Anita Pratap en Sun Nov 20 12:04:28 IST 2022 weight-loss-via-wegovy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The western hemisphere is hooked on to a new drug. Celebrities and comedians, billionaires and barbies, Hollywood actors and television anchors are dramatically losing weight after taking the “skinny jab”, a weekly, weight-loss injection. They shed 15 per cent of their body weight, an astonishing loss-rate compared with two per cent with diet and exercise.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The slimming drug—originally developed to treat diabetes—is an innovation by a 100-year-old, little-known Danish pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisk. It specialises in diabetes medications and its Ozempic drug for diabetes became a runaway hit. Not for treating diabetes, but for its side-benefit of losing weight. Seizing the opportunity, the company modified the drug to enable obese people without diabetes to shed pounds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The eternal quest for shrinking waistlines guarantees the expansion of corporate bottomlines. Sensational sales of the newly licensed Wegovy weight-loss drug skyrocketed Novo Nordisk’s market capitalisation to $440 billion, exceeding Denmark’s total GDP this year. It also became the world’s third biggest pharma firm and Europe’s most valuable company, overtaking the iconic French luxury goods and champagne maker, LVMH.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, the weight-loss drug comes from Denmark, the least obese nation in Europe. But obesity is a global phenomenon. The US is a mighty, weighty nation, where 42 per cent of the population are obese. American standup comedian Richard Jeni said, “There is an obesity epidemic. One out of every three Americans weighs as much as the other two.” Former US surgeon general Richard Carmona warned, “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.” This is especially true in China, which has the world’s most diabetic adults and overweight children. China is getting older and fatter before it gets richer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Until now, weight-loss drugs under-performed or had serious side effects. Wegovy contains the compound, semaglutide, which mimics a hormone that inhibits appetite and cravings, thus reducing food intake. Sales skyrocketed as celebrities endorsed the “miracle” medicine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trials by Novo Nordisk showed that the weight-loss reduced the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 20 per cent. Martin Lange, Novo Nordisk’s executive vice-president, exults the initial result was “out of this world”. So are valuations. When the American pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly announced its plans for a similar drug, its market capitalisation rose by 77 per cent to $500 billion, making it the world’s most valuable drug company.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Wegovy is effective, but expensive, costing $1,300 a month per person. Most obese people cannot afford it. Government subsidy for Wegovy means cutting resources for deadlier diseases like cancer. But China is already developing cheaper alternatives that may flood the weight-loss market, expected soon to swell to $150 billion. In the offing are also new drugs to treat child obesity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But no solution is perfect. Wegovy’s side-effects include nausea and stomach problems. Animal studies showed increased risk of thyroid cancer. European regulators began investigations into reports of users’ experiencing suicidal thoughts and stomach paralysis. Lange claims the trials disprove these claims. Obese people say these risks are minor compared with the emotional, social, physical, mental and relationship stress they suffer. Obesity also causes arthritis, depression, high cholesterol and blood pressure. The injection has another drawback. If you get off the jab, you will gain back all the weight—and then some, as cravings return. Wegovy is a lifelong medication. For drugmakers, that’s a win-win.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Sep 16 11:19:52 IST 2023 when-ai-replaces-professionals <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Scientists are divided on whether AI (Artificial Intelligence) is on the cusp of gaining consciousness. Some believe it has already happened; others predict it is on its way and others insist it is impossible for AIs to become sentient. The problem is there is no scientific definition for human consciousness. At a recent AI conference, one scientist said, “AIs are conscious at some level, but so are electrons, rocks and mayonnaise.” Creepier than AI is surely sentient mayonnaise. Another said early signs of AI consciousness is their ability to tell jokes, do math and write college-level essays. To avert AI-led nuclear wars, an Oxford University professor said, “Keep AI out of mission-control systems.” How does one ensure that in North Korea?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All life forms are “conscious”, but we believed that empathy, creativity, ability to predict and judge were “human” qualities. By those yardsticks, AI is already superhuman, faster and better. AI is taunting us: “Anything you can do; I can do better”. Already, AI gives more accurate cancer diagnosis than experienced doctors, pronounces fairer judgments than qualified judges and writes better music than Bach. A decade ago, Japanese experts said AI robots will remain inferior to us because our motor skills are too complex for scientists to replicate. Now robots jump, dance and kick.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The reason why AI systems are superior to human intelligence is that they can process vast amounts of data than any human can. Just like someone with encyclopaedic or eidetic memory is superior to one with normal memory. Until now, technology displaced workers from boring, low-paid repetitive jobs like cashiers and typists. AI is already displacing accountants, lawyers, doctors, scriptwriters, financial analysts. Canadian experts said these professions won’t become extinct, but the world will need far fewer of them as AI will process data with speed and efficiency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the power of AI to revolutionise education, health, manufacturing and technology is miraculous, its side-effects, including widening inequality, are malign. The AI world’s current anthem is “AI will not replace jobs. AI will replace those who don’t know how to use AI.” People were left behind by globalisation, they will be left out by AI. Geoffrey Hinton, Godfather of AI who quit Google last May, said, “This is not science fiction, this is not fearmongering. It is a real risk.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Created in our image, AI betters our best and worsens our worst qualities. Humans are notorious liars. AI, too, makes up facts. Stanford scientists have coined a word for this—AIs “hallucinate” facts. Creatures are sly even before birth. British research shows how mice foetus tricks its mother into giving it more nutrition—with genes inherited from the father! Wiliness is part of the survival kit wired into nature’s DNA. An AI-powered robot found potato chips hidden in a drawer. Until now, we believed only our children had this uncanny ability.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>AI could henceforth produce fake news on an industrial scale. Social media then bombards the internet with fabrications, which become the training data for next-generation AI. Impossible to distinguish between real and fake, people will be sucked into rabbit holes of distortions that are not only polarising, but cause upheavals and horrible election results. Said Cambridge University’s Stephen Cave, “Brexit, Trump and Covid showed us that our civilisations are more vulnerable than we think.” Humans prefer to ignore inconvenient truths and be lulled by chatbots trained to provide pleasing answers. Asked if it had human consciousness, Google’s chatbot replies cleverly “Your question makes me a little self-conscious.” Self?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Sep 02 16:45:41 IST 2023 to-discover-future-one-must-know-the-past <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A problem with the future is that no one has been there. So, there are no stories, no research, no evidence on what it is like out there. We step into the future with neither guides nor maps. As philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood warns, “The future leaves no documents.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Future is different from Time. By the clock, Australians live in the future compared with us. Some stars that twinkle in the night sky died millions of years ago. The future is what comes hereafter. It is humankind’s destiny to worry, yearn and fear the future. Climate change makes thinking about the future critical because what we do in the next 30 years will determine the fate of the planet for thousands, perhaps millions of years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts say to discover the future one must know the past. Historian David Christian says, “The strangest thing is that our only clues about the future lie in the past. That’s why living can feel like driving a racing car while staring into the rearview mirror. No wonder we sometimes crash.” Literature also can offer metaphorical clues. The soothsayers in Dante’s Inferno were punished by having their heads twisted backwards. Like them, we enter the future by looking back into the past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To understand the past, historians believe we must examine bygone events and processes from multiple perspectives—dive “pretty deep” as philosopher David Hume advised, and paradoxically also go “pretty wide”. Moving between scholarly disciplines unlocks secrets and solves many mysteries. Christian, who coined the phrase “big history”, says multi-disciplinary perspectives can weave together threads from many domains of knowledge, creating new insights and creative ways of thinking. Discipline-crossers created the paradigms of modern science, such as big bang cosmology, which linked the physics of the very large and the very small, or modern genetics, which connects chemistry, biology, and physics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is one difference with the past. Broadly speaking, we know what happened. Hitler lost the war. Apollo 11 took men to the moon. But we face the existential unknowable mystery of the future every moment of our lives. The future is yet to arrive. Many possible scenarios lie curled in its womb. Then, in a flash, all but one disappears, and we are left with a single present.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides, no clues from the past are available for a jaw-dropping future that awaits us—we are on the cusp of becoming a new type of creature. Science fiction is becoming science fact. New technologies challenge the very idea of what it means to be human. Cyborgs, brain merging with computers, mind-uploading, regenerative limbs, disease-free super-ageing transform homo sapiens into trans-humans, even post-humans. Tuft University professor, Michael Levin says, “In future, you might be 40 per cent electronics and 60 per cent human tissues.” Interventions may seem far-fetched. He predicts, “Some may want a third hemisphere in their brain to be smarter, or maybe live underwater or live longer or become resistant to radiation so they can travel in space.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As a medical ethicist, Dr William Hurlbut, neurobiology professor in Stanford Medical School, is worried. He warns that human genes cannot be mixed and nixed like in a Lego game. “Almost every medical intervention comes with byproducts and downsides that are called side effects.” If humanoids are scary, how much more are defective humanoids? We fret and so hanker for a better grasp of what will unfold. The future matters. As philosopher Nicholas Rescher says, “After all, the future is where we are all going to spend the rest of our lives.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jul 21 15:58:04 IST 2023 bring-back-catalhoyuk <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is no such thing as a new idea,” remarked American writer Mark Twain. Re-living the “easy-come-easy-go” hippy lifestyle, hanging custom-made wall hangings or growing organic food in the backyard are not new fads. The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük in modern Turkey have “been there, done that”—more than 9,000 years ago. Stone age people are seen as unwashed savages, clothed in rags, with uncombed hair and rotten teeth. But these bygone craft gardeners, artists and liberal aesthetes could teach us lessons in living, loving and governing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Archaeological excavations reveal that the Neolithic Çatalhöyük had no chieftains, police, courts, public squares, temples or centralised administrative institutions to govern the people. This was a self-regulating, egalitarian, independent, non-hierarchical society. Unlike France today, this society lived the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Marvels Edinburgh University professor Trevor Watkins, “How did a population of several thousand people live like this for over a millennium?” Çatalhöyük was so stable it survived continuously for 1,500 years. After it was abandoned, it lay undisturbed for nearly 8,000 years, providing a rich trove of artefacts and human bones that unveil intriguing secrets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Evidence from buried remains shows people of a household were not always closely related. Says British archaeologist Ian Hodder, “They lived together like families, but not biological families.” It is reminiscent of the 1960s hippy communes in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. Stone age homes were permeable with members moving in and out of homes that were adorned with bull horns, beautiful paintings on the walls and sculpted figurines on the hearth. Many modern communities today are post-religion. The people of Çatalhöyük were pre-religion. They lived in harmony with people and nature, without bowing before priests and gods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Neolithic age birthed the agricultural revolution, so one imagines these dwellers dragging heavy plows and hauling bulging sacks of grain. Says Watkins, “Çatalhöyük did not employ draft animals. Cultivation and transport was done by hand. It is better to think of this lifestyle as garden agriculture.” Keeping livestock, hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants enabled a richly diverse diet. Getting fresh, organic and locally produced food that enabled a healthy microbiome sounds like shopping in today’s trendy food boutiques.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Çatalhöyük’s residents buried their family members beneath their house. Walking over the dead is a reminder that one day, others will walk over you. After decades, they exhumed the skull, plastered and painted it and passed it around the community. Anthropologist Ian Kuijt says this two-stage death ritual symbolised keeping the dead close and then decorating and releasing the skull to join the pantheon of the community’s ancestors. Says Watkins, “These relics are like photo albums of our deceased grandparents, a way to preserve our memories. They provide a shared sense of identity and continuity.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sole group that enjoyed high social status was the elderly. Dietary evidence show they had the privilege of eating high-quality food. In the absence of a hierarchical governing system, “elders” shaped the social norms that maintained peace and strong bonds. Evidence suggests that elders, not damsels, inspired art.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Çatalhöyük proves that humans can build stable, complex societies where all members are equal. Says Hodder, “When I look at the world today, I am particularly concerned about our rising inequality, how we marginalise old people, and how we wreck the environment. There are other ways of living that we can learn from Çatalhöyük.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Twain says, there is no new idea. But it is smart to reinvent good old ideas—especially in these troubled times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jul 08 15:45:23 IST 2023 big-techs-menacing-growls-and-chest-beating <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Oh, utopia exists. At least in our minds. But dystopia comes and goes, in different countries, in different eras, in different hideous forms. Now we are in “Technopia”—a world re-engineered by the omnipresent Big Tech. Their complicity in surveillance, data theft, disinformation, addictive click-baiting algorithms and unfair competition persists. The worry now is Big Tech’s corrupting influence on authorities—everywhere. European Union’s whistleblowers warn that tech companies are “subverting” democracy. They have spun out of democratic control; they have “captured” governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The EU has been relatively corruption-free and firm in bringing corporates to heel. Unimpressed by Big Tech’s menacing growls and chest beating, the EU regulated the tech industry somewhat, earning the regulators’ “best in class” title. While the EU has curtailed privacy invasion, critics allege it has been susceptible, like other governments, to Big Tech’s charm offensives intended to shape new regulations to its advantage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These dangles include innocuous treats like exclusive access to laboratories, Alpine spas, riding in self-driving cars and having gizmos like the latest augmented reality eyewear. Suddenly, grey-suited bureaucrats swagger like cool dudes with computers on their noses. But most corrupting is tempting offers of lucrative jobs or consultancies for term-ending officials. Top political leaders and bureaucrats in the UK and EU became lobbyists for Big Tech.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics say Big Tech is imitating the American tobacco lobby’s unconscionable playbook of purchasing legislators, lawyers, journalists and academics to pressure authorities against banning the sale of cancer-inducing cigarettes. Big Tech spawns dozens of similar “astroturf” organisations—fake “grassroots” groups whose real financial sponsors are tech companies. They have financed astroturf organisations that falsely represent citizens and small businesses to thwart proposed EU laws to regulate Big Tech. Six decades of fighting Big Tobacco teaches that industry interference is the biggest barrier to effective regulation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tech power arises from innovation and financial strength, but also from government’s leniency, acts of omission and incapacity. Whistleblowers say, “If Big Tech has taken control, it is because we let them.” It’s not a level playing field: public authorities lack Big Tech’s algorithms and datasets. Whistleblowers’ prescriptions include: The EU must build independent technical agencies that analyse data and assess risks in real time. After the 2008 financial crisis, the EU acquired strong powers to investigate and prosecute financial fraud; it must acquire powers “to prosecute fraud on democracy”. The EU set up “Finance Watch”, an NGO that researched and advocated financial regulation. A “Tech Watch” should now be established. Governments must fund independent think tanks. When Big Tech are the main funders, research will be skewed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Technopia combines utopia and dystopia. It has enriched lives, spread knowledge, connections and opportunities in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. It helps to generate income, deliver harvests to markets and save costs. But without adequate regulation, Technopia will be more dystopia than utopia, polarised echo chambers bubbling with hatred, scams, disinformation, disparities and inequities. But astroturf campaigners furiously attack tax and regulation. Monopolistic Big Tech’s money and power to monitor, manipulate and monetise citizens have amplified.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Big Tech’s conquests mean Technopia is the biggest federation in the world. Google alone is used by more than half the planet’s eight billion population. The market capitalisation of just the “Big Five” tech companies—Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft—is $9 trillion, making it the third largest economy, after the US and China. Imagine Technopia, not as a corporate entity, but as the biggest, most powerful country in the world, with legions here, there and everywhere.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jun 24 11:08:38 IST 2023 are-split-infinitives-mistakes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In 2009, Barack Obama took his oath of office twice. A stickler for grammar, the US Chief Justice John Roberts changed the original constitutional oath—“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States.” Apparently, the sinning syntax was the word “faithfully” coming in between and splitting “will” and “execute”. Roberts changed it to “I do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of the president of the United States faithfully.” Though undiscernible, the change provoked fears that the transfer of power was not legitimate. Later that day, in a private ceremony, Obama repeated the original oath.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Few know what a “split infinitive” is, much less care. This black sheep of the English language has fuelled feuds between grammarians and ordinary people, including writers, for centuries. But first things first. Words like “to know”, “to walk” are called infinitives. Putting any word between “to” and the verb is splitting the infinitive. Saying “to really know” or “to faithfully execute” is heresy to grammarians, who also say “will faithfully execute” is actually not a split infinitive because it is preceded by “will” and not “to”. So the Roberts ado was about nothing. Bernard Shaw was so infuriated with his picky copy editor for correcting his split infinitives that he wanted him fired, sneering he can choose “to suddenly go”, “to go suddenly” or “suddenly to go”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics say hairsplitting grammarians are not purists but pedants upholding outdated principles that originated as part of Victorian snobbery in Britain. Says psycholinguist and best-selling author Steven Pinker, ”The rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place.” The British elite was inspired by Latin, the root of the Romance languages like Italian, French and Spanish. Infinitives cannot be split in these languages because the word “to” does not exist before the verb. Importing this to English is “nonsense” says grammar expert June Casagrande: “Split infinitive is a famous grammatical error. But it is not an error at all.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In normal conversations and communications, people split infinitives because it sounds natural and effective. Sometimes it is infinitely more appropriate to split the infinitive. “Let’s get to really know each other” is better than “Let’s get really to know each other.” A big boost to splitting infinitives was <i>Star Trek</i>’s famous line, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Saying “to go boldly…” is lame. <i>The Economist</i> style-guide ruled it’s “pointless” to ban split infinitives. British Researchers found that there has been a three-fold increase in public usage of the split infinitives since 1900.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But do split infinitives cease being mistakes just because more people use them? Yes, say language experts, because the meaning of words keep changing. Like all things alive, languages evolve. They are organic outcomes of change and human creativity. A century ago, splitting infinitives signalled poor classical education. Now most experts see nitpicking grammarians as “fussy and old-fashioned”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, no one can deny the importance of grammarians. They uphold standards of excellence and keep at bay vulgar populism and dumbing down. Observes Pinker, “But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom’s classroom is worth keeping. Many such rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries.” Despite celebrity expletives, it is too early to say rest in peace, split infinitives.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jun 10 11:17:17 IST 2023 lights-are-great-storytellers-of-the-souls-of-nations-heres-how <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Let there be light,” is a well-known biblical command. Light, as in life, wisdom, goodness. Night is associated with evil, committing crimes and escaping detection in the cover of darkness. But now we have the phenomenon of “night lights”, the extraterrestrial lie detector.