Indian farmers switch to indigenous seeds

Monsanto claims that the genetically modified cotton seeds they sell are superior. So why are so many people trying to switch?

Monsanto is losing millions of dollars now that farmers in India are switching to indigenous cotton seeds rather than Bt cotton.

The agrochemical company is known for pushing a form of Bt cotton in India for the last decade. They have been accused of manipulating laws in order to enter the Indian market.

Monsanto’s manipulation and greed in India has caused hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers to commit suicide. Between the years of 1995 and 2013, more than 300,000 farmer suicides occurred, many of which were linked to Monsanto. Farmers are forced to pay for Monsanto’s costly seeds, which then force them to pay for the expensive pesticides to effectively grow them, as Bt cotton’s pest resistant quality fades over time.

These farmers are losing their lands, and their livelihoods, due to the debt they incur trying to afford Monsanto’s products. Many of the farmers drink the chemical insecticides in order to commit suicide.

But recently the Indian government has been promoting the use of indigenous seeds as an alternative. In the past year Monsanto has lost $75 million in royalties from the switch. As Keshav Raj Kranthi of India’s Central Institute for Cotton Research stated, “Just wait for the crucial three to four years to see a complete, natural turnaround. By then most farmers will give up Bt cotton and go for the indigenous variety.”

Monsanto claims that the genetically modified cotton seeds they sell are superior, but places in West Africa, where Monsanto is similarly pushing their Bt seeds, rejected the gm seeds after finding it produced poor quality cotton.

(Source: Nation of Change)

Guy spends 6 months recreating a Van Gogh painting using plants in a 1.2-acre field

Can you imagine seeing a Van Gogh painting sitting right off the freeway on your morning commute or aerial ride?

One field in Egan, Minnesota got exactly this when the 64-year-old artist, Stan Herd, transformed it into Van Gogh’s 1889 “Olive Trees.”

Herd has been doing similar types of artworks or ‘earthworks’ since 1981. His most recent project took six months and spans 1.2 acres.

Plenty of mowing, digging, and planting was involved. All of which were sponsored by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It can even be seen from the Minneapolis airport. The “earthwork” is comprised of mainly large native plants and materials. It was Herd’s way of uniquely engaging with his favorite artist.

Herd has been doing these types of artworks or ‘earthworks’ since 1981

His most recent project took six months and spans 1.2 acres. Plenty of mowing, digging and planting were involved which were all sponsored by the Minneapolis Institute of Art

If you’re ever near Thomas Reuter’s campus, you can catch a glimpse of this for yourself.

Photo Credits: Stan Herd

(Source: Can You Actually)

Wednesday 27 March 2019

From Bukowski to Hemingway: There’s a problem with the way we idolise drunk male writers

A new book of excerpts from professional rogue Charles Bukowski may feel frank and forthright – but we should hesitate before seeing this as an unvarnished account of alcoholism, Ceri Radford argues. 

In today’s prim culture, where millennials shun nightclubs for spin classes, the unabashed booziness of certain 20th-century writers has a quaint vintage charm. Hemingway considered beer basically a soft drink! Truman Capote would have a double martini before lunch! Can you even imagine the whiskey-soaked Dylan Thomas sipping a mocktail?

It’s in this spirit, as it were, that a collection of excerpts by the American writer and professional rogue Charles Bukowski, On Drinking, is published in the UK on 21 March. With a cute cover that makes alcoholism look like a Father’s Day gift opportunity, the book spans poems, letters and novel extracts on the topic of Bukowski’s legendary love of the bottle.

If anyone could give an honest description of the mingled euphoria, misery and indignity of heavy drinking, it should be Bukowski. Born in 1920, he worked dead-end jobs and propped up bars while publishing in small presses, prompting Time magazine to call him a “laureate of American low-life”. He claimed to hate writer types, spearing literary pretensions with his sparse, scabrous style, and was more at home describing his bowel movements than the dew on a leaf at dawn.

Bukowski in San Pedro, 1981 ( Rex )
Indeed, he shunned the clichés about the mystic connection between creativity and intoxication. In a letter to his friend Douglas Blazek in 1965, extracted in the new book, he wrote: “Drinking is a temporary form of suicide wherein I am allowed to kill myself and then return to life again. drinking is just a little paste to hold on my arms and my legs and my pecker and my head and the rest. writing is only a sheet of paper; I am something that walks around and looks out of a window.”