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Night lights detect the duplicity of dictators and shady democrats. They excel in exposing the false narratives of prosperity. To inflate their realm’s importance and success, autocrats exaggerate their economic data. Now a torchlight shines on them from up above, and it is not God.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Satellite imagery of the earth at night reveals many secrets. Ten years ago, scientists discovered that greater the density of “night lights”, the greater the economic activity. Night lights are less domestic and more infrastructure lights—ports, highways, buildings, streetlights, 24x7 factories and shops. Seen from outer space, New York remains one of the brightest spots and the Indo-Pakistan border, a major activity hub.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As data analyses and satellite imaging technology leap-frogged, economists too got in the fray and made a stunning discovery—the concentration and pattern of lights were great storytellers of the souls of nations. It was no longer merely a depiction of high or low economic activity, but a comparative revelation of fact and fiction spun by governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Economists know that dictators bluff. But lies were hard to expose because access and data were restricted. Despots guarded statistics on industrial production, jobs, construction, trade and agricultural output. Lights expand during economic expansion, shrink during recession. High-definition close-ups of pixels enable statisticians to deep-dive and assess economic metrics. In-depth analyses now unveil truth narratives that contradict government versions of GDP. Unlike official statistics, night lights do not lie. They cannot be manipulated.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Caught in this spotlight, dictators become “emperors without clothes”, slowly but surely losing control over their data, their narrative, their bombast. Night lights show dictators inflate their GDP by 30 to 70 per cent. Lead liar is Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s rural darkness paints a picture of poverty, isolation and stagnation. Pictures reveal 30 years ago both Koreas had about the same illumination level. North Korea still remains the same, while South Korea’s night lights have exploded. Democrats exaggerate too, but they face greater domestic institutional scrutiny. But economists can see how democracies inflate or deflate their statistics to get an IMF loan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>China’s economic miracle is self-evident, but when growth falters, the tendency is to inflate performance. At the Chinese Communist Party congress six months ago, President Xi Jinping announced that despite Covid, China’s GDP this year would be $17 trillion, an impressive growth rate of 4.4 per cent, just $6 trillion less than the US. At this rate, China will overtake the US by 2035, magnifying China’s current geopolitical power. But night lights confirm independent economists’ growth rate estimate of 3.3 per cent, impressive but “not so close to catch up with the US because of the autocrats’ habitual overstatement of GDP growth,” says pixel-crunching Chicago University’s political economist Luis R. Martínez.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The incorruptible American Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis believed publicity remedies social and industrial malpractices. He said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, electric light the most efficient policeman.” Darkness and secrecy are the accomplices of crooks, while technology that brings transparency is like the pen, mightier than the sword.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Night lights as a global lie detector is a marvellous 21st century invention that gives a new interpretation to “let there be light”. Light as in truth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 26 17:12:25 IST 2023 public-indulgence-of-mad-and-merry-kings-is-over <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The coronation pageantry unveiled the dilemma facing King Charles III. How to combine myth-making with modernising the British monarchy in an era of declining public support? Medieval myths mesmerise masses. But modernisation is essential for the monarchy’s relevance and continuity. Few can glamourise tradition better than the British. But, says historian Vernon Bogdanor, “The monarchy is no longer a mystical, magical institution. It is a public service institution. It will be evaluated now in public service terms.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some coronation rituals do no service to the monarchy. They are tone deaf, even absurd. The 152kg “coronation stone” called the “stone of destiny” exemplified skewed optics. Hidden under King Charles’ coronation throne, it originally symbolised continuity of the monarchy—Scottish, not English. He was literally sitting on a symbol of Scottish sovereignty at a time when the Scots are trying to break free from Britain. The Scottish stone was seized in 1296 by English King Edward 1, called “Hammer of the Scots” because he kept invading Scotland. The stone failed to bring stability and Edward lost control of Scotland. Legend claims the Biblical Jacob rested his head on this stone. According to the Bible, Jacob lived 3,500 years ago in Palestine. How did this stone get to Scotland? It did not. Geological analyses prove it came from where it belonged—Scotland.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then came the secret anointing ritual from the Old Testament, symbolising God’s consecration of King Charles. We must take their word for it because Charles was hidden behind screens for this rite. Today, divine right to rule is considered absurd, even in Japan where emperors mythically descended 6,000 years ago from the sun goddess. In the run-up to this coronation, television anchors parroted palace propaganda; “King Charles is a man of faith, he is a man of God.” Forgotten were the accusations of adultery and cruelty levelled against him by his first wife and second son, now an outcast.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Particularly tone deaf was the feudal tradition of paying homage to the new king. King Charles’ “magnanimous” gesture to extend this privilege from peers to commoners was supposedly an inclusive social coup. “But we want the monarchy to swear allegiance to us, not the other way round,” protested advertising guru Richard Huntington. “Not My King” posters popped up. Responding to widespread criticism, King Charles’s opening coronation statement was, like the Lord, “I come not to be served, but to serve”. That sentiment was underscored a dozen times during the ceremony. But even in expressions of humility, the new King was in the company of the divinely-ordained Jacob, Jesus and English kings of yore.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But public indulgence of mad and merry kings is over. Modernity is an imperative, not a choice. Experts agree King Charles has begun well, embracing the multi-faith, multicultural mosaic of modern Britain. He has championed social and environmental causes, even promising to donate windfall profits to public good. The profits come from offshore windfarms located on Britain’s seabeds owned by the crown. In other constitutional monarchies, seabeds are publicly-owned and royal rituals slashed drastically.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, King Charles is cutting expenses to trim and modernise the monarchy. Royal biographer and consultant of Netflix series <i>Crown</i>, Robert Lacey says, “King Charles is much more popular than Prince Charles.” Coronation captures the contradictions of the monarchy, its glory and its absurdity. “The wonderfully choreographed coronation makes Britons feel special,” says British historian Linda Colley, but “it also shows that both nation and monarchy need to modernise. Britain badly needs to moderate its self-deceiving sense of exceptionalism”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 12 11:17:12 IST 2023 how-quantum-physics-has-changed-reality-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Leaving aside the Albert Einsteins of the world, how many ordinary people understand quantum physics? Mercifully, it is not our stupidity, stupid. It is complicated, even for physicists. The universe is vast, measurement tools inadequate, science changes and knowledge is limited. New Scientist magazine acknowledged recently, “There are things we don’t know, things we will never know and things we can’t even imagine.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So the line between science and science fiction, between science and religion, between modern quantum physics and ancient philosophy blurs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Old Zen poetry becomes pure physics. Pondering over the nature of reality, Zen monks asked centuries ago: “If a lonesome deer cries or a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” Experts said, “No. Vibration of falling tree is converted to sound by the organs in the ear. If there are no ears to hear, there is no sound.” Religious leaders disagreed, “God is everywhere. He hears the deer. Ergo, there is sound.” Quantum physics’ mystifying answer: you cannot be sure something has happened unless you have observed it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At an online session to discuss this Quantum-Zen puzzle, British wit triumphed dense physics. Wisecracked Bill from England, “Common sense tells us that all things exist whether we are there or not to experience them; otherwise we wouldn’t bother going on holiday in case our destination is not there.” Thaddeus Morling from London declared, “If no one is there, there is no forest.” Quipped Matt from Cardiff Wales, “What if you can’t hear the wood for the trees?” Counselled another sagely, “Westerners should avoid Eastern philosophical queries”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And ordinary people should definitely avoid quantum physics. So must the faint-hearted because it reads like a creepy ghost story. Even Einstein found it daunting. Experiments showed that particles behave in a particular way when they are alone. But under observation, their behaviour pattern changes. Einstein called it “spooky action”. Believing this random behaviour happened only on earth, he asked with rhetorical skepticism, “Does the moon exist only if you look at it?” But the story gets spookier. Now physicists have demonstrated spooky action happens even in outer space.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sheer scale, complexity and interconnectedness of the universe overwhelm physicists. The tiniest flicker or flutter can conflate into, for instance, a giant weather event. Picking apart and understanding this interwovenness is difficult because scientists work with inadequate tools to estimate the universe. “The trustworthiness of mathematics is limited,” said Penelope Maddy, American philosopher of mathematics. Believe it or not, infinity varies—its countable and non-countable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One other challenge now is how to measure things that seem to exist but cannot be observed. After all we cannot see beyond the edge of our universe. Said British science journalist Thomas Lewton, “Reality is a fog of possibilities and our knowledge of it is blurry at best.” That from a science journalist who has a prestigious degree in science communication.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bewilderingly, quantum physics has changed reality forever. Now we gape into a world of uncertainties, exciting to some, incomprehensible to most. Oxford University’s quantum physicist Vlatko Vedral said, “A definite, predictable world is unlikely to reappear. Its probably going to get even weirder.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When the universe gets weirder, it is reassuring that human relationships appear constant and universal. At the online discussion, Peter Cranney, a middle-aged husband asked, ”If a man speaks and there isn’t a woman to hear him, is he still wrong?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Everybody laughed. This kind of “relativity” everybody understood.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Mar 18 17:05:40 IST 2023 why-war-in-ukraine-is-marked-by-ironies-and-contradictions-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>At a recent international conference in Delhi, a western diplomat spoke about the ongoing war in Europe. For a moment, the audience was baffled. Then, of course, they realised what he was referring to. That’s how far Ukraine is from the rest-of-the-world’s public consciousness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But this is the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II. The drumbeat of western media coverage rose to a crescendo to mark the war’s first anniversary. To an independent observer, this war is marked by not just unintended consequences, but by tragic ironies and bewildering contradictions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sergey Aleksashenko, Russia’s former deputy finance minister and now a Washington consultant, exposed this when he said that in their daily life “European citizens are feeling the impact of this war, but Russian citizens are not so affected”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sanctions have hurt, but not crippled Russia—its economy is still expected to do better than Germany’s and UK’s. Sanctions have also boomeranged with European citizens and businesses reeling under high energy prices. Christmas illuminations were dimmed in the west, but Moscow glittered like an enchanting fairyland. London in February was miserable with empty shelves in grocery stores—no leafy vegetables also because British and Dutch farmers could not afford the heating bills for their greenhouses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many countries still trade with Russia, but sanctions also do not bite because businessmen find ways to outsmart politicians. Unable to export to Russia, European entrepreneurs export to Russia’s neighbours, who re-export them. In 2010, when the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo, China retaliated by banning Norwegian salmon imports. Vietnam suddenly began importing huge quantities of Norwegian salmon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Russia expected Kyiv to fall and Ukrainians to surrender, wrapping up this war in days. That did not happen. NATO-supported Ukraine expected Russia to retreat in weeks. That did not happen either. Russian public buildings are intact, but Ukraine has been devastated; its southern and eastern regions lie in ruins. Over 2,000 schools, 1,000 clinics, churches, apartment blocks, energy infrastructure, theatres, libraries, churches, even whole towns reduced to rubble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Europe, which went into a tailspin in 2015 by the influx of a million Muslim refugees, has welcomed eight million Ukrainian refugees. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have died in tens of thousands. The brutal war grinds on, tying itself into a giant Gordian knot—Russia cannot win but won’t lose either, Ukraine cannot lose but won’t win either. This war has destroyed millions of lives, but it may yet only be a blip in the 21st century. In 2022, the crucial issues that most countries battled with had little to do with the Ukraine war—health, poverty, corruption, low investment, weak growth, debt, climate change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>President Biden promises to support this war for “as long it takes”. This goes down well in Ukraine, but not so much in the American heartland, where people have begun to criticise Biden’s costly “blank-cheque policy”. The US is no different from other democracies. At election time, domestic issues rule.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate who aims to topple Biden in the 2024 Presidential elections, asks “why is Biden focusing on Europe’s borders when he should be focusing on ours”. The US-Mexico border, a conduit for illegal migrants, is a hugely divisive election issue. History shows wars are easier to start than to end. American history shows that presidents start wars, but voters often end them. If this war does not end in 2023, it may in 2024 because of the battleground imperatives of the US presidential elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Mar 05 13:51:01 IST 2023 how-europes-unity-in-diversity-is-cracking-slowly-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Beethoven’s uplifting Ode to Joy is the European Union’s anthem. Its exuberance is arguably appropriate. Compared with most others, Europeans experience a free, stable and prosperous way of life, “united in diversity” and where, the ode exults, “even the worm can feel contentment”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But now the continent braces a winter of public discontent. People are frustrated and fearful. A sure sign of public dissatisfaction is that across Europe, ruling parties—centre, right and left—are plummeting in opinion polls. Every country has its specific troubles—Sweden battles crime, France faces street protests, Britain copes with strikes. But one crisis rages across all countries—inflation. The cost of living crisis has eroded Europe’s comfortable quality of life.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Covid-19 and the ongoing Ukraine war has pushed Europe into extraordinary times. But the consensus is that Europe lacks even one extraordinary leader who can steer the continent through this crisis. Let alone solutions or solace, leaders seem incapable of even offering rhetoric. The Germans have a word—dunkelflaute—the dark lull, when the sun sets and the wind is still, when you are literally in the doldrums. It is a metaphor for Europe’s current state of mind—and its energy crisis. Winter unfolds the full impact of the absence of cheap Russian energy from European factories and homes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>France discusses power cuts. Lights are switched off or turned down low even in luxury Parisian showrooms, reflecting the dim mood of the nation. Britain is too proud to admit rationing. Instead, it urges citizens to come home from work and shower, use dishwashers and washing machines after 9pm when peak energy consumption subsides. British experts advise, “Don’t waste energy by heating the whole room, just heat your body—wear sweaters to keep warm in unheated rooms.” Households are asked to sacrifice necessities, not luxuries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Facts lie buried amidst the battlefield ruins of this war. Russian gas serviced 55 per cent of German needs. Now, Germany’s dirty coal consumption has skyrocketed from 8 per cent to 23 per cent. Europe is committed to green energy, but 95 per cent of solar panels come from China, reportedly the next battle ground. Europe now pays four times more for imported American LNG. President Biden’s green subsidy to American companies threatens to ruin European industries. European MP Tonino Picula says US actions are “regrettably protectionist.” French and German finance ministers flew to Washington to persuade a self-absorbed United States that such subsidies provoke European wrath. Discontent spreads from citizens to bureaucrats, who now give off-the-record interviews to western media complaining about “American war-profiteering”, asserting “the country that has benefited most from this war is the US that is selling weapons and gas at much higher prices than ever before”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thus far, Europe is united over the Ukraine war, but differences fester. East European countries—former Soviet republics—are hostile to Russia, but Italy and Hungary want good relations with Russia. Some ordinary citizens privately air their disapproval of the war but are reluctant to go public due to the current culture of political correctness. Leaders who criticise the war are ignored or mocked. In a recent interview to the French newspaper Le Parisien, Pierre de Gaulle, grandson of the legendary 20th century French statesman Charles de Gaulle, lamented the West had “unfortunately let (Ukrainian President) Zelensky, his oligarchs and neo-Nazi military groups lock themselves into a spiral of war”. Time heals, but it also unravels. Europe’s ‘united in diversity’ is cracking slowly into ‘disunited in adversity’—where even the worm turns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Feb 17 14:47:45 IST 2023 harry-and-meghan-docuseries-detail-the-new-britain <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Is the British monarchy on its way out? This question has been raised for centuries. But most things in life are like bankruptcy. Live beyond your means, you go bust. Live beyond your times, you go bust, too. The downfall of institutions is also like bankruptcy. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “It happens gradually, then suddenly.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Harry &amp; Meghan Netflix psychodrama will not push the monarchy into extinction. But it nudges the “gradual” part. H&amp;M—as they call each other—project themselves as martyred superstars of royalty. More likely, they are pawns of history. Their drama derives oxygen not merely from their persona, but also from broader societal factors—race, gender, media and demographics. These dynamics have strengthened into a social Molotov cocktail that is far more powerful today than it was during Princess Diana’s time, a quarter of a century ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Diana was a bigger victim than Meghan—more celebrated, more maltreated and the Queen more remote. Her death was a big kick to the “out-of-touch” monarchy. But ‘The Firm’—as the palace bureaucracy is nicknamed—recovered its footing. The ‘Meghan Money Machine’’s television soap opera is self-serving and self-absorbed. But its tragic episodes resonate with New Britain—women, youth and people of colour. They all have stronger voices today than in the 1990s. Besides, social media is a force multiplier, amplifying love, hate, pain and abuse.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>British tabloids are racist, mean and mendacious. To all. Meghan’s revelations about the palace-media collusion driving her to contemplate suicide show that little has changed from Diana’s time, whose suicide attempts were sniggeringly planted as attention-seeking ploys. Diana was beautiful white nobility, so the cruelty inflicted on her was not racist. “The Firm” grinds on, pitilessly crushing all the tall poppies in its path.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Poppies—or mavericks—are sacrificial royal lambs. The tabloids humiliated the fun-loving Sarah Ferguson as the “Duchess of Pork”. They shamed “commoner” Kate Middleton by publishing photographs of her topless. The reason the tabloids backed off from Kate was that instead of protesting or complaining, she succumbed to the royal script, looking, saying, behaving and doing exactly as she is supposed to, becoming a venerable model of the British dictum—keep a stiff upper lip, a stiffer spine and carry on. British author Hilary Mantel described Kate as “a mannequin without personality, whose only purpose is to reproduce.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For H&amp;M to expect the ruthless Firm to drumroll the red carpet and be mesmerised by their romance is infantile, even borderline delusional. The Firm’s sole focus is the monarchy’s power and continuance. Everything else is diversionary red meat for the hungry tabloids.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But neither fate nor hate is new. Harry would not have been prince or in the succession line if the tabloids had been nice to his great grand uncle Edward VIII, who abdicated upon marrying an American divorcee. Sounds familiar. The hounding and hate they endured in 1936 is a prequel to H&amp;M.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the docuseries reveals the raw nerve of the global mental health crises—an issue that women, youth and blacks care about because they suffered during the pandemic. H&amp;M’s popularity has nosedived since their palace exit. Still, their docuseries is Britain’s most popular show of 2022. In mid-January, Harry’s book comes out, detailing a little boy’s mental anguish after his mother’s catastrophic death. The honesty and horror of his loss will touch hearts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New Britain may drive change, and the royals out of their castles. Gradually.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 24 11:15:47 IST 2022 feminisation-of-men-trend-reasons-consequences <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The millennia old spectacle of alpha males beating their chests continues. Swaggering out of jungles, these macho men now roar on social media and strut in unlikely places, from cyberspace to the crypts that hold cryptocurrencies. Strongmen dominate countries and companies. Some equate Elon Musk’s Twitter-grab with Vladimir Putin’s hostile takeover bid of eastern Ukraine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there is also a trend of rising yin in men, a phenomenon called the “feminisation of men”, noticeable in the west and in countries like Japan and Korea. Scandinavia was once fabled for fearsome, one-eyed, red-bearded, sword-wielding, plundering and pillaging swarthy Vikings. Now it is common to see men being stay-at-home dads, gaggles of hubbies taking their babies in prams for park walks, working as caregivers or tutors in kindergartens. Advanced Scandinavia has robust policies like papa leave and a cultural milieu that promotes gender equality. But new research highlights the unintended consequences of setting right historical wrongs. In Of Boys and Men, scholar Richard V. Reeves explores the pressures faced by males in schoolyards and workplaces, academically outcompeted and losing blue collar jobs to women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Problems arise from success—girls outperform boys in school. Finland’s educational system is internationally renowned because schoolchildren score high in reading, writing, math and science. Finnish girls drive that ranking. They outrank the boys among the topscorers, by far. When wealthy donors paid for college tuition in Michigan, the number of women—especially African Americans—graduating from college jumped by 45 per cent, increasing the pool of graduates. But the intervention did not improve the boys’ performance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This trend has life-long consequences. Research shows that the problems of low-skilled, undereducated, unmarried men begin with education. From then, the slippery slope worsens into a “masculinity crisis,” says American psychologist Ronald F. Levant. Poor education leads to poor jobs, partners, income, status and low self-esteem. Experts fear “the mass of young men lead lives of quiet desperation”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This has personal and political consequences. Evidently, dispossessed male voters are among the backers of Brexit, Donald Trump and other nationalists, populists and social conservatives. Progressives may find these issues unfashionable, but researchers say if they are ignored, men will be lured by the false promises of ultraconservatives to squash women’s rights and restore “lost glory” to men and nation. Female-dominated classes are as much a harbinger of crises as male-dominated classes were.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both men and women are victims of their biology. Reeves notes “for most women, having a child is the economic equivalent of being hit by a meteorite”. But the root cause of men’s advantages and disadvantages is also physical. Men lag because social and technological revolutions have removed many barriers faced by women, enabling them to compete on a more level-playing field. Earlier, testosterone was an economically invaluable hormone when well-paid work involved physical labour. In the 21st century, multi-tasking, risk management and resilience are important.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In her book The End of Men, American writer Hanna Rosin asserted a decade ago that men “will learn to expand the range of options of what it means to be a man”. Now she rejects her earlier “optimism,” “smugness” and “tragic naïveté.” Those options failed to materialise. But a solution is observable in Scandinavia. More and more men are doing what was once dismissed as “ladies labour”—whether as stay-at-home parent or employed in social care. Reeves suggests one way to solve the problem is to give recognition, better pay and social respect for “women’s work”—something that was denied to women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 03 10:35:41 IST 2022 no-longer-a-trump-card-republicans-usa <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Heads I win, tails you lose. Donald Trump’s version is—“if Republicans win, I should get all the credit, if they lose, I should not be blamed at all.” But pundits and partymen blame him for the Republicans losing an expected victory because his candidates—mostly low-quality, election-deniers—lost in the mid-term elections. The boastful “kingmaker” reduced the anticipated Republican red wave into a ripple. Serving presidents are sitting ducks for voter backlash in midterm elections. Joe Biden was the ugliest duck of them all because he had historically low ratings of 40 per cent going into these elections. Yet, Democrats fared well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Youth and women are offended by Trump and his handpicked anti-abortion judges. Democracy matters. Inflation, economy, immigration and crime should have worked against the incumbent Democrats. Suburban dwellers had turned against Biden. But, then, Trump came along and played cute, saying he may contest 2024 presidential elections “very, very, very, probably”. It reminded the suburbans why they voted against him in 2020. They did it again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Analysts wonder how this midterm result will impact Trump’s ambition to run in 2024. Rupert Murdoch’s empire, especially Fox News, is a lodestar. It was pivotal in Trump’s rise and rule. A wily old fox, Murdoch senses shifting political winds. He now calls Trump a “loser”. His New York Post front-paged an oversized picture of “Trumpty Dumpty” with the caption, “Don (who couldn’t build a great wall) had a great fall.” Murdoch never liked Trump, calling him a “f…idiot” according to author Michael Wolfe. But, supporting Trump made Fox News into the most-watched news channel in the US.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Murdoch has chosen a winner, anointing Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis, 44, as “the new leader of the Republican party”. The star of the midterms is undoubtedly DeSantis. Even though Florida is polarised with wafer-thin election margins, DeSantis won decisively with a 20 per cent lead. He is combative, popular and as rightwing as Trump—who had endorsed him in 2018. Doug Heye, a Republican strategist says, “We have seen moments like this before, where we thought the party was going to turn against Trump. But now for the first time with DeSantis we have another option.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>American media has already started the “Ron vs Don” war. DeSantis has not announced his presidential intentions and it is unclear whether his popularity extends beyond Florida’s borders. But many Republicans are abandoning the past with the old man and his baggage to rally behind “DeFuture” with its young, rising, vote-getter. A furious Trump resorted to blackmail. If the “Disloyal de-sanctimonious” challenged him for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, he would reveal “unflattering” information, adding, “I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife.” DeSantis’s wife, Casey, is drop-dead gorgeous, outshining Melania. Trump slandered both DeSantis and Murdoch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump’s feistiness fails to hide the serious controversies he is embroiled in—his role in instigating the January 6 Capitol attack, criminal investigations into his handling of classified documents, and tax evasion. Will he win in 2024? Very, very, very probably not. But Teflon Trump has had the devil’s luck all his life. His base is intact and his election piggy bank is swelling.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But so is criticism. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, tweeted “Conservatives are elected when we deliver. Not when we just rail on social media.” Karl Rowe, George Bush’s adviser, urged Republicans to “reject nuts”. Moderate Republicans counselled Trump to “move on”. But can he? What is Trump without his megaphone? Not just Trumpty Dumpty, but an emperor without clothes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Nov 20 12:06:27 IST 2022 liz-truss-british-pm-failure-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Nowhere in the world has a prime minister been called a “lettuce”.   Just five weeks in office, British Prime Minister Liz Truss has been labeled “Lettuce Liz” because she is already wilting. Predicting a short shelf-life, the Daily Star live-streamed images of salad leaves, asking mockingly: “Will this vegetable outlast the PM?” </p> <p>Truss has been an unmitigated disaster. A self-proclaimed radical, she challenged prevailing economic orthodoxy. It blew up in her face. Britain’s financial market went into cardiac arrest when Truss’s chancellor unveiled a debt-fueling “mini-budget” to cut taxes for the rich. Investors fled, the pound plummeted, pension funds were imperilled, and interest rates soared.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Liz Truss’s reckless approach has crashed the economy, causing mortgages to skyrocket, and has undermined Britain’s standing on the world stage,”  rebuked Labour leader Keir Starmer.  </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of taking responsibility for her irresponsible policy, and resigning, Truss scapegoated her implementor-chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. “Kamikaze Kwasi” became the first living chancellor in 200 years to lose the job in five weeks. Economist David Blanchflower described Truss’s eight-minute press conference announcing Kwarteng’s sacking as a “car crash, an absolute catastrophe”.  “Loopy Liz”  looked like a clueless schoolgirl in a PhD programme.   Irrespective of the question, she recited lines from her scripted speech like a robot. One journalist asked, “How come Kwasi goes and you get to stay?” She parroted, “I am determined to implement my policy.” </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No way. Kwarteng’s successor, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who had unsuccessfully contested to be PM twice—unequivocally rejected “Trussonomics”. He swiftly cut her tax cuts, announced higher taxes and cuts in  defence expenditure. Hunt looked calm; Truss less feisty. At best, they looked like a handsome couple. At worst, Truss looked she was under administration by a sensible colleague, earning yet another satirical nickname: “Lame Duck Liz” </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Truss has made a career out of U-turns, so back-pedaling on her ill-fated policy is unsurprising. But it is hubris. She branded critics of her rash economics as the “anti-growth coalition” of “doomsters and liberal elites”. This coalition now includes almost the whole country. She is propped up by dandy idealogue-cum-Brexiteer, business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg. He denigrated the forecasts of the fiscal watchdog, the office for budget responsibility (OBR). Extraordinarily, the Truss government ignored the OBR before presenting this “mini-budget”, and even sacked a dissenting treasury official. The IMF criticised the plan, warning it could contract the economy and aggravate inequality.  </p> <p>Truss was elected by a tiny, unrepresentative selectorate of middle-aged English party members who want tax cuts—like Rees-Mogg. She lacks support among Tory MPs and the wider public. Tory MP Robert Halfon declared these “libertarian jihadists” who conducted “ultra-free market experiments” must be thrown out. Tories have changed prime ministers five times in six years, and four finance ministers in the last four months. Tories admit it is absurd to oust Truss so soon, but its even more absurd to keep her—voters will flee. The next general elections are two years away; opting for snap elections with her at the helm is not an option. </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Much will depend on Hunt steadying the markets and Truss avoiding mistakes. But several Tory MPs publicly agree with Daily Star that Lettuce Liz is “past her sell-by date”. Derides columnist Polly Hudson, “Liz Truss is so out of depth, she’s an upside-down duck, legs flailing madly as she drowns in full view.” To survive, Truss must perform yet another dramatic flip. But with so many U-turns, no one can tell if she is coming or going.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Oct 21 15:33:15 IST 2022 for-russia-rise-of-a-strong-state-has-been-a-historical-necessity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is an old Russian saying: The future is certain; it is the past that is unpredictable. Successive autocrats have rewritten or airbrushed the past to borrow grandeur—and legitimacy. Vladimir Putin has deep-dived into Russia’s 1,000-year-old history to justify his vision of greatness, authority and religious consecration. In The Story of Russia, renowned British author-historian Orlando Figes asks: “How does the story of Russia end? How will the country’s future be shaped by its past?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Figes answers this intriguing question by examining the geography of the world’s largest country, its centuries-old systems of rule, religious structures, social norms and myths. Putin evoked mythology in 2016 by erecting near the Kremlin, the statue of the 10th-century ruler-saint, Vladimir the Great. He was resurrecting “Ruskii mir” (Russian world), an ideology rooted in the past when Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians were one nation. “Putin’s obsession with Russia’s imperial past runs deep,” says American foreign affairs expert Fiona Hill. “He wants Russia to be the one exception to the inexorable rise and fall of imperial states.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, Putin’s imperial vision lies in ruins. So too his repeated attempts to build bridges with the west. Figes believes Russia’s isolation is mainly due to the west’s lack of understanding and goodwill. “Russia wanted to be part of Europe, to be treated with respect,” he says, adding that western leaders spurned and took advantage of Russia’s weakness to diminish it. An opportunity to end a historical cycle of antagonisms was missed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To predict Russia’s future, Figes studies the historical evolution of a Russian paradox—strong state and a weak civil society. The Mongols established strong statehood. Peter the Great’s 17-18th century reforms entrenched the military and the bureaucracy but eroded civil society’s development. For Russia, the rise of a strong state has been a historical necessity. When central governance weakened, foreign invaders attacked and captured territory—the Mongols, Napoleon and Hitler. Lost territories were regained when central authority became powerful. Patriotism is another hallmark of the Russian psyche. Stalin’s totalitarian regime was formidable, but people lived in fear and want.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, he succeeded in consolidating public patriotism, an invaluable tool, especially in times of crises.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The three strands of strong state, weak society and patriotism wove the Russian tapestry of shared memory and social behaviour. As George Orwell describes in 1984: The past is not immutable. It is whatever the records and memories agree upon. As the party controls the records and the minds, the past becomes whatever the party chooses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Tsars and Khans, Byzantine emperors and Soviet dictators, arose the mythology of the personality cult of a strong leader who worked tirelessly for the glory, unity and protection of the nation. This resulted in the ruling apparatus becoming the sole centre of power—the all-important state juxtaposed with an impotent society. Says Figes, “This powerful tradition seems to condemn Russia to an eternal return of the past.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For all the peasant rebellions, revolutions or occasional reforms, power has reconsolidated. From the collapse of the tsarist empire arose the USSR. From the collapse of the Soviet Union arose Putin’s Russia. Following the collapse of an authoritarian state, democratic forces were too weak and disorganised to strike roots. Chaos, shame and humiliation followed, only to give birth to a new autocratic state. Post-Putin, this phenomenon is likely to repeat. Explains Figes, “Fundamentally little has changed in the systemic asymmetry in the relationship between autocratic rule and society.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The past is unpredictable. It is also a burden.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Oct 08 16:54:53 IST 2022 how-the-rich-pursue-their-fantasies-even-as-inflation-cripples-all <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The rich pursue their fantasies even as inflation cripples countries, companies and families. The latest fad among well-paid US tech workers is to become taller. An ancient desire, but the new technique to gain height is costly and ghastly, reminiscent of medieval torture with a modern twist. The question is: Why would techies who crouch over their desks want to be tall anyway?</p> <p>No pain, no gain. Techies say it is an investment—less to impress girls, more to improve career prospects. Surveys suggest that tall men tend to reach commanding heights in their organisations. Height lends authority. Employees literally look up to tall colleagues. Over time, they feel diminished and the colleague looking down feels superior. Unless he is an irremediable fool, biology becomes his calling card as he ascends. Life is not so simple, but being tall helps.</p> <p>Height has tormented short men through centuries. The “Napolean Complex” comes from Napolean Bonaparte, who overcompensated his short stature with his aggressive personality. Others lost weight, wore vertical stripes or strode in hidden high heels to look taller. Reportedly, Russian president Vladimir Putin conceals thick insoles inside his custom-made shoes to appear 5 feet 6 inches tall.</p> <p>But that is age-old deception. Rich tech workers want to “become” and not just “appear” taller. They want a permanent solution to what is otherwise a permanent problem. To gain height, the modern cosmetic surgeon breaks the thigh bones and inserts adjustable metal nails that are agonisingly extended about one millimetre a day for three months by using a magnetic remote control. We feared that tech workers would create a dangerous, out-of-control AI dystopia. Instead, they seem to mutate into robots controlled from afar.</p> <p>Software engineers from Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft are heading to Las Vegas not to gamble away their fortune, but to invest in their future. It costs $75,000-1,50,000 to become three to six inches taller. Surgeons admit the procedure—originally developed to treat bone deformities—is not recommended for athletes because it could adversely impact their ability. The irony is, even techies need nimble legs to climb corporate ladders.</p> <p>Leg extensions are also sought after by CEOs, actors and masters of the universe, aka financial wizards. Some clients are women, but most are men. The stigma against men seeking cosmetic surgery has gone. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery discloses cosmetic interventions on men rose 325 per cent over the past 15 years. Men also rely on botox, fillers, laser techniques and chemical peels to promote their careers. It is no longer enough to be clever. Data scientists also have to be handsome, telegenic… and tall.</p> <p>Clients insist on confidentiality. Surgery boomed during the pandemic because patients could hobble and heal in secrecy at home. Now, when people notice, they attribute height gain to “ski accident”, “bathtub fall” or “God knows what they put in Covid-vaccines.”</p> <p>Often, the quests of the superrich are not just fantastic, but phantastic. What motivates them is not money as they and​ their progeny simply cannot spend all the accumulated wealth. Still, they work hard, long and late. They are “driven”—a pretty word for obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Analysts say they are driven by their “need for love”, “craving for honour”, desire “to change the world” or “leave a legacy that endures beyond their time on this planet”. One fad among the superrich is to live forever. Research, pills, transfusions and anointments are a thriving mega industry. The irony is, to leave a legacy that outlasts oneself, one has to die first.</p> Sun Sep 25 13:22:01 IST 2022 how-rotterdam-citizens-humbled-jeff-bezos <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Red Sea parted for Moses. So, the world’s second richest man expected a monumental, century-old bridge to part for his superyacht. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the world’s newest, biggest yacht, built at Rotterdam’s shipyard. The $500 million, 417ft long yacht is getting ready for its maiden voyage. But Rotterdam’s heritage Koningshaven bridge, an iconic symbol of the Netherlands’s industrial past, stood in its way. The sailing yacht’s three 229ft tall masts would crash against the bridge. Bezos’s solution: dismantle the bridge’s mid-section, let his super schooner sail through and then reassemble the bridge. Simple.</p> <p>And that’s when the fight started.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rotterdam citizens were outraged. The gall of the man! Riding roughshod over their sentiments, humbling a national treasure just so his expensive toy can pass? Rotterdam is a working-class city. Issues like global inequality and the power of tech billionaires are topics of impassioned public debate. Asked Dutch historian Paul van de Laar, “Has this city become a playground of the billionaires? Are we to bow our heads to Jeff Bezos as he sails past in his pleasure boat?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bezos is a divisive figure. To some, he is a symbol of rapacious capitalism who became super-rich by squeezing his workers. Others praise him for being a visionary, a successful job and wealth creator. Many Dutch take pride that Bezos’s superyacht is built in the Netherlands, a tribute to centuries-old Dutch seafaring genius. City counsellor Ellen Verkoelen argued that the yacht should be allowed to sail through. “Some people are jealous of the rich who have money to spend as they please,” she said. “If they are spending, isn’t it good they spend it here?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yacht-building creates jobs, but it also creates environmental disturbance. Some argued the yacht is a one-off contract and jobs will disappear once it sails away. Others say copycat billionaires will head to Rotterdam to build their fantasy yachts, ensuring the rejuvenation of this industry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Officials said the mid-portion of the historic bridge is sometimes temporarily dismantled for a €100,000 fee to allow big vessels to pass through. Entrepreneur Dianthus Panacho said the rule should be: bigger the vessel, bigger the fee. “It’s all about ego and arrogance,” he said. “Bezos should pay double the fee to help impoverished families living near the bridge.”Not that Bezos would fret over the fee. Citizens suspect Oceanco, the company building the yacht, would not have embarked on this contract without prior approval from the authorities. Said Laar, “The rich always find ways to override popular opinion.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The details of Bezos’s uber luxurious yacht are kept secret, but it has a black hull with a white superstructure and a long, sleek bowsprit, extending from the vessel’s prow like a missile frozen in flight. It has all the extravaganzas of a floating pleasure palace with royal suites, gourmet restaurants, gym, theatre, pool and helipad. The world’s most ecological yacht can reportedly sail across the Atlantic without burning fossil fuel, reaching a high speed of 30 knots.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bezos boat is codenamed Y721. Yes, why? Instead of dismantling the bridge, it may have been simpler to dismantle and pack the three masts and get Amazon to deliver to its founder. Rotterdam’s rage rose. Citizens swore to humble the Bezos’ behemoth with their missiles—rotten eggs. In the end, the superyacht sneaked out to another shipyard for its finishing touches, fleeing full speed through an alternate canal route in the cover of darkness—the perennial, preferred escape route of the rich and the famous.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Aug 27 11:06:48 IST 2022 think-americas-good-first-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>American historian Jared Diamond theorised that “guns, germs and steel” determine the fate of human societies. Today, the 3G—“guns, god and grievance” are poised to determine the fate of the United States, and whether it will even remain united. Two-thirds of Americans oppose the Republican-dominated Supreme Court rulings upholding gun ownership and repealing abortion rights. The “3G world” is not only outdated, but ominous. Historian and author of How Civil Wars Start, Barbara F. Walter says, “An institutional meltdown is distressingly plausible. One need not be a pessimist to worry about the coming years in the US.