It was almost a permanent form of suicide, too. Bukowski took great relish in describing the internal haemorrhage brought on by alcoholism that nearly killed him in 1955, blood pouring out from mouth and arse as he lay on the floor of a charity hospital, “my stomach torn open finally with gut rot and agony”.

On Drinking might feel frank and forthright, but we should hesitate before seeing this as an unvarnished account of alcoholism. As Olivia Laing wrote in her superlative book on writers and drinking, The Trip to Echo Spring, one of the things that binds together the overly bibulous is “the self-deceiving nature of the alcoholic”. The first step in the Alcoholics Anonymous programme is to admit that you are “powerless over alcohol”, a step that many never accomplish. As Laing writes:

“In the particular case of the writer who drinks, the ways in which autobiographical material is used requires more than usual scrutiny, since what denial means in practice is an inconsistent mass of material that moves bewilderingly between honest accounting, self-mythologising and delusion.”

Although Echo Spring covers six other famous and alcohol-fuelled American writers – John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver – Laing could have written that sentence with Bukowski in mind.

Charles Bukowski in 1978 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
What is most striking about On Drinking is that although Bukowski revels in being a down-and-out, he always has the upper hand. He wins at drinking games, he wins at fights, he wins at the horses, he wins with women. The “dirty old man” – the title of a column he wrote about his life – is a creature of his own meticulous creation, and for all the filth and dysfunction you never truly get the sense of a life spinning out of control. The closest he comes is in his poetry, notably when confronting a voracious enemy in “ants crawl my drunken arms”:

and the ants crawl down my throat
and into my mouth,
and I wash them down with wine
and pull up the shades
and they are on the screen
and on the streets
climbing church towers
and into tire casings
looking for something else
to eat
It is still, however, his decision to drink the wine, to raise the shades.

If Bukowski were alive today, he would no doubt have some choice words to say on the concept of toxic masculinity, but it is impossible to read his work in 2019 and not be struck by the narrowness of the macho mould he created and inhabited in his writing. If he’s not swinging a punch, he’s yelling rape threats: the one thing more copious than beer in On Drinking is casual sexism. Women are not really humans; they are body parts, ages, or a hectoring, cat-fighting stereotype.

This is a typical sentence, from the largely autobiographical novel Post Office: “She was a nice nurse. Good legs, good hips. Fair breasts.” In the same book, his alter-ego Chinaski also describes raping a mentally ill woman on his rounds in a casual, self-satisfied way – “‘Rape! Rape! I’m being raped!’ / She was right”.

Special contempt is reserved for women who encroached on his territory, as in this extract from his travel memoir, Shakespeare Never Did This: “Then a lady writer started talking. I was fairly into the wine and wasn’t so sure what she wrote about but I think it was animals, the lady wrote animal stories. I told her that if she would show me more of her legs I might be able to tell if she were a good writer or not.”

Quick, somebody find me a lady doctor to stitch my sides back up. If the sexism is, to a certain extent, just another part of Bukowski’s schtick, something deliberately hammed up into a joke, it’s a joke that from this vantage point feels as funny as a lump of mud.

But what has the misogyny got to do with the drinking? Only that alcohol acts chemically on the brain as a disinhibitor, and if there was anyone who needed to ratchet up their inhibitions rather than going in the opposite direction, it’s the red-blooded male of the Mad Men era.

There is plenty to enjoy in Bukowski’s writing: the spare lyricism of his poetry, the iconoclastic swagger of his prose. But this collection risks making a retro fetish out of dark and murky material. As Echo Spring makes clear, it’s hard to generalise about the effect of alcoholism on a writer beyond the inevitable ripples of suffering. While Bukowski lived to the age of 73, many others were less fortunate. As the writer Lewis Hyde noted, four of the six Americans to win the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholic, and “about half of our alcoholic writers eventually killed themselves”. With so much left unsaid and so many moments of reflexive sexism, On Drinking leaves a bitter aftertaste. 

(Source: Independent)