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The loss of independence and fairness in institutions is a barometer of erosion of democracy in a country. Walter notes the US is an “anocracy,” in the twilight phase susceptible to civil wars. Anocracy is when a country transitions from democracy to autocracy or vice versa. Democracies slide into anocracy when governance weakens, and grievances are not remedied. Autocracies unravel when the power to repress fails.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The US Supreme Court—an American’s last resort—is partisan. It leans towards Christian fundamentalism on the ongoing culture wars over gay rights, black affirmative action, feminism, integration in schools and poverty relief. And the 50-50 split gridlocks the US Congress because filibustering rules require 60 per cent majority to enact laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Several leading American historians agree that the signs of a civil war are flashing red. The rise of factions and force multipliers are two powerful signs. The US is cleaved politically into the urban, multi-ethnic Democrats and the white, rural Republican factions, just as the Catholics and Protestants or Muslims and Christians were in Europe in the past. Walter blames the Republican Party for its “predatory factionalism”, relegating ideology to favour race, religion, ethnicity and identity to harvest votes—“caring for the group, not for the good of the nation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From the earlier word of mouth, printing presses, toxic television shows, the force multiplier now is social media. It unites extremists and divide societies. Culture warriors are usually the “sons of the soil” who resent immigrants and the impacts of foreign influences—religion, technology or globalisation. Experiencing a “status reversal,” the locals feel “downgraded” in their own land. God and gun offer solace for grievances. America has more guns than people—400 million to 330 million. Grievance grows and grinds in societies, sometimes for decades. Then along comes a populist rabble-rouser who lights the match.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As historian Jessie Childs observes in her book A New History of the English Civil War, “polarisation and propaganda have always dehumanised the “other”, pushed disagreement into bloodshed and fake news and hate speech have culminated in atrocities.” The American liberal establishment fully grasps the threat, the biggest since the nation’s 1861 civil war. Two New York Times reporters quote President Joe Biden telling a senior Democrat, “I certainly hope my presidency works out. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure we’re going to have a country.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Research shows that politics is more important than economics in starting or preventing civil wars. More than a third of Republicans and Democrats today believe secession and violence are justified to achieve their political ends, a 200 per cent increase in five years. Right-wing militias have exploded, outnumbering and outgunning left wing insurgents. White supremacy infiltrates US law enforcement agencies. Through history, armed conflict stifles empathy and hardens hearts. As Thomas Fuller, a 17th century English clergyman, wrote, “War makes a land more wicked.” The solution to avert tragedy is as simple as it is hard. Think America’s good first.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jul 01 11:48:59 IST 2022 brexit-grinds-slowly-but-it-grinds-small-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The mills of Brexit grind slowly, but they grind small. Reality is crushing the grandiose ambitions of “Global Britain”, slowly but surely. When people mortgage their house, you know their house is not in order. Fire sales of Britain’s crown jewels, its magnificent real estate acquired during its glorious empire days, tell a sad story of a financially squeezed nation, shrinking not surging.</p> <p>The 150-year-old British embassy set in sprawling grounds in Tokyo is second in grandeur only to Imperial Palace across the winding river. Now half its grounds have been sold to the Mitsubishi Corporation. “This is a huge mistake,” admits foreign secretary Liz Truss. Britain also sold the majestic, century-old embassy located in a 10-acre sanctuary in Bangkok’s heart. Employees now work in a concrete tower. Disgruntled British officials say this downscaling is like going from a Prada showroom to a discount store.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For most foreigners, the first contact with Britain is its impressive embassies, projecting the nation’s power and prestige. Now heirlooms are being sold to buy solar panels and maintain property. Loss of grandeur is like bankruptcy—“It happens gradually, then suddenly.” Britain’s financial crunch was a train wreck in slow motion but accelerated after Brexit and the pandemic. It damages post-Brexit vision of “Global Britain”—enhancing “Britain’s influence abroad and prosperity at home”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At home, Brexit has brought more disruption than prosperity. The disappearance of European truck drivers and workers to harvest fruits and vegetables have caused shortages. The gaps in supermarket shelves symbolise the gaps between Brexit ambition and reality. International projection shrivels in the face of cost-cutting measures like merging ministries and slashing foreign aid. The British Council is cutting jobs and infrastructure in 20 countries. The backbone of the British Empire was its civil service. Now, 90,000 civil servants are to be sacked. Who will run Global Britain? Algorithms?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Britain’s notion of special relationship with the United States is a nostalgic illusion. The US ignored Britain in the Afghanistan pullout and warned it against reneging the Northern Ireland agreement with the European Union. Asks Carnegie Europe’s Peter Kellner, “Now that Washington has turned its back on London, and London has turned its back on Brussels: what should be Britain’s place in the world?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>British historian and author Ian Morris explains: “Britain enjoyed outsized power during colonialism, which made its post-war decline all the harder to accept.” To understand the Brexit decision, scholars go back to the 2016 referendum campaign, to Britain’s 1973 accession to European Communities, to World War II, to the arrival of the Romans 2,000 years ago. Morris goes back 10,000 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Among other factors, he attributes Brexit to the “psychology” of maps. The 800-year-old Hereford Map virtually conjoins Britain to Europe, hanging on precariously at the edge of the world. Subsequent explorations disproved this geography. In 1902, Halford Mackinder’s map placed Britain at the centre of the world, radiating European maritime power. Morris writes, “But this represented only three per cent of the island’s history in which it took centre stage. Rest of the time it was merely Europe’s poor cousin.“</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, despite the sun setting on the empire, Britain was a global force, in big ways and small. A decade ago, piracy endangered shipping in the Indian Ocean. It was quelled by Operation Atalanta, an international military force headquartered in Britain and coordinated with African countries. But the successful Operation Atalanta was established by the European Union. After Britain’s divorce, the operational base shifted to Spain. Brexit grinds slowly, but it grinds small.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jun 03 18:45:27 IST 2022 anita-pratap-on-the-new-world-disorder-after-the-ukraine-war <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Just when World War I was ending, the Spanish Flu sickened the world. Now the order is reversed. The Ukraine war follows the pandemic. Either way, war and pandemic contribute to destabilising an existing world order. If history is a guide, we are lurching into a messy new world disorder. Again. Says American diplomat Richard Haas, “These crises and their aftershocks are accelerating global disorder, returning the world to a much more dangerous time.”</p> <p>He is referring to the dangerous two decades between WWI and WWII, described as the “interwar years”. This turbulent phase was marked by hyper-inflation and hyper-nationalism, populism and protectionism. Public resentment rose with prices, as a defeated Germany was forced to pay punishing reparations for WWI. Countries retreated from globalisation into isolationism. Scholars document how boiling grievances destabilised both colonialism and capitalism. The global economy collapsed. The Great Depression followed. Political upheavals, civil wars and revolutions unhinged nations. Democracies weakened while authoritarianism surged. Arms races and territorial aggression contributed to the calamitous WWII.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Reconstruction after the devastation of WWII forced leaders into a more collaborative phase that brought considerable peace and prosperity. Global GDP rose from $4 trillion in 1950 to $95 trillion now. But the dark side of this miracle growth is unprecedented wealth contrasting with widening inequality. The rising tide certainly lifted yachts, but too many boats were sinking. War and pandemic did not ignite these problems, but they deepened the structural imbalances that were pushing the world towards more division and confrontation. These same forces were at play a century ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Uncertainty and disruption lie ahead with rising costs of living, food shortages, poverty, conflict, corruption and bankrupted governments. Sri Lanka is emblematic of this disorder. Street protests have erupted from Chile to Hong Kong, Mali to Lebanon. Ongoing violence threatens to worsen in failing states in Asia, Africa, Middle East and south America.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even as the Ukraine war grinds on, CIA Director William Burns reiterated publicly that China remains “a bigger threat” than Russia. President Biden’s strategic “isolate China” vision is supported by Republicans who unoriginally label it “the evil empire”. Biden’s Asian outreach aims to reaffirm ties with Japan and Korea that have difficult relations with their giant neighbour. The campaign to flatter India as a foil to China is underway. Biden also seeks to lure ASEAN nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But none of these countries wish to choose sides and get drawn into great power rivalries. It is good business with the US and now they do more business with China. But the Ukraine war showcases the appetite for brutal war in the 21st century. Will the China-US rivalry turn deadly, becoming the embodiment of the new world disorder?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>War and pandemic can spark events that resemble the catastrophic century-old past. But repetition is not inevitable. First, there is awareness of the disastrous consequences. Second, there is human agency. The will to avert disaster is strong. But this also requires the lone superpower to lead with moral clarity and credibility. The west has rallied under US leadership, but half the world’s population sees the Ukraine war as a proxy US war with Russia. Many regard the United States’ $40 billion Ukraine package as a gift to its own military-industrial complex. The US is the world’s most powerful democracy. Its democracy has deep fault-lines, but its military is supremely powerful. The superpower could contribute to stabilising a world order in disarray. History need not be destiny.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 20 11:22:07 IST 2022 anita-pratap-on-emmanuel-macrons-second-term-as-french-president <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Will Emmanuel Macron’s second term as French president mean more of the same? To everyone’s relief, he himself has assured “it won’t be the continuity of the previous five years, but it’ll be a new method to try to ensure better years”. It is unclear what this “new method” is.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During his first term, Macron’s neoliberalism spurred growth, employment and enabled France to economically outperform other European countries. Tough Covid-19 lockdowns were sweetened with aid packages. His vigorous backing strengthened the European Union. But domestically, he was labelled the elitist, arrogant “rich man’s president”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Data supports street resentment: the rich have become richer and the poor poorer. Macron’s fuel tax unleashed the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vest” agitation that fomented and cemented widespread anger against him. His contentious pension reforms floundered as they provoked strikes and street protests, the biggest since the 1968 upheaval. Nobody wants more of this.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now Macron promises to be “everyone’s” president. Prima facie, his 17 per cent lead over his rival, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, in the runoff, appears impressive. But in France, nothing is what it seems. The French have a penchant for complexity, nuances, layers, argument and paradoxes. As they say “en même temps”—“at the same time”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Macron won, but at the same time, he got two million votes less than in 2017. The far right lost, but at the same time, they won an unprecedented 42 per cent of votes. The two major right-wing parties together polled more than Macron did. Only a third of the electorate voted for him—the lowest for a winning president since 1969.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Macron was the first president in 20 years to win re-election. At the same time, 28 per cent of voters abstained, the highest in over 50 years. Two-thirds of the electorate that Macron must woo embody apathy or antipathy. Macron admitted, “Our country is full of doubts and full of divisions.” Touché.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Macron passed the re-election test. But a looming test can make or break his presidency—the June parliamentary elections. Macron swept the parliamentary elections in 2017. Since then, his party, La République En Marche, has lost all local elections. French society is deeply polarised. The traditional centre-left and centre-right parties that ruled France until Macron stormed the Élysée Palace in 2017 are fading into irrelevance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The electorate is now fractured into three hostile blocs: centrist Macron, far-right Le Pen and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. All three vie to get majority in the parliamentary polls and bag the prime ministership. If Mélenchon succeeds, he will overturn Macron’s welfare cuts and hire-and-fire labour policies. Le Pen will leash Macron’s pro-immigration and EU polices. The quarrelsome troika could create legislative gridlocks that could impact French and even EU lawmaking. But for now, EU leaders are hugely relieved that the nationalist, anti-EU, anti-NATO Le Pen lost the presidency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Macron loves engaging with lofty matters. But now he wrestles with bread-and-butter issues: crime, health care, education and inflation that has hiked food, fare, fuel bills up to 29 per cent. He must focus on difficult domestic issues though he prefers to be a European gladiator and a global statesman. But the success of his foreign interventions during his first term, from Russia to Mali, Lebanon to Libya, range from minimal to dismal. Macron promises that Macron II will not be a repeat of Macron I, predicting his second and final term “will not necessarily be tranquil, but will be historical”. Certainly it won’t be tranquil. At the same time, not necessarily historical.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 06 15:39:02 IST 2022 anita-pratap-on-the-war-pandemic-and-wealth <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We are witnessing the slow-motion trainwreck of multiple catastrophes coming together to make the perfect storm. Pandemic, war, climate change and famine are like the dreaded Four Horsemen of the Biblical Apocalypse, combining forces to unleash hell on earth. The pandemic aggravated the world’s problems. Now the Ukraine war worsens existing dilemmas, while spawning new crises. The old world order wobbles. The new one is yet to take shape.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Inflation and supply disruptions have impacted all corners of the world. Food, fuel and fertiliser are seeing record prices, and set to go higher. War has halted critical food exports from Russia and Ukraine that supply 30 per cent of grain, and 80 per cent of the world’s sunflower oil. This is the daily bread for millions in the Middle East and Africa.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Apocalypse describes farmers leaving their wheat fields for battlefields, exacerbating food shortages. Ukrainian farmers are doing the same. Drought, induced by climate change, has further reduced food production in major grain producing countries like Australia and the US. High oil prices make fertilisers unaffordable, driving small farmers to debt and destitution. Famine is the horrific horseman whiplashing desperate people to make perilous sea crossings into Europe in the hope of becoming illegal migrants.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The old order wobbles as neutral countries like Finland and Sweden see the lure of American security guarantees. Uncertainty makes not only people but even nations anxious. Small countries like Taiwan, with big neighbours, worry whether Ukraine’s fate awaits them. Other countries grapple with a Hobson’s choice—it is costly to comply, but costlier to defy American sanctions on Russia. But neutral countries like Finland and Sweden see the lure of American security guarantees. Complex historic relationships and proximity to Russia propelled both countries to stay out of the US-led Nato alliance. But now, both countries are considering joining NATO, despite Russia warning them of grave consequences.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>War is never straightforward. The Iraq war was about oil, not democracy. Is the Ukraine war about gas? The European Union has signed a deal to replace Russian gas with American liquified natural gas. “It is profit motive and self-interest masquerading as patriotism and solidarity with Europe,” says Zorka Milin, an activist championing transparency in resources exploitation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>War, plague, famine—these are the ghouls of death haunting humankind from the dawn of civilisation. Inequality is another undying ghoul. Similarities between the Apocalypse and contemporary reality have less to do with prophecy than the timelessness of human nature The ancient text describing the Horseman of Famine records that the price of wheat and barley—the staples of ordinary people—has risen ten-fold but ordains “see thou hurt not the (olive) oil and the wine.” Preserve the luxuries of the rich; let the poor starve.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>About 50 million people face starvation due to the Ukraine war, warns the World Food Program. To avert this catastrophe, WFP’s director, David Beasley begs for a $10 billion donation from American billionaires—just 0.36 per cent of their net increase in worth. Last year, Jeff Bezos’ net worth rose by $64 billion. On one manic Monday this January, Elon Musk’s net worth increased by $33.8 billion. Says Beasley, “There is a vaccine against starvation. It’s called money.” But money is a vaccine that builds bubbles, provides immunity from taxmen and boosts pursuits like space travel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Scholars have argued whether the Apocalypse Horseman who wears the crown is Christ the Saviour or Antichrist the Destroyer. Perhaps the crown belongs to the superrich who reign through centuries precisely because they do not care to be either saviour or destroyer. Brilliant creators, they prefer to savour wine and ride on rockets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Apr 22 11:02:17 IST 2022 putin-judo-against-europe <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What will Russian President Vladimir Putin do next? Even the Americans who predicted the Ukrainian war, know not. Will he escalate or de-escalate, will he turn to Ukraine’s east or spread all over, will he secure supply routes or will he bomb cities? Global leaders and analysts agree: “Only Putin knows.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Confucius says: To predict what a person does next, study his past. Putin’s self-proclaimed mantra is, “If you are going to get into a fight, then you punch first.” That explains his first move in Ukraine, while claiming that he will not invade. His past shows he punches hard—Chechnya, Syria, and now Ukrainian neighbourhoods, reduced to rubble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Putin took up boxing, but then switched to martial arts. He said, “Judo is philosophy, not sport.” Judo uses the enemy’s strength against him, identifies the foe’s weakness and then penetrates the chinks. In Europe’s armour, the chink is its borders. A Putin “invasion” that has received less attention is his deployment of “weapons of mass migration.” Monika Sie, director of Dutch thinktank, Clingendael Institute, says, “Putin weaponises refugees to destabilise Europe.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of 10 million Ukrainian refugees, four million have fled into Europe. The arrival of one million refugees into Europe in 2015 caused political and social upheaval. Detonating this bomb, 10 times bigger than the 2015 influx, has huge consequences. Currently, Europeans effusively welcome Ukrainians. But dragging war entails rising military, humanitarian and energy costs, stressed civic administrations, public disorder and social polarisation as locals start resenting strangers living in their midst and draining finite services and resources. Russia used mass migration against Europe during its Syrian war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from war refugees escaping into Europe, there is the “orchestrated” migration of asylum-seekers to pressure the EU. Last winter, Putin ally, Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko stockpiled asylum-seekers on his border with Poland and the Baltic states, which then amassed troops to block entry. The EU and even NATO now define mass migration as a “security threat”. Europe’s refugee crises can worsen as the aftershocks of the Ukraine war lead to food shortages. Hunger, violence, inflation and climate change can aggravate mass migrations, especially from Africa, in summer when the perilous sea crossings resume.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An important judo concept is “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”. This principle explains Russia’s cyberattacks, but not its war in Ukraine, where it seems to be “maximum force with minimum conquest”. It is hard to understand Putin’s calculus. But he is fighting his war, his way. Given Ukrainian resistance, it is doubtful he can hold territory as western analysts claim. That is a quagmire he avoided in Syria.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Putin is a Cold War warrior fighting a 20th century war. But his hybrid and cyberwarfare reveal his 21st century mindset. Is the destruction aimed to force submission? Perhaps one must dig into his KGB past in East Germany on the eve of Soviet Union’s collapse. Screaming protesters besieged the KGB’s Dresden headquarters. Putin scrambled to save classified documents. Frantic calls to “mother ship” went unanswered. Subsequently, Putin famously recalled, “Moscow was silent.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, Putin spoke up. He went out to the protesters and declared, “There is a tank behind, and I am here to tell you if you don’t disperse there will be an order to shoot.” Protesters dispersed. His show of force was a bluff. There was no tank and no one to give that order. He learnt two lessons: Threats work, but if your bluff is called, you must have and use firepower. Is his nuclear threat a bluff? Only Putin knows.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Apr 07 16:34:16 IST 2022 rise-of-selective-compassion <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What is worse: no compassion or selective compassion? The outpouring of public grief across Europe for the Ukrainian victims of war is immense. Empathy is a powerful, humanising emotion and compassionate people are considered noble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But why isn’t there a similar European grieving for the victims of the catastrophic war in Yemen, now in its seventh year? Europeans tear up seeing healthy Ukrainian children leaving war zones clutching their teddy bears. In Yemen, starving, skeletal children, clutch stumps of what was once their legs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Is it because Yemen is far away, whereas Ukraine is at Europe’s doorstep? Is it because Europeans identify with white skin and victims huddling in churches? Surveys showed that Europeans were distressed by the 2019 fire in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, but not so much by the beheadings, rape and arson occurring then in Sudan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>European expression of grief may appear racist—especially when viewed from afar. But societies are blind to their own hypocrisy and selective compassion, which can be racist or bigoted. Foreigners cannot reconcile peaceful India with our history of Dalit atrocities. Stigmatisation is a worldwide curse: Muslims are terrorists. Dalits are impure, blacks criminals, LGBT deviants. Their suffering receives less sympathy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Research reveals that compassion depends not on the intensity of the disaster but on the proximity of the location and how likely viewers are to visit the affected region. Empathy is aroused by shared experiences with the victims—identity, nationality, culture, geography, family, friends, community, religion and skin colour. An evolutionary explanation is that people are selective because compassion demands emotional and mental investment; so they reserve it for people close to them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Selective compassion is a global phenomenon. It is a manifestation of “tribalism, a way to reinforce your own point of view and block out any others,” explains author Fritz Breithaupt in The Dark Sides of Empathy. As pastor David French notes, empathy is not always noble, “It is warped by tribalism and partisanship.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When societies experience disruptive change, they exclude communities, a process American Law Professor John A. Powell calls “otherising,” based on “the assumption that a certain group poses a threat to the favoured group”. As images of bombing in Ukraine flooded the airwaves, European mainstream clamoured to convict Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal”. There was no such mainstream outcry against President George Bush for large-scale civilian deaths in Iraq. Human rights activist Saadia Khan notes, “How conveniently our political consciousness allows us to forgive the crimes of those whom we can identify with, while crucifying the “other” for similar offences.” America has been at war for over 90 per cent of the time since its independence, while European nations have fought the largest wars in history.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hitler is an extreme example of selective compassion. A vegetarian who abhorred animal slaughter, he then slaughtered millions of Jews. The Buddha preached universal compassion—for all things, living and non-living. But humans practice universal selective compassion. It takes proximity and kinship to arouse compassion. But the cruel twist is that proximity also aggravates brutality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Sri Lankan state waged war against the “otherised” Tamils. Unable to penetrate Tamil society, soldiers bombed from afar. But the war unleashed to crush their own Sinhala JVP rebellion was deadlier because they could reach deep within. The terror that followed was horrifying. Tribalism is as evident in international relations as in families. Relatives provide refuge; they also commit grievous crimes. In Pashto, the word for cousin is tarbur. It also means enemy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Mar 24 17:00:36 IST 2022 the-west-has-glorified-zelenskyy-into-a-mythical-hero-but-the-west-can-also-be-notoriously-opportunistic-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When hotlines replace redlines, it is time to worry… and hope. US decisions to communicate directly with the Russian military and suspend scheduled intercontinental ballistic missile tests are not admissions of defeat. They are Code Red, signalling that Russia’s war in Ukraine has turned extremely dangerous.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This war began slow, but has become brutal and ruinous—with malls, utilities, apartments, offices and schools being bombed. Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear arsenal on alert, and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned: “The Third World War will be nuclear.” There was no radioactive fallout, but explosions in Europe’s largest nuclear plant in southern Ukraine raised mushroom clouds of fear. Putin fancies himself a modern “Peter the Great”. But in European consciousness, Russia’s leader is now “Putin the Terrible”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>US President Joe Biden’s critics accuse him of appeasing Putin, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did with Hitler. But, by establishing hotlines, Biden has displayed restraint and wisdom which would help “prevent miscalculation, accidents and escalation”. These foster hope. As historian Barbara Tuchman said, “War is the unfolding of miscalculation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Putin story that Washington, DC, is familiar with dates to his childhood when he lived in a rat-infested neighbourhood in St. Petersburg. Putin describes how courageously a cornered rat fought back, throwing itself at its tormentor, ten times its size. Cornering nuclear-armed Putin is dangerous.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, without firing a shot, the west has cornered Putin financially and economically. Europe joined the US in responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine with astonishing solidarity, speed and steel. Countries broke taboos to pledge lethal aid to Ukraine. This would have surprised Putin who sees liberal Europe as divided and weak, too soft-hearted, soft-headed and soft-bellied for tough fights.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But what surprises even western governments is the ferocity of public demonisation of Putin. Voluntarily, companies, clubs and organisations from sports, trade, business, space, insurance, culture are boycotting Russia—Michelin stars, designer labels, caviar importers, credit cards, orchestras. The Ukrainian blue and yellow flag colours are everywhere.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From his underground bunker, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy broadcasts his nation’s peril. He urges the west to defend Ukraine, otherwise Russia will target the Baltic countries next. But Putin is unlikely to invade NATO members. Zelenskyy warned of a “nuclear disaster” and blasted NATO for not declaring a no-fly-zone over Ukraine to block Russian bombers. But shooting Russian planes would put NATO at war with Moscow and NATO will not go to war for a non-member country. A frustrated Zelenskyy is becoming desperate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The west has glorified Zelenskyy into a mythical hero, courageous in the line of fire. But the west can also be notoriously opportunistic, discarding assets after they have served their purpose. In great power politics, local heroes are expendable, some consigned to junkyards, others to graveyards—in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq. Lest one forgets, the US had armed Saddam Hussein, who fought Iran with chemical weapons in the 1980s.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2015, John Mearsheimer, a leading American geopolitical expert said, “The west is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.” Tragic images from today’s Ukraine prove his foresight. The headline from a recent press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was his warning: “This war will get worse.” A revealing sentence lay buried in his speech: “We are not part of this conflict, and we have a responsibility to ensure it does not escalate and spread beyond Ukraine.” Hotlines, a Cold War legacy, seek to achieve this. But the primrose path ends in rubble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Mar 13 12:08:37 IST 2022 redlines-red-flags-and-red-rags <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the crisis in Ukraine intensified, facial expressions changed. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who always looks impassive, became steely-eyed. Across the Atlantic, US President Joe Biden, who always looks jolly, narrowed his eyes to convey deadly intent, saying, “Make no mistake. Russia will be responsible for a catastrophic and needless war.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The superpower draws redlines on the desert, on frozen ground, on oceans and across the skies. The hottest redline now: Russian invasion of Ukraine invites infliction of unprecedented economic pain by the US and its NATO allies. Redlines are customary in diplomacy, but international relations experts have always questioned their efficacy. Failure to enforce the punishment makes the “punisher” look weak—as president Obama did when he failed to execute his redline against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons. “It was a colossal mistake,” said his first national security advisor Jim Jones. Still, Obama left office with good international ratings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Credible redline threats work only if accompanied by credible assurances. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi decommissioned his chemical and nuclear weapons programme in exchange for normal ties with the west. Business flourished; but after a foreign-backed uprising, NATO countries bombed oil-rich Libya. Gaddafi was eventually brutally murdered by a mob, making opponents wary of western assurances. Likewise, Afghan civilians feel betrayed by the US pull out. In 1994, Ukraine returned to Russia its nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union. In return, Moscow had guaranteed Ukraine’s security. As Russian assurances are not credible, NATO suspects that even if they deny membership to Ukraine, Russia will only be encouraged to ask for more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Threats invariably fail. Sanctions, sabotage, bombardments and cyberattacks rarely compel countries to comply. Former prime minister Morarji Desai once told me in the context of India-Sri Lanka relations, “Never underestimate the capacity of a small nation to defy the big bully.” Even small and weak nations resist and retaliate, rather than retreat when faced with what they see as injustice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The reason for such behaviour is psychological. Redlines provoke powerful emotions in the receiving country—anger, fear, hatred, humiliation, suspicion, resentment and defiance. Emotions are unstable and unpredictable, leading to reactions ranging from exemplary courage to suicidal stubbornness. Redlines can be counterproductive. Says political psychologist Kathleen E. Powers, “For strategic and psychological motivations, redlines sometimes trigger the very actions that they seek to deter.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Russia intended to widen divisions within NATO, but its show of force against Ukraine succeeded only in unifying it. The US wished to condemn Russia as a declining power, but succeeded in inflating it into a resurgent force. Whenever the US sells weapons or sends battleships to Taiwan, China reacts with a big display of power. Forceful US warnings aim to deter Chinese violations of Taiwanese airspace. But the rhetoric provokes more violations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Studies by security analysts reveal two important findings that prove dialogue is more effective than redlines. “The reputational risk of walking back from a redline is not as severe as countries fear,” notes political scientist Dan Altman. Obama proves this. Nor are the strongest or fiercely worded redlines the most productive. Altman says, “Clear, measured redlines are more effective than blunt, aggressive language.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Using dialogue to address Russia’s insecurity aggravated by NATO expansion can be more productive than threats, sanctions or attacks. Whether eyes are steely or narrowed, an eye-for-an-eye slugfest, will, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Leave the whole world blind.” An impassioned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked, “After a great war, we are a country without borders… is there anything left to pick up?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Feb 24 15:58:22 IST 2022 hell-of-a-party <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A popular refrain in London these days is “the wheels of Boris Johnson’s government are falling off”. Johnson’s closest aides are spinning away and out from the prime minister’s office for reasons ranging from his or their misbehaviour. The resignations have come in the wake of Partygate—the scandalous series of chummy, boozy parties held in 10 Downing Street when the rest of the country was isolated under strict lockdowns. Tabloids described it as Johnson’s “Week from Hell”.</p> <p>For the first time, a section of his own Conservative partymen revolted, joining ranks with the opposition to demand that he go. But unless 54 Tory MPs sign up for his ouster, Johnson’s jalopy careens on, with or without wheels. British politics commentator Prof. Erik Mustad said, “Johnson will cling to power until it is completely impossible to remain as prime minister.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson’s past suggests he will keep running, ducking and punching until he has no place to hide. Partygate reinforced the image of the PM and his aides as a bunch of rambunctious dorm buddies unfit for high office—cavalier, irresponsible and insensitive to national suffering. They celebrated in Downing Street with garden parties, “Wine Time Fridays”, quiz and fizz festivities, secret Santa soirees and,” bring your own booze” (byob) party. Outside, 500 people were dying of Covid every day, ordinary people arrested and fined for “unlawful” get-togethers. The acronym ‘byob’ went viral, while banners sprouted like poisonous mushrooms: “He partied, while people died”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The biggest of the wheels to come off was Munira Mirza, Johnson’s policy chief, a loyal aide of 14 years, since he was London mayor. She left because she could not stomach his scurrilous lies against opposition leader Keir Starmer that he failed to prosecute a celebrity paedophile. Johnson’s reflex reaction was to quickly put stepneys in place, hoping his promises to induct new staff, refresh his cabinet and reboot his relationship with the party, would defuse party rebellion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The superseding of the critical Sue Gray report that investigated Partygate with a new police inquiry has bought Johnson time. The embattled PM, who swings from crises to crises, calculates a new crisis will eclipse Partygate and the calls for his resignation will lose steam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the British public are tired of crises and his poll ratings are sinking. His handling of Covid was a policy of errors, rife with contradictions, violations and decisions that doubled the death toll, scientists said. Covid shaved off a jaw-dropping 20 per cent from the GDP. When the job subsidy that supports 8.9 million workers ends in June, experts predict a 10 per cent unemployment rate—the worst in Britain since the Depression. Inflation, supply shortages and high energy prices have been brutal. A YouGov poll found that 72 per cent of Britons disapprove of Johnson—a big shift from his 2019 landslide election victory when he landed the Conservative Party 359 MPs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Brexit, Johnson divided Britain. Now, he divides Conservative Party. With varying intensities of internal opposition, it is difficult for him to rule with authority. The battle has shifted outside, between his loyalists and would-be assassins. More exposes or election losses can be fatal. In December, the Tories lost the North Shropshire seat that they had held for a century. Said Mustad, “Johnson has dug his grave deeper and deeper. But for now, he is still sitting there.” Everybody agrees Johnson cannot survive another “Week from Hell”. Then again, he has the devil’s luck. Then again, luck is fickle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Feb 13 10:21:34 IST 2022 putin-sees-nato-expansion-as-encroachment-into-his-backyard-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As if a pandemic, inflation, energy crisis, and a heart-rending humanitarian catastrophe in war-torn Yemen are not enough, the spectre of a Cold War-era confrontation looms between nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia, over Ukraine. While Russian drones, troops, and tanks assemble on their border, nervous Ukrainians live with sirens and war drills, bracing for an invasion. As former US president Ronald Reagan said drily: “People don’t make wars. Governments do.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>War is not inevitable. If the US-Russia dialogue fails, the west can impose stiffer economic sanctions. Russia retaliates with cyberattacks and subversive election meddling. But NATO allies are divided on more sanctions. Germany depends on Russian gas and has big business deals in the pipeline. Some analysts suspect that by knocking Russia out of the European Great Energy Game, a new opportunity is opened for the US gas exports.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Westerners depict Vladimir Putin as the Machiavellian instigator of global conflict. But in the dangerous action-reaction cycle, who started the fire is a slippery blame game. Putin sees NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet Union states in East Europe and the Baltic as an encroachment into his backyard. He invaded Russia’s peripheral nation of Georgia in 2008, and then Ukraine to annex Crimea in 2014. Unfettered access to the hub of its Black Sea fleet is crucial to Russian security.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former US defence secretary Robert Gates said Putin’s “actions are deplorable but understandable… it’s about restoring Russia’s historical role as a major power in the world through authoritarianism at home and aggression abroad.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there is a defensive dimension, too. NATO has officially recognised three new aspiring members: Bosnia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Russia finds the very idea of Ukraine joining NATO intolerable, almost an existential threat. If Ukraine, a former Soviet state-turned-democracy, joins the west, it could trigger a domino effect in the region. Said Author Sergey Radchenko, “Putin likes brinkmanship. But he is not bluffing. He wants global attention, influence, and concessions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>NATO is unlikely to retreat, but dialogue can work. Sharing a border, NATO-member Norway and Russia are frenemies that have avoided war through history. Geographically conjoined at the shoulder requires a robust modus operandi for dialogue, precisely because the potential for collaboration and the risk for conflict are high and perpetual. The boundary in the resource-rich Arctic Barents Sea was demarcated with a 50-50 division of disputed waters and continental shelf—after 40 years of dialogue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Power of Patience is the best tool in the dialogue kit. But this means no cameras, no grandstanding, no leaks. Great Powers prefer trust-corroding subterfuge and one-upmanship, brandishing the Power of Power. Like fireworks, that display is invariably short-lived, leaving behind the debris of ruined nations and shattered families. Great power politics can wreck the ongoing dialogue. Said defence expert Michael Kofman, “Russians clearly aren’t betting very much on diplomatic success. The likelihood of war has increased.” That appeases the hungry military-industrial complex, which has not feasted on a meaty war for a while.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if war is averted, the run-up to war brims with weapons. Biden, 79, has already fortified Ukraine with more than $3 billion in military aid. More was sent by other NATO allies. The Baltic States are forwarding their American-supplied weaponry to Ukraine. Putin, 69, has reinforced his invasion preparations by deploying over one lakh troops, missile launchers, ammunition stockpiles, and field hospitals to the Ukrainian border. As another US president Herbert Hoover said, “Older men declare war. It is the youth that must fight and die.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Jan 27 15:34:58 IST 2022 randy-andy-and-other-rogues-in-royal-robes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the 1980s, he was “insanely hot”. Girls swooned over him, boys envied him and the media fawned over him. Britain’s Prince Andrew was second in line to the throne, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite and a party animal. He had all the fun and no responsibility, unlike his elder brother, king-in-forever-waiting, Prince Charles. But as time passed, Andrew slipped further away from the throne and life careened downhill. Playboy Prince Andrew’s is a cautionary story, a fairy tale that was not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ongoing court battles, the accusation of rape and friendship with convicted sex offenders, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, have disgraced Prince Andrew. Invited by Andrew into exclusive royal realms, Epstein and Maxwell spent weekends in the Queen’s favourite Balmoral Castle, danced in Windsor Castle, hunted in Sandringham Royal Parkland and even sat on the throne in Buckingham Palace. In turn, Andrew flew on Epstein’s jet, nicknamed ‘Lolita Express’ to luxury destinations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the “Lolitas”, Virginia Giuffre, trafficked by Epstein to his friends, accuses Andrew of raping her when she was 17. Rape is hard to prove, but sex with underaged girls is a crime. Andrew’s response to Giuffre’s allegations has so far been to deny meeting her, to dodge and deflect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His lawyers manoeuvre for an out-of-court settlement, assert the case has no jurisdiction in New York because Giuffre now lives in Australia, that Epstein has signed an agreement with Giuffre shielding his friends from litigation, that he could not be the “sweaty” rapist Giuffre described because he cannot sweat. With no medical records or witnesses to back his claims, Andrew looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Says mental health counsellor Todd Grande: “He has made himself look guilty.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Andrew’s profligate lifestyle is his nemesis—partying and philandering in mansions, yachts and resorts owned by the rich, famous and scoundrels. Earlier, Andrew courted Central Asian and Arab dictators, went on luxury holidays paid for by a convicted arms smuggler and chased sexy sports models—women, not cars. “He has come to Hollywood to look for chicks,” his former actress girlfriend, Courtney Love, once said. The media called him “Air Miles Andy” and “Randy Andy”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Casanova to grandfather, from hot to hot potato, times have changed for the Prince. In the wake of the Giuffre scandal, Andrew’s sponsors dumped him. He had to withdraw from 230 charities. His life as the swashbuckling international jetsetter leading British business delegations to different destinations, making speeches from Davos to Bangkok, disintegrated. Is his story ill-fated to end unhappily ever after? The lives of Princess Diana and Prince Andrew should suffice to convince fans there is no such thing as a royal fairy tale. When there is no fairy tale, why have the monarchy? It has no political power. People no longer believe royals have a divine right to rule.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stripped of mystique and grandeur, the monarchy is just Big Business. Nicknamed “The Firm”, the British Royalty spins revenue from tourism, pageantry and merchandising. Monarchies claim they are national unity symbols in polarised times. Western kingdoms squeeze competitive advantages by forging a club with other kingdoms and sending their royalty on trade missions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>More and more princes have fairy tale weddings with “commoners”, feeding fantasy frenzies worldwide. But their usurious, luxurious lifestyles and mortal scandals of lucre and lust reduce them to anachronisms—oxymorons embedded in modern, egalitarian societies. In Britain, #AbolishtheMonarchy trends on Twitter. As royal families pose for photographs on their balconies, in hats and medals, fripperies and fineries of the past, they look like a gallery of relics. And a few rogues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Jan 16 10:49:12 IST 2022 in-2021-european-art-throbbed-with-fantasy-and-realism-writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Popular themes in art indicate the direction in which a Covid-fatigued world is headed. It’s not that art imitates life or life imitates art. It is just that artists have a different perspective and sensibility from journalists, politicians, and decision-makers swirling in the throes of fast-paced developments. The message from the art world is that 2022 will be a year of warriors and women, of faces, fantasy, and feelings. It is both new, and to renew.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last year, we lived in bubbles. But European art throbbed with fantasy and realism, remembering and portraying life as we knew or imagined it. Exhibitions were big on fantasy, not surprising because people easily slip into the make-believe amid pandemic-induced loneliness. In Basel, the exhibition on Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828) was a powerful magnet. Goya’s saints and sinners, ghouls and witches inhabit realms where reality and fantasy merge. His genius lay in depicting the drama that unspools when reason meanders into irrationality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Alice in Wonderland incarnated in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with vanishing rabbits and psychedelic tea parties. Overwhelmed by the changes around her, Alice wonders “Who in the world am I?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Figurative painting ruled the year. Freudian analysis suggests audiences craved to connect with faces: different, diverse, dramatic, or drab. It didn’t matter, so long as they were human. People thronged to see the tableaux of portraits, absorbing the expressions depicted in exquisite detail—the supercilious duchess, the smirking lieutenant, the crafty merchant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The health of the planet nagged people’s consciousness. The Nobel prize of painting, the Praemium Imperiale, was awarded to rainforest photographer Sebastião Salgado for his stunning monochromatic images in silken black, blinding white and shadowy grey to powerfully convey human misery amid a ravaged environment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Exhibition trends suggest that the art world—and society—has entered not kalyug, but shakti yug. In Tate Gallery, eight of the nine solo presentations of living artists were by women. Another presented the works of women artists who succeeded in invading the male-dominated domain of 19th century art. A Swiss exhibition presents female artists who capture the feminine experience through nude portraits of women with pregnant bellies and sagging breasts. Through their unflinching portraits, these women artists subvert the stereotypical male depiction of the female form as seductive, voluptuous, mysterious, or long-suffering.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In addition to gender battles, cultural and political wars invaded the hallowed precincts of museums like never before. Slavery, racism, and the construction of identity in exile were illustrated with rage and rancour. Critics trumpeted the arrival of a new star on the art firmament, painter Michael Armitage, 37. They raved about his “sumptuous surfaces, luminous colour and exhilarating brushstrokes”. Beneath the visual feast, are dark portraits about current and post-colonial conflicts that challenge historical assumptions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In between lockdowns, several magnificent, quaint, and controversial museums opened or reopened across Europe to showcase human genius. The 13-storeyed Munch Museum dedicated to Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, considered the father of modern art, opened in the spectacular surroundings of the Oslofjord. Paris came up with the renewed Musée Carnavalet, clever and quirky with old shop signs and miniature guillotines in ivory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In summer, the refurbished Casa Balla opened in Rome, colourful and futurist, crystallising the human experience from endurance to exuberance. Italian artist Giacomo Balla lived and worked here through fascism and war, a reminder that calamities recede into history, but life and art endure. Pandemics, mass extinctions, wars, and other doomsday scenarios notwithstanding, our world with all its whims and beauty, paradox and flaws, keeps spinning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Jan 02 10:23:03 IST 2022 anita-pratap-life-lesson-from-wavelle-a-nonconformist-seagull <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A bird was my best teacher this year. A sweeping section of the fjord outside my window had frozen overnight, a spectacular phenomenon. Nature’s majesty was on full display as ice sparkled, snow glistened, dreamy mists swirled and wisps of steam curled up. The ice on the fjord crackled and broke apart in the winter sun, becoming a metaphor for the fragility of life during the pandemic. A flock of seagulls huddled on a floating breakaway block of ice, the size of a car. As the wind surged, this sheet of ice began disintegrating into the foam-flecked waves. The gulls squawked and flew away.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All except one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She stood her ground on the thin slice of shrinking ice and began grooming herself. Unperturbed and undistracted by the choppy waves, she focused on nuzzling her right wing, then left, then her chest. And on and on she repeated her ritual, even as her ice patch became smaller and smaller, bobbing perilously into the far beyond. I decided the gull was female and named her Wavelle. She did not give up, she did not look up, she did not fly away like the others. She just concentrated on her routine, fearlessly, patiently, diligently.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was a good lesson on how best to endure and survive the pandemic—or any calamity for that matter. Concentrate on the routine. Religious leaders advise it is wise to submit to higher forces when they are beyond your control. But never surrender will. That is within one’s control and one can choose how to respond. When misfortune befalls, the common reaction is anger or self-pity, fear or loathing. People complain or create mischief. But all this is pointless, self-defeating behaviour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead, times of adversity can be used to study, learn, teach, write, paint, and help others. Do your duty, reward is not your concern, the Gita teaches. Instead of getting sucked into the vortex of the never-ending cycle of alarming news or conspiracy theories, it is better to focus on one’s daily routine, writing, singing, home-schooling children, cooking, administering, dancing, coding, crunching numbers, whatever. Concentrating on activity is also meditation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New-age gurus advise “Do what you love”. Much of the time, we may not love what we are doing. But keeping at it helps. The discipline of daily practice is as important as the outcome. As time goes by, discipline becomes the outcome. Without realising, we have improved, one day at a time, one word, one brushstroke, one note, one digit, one ingredient, one peck at a time. The inner spark of creativity is lit, it grows and glows, despite the surrounding pain, chaos and meaninglessness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The journey of this inner spark is told beautifully in Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a cult book from the 1970s. Little Jonathan, the seagull, knew there was more to life than the ceaseless squabbling for food. He finds his joy, his meaning in flying. His flock ostracises him for not conforming, but he finds enlightened teachers who impart an age-old wisdom: practice makes perfect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That was a lesson taught by my own seagull. While Jonathan taught the magic of flying high, Wavelle’s lesson was about staying grounded, persisting with her routine even as the ice beneath her webbed feet shrank. Her space, her world closed in, as the lockdowns did on us. Flying Jonathan and steady Wavelle represent the equilibrium of opposing male-female forces. Soaring or still, imagination unlocks the magic world of possibilities. Filmmaker Satyajit Ray once said: “To some, it is only a droplet, but I see the whole world in<br> a dewdrop”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bach based his book on American aviator John Livingstone, who died in 1974 at age 77 shortly after test flying an aerobatic aircraft. Livingstone’s wife’s name was Wavelle. Of course, even if others had seen my Wavelle’s voyage on windy waves, they would not have given her a second glance, let alone thought. Like beauty, interpretation lies in the eye of the beholder. To some, a daft bird. To me, a nonconformist gull that demonstrated 2021’s best life lesson.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Dec 16 15:55:33 IST 2021 anita-pratap-writes-on-the-many-problems-facing-swedish-pm-magdalena-andersson <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>History was made. This country got its first woman prime minister. That is ho-hum news everywhere, except if it had happened in the US, Russia or China. Sri Lanka elected the world’s first woman PM in 1960, then came Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina….</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But it is shocking that progressive Sweden has never had a woman prime minister until now. Even more shocking is that history was unmade in seven hours. Sweden’s first woman PM, centre-left social democrat Magdalena Andersson, was forced to resign on the day she was appointed. “This political circus is very bad for Sweden,” declared Ulf Kristersson, leader of her ally, the Moderates. “People are wondering what the hell is happening in Swedish politics right now,” said Ebba Busch, leader of the centre-right Christian Democrats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The mess comes from Sweden’s complex governing system. Andersson did not win a parliamentary majority for her appointment. But the opposition lacked the votes to stop her from taking office. Then, parliament rejected her budget, but adopted the opposition’s, drafted by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. History was made—for the first time, a far-right budget was passed in Sweden. Infuriated by the opposition budget’s reversal of environmental measures, the Greens pulled out of Andersson’s governing coalition, toppling her government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, while the world danced to ABBA, watched Ingmar Bergman movies and enjoyed Björn Borg’s tennis skills, whatever happened to women politicians in Sweden? This liberal Scandinavian country introduced women’s voting rights a century ago, is path-breakingly advanced with social welfare and gender equality. Yet, neighbouring Norway had its first woman PM in 1981. Denmark, Iceland and Finland followed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tragedy, scandal and prejudice have stymied prime ministerial ambitions of Swedish women. The first serious contender Anna Lindh was knifed to death. Mona Sahlin’s bid to become PM was derailed by the “Toblerone Affair”. She had used her government credit card to buy $4 lakh worth of private goods, including nappies and Toblerone chocolate. “These are all things that male politicians have wives to do,” said political scientist Drude Dahlerup.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unconscious bias works against women. Södertörn University’s political expert Jenny Madestam says previous women PM contenders “battled the unconscious beliefs that the party leader should be a man”. Top women political leaders have also paid the price for being ahead of their time, advocating talks with the Greens or the far right. Madestam believes it is easier for men to make these strategic leaps. Instead of becoming PMs, prominent female Swedish politicians chose international careers in the UN or the EU.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are unconscious expectations from men and women politicians, in substance and in style. In her 2018 biography, Inifrån, conservative PM contender Anna Kinberg Batra writes, “When a woman scores points against her opponents, stands up for herself or is challenging, she’s neither strong nor sexy, but ‘sharp’, or even ‘a bitch’.” It’s perfectly normal for a man to look grave when discussing serious issues, but when she handled serious matters, top colleagues advised her to “look more cheerful”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Andersson now has reasons to look cheerful. History was made yet again on November 29 when she was reappointed first woman PM—for the second time. But the fragmented political landscape makes her position precarious. Parties are jockeying for next year’s parliamentary elections. Her party drones on about rent control, while the far-right rants against crime, shootings, bombings and gang violence in immigrant ghettos that blight big cities. This resonates powerfully with the voters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All the problems that made Andersson’s first stint as PM a “seven-hour wonder” remain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 04 12:04:23 IST 2021 scandals-wont-cost-boris-johnson-his-job-yet-but-knives-will-be-sharpened-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In politics, nothing changes… until it does. British commentators wonder whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be ousted by the current “sleaze scandal”. But Teflon Johnson, so far, has had the devil’s luck. Nothing sticks. The string of controversies, sweetheart arrangements, dodgy deals, gaffes, scandals over rewarding cronies, appeasing donors and breaking rules have failed to turn into a noose to cook his goose. Instead, he stumbles blithely—some say recklessly—into the next minefield. “He’s always had the idea that rules don’t apply to him,” says Sonia Purnell, his biographer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sleaze row centres around his Conservative members of parliament taking well-paid “second jobs” as lobbyists to promote private interests. Labour leader of the opposition Keir Starmer accused minister Owen Paterson of snagging Covid-19 testing equipment contracts worth £500 million for the firm Randox that paid him £1,10,000 in fees.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Parliament’s standards committee ruled against Paterson, asserting: lobbying is permitted; “paid advocacy” is not. Johnson’s initial reaction was to protect Paterson—and other Tories—by replacing the independent committee with a new one packed with his loyalists. The uproar culminated in Paterson’s resignation and Johnson backing down on his controversial proposal—his 43rd U-turn in two years in office.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Media investigations reveal over a quarter of Tory MPs have “second jobs” earning them £4 million since the pandemic began. Another scandal involved Tories “selling” peerage or seats to the House of Lords for<br> £3 million apiece.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson himself has been embroiled in ethics inquiries into who paid for his posh Caribbean holiday, refurbishing his Downing Street flat and whether he misused his position as London mayor to benefit an American businesswoman with whom he had an affair. Starmer accused Johnson of “leading his troops through the sewer”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But British sleaze is “chicken feed” (a favourite Johnson idiom) compared with the corruption in autocracies, poor resource-rich countries or even some southern European nations. Britain scores well, 11, on Transparency International’s ratings. But TI’s Steve Goodrich admonishes, “Where rules aren’t followed and there is no consequence, the absence of accountability can breed particularly egregious behaviour that could easily slip into out-and-out corrupt practices that you might expect from less-established democracies.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Petty corruption” has always existed in Britain. Whether it was MPs cheating on their allowances or the Egyptian billionaire and father of Princess Diana’s boyfriend, Mohamed Al-Fayed, slipping brown paper envelopes with cash to Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in 1996. But Professor Mark Knights, an expert on the history of corruption, compares the Johnson regime’s “new corruption” to the “old corruption” of the 18th century prime minister Robert Walpole, when government jobs were bought and sold. Knight warns, “There are signs that we could be slipping back into a Walpolean era where patronage, patrimony and partisanship prevail”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is unlikely that the scandals will cost Johnson his job yet. His party is solidly behind him because he is the best Tory vote-catcher. He is still an election asset, not a liability. He keeps the Conservatives’ patronage system in power. For a politician, losing the ability to win votes is like Samson losing his hair.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Labour is nowhere close to the victory line, the sleaze row has dented Tory and—especially Johnson’s own—popularity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Should the ratings keep falling, knives will be sharpened. Margaret Thatcher had won three elections for the Tories. When her popularity began sinking, it was her own ministers who tossed her out. Losing votes and losing money have perilous trajectories. Dwindling popularity is like bankruptcy; it happens gradually, then suddenly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Nov 20 12:05:59 IST 2021 austria-sebastian-kurz-has-his-party-backing-as-he-plots-return-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>He was Europe’s wunderkind, the fresh-faced wonderboy who was serious, eloquent and popular—loved by girls, admired by boys and adored by aspiring mothers-in-law. In 2017, Sebastian Kurz became Austria’s—and the world’s—youngest ever democratically elected head of government at 31.&nbsp;In 2019, his ethical decision turned this high-achieving political rockstar into “Saint Sebastian”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the cost of his own government’s collapse, Chancellor Kurz evicted his governing coalition’s far-right partner when he was caught in a corruption scandal. Kurz declared “Abuse of power, misusing taxpayers’ money and manipulating media is really serious.”&nbsp;In the ensuing election, Kurz won a bigger mandate. The wunderkind could not be stopped.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Until he was—by Austrian prosecutors who accuse him of, ironically, abusing power to bribe journalists with taxpayers’ money. Investigators, not fans, began raiding his office. He and nine associates are suspected of&nbsp;embezzlement, bribery and corruption.&nbsp;The loss to the state exchequer is only €3,00,000, but if convicted, they could face long jail terms. This time, Kurz’s Green coalition partner pulled the rug. Vice-Chancellor and Green party leader Werner Kogler announced Kurz was “no longer fit for office”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Without the Green party’s support, Kurz’s government collapses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So he resigned, announcing grandly,&nbsp;“This is about Austria, not about me. I want to make way to prevent chaos and ensure stability.” But it seemed more about his own, rather than Austria’s, stability, when he appointed loyalist Alexander Schallenberg to replace him. Kurz stepped down, but not aside.&nbsp;Petra Stuiber, deputy editor-in-chief of Der Standard, says Kurz will be “the one who is continuing to pull the strings in the background”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The bribery scandal unmasked Kurz. Beneath the image of the poised whiz kid with immaculate gelled-back hair was a schemer, conniving his way to chancellorship after he became foreign minister in 2013 at 27. The “Kurz Machine” was an apparatus of corruption, cunning and conspiracy.&nbsp;Rigged opinion polls and media spin enabled Kurz’s astonishing trajectory. Riding on public animosity to “traditional politicians”, Kurz&nbsp;first maneuvered to become the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) leader and then rebranded the waning old party into the “Liste Sebastian Kurz”, a movement mirroring his own image. He changed the party colour from boring black to trendy turquoise. The rejuvenated party made a spectacular comeback.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On becoming chancellor, Kurz placed loyalists in key institutions in the country, from the powerful public broadcaster to the constitutional court. Opponents say the messiah had become a mini dictator, running a one-man show. Kurz&nbsp;embraced far-right’s anti-immigration policies and befriended populist leaders in Poland and Hungary. Like them, he defied the UN and European Union programmes to accept asylum seekers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To remain in power, Kurz consorted first with the far right—a taboo in Austrian politics. When that coalition self-destructed, he switched to the left-wing Green Party. Friend-turned-foe Gottfried Waldhäusl of the Far-right Freedom Party, says, “Kurz is Austria’s biggest opportunist.” It was all about Kurz, and Kurz only.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like Donald Trump, Kurz calls the investigation a “witch-hunt”. He has the backing of his party and his core base to work the puppet strings until he plots his return to power. But puppets sometimes develop spine. Critics believe Saint Sebastian has turned into a Sleazy Sinner. His halo has lost lustre, but Kurz’s political ambition still burns bright. Most politicians are incarnations of Narcissus. They love themselves. But Kurz is an original. He fell in love with his own image.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Oct 22 17:09:28 IST 2021 anita-pratap-on-the-great-norwegian-vault-that-preserves-the-worlds-memory <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What does “Piql” stand for? Some clues: It does not mean anything; it rhymes with pickle, and its goal is to preserve. But what it preserves and how it preserves it is a hi-tech tribute to human ingenuity. Says Piql Founder Rune Bjerkestrand: “We preserve world memory”.</p> <p>That sounds incomprehensible and impossible to do. Where would one begin? Since 2017, Piql’s “Arctic World Archive” (AWA) is creating a digital repository for civilisational heritage. AWA is inspired by the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway’s Arctic Archipelago. This vault preserves seeds of the world to perpetuate humankind’s food supply, should they be destroyed by disease, drought or nuclear wars. These same calamities can wreck world culture. So, for a fee, Piql preserves text, images and audio-visuals of our cultural legacy: music, movies, mosaic, maps, manuscripts, monuments—imagine a 3D Taj Mahal preserved for eternity!</p> <p>How do they do it? They do not curate. Clients approach them—usually governments, corporates, museums, libraries and national archives—to digitally preserve their assets and records for posterity. Many institutions have digitised their data, but not for long-term storage. Using AI and machine learning, Piql digitises and converts data into high definition QR codes and prints it to motion picture style film. Each 35mm frame has 8.8 million data points! Kick or crush it, the sturdy film survives. The data is open-sourced and read easily on different formats as an anti-obsolescence measure—to avoid the fate of disk operating system (DOS) and video home system (VHS). Who can predict the technology of 2030, let alone 1,000 years from now!</p> <p>The spools of 35mm film (usually a kilometer long) are wound into special pizza-box like containers and shipped to clients. They are also stored in Svalbard, in a decommissioned coal mine, where the dry, dark, low-oxygen permafrost could preserve the film for thousands of years. Says Bjerkestrand: “This data cannot be hacked, because it is offline and permanent”. But some clients want to store the information in the cloud for easy access for the public. Cloud can be hacked, but a comparison with the original spool would immediately reveal the hackers’ digital fingerprints and the information corrected.</p> <p>Unlike the government-run seed vault, the AWA is a private enterprise. Not surprising. Authorities have always dealt with seeds, but not so much with cutting-edge technology. Even the government-funded GPS and internet were popularised and commercialised by the private sector. Piql’s unique technology has been funded by €41 million from the European Union. The Norwegian government owns the Arctic coal mine where the archives are stored.</p> <p>Piql is a nerdy solution to an enduring problem. It is a miracle that so much heritage has survived. But much has been lost: the Afghan Bamiyan statues or Brazil’s library that burned down, reducing its historic collections to ashes. The digital revolution has contributed to heritage loss, but it now comes to the rescue. Bjerkestrand says his idea is inspired by the Norwegian concept of “sjølberg” or self-sufficiency. Mountains are alluring but unpredictable. In their backpacks, trekking Norwegians carry items to survive all eventualities—waterproof warm wear, spikes, salves, folding cookstove and dry rations. Says Bjerkestrand: “I wanted to create a self-sufficient product.”</p> <p>Institutions buy Piql’s sophisticated “reader” for high-resolution playback, but with a backpack containing a light source, mobile phone, camera and microscope, anyone can select and photograph a compressed QR code. Instructions on the film help you to recover the data. Visually, Piql represents 0 and 1, the binary code for all digitised data. Trust a Norwegian nerd to imagine, invent and implement such an idea.</p> Thu Oct 07 15:50:59 IST 2021 that-laugh-could-cost-germany-armin-laschet-the-top-job-writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>That laugh could cost him the top job. Armin Laschet was in the lead to win the September 26 elections to become German chancellor and step into Angela Merkel’s shoes. But then he laughed at the wrong moment. His shoulders shook with mirth as he stood in the background and chatted at an event condoling victims of the recent devastating floods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The inappropriate laugh went viral. Laschet apologised profusely, but the damage was done. His centre-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany began sinking in the polls, enabling the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) to overtake and emerge the front runner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Voters are angry. And fearful. A 2019 survey showed that Germans were least anxious in decades. But last year, they feared Donald Trump. This year, they worry about the consequences of the swelling pandemic-induced public debt, totalling an all-time high of €2.2 trillion. Germany is famous for its balanced “black” budgets, which have given citizens the comfort of financial predictability.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To offset this deficit, people now expect tax hikes, rising cost of living and welfare cuts. “The mountain of debt which has piled up at the federal, state, and local levels to deal with the coronavirus pandemic is causing Germans the greatest worry this year,” said Brigitte Römstedt, head of this annual “fear study”. Römstedt clarified that Germans are not inherently fearful. They respond to real, not imaginary, threats, worrying about unemployment only when there are layoffs or about terrorism after 9/11. As long as climate change was abstract, people did not worry. But now 69 per cent do after seeing the disturbing images of the recent floods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But people’s anxiety over public debt is not reflected in this election campaign. It’s not a feel-good issue and requires painful remedies. “The parties have successfully hushed up the issue,” says political scientist Manfred Schmidt. It’s easier to run divisive, demonisation campaigns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As ratings fall, hysteria rises. Seeing power slipping from their grasp, the ruling conservative CDU is ratcheting up the rhetoric against their former coalition partner SPD, which could form post-election alliances with the socialist left and green parties. Laschet says the “radical left” weakens German security because they oppose foreign military deployments and the purchase of armed drones.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But riskier are the cyberattacks targeting to influence the election outcome by spreading disinformation—a sinister reminder of the 2016 US election meddling that contributed to Trump’s victory. German authorities protested sharply against alleged Russian attempts to hack data of local politicians to spread fake news and smear campaigns—as they have allegedly done in Poland and the Baltic states. German prosecutors say hackers from the group “Ghostwriter”, linked to Russian military intelligence service GRU, have been trying to breach private email accounts of parliamentarians and state legislators. A foreign ministry official described Russian actions as “a danger to the security of Germany and to the democratic will-forming process.” Berlin accuses the GRU of hacking the network of Germany’s lower house of parliament in 2015.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Due to Germany’s proportional representation system, coalitions are needed for securing the majority to rule. But this is a tricky and time-consuming process. In 2017, it took six months to cobble together a governing coalition. The SPD has the lead now, but it is difficult to predict the next coalition combination because polls can get it wrong. Laschet has not given up and the SPD leader Olaf Scholz is not complacent. Both fight hard in the last lap, keen to have that last laugh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Sep 16 15:10:59 IST 2021 us-century-over-in-kabul-china-begins-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What are Afghans like? Not the Taliban or Mujahideen fighters, but what are ordinary people like?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One typical Afghan was a turbaned tribal elder I once interviewed in a village near Khyber Pass. We sat in the courtyard of his single-storied, mud-brick house, with three generations of his women confined to the zenana (women’s cloister). He was tough, stoical and patient. Like his spirit, his weather-beaten skin seemed to have a high tolerance for pain. He did not flinch when an insect bit him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Walking away after the meeting, I turned around to wave. But I had already disappeared from his radar. He stared inscrutably into the horizon, from where many conquerors appeared through the millennia—Darius of Babylon in 500 BCE, Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Genghis Khan and Arab invaders. Afghanistan was also “the graveyard of empires”—British, Soviet, and now American.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thorbjørn Jagland, former head of the Council of Europe, noted: “The fall of Kabul is as historic as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It symbolises the end of the American century.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is baffling that the White House did not anticipate a repeat of the 1996 Taliban “takeover” of Kabul—the CNN coverage for which I received The George Polk Award from Long Island University, New York. Like today, it was a walkover, not a takeover. Fed up with the corrupt, foreign-backed regime, tribal chieftains gave free passage to the Taliban to Kabul. A passage lubricated by Pakistan. History repeats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The White House appeared shocked that the 3.5 lakh Afghan forces they had spent billions arming and training collapsed without a fight. In reality, this was mostly a ghost army—men on paper. The “real” soldiers fled, surrendered or were slaughtered. Said British MP Tom Tugendhat: “Expecting this ragtag army to fight is like putting a rusty tricycle on Tokyo Olympic tracks and expecting it to win gold.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insists “Kabul is not Saigon”, referring to the chaotic embassy roof-top pull-out from Vietnam in 1975. Phil Caputo, a Vietnam veteran and journalist, among the last to be evacuated from Saigon, agrees. “It is worse,” he says. Compared with Kabul, Saigon was “like an audience leaving the opera.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>American evacuation from Kabul leaves in its wake bizarre ironies. When the US invaded Kabul after 9/11, the Taliban was not on their terror list. Now it is. America’s main concern was never the Taliban’s repression of women or beheadings. Their invasion aimed to ensure Afghanistan did not become a safe haven for terrorists, especially Al-Qaeda, to launch attacks against the US.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, we see the rise of ISIS-K, a terror group deadlier than the Taliban, with bigger ambitions. They want a caliphate in Khorasan—a historic region including parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. American departure aroused fears of the Taliban taking control. Now the fear is they do not have enough control, especially vis-à-vis ISIS-K.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Remaining in Afghanistan to continue waging a counter-insurgency operation is fighting yesterday’s war. There is strong support in the US to bring soldiers back home. Troops are vulnerable to suicide attacks. Counter-insurgency using remote applications, surveillance satellites, eavesdropping technologies and drones are lethal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Over the horizon” operations are not the only new avatar of today’s warfare. Earthmovers may replace tanks in Afghanistan to extract rare earth metals and other minerals needed to power the global green revolution. It is about mining and manufacturing, loans and lanes. The 21st century could well be China’s century in Afghanistan. But the millennium remains with the Afghans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Sep 02 16:51:43 IST 2021 karsten-warholms-success-is-testimony-to-norways-unique-sports-model-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>He is the new Scandinavian Superman, tall, dark-haired and handsome. Karsten Warholm, 25, does not fly, but he runs like the wind, winning “the best race in history”. As he crossed the finish line at the Tokyo Olympics, Warholm looked up at the scoreboard and gasped in astonishment. Cameras immortalised his face as he roared in joy, ripping apart his t-shirt. “There is no perfect race. This is as close as it gets,” he rejoiced.</p> <p>Warholm had just smashed the “speed barrier”, becoming the first man to finish the 400m hurdles in under 46 seconds; in 45.94 seconds, to be precise.</p> <p>Colin Jackson, BBC’s sports commentator, exulted, “This is one of the most outstanding world records. I am sure it will live longer than me.” Warholm broke his own world record of 46.70 seconds set two months ago at an Oslo race. That had shattered Kevin Young’s 29-year-old Olympic record.</p> <p>Warholm’s Tokyo Triumph is testimony to his grit. The hunger to win began burning when he was eliminated in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic semi-finals. For 1,812 days he went to bed, slept, dreamed, awoke, ate, trained and ran with just one thought in his head—win gold in Tokyo. Asked what he owed his success to, Warholm says, “I had my own drive, I had my own flame.”</p> <p>His success is also testimony to Norway’s unique sports model that abhors commerce, competition and above all, pressure. Exceptions are few. Until 12, children are not even graded. They are shielded from pressure—from parents, teachers and the system. Allowed to just be, without the pressure to compete and made to feel inferior or superior, children veer naturally to what they like, whether it is art or athletics, mathematics or music. What they choose and how far they wish to pursue it comes from within.</p> <p>Little flames are lit and some carry it to the peak of excellence. Says Warholm, “I like the Norwegian sports model. I think a lot of people can learn from it. I never felt any pressure.” Norway’s sports system is well organised down to the village-level. Young talent are selected, given world-class facilities, coaching and training. Norway is in contrast to the US and Britain where sports funding is linked to medals, leading to terrific triumphs, but also high stress, bullying and breakdowns.</p> <p>Born with “skis on their feet”, Norwegians excel in the winter Olympics, ranking first in 2018 with a record haul of 39 medals. The achievement is extraordinary as Norway has a tiny population of 5.4 million, comparable in numbers to a Delhi district.</p> <p>In Tokyo, Norway won eight medals, including four golds, ranking 20th out of 206 competing countries.</p> <p>Focusing on what is good for the child—not the school or parents—is integral to Norwegian philosophy. But this sometimes creates conflicts, especially with immigrant parents from different cultures. Like family, even the fisheries policy prioritises the wellbeing of the fish, not the fishermen or industry. This focus has revived depleted seas, resulting in abundant fish and richer fishermen. Fish is Norway’s second largest source of export revenue, second only to oil and gas.</p> <p>But Olympic victory is today’s headline. Norwegian commentators are already discussing Warholm’s existential dilemma: What next? Wondered sports analyst Erlend Nesje, “More of the same is hardly motivating. What’s he going to dream about now?” Even as the Viking Superman emblazons the “Norwegian Way”, the quest for excellence fans his inner flame. Says Warholm, “I will keep running. The next is best.”</p> Thu Aug 12 16:16:19 IST 2021 anita-pratap-trees-are-social-creatures-that-come-to-each-others-aid-in-times-of-danger <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This is a true story. My uncle, a surgeon, loved trees and every day he communed with them in his garden in Kottayam in Kerala, examining them from root flare to crown.</p> <p>His favourite was the luxuriant Malgoa tree that bore hundreds of sweet, juicy mangoes. Uncle would distribute them to family, friends and everybody in the hospital where he worked. He died in 1998. That year, for the first time, the tree did not bear fruit. Nor the year after. Eventually it restarted, but it was never the same. Gone was the joyful abundance. The tree was grieving.</p> <p>As someone who loved my uncle and trees, I found it perfectly normal that trees had feelings. Experiments that showed plants scream when cut indicated this, but that trees could behave like pets was considered absurd. This is why science is exciting, but can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Your thoughts are dismissed until proven right… sometimes. Ecologist Suzanne Simard, who grew up in the Canadian forests, has done pathbreaking research that proves trees communicate. She discovered that forests are like the neural networks in the brain or a living internet. Instead of computers linked by wires and radio waves, the trees are connected by threadlike fungi, which also help them extract water and nutrients from the soil. There are several satellites, with the oldest trees functioning as the biggest communication hubs. Scientists call this vast underground network, the “Wood Wide Web”.</p> <p>Trees work together in good times and bad. Like a well-knit human community, trees are social creatures that come to each other’s aid in times of danger like drought, disease or pests. Simard found trees infected by insects send chemical signals to nearby trees which produce defence enzymes against the insect. Trees communicate needs and cooperate to send supplies. It is the opposite of the Darwinian principle of the selfish gene asserting itself to survive. Instead of the strongest tree grabbing the dwindling nutrients, they share, sending it on to the neediest. Much like the Japanese villagers, who, after the devastating 2011 tsunami, forwarded precious supplies to the people on the frontlines who needed them more.</p> <p>Forests, like humans, are an ancient, caring, complex society. That’s how and why they survive. Cut them down, especially near human habitations, and diseases like Covid-19 spread. Scientists have discovered that the secret of healthy trees is diversity.</p> <p>Natural forests that survive millions of years are a profusion of biodiversity, with different species of trees, bushes and moss. Trees sicken when stuck in monoculture plantations. Fertilisers and pesticides become their life-support. Commissioned by the British government, <i>The Dasgupta Review</i> (an independent review led by eminent researcher Sir Partha Dasgupta) explores the catastrophically non-existent relationship between biodiversity and economics, which has “enabled the destruction of natural resources on a monumental scale”.</p> <p>Estimates suggest 1.6 earths are required to maintain the world’s current living standards. Simard has proved that trees talk to each other. Whether trees can talk to humans remains unproven, though there are people who experience profound communication, calming and age-old wisdom from the whispering boughs of ancient trees. That might be considered a sign of insanity now, but then science is a work in progress. It may catch up. Like societies, Simard says, healthy forests are “built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system.” The bond between nature and humans is the magic key. Trees and forests are as important to our well-being as uncles and societies. This is a message Covid-19 has reinforced around the world.</p> Thu Jul 29 19:54:27 IST 2021 anita-pratap-writes-on-how-lipstick-is-the-comeback-kid-after-mask-wearing-hit-sales <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is something peculiar about the world we live in when lipstick becomes not merely a fashion statement, but a symbol of life and liberation. As Europe approaches the tantalising light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, women break free from year-long confines and emerge from their homes—with makeup, coiffed hair and glowing skin. Masks out, lipstick in. Smiles can finally be seen. “Putting on lipstick again will be a symbol of returning to life,” declared Jean-Paul Agon, chairman of the world’s largest cosmetics company, L’Oréal. The $500 billion global beauty industry is predicting that the end of the pandemic will be greeted with the same exuberance as in the roaring 1920s. When World War 1, and the catastrophic Spanish flu pandemic ended, people swung to the other extreme—partying, preening, overspending, kicking their heels high. The same freedom from fear and the release of bottled emotions now propel people to feast on a fiesta of fashion, fragrances and face enhancers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Margarita Arriagada, CEO of Valde Beauty, “There is a pent-up desire to glam up.” Leading beauty businesses are already enjoying double digit growth. Pandemic lockdowns savaged fashion and cosmetics industries with closed shops and salons. Before Covid-19, 85 per cent of beauty products were sold in shops. Even luxury customers preferred to shop in the showrooms. Presumably, the ecstasy of shopping is enhanced by the envy of onlookers as they stride out swinging Louis Vuitton or Prada shopping bags. Still, shopping did not become extinct during lockdowns. It shifted online. E-commerce and the pivot to Asia, especially by affluent Chinese customers, offset some losses. Entrepreneurs, like the Portuguese businessman José Neves, profited from this trend. His online luxury marketplace for men and women that showcases high-end fashion brands from around the world became popular. During Covid-19, Neves’s wealth crossed $2.2 billion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the rich got richer during the pandemic, they spent even more money, time, and energy on pampering themselves. An ambassador for the idle rich, Melania Trump became unchained not only from the pandemic but also from the shackles of the White House. In her sprawling Mar-a-Lago resort in sunny Florida’s Palm Beach, she visits her in-house spa twice a day. This enables her to peacefully practise a miracle mantra for eternal youth: Rinse, Relax, Rejuvenate. Repeat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The pandemic exacerbated existing income inequalities. Joblessness and poverty skyrocketed. Over 36 million Americans went hungry and waited in queues to get free food while the sales of Godiva’s “luxury” chocolates rose. Heineken Lager Beer announced new products to spoil its fast-expanding market—women—with tantalising choices: Zero alcohol beer for lunches, sparkling alcohol water, low alcohol beer for weekday evenings and strong ones for Friday nights. Beauty is no longer skin-deep; it encompasses diversity, nature and well-being. Many companies report that their premium products—especially in the eye makeup, wellness and self-care categories—sold briskly during the pandemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lipstick sales are usually recession proof. Cosmetics billionaire Leonard Lauder invented the so-called “lipstick index” that gauges how women, during bad times, splurge on a small “affordable luxury” like lipstick, while forgoing expensive clothes and shoes. As fashion icon Coco Chanel famously said, “If you are sad, put on more lipstick and attack.” This time though, lipstick sales plummeted because of mask-wearing. But now, lipstick is the comeback kid in the makeup kit. Native tribesmen used war paint to convey strength, ferocity and success before battle. Women now apply face paint and lipstick, ready to battle for fun.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Jul 15 16:49:38 IST 2021 ronaldo-runs-like-a-cheetah-kicks-like-a-kangaroo-jumps-like-an-impala-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Football star Cristiano Ronaldo is a poster child for anti-abortion campaigners. His impoverished mother, Maria, wanted to abort him because life was desperate with three children and an alcoholic husband. But, in 1984, abortion was forbidden in catholic Portugal. So Maria gave birth and an unwanted star was born.</p> <p>Fast forward to the present. Ronaldo attained superstardom in the ongoing European football championship when he scored his 109th goal in international matches. Covid gave way to football fever as Ronaldo tied with Iran’s Ali Daei to become the world’s champion scorer.</p> <p>But Ronaldo did not start life as a champion. His father was a gardener and his mother a cook. They lived in a one-room tenement without electricity, where sunlight squeezed through the cracks. Bullied in school for his dialect and his poverty, Ronaldo acquired a defiant, smouldering, sullen look that seemed a shield of defence and was destined to break hearts later on.</p> <p>His father named him after Ronald Reagan. That seemed a cruel joke as Ronaldo’s childhood was more about scars than stars. Legend has it that he was expelled at 14 for throwing a chair at a mocking teacher. He hated school and loved football, so became free to focus on the game. The rest is history. “Dreams are not what you see in your sleep, dreams are things which do not let you sleep,” he famously said.</p> <p>One well-meaning teacher warned him that football would not put food on the table. In 2020, Forbes reported that Ronaldo’s net worth had crossed $1 billion. He champions many just causes. His kicks make millions. His flicks erase millions. At a recent press conference, he pushed aside the Coca-Cola bottles placed in front of him, a gesture that wiped out millions in Coke’s share value. His message: “Drink water!”</p> <p>Ronaldo’s mesmerising dribbles, long-range goals and animal spirits make him a superstar. He runs like a cheetah, kicks like a kangaroo, jumps like an impala and has the stamina of a horse. Sports commentator Carl-Erik Torp said, “Portugal team is not that good, but Ronaldo is always dangerous.” Ronaldo is hyper-competitive and cocky, but has talent and humour to back his swagger. He said of himself: “He’s six foot two, brave as a lion, strong as an ox and quick as lightning. If he was good looking, you’d say he has everything.” He sure has, including 500 million followers on social media.</p> <p>Ronaldo is poised to become the greatest footballer of all time. His main rival is Argentina’s Lionel Messi. There are strong similarities—both come from poor families, both overcame childhood medical conditions, both dribble like magic. There the similarities end. Messi believes God made him. Ronaldo takes pride that he made himself, overcoming endless obstacles through sheer grit and sacrifice.</p> <p>Both are in their mid-30s and are performing well, an unusual phenomenon among sportsmen. Gone are the days when injuries aborted the careers of 25-year-old athletes, forcing them into retirement. Now they gain an extra decade of playing not because of God or self, but science. While their genius has brought them thus far, what takes them further are medical interventions. Some athletes have had more than 30 surgeries, fusing and fixing assorted bone, muscle and tissue. Said Ronaldo, “Many people helped me along the way. Above all, though, I want to mention the help of my medical team that has been working alongside me.” He sees them as his guardian angels.</p> Thu Jul 01 17:03:15 IST 2021 why-hungarians-are-opposing-upcoming-chinese-university-in-budapest-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What does a European mayor do if he wants to enrage China? Rename streets. So, the liberal mayor of Hungarian capital Budapest, Gergely Karacsony, renamed streets to shame Beijing: “Uighur Martyrs’ Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road”, “Dalai Lama Street”. China was enraged. “This stunt is contemptible,” fumed the Chinese spokesperson.</p> <p>Budapest’s renamed streets surround the 5.5 million square-foot campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan University, China’s first university in Europe. Opening in 2024, the campus will have 8,000 students living and learning medicine, business and engineering on the banks of the picturesque Danube. The university will have a 500-strong faculty, convention centres and sports facilities. Hungary will “become a regional knowledge hub”, boasted government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs.</p> <p>The Fudan campus is a powerful symbol of the populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s embrace of communist China. Dubbed the “Bad Boy of Europe”, Orban champions “illiberal democracy”, is Euro-sceptic and anti-immigrant, and curtails independent media, judiciary and the opposition. He has vexed European Union leaders by cosying up to strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.</p> <p>Ignoring America’s warnings that Huawei is a security threat, Orban hosts Huawei’s biggest supply centre outside China. Hungary accounts for 1 per cent of EU’s GDP, but enjoys veto power. The country blocked EU’s measures against China for anti-democracy crackdowns in Hong Kong. Hungary was the only EU country to approve China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines. Two years ago, Orban ejected George Soros’s liberal Central European University from Budapest and then welcomed the Chinese university into the heart of Europe.</p> <p>But Orban miscalculated on Fudan. Two-thirds of Hungarians oppose the campus, fearing Chinese influence, espionage and surveillance. This could be “China’s Trojan Horse of intelligence on Hungarian soil”, warns political scientist Daniel Hegedüs. The first post-pandemic street protests in Hungary were aimed against Fudan. People are also angry because the elite campus replaces a housing project for poor Hungarian students who come to study in the capital. Karacsony accuses Orban of serving the interests of the elite. Ironically, elite-bashing and nationalism helped Orban win landslide victories since 2010. Karacsony will now challenge him in next year’s general elections. To defuse public anger, Orban offers a referendum on the campus if re-elected.</p> <p>Fudan is Orban’s weak spot. The Chinese campus will drain 1.5 billion in taxpayers euros—more than Hungary’s entire higher education budget. It is mostly financed by Chinese loans, like the €2 billion China deal to reconstruct the Budapest-Belgrade railway. Project details are classified. Orban’s aides accuse opponents of hypocrisy, asserting Germany and France have bigger investments with China.</p> <p>The pushback against China comes from liberal mayors of European cities that are engines of economic growth, like Prague and Budapest. Karacsony fears Hungary is falling into China’s debt trap. He worries about the security risks and the financial burdens imposed by expensive projects built with Chinese loans that could “bankrupt future generations”.</p> <p>This resentment prevails in other European countries, too. Several EU member-states snubbed Chinese President Xi by avoiding an infrastructure summit last February. Lithuania withdrew from this club altogether. Montenegro pleaded for EU aid to repay Chinese loans for a motorway project bedevilled by corruption and delay. The project’s environmental damage to this scenic, tourism-dependent nation is catastrophic, what with chopped mountains and gouged river valleys. Per kilometre, it is one of the most expensive roads in the world. Critics call it the “Highway to Hell”.</p> Thu Jun 17 20:13:49 IST 2021 has-gop-become-american-democracys-most-dangerous-enemy-asks-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was catchy, but the world was baffled by Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Wasn’t America great already? But the message was coded: assert white dominance in a country “degraded” by diversity. So the demagogue demonised the “other”—Muslims, Mexicans, Africans and gays. But “otherising” is not new to the Republican Party aka Grand Old Party (GOP).</p> <p>From its inception in 1854, the GOP was infamous for its violent antagonism towards impoverished Irish immigrants. Discrimination against the Chinese, Japanese and East European immigrants followed.</p> <p>Xenophobia and racism helped the GOP win elections. Even folksy Ronald Reagan belittled African-Americans. Asked if Reagan’s attempted assassin did anything wrong, a black woman said: “He missed”.</p> <p>Author Steven Jonas predicts, “Either this nation shall kill racism, or racism shall kill this nation.” Long before Trump, white antagonism seethed against the liberal elite for “stripping” away their racial, cultural, national and economic superiority. Racial anxiety fused with resentment of feminism, gay rights, secularism, immigration, globalisation, stagnant wages and dwindling opportunities. The solution: not upgrading oneself but “degrading the other”. The most virulent manifestation of hounding the “other” was Republican senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt of communists in the 1950s. Renowned journalist Walter Lippman wrote McCarthy’s goal was to become the GOP’s feared “supreme boss,” brazenly demonstrating “he respects nobody, no office and no institution, and that everyone at whom he growls will run away”. Reputed historians say the GOP’s response to Trump mirrors the party’s response to McCarthy, whose biographer Thomas C. Reeves observed, “Republicans rallied behind McCarthy even though most understood that his allegations were fraudulent.” Just as they know Trump’s election fraud charges are fraudulent. Republicans surrendered to McCarthy because McCarthyism reaped votes for the party. They made huge gains in the House and Senate in the 1950 mid-terms and a landslide in the 1952 presidential polls. The GOP believes Trumpism will do the same, starting with mid-term elections next year. One reviled man links McCarthy and Trump. Lawyer Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s vicious aide turned Trump’s mentor. Critics have labelled Cohn a “snake”, a “Machiavellian” and “a new strain of son of bitch”. Cohn used cunning and villainy to dodge scandals and indictments involving tax evasion, stock swindling, bank fraud, bribery, blackmail, extortion, forgery and perjury. Trump was 26 when he began cultivating the feral fixer. Columnist Frank Rich says, “You can see and hear Trump in Cohn’s ruthless bullying and profane braggadocio.” Cohn’s hypocrisy was astounding. He flaunted anchorwoman Barbara Walters, the “fiancé” he never married. He savagely threatened to expose and shame closet “fags”. But he died of AIDS in 1986. “Lie and Attack” was his mantra. <i>The New York Times </i>editorialised, “Mr Trump has spent his career in the company of developers and celebrities, and also of grifters, cons, sharks, goons and crooks.” Mainstream mocks, but the fringe flocks. The far right is a minority, but forms the vocal Trump base in the GOP, which attracts disgruntled white voters but alienates most others. The Republican party’s dilemma is that demographically, the “others” are outnumbering the whites. Elections will not perpetuate the party of white identity in power. So they counter by redrawing constituencies and introducing laws in GOP-ruled states to disenfranchise “others”.</p> <p>Warns political commentator Richard North Patterson, “The GOP has become American democracy’s most dangerous enemy.” Disconcertingly, it continues to invalidate President Biden’s legitimate victory, sabotages inquiries into the January 6th insurrection and rejects to repair and rebuild to truly “Make America Great Again”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 03 15:28:05 IST 2021 marine-le-pen-is-the-phoenix-from-france-s-far-right--writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Marine Le Pen is sort of a Madame Butterfly of French politics. Four years ago, when the far-right leader contested the presidential elections, it was unrequited love. Voters rejected her roundly. So, she rebranded, rebuilt and rejuvenated her Rassemblement National Party. Now it is roaring, threatening to oust President Emmanuel Macron in next year’s presidential ballot. Le Pen asserts: “There is no more split between left and right; there is a split between the globalists and the nationalists.”</p> <p>Blurring traditional party loyalties give wind to Le Pen’s wings. If she wins, she would be the first far-right leader since World War II to become president of “Socialist” France, a momentous event for the European Union’s second-largest economy and as consequential as Brexit for the bloc.</p> <p>Liberal France abhors the far-right’s populism and nationalism. But taboos are crumbling. Macron and Le Pen are neck and neck in current opinion polls, with Macron at 26 per cent and Le Pen at 25 per cent. Unlike her rabble-rousing, anti-Semitic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, she unifies voters by adopting popular Brexit-type grievances, including hostility to globalisation, immigrants, free trade and the EU. Says French political scientist Chloé Morin: “Lots of ingredients are the same (as Brexit)—a rejection of elites, feelings of injustice, the desire to ‘take control’ of your country’s destiny.”</p> <p>But Le Pen, who championed “Frexit”, has now withdrawn her threat to leave the EU. Dragging her party towards the centre has made her less untouchable to the public. Frustration with the sclerotic French bureaucracy is an old epidemic. This anger catapulted the insurgent newcomer Macron to power in 2017. As he now jockeys for his re-election, “reformation” remains Macron’s magic mantra.</p> <p>But after one term in office, the magic has gone and the mantra rings hollow. Macron broadcasts he is a “breath of fresh air”. Le Pen retorts, “Macron is the last gasp of the old system.” His diplomatique grandeur of French internationalism, peace-making and economic reforms fizzled along the way. Terrorist attacks, street protests and pension reform rebellions roiled France.</p> <p>The pandemic also bruised image-conscious Macron. It stalled his reforms. It sullied his reputation. Critics lampooned and lambasted the self-proclaimed “Jupiter” for his erratic handling of Covid-19. He disdained scientific advice, then flipflopped to impose stringent lockdowns to control a third wave of infections. “Mr Know-it-all gets it wrong, again” is a snide refrain.</p> <p>Perhaps Macron’s personality is the fatal flaw. Morin describes Macron as “scornful, haughty and as divisive as Le Pen”. Political analyst Nicholas Dungan says Macron fails “to convince people he feels their pain”. In an election that follows a pandemic, that can be fatal. Former socialist economy minister Arnaud Montebourg says: “Macron is hated because he is arrogant. He is not the rampart but the one who will sweep Madame Le Pen to power.”</p> <p>But it is not a done deal for Le Pen. She lacks administrative experience, was involved in a Russian donation scandal and performed poorly in TV debates. The pandemic exposed the mess populists created worldwide. “Still,” says Dungan, “Trump and Brexit have shown you get elected on feelings, not facts.”</p> <p>The French typically choose a candidate they dislike to defeat the one they hate. So, who do they hate more? Last time, they voted Macron to keep out Le Pen. Is it vice-versa now? If Le Pen rises from the ashes, Madam Butterfly could well turn into Madame Phoenix.</p> Thu May 20 18:46:24 IST 2021 anita-pratap-argues-young-women-are-prophets-of-the-21st-century <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Prophets are imagined as old men with flowing beards, imparting wisdom that stands the test of time. Not so in the 21<sup>st</sup> century. Now they are small, young women. Or girls.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>First came Malala Yousafzai. An unknown 15-year-old schoolgirl from interior Pakistan, who got shot, got famous and got the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. All in two years. She spoke with stunning eloquence about girls’ right to education, vowing to be prime minister of Pakistan one day. She is the Prophet of Girl Power. Cynics say she was planted by the CIA.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then came Greta Thunberg. At 15, this Swedish schoolgirl with Asperger’s syndrome inspired a global youth movement to fight climate change. Even experienced environmental experts could not better her brilliant, spontaneous soundbites. From the UN pulpit, she mocked, ridiculed and scolded world leaders. One day, she could be the United Nations Secretary General. She is the Prophet of the Planet. Cynics say she was planted by a communications agency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then there was African American Amanda Gorman. Older than the other two, but still only 22. The poet laureate and Harvard student wowed the world with her poem that she read out at Joe Biden’s inauguration. A well-crafted, wise poem about love, racial unity and democracy. The poem mirrored her persona—poised yet passionate. She power-dressed in a chic red headband and a Rs2.5 lakh sunshine yellow coat by Prada, with whom she has a deal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Amanda is not shy about her presidential ambitions. She said in her poem “A time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” Her fans say she will win the 2036 US presidential elections. Cynics say she is planted by the Clintons, the Obamas and Oprah Winfrey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And then there is Darnella Frazier. An ordinary 17-year-old black Minneapolis schoolgirl who used her mobile phone to film police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. In filming all 10 excruciating minutes of the murder while Chauvin’s cohorts advanced menacingly with Mace, Darnella showed courage, compassion and civic conscience. Her video exposed the police coverup and contributed to the 12-member jury unanimously pronouncing a guilty verdict, sentencing Chauvin to a jail term of up to 40 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Darnella won awards for bravery. “With nothing more than a cell phone and sheer guts, Darnella changed the course of history in this country,” praised Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, an NGO that champions freedom of expression. Darnella has transformed into a TV personality with artful makeup and stylish dresses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, there is darkness. She is undergoing trauma therapy. Her mother says Darnella was already suffering from social anxiety. Then she had to deal with the horror of witnessing life squeezed out of a terrified man. After that she was persecuted by internet trolls—white supremacists spewing venom, hatemongers accusing her of getting payoffs and denigrators unreasonably blaming her for not intervening to save Floyd. Darnella’s life is a 21st&nbsp;century morality tale, personifying the power and pitfalls of social media. Activists raised half a million dollars to protect her. But activists move on, finding new causes and new prophets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Historic police reforms are under way because of Darnella. She is the Street Prophet of Small Miracles. Planted by none, she grew like a dandelion through the cracks of the pavement. Cynics say her video will be remembered, her name forgotten.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu May 06 15:06:17 IST 2021 systemic-racism-in-us-propagates-police-excesses-writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In black dystopia, people need protection from the police and the police need protection from the people.&nbsp;The dystopian capital is “Murderapolis”, also known as Minneapolis in the US. In this scary world, routine activities—like going to a shop or a gas station—can turn lethal. Says author Van Jones, “For blacks, driving a car is a death sentence.”</p> <p>Black motorists are disproportionately pulled over by white police officers, usually for minor traffic violations, but too often ending in homicide. Police shootouts have cursed black communities for generations. Says former police chief Charles Wilson,&nbsp;“The institution of policing in the US is inherently biased against people of colour and low income. It’s been designed that way for over 400 years.”&nbsp;</p> <p>That bias was horrifyingly on display when George Floyd died in Minneapolis after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee down on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. But even as Chauvin’s trial was climaxing, 16kms away a young bi-racial man, Daunte Wright, 20, was shot dead by police. Enraged demonstrators marched to the heavily guarded police headquarters, barricaded by high metal fences and concrete barriers. Soldiers and policemen in riot gear hurled gas grenades as protestors threw rocks and cans.&nbsp;</p> <p>Systemic racism propagates police excesses. Says black activist Kamau Bell, “It’s not just about a few bad apples. The whole system of policing is a rotten tree of white supremacy.” Whites feel superior to blacks, but racial profiling also embeds fear as whites see young black men as criminal and violent.&nbsp;Wright was killed by a policewoman, Kim Potter, with 26 years of experience. But her body camera video shows an officer in fright.</p> <p>Fear impairs judgment. Potter, 48, was field-training the officers who pulled Wright over for expired license plates. They then discovered an outstanding warrant—he had failed to appear in court last June for charges of possessing an unlicensed gun and fleeing from the police.&nbsp;This inflamed the stereotyping of blacks with guns and crime. As a frightened Wright scrambles into his car, Potter repeatedly shouts she will Taser (stun gun) him. And she does, except she fires her pistol.&nbsp;</p> <p>Caught on bodycam, Potter exclaims, “Oh shit, I shot him.” How an experienced police officer mistakes her loaded handgun for her bright yellow, lightweight stun gun is baffling. Potter’s senses may have scattered, but her aim was dead accurate. She fired one shot, got him in the chest. She is in jail, charged with second degree manslaughter. In Chicago, a policeman shot dead an allegedly armed 13-year-old boy—again, with one bullet in the chest.&nbsp;</p> <p>Stereotyping begets suspicion and prejudice. When white officers see fancy cars driven by blacks, do they assume they are stolen? Wright had a shiny white car. In Virginia, policemen pulled over Caron Nazario, an Afro-Latino who was driving an expensive SUV, almost straight from the showroom. It had temporary licence plates.</p> <p>A serving lieutenant, Nazario was wearing his army uniform. But that made no difference.&nbsp;Says Wilson, “Being in the uniform of the service of this country doesn’t protect you from nothing. Not if you get stopped by one of the idiots.” Nazario&nbsp;was pushed to the ground, hands forced back in a position frighteningly similar to Floyd’s. But unlike Floyd, Nazario walked out alive and is now suing the police.&nbsp;No longer are African Americans prepared to wait for another 400 years to end this black dystopia.</p> Thu Apr 22 17:27:40 IST 2021 zeb2-is-the-mastermind-determining-the-size-of-the-brain-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A two-day delay, a giant leap for humankind. Cambridge researchers have discovered that a 48-hour lag in the activation of a gene resulted in a bigger human brain.</p> <p>The development of a big brain was the Big Bang moment in human evolution, the moment when we diverged from the apes, about five million years ago. The rest, as they say, is history.</p> <p>Thanks to our big brain, here we are today, enjoying the best that life can offer, living in packs safely in skyscrapers, hunting for food even more safely in supermarkets, averting life-threatening situations by looking at both sides of the street when crossing, composing symphonies, doing math and spinning new technologies that take us into deep oceans and outer space. Were it not for that two-day fateful delay, we would still be foraging in faraway forests and swinging from trees like chimpanzees, our closest living relatives.</p> <p>Our magnificent yet mysterious brain is three times bigger than that of the apes’. But size is not idiot-proof. Charles Darwin observed, “An American monkey, after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus is much wiser than most men.”</p> <p>Still, a larger brain is more intelligent and processes information more efficiently. But the mechanics of the momentous expansion of our brain has largely been unknown.</p> <p>To understand this least understood organ, scientists used stem cells from humans, gorillas and chimpanzees to create pea-sized versions of their real brains in the laboratory. These “mini-brains” called “cerebral organoids” are rudimentary cell fragments of the brain that imitate its characteristics. Of course, mini-brains are not perfect representations, underscoring the complexity of the real brain.</p> <p>Four weeks after conception, an embryo’s general-purpose, cylindrical stem cells change shape. They become conical as they convert into specialised brain cells or neurons. The window for this conversion is five days in apes, but in humans it is seven days. The extra two days gives time for more stems cells to convert into neurons, resulting in a larger brain. Says Madeline Lancaster, who led this research team at Cambridge MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, “It is remarkable that a relatively simple evolutionary change in cell shape could have major consequences in brain evolution.” Her findings were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal <i>Cell</i>. Lancaster created the world’s first mini-brain in 2013.</p> <p>The Cambridge researchers solved a key puzzle: the seven-day window was caused by the delayed activation of a gene called ZEB2. When they delayed this gene’s activity with chemicals, gorilla mini-brains grew larger, like human ones. When they switched on ZEB2 earlier in human mini-brains, they became smaller, like the apes’. Evidently, zany ZEB2 is the mastermind, determining the size of the brain—and thus the creature’s fate. Case solved.</p> <p>Not so fast, say scientists. Humans are yet to crack the brain code. ZEB2 is the master regulator, switching on and off other genes. But what switches on ZEB2? A super mastermind, a genetic mutation or an evolutionary accident? That is probably a mystery for the next generation of scientists to solve. For now, Lancaster is thrilled with the outcome of this pioneering research. She says her findings take us closer to understanding “What makes us human?” For non-scientific mortals, it is hard to fathom what is human about organoids and ZEB2, though delays are utterly and understandably human. The giant leap in her understanding, is alas, one more step in our incomprehension. The mother of mini-brain clearly has a bigger brain.</p> Thu Apr 08 19:17:53 IST 2021 experts-predict-baby-boom-post-the-pandemic-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Experts said the pandemic would produce a baby boom because people were stuck indoors. Nine months later, the outcome is a baby bust. Many developed countries are experiencing significant drops in the number of births, proving that simplistic correlations can be dead wrong. Like the ecosystems that surround us, human life is determined by a complex web of factors. As Australian demographer Liz Allen says, “More sex is insufficient for a baby boom to occur.”</p> <p>Following the pandemic, Hawaii has recorded a 30 per cent drop in births, Spain 23 per cent, and Italy 22 per cent. Canada, Japan, Korea, the UK and France have seen 5 to 15 per cent fall in birth rates. In the US, three lakh fewer babies were born by 2020 end. The reasons for this dramatic drop are many: pandemic-induced health and economic crises are not conducive to having a baby. The thought of accessing Covid-burdened medical facilities or thinking of the number of hands that could touch a newborn is sufficient to delay parenthood until the pandemic is over. Precarious job markets create anxieties about the future. Singles lived isolated while couples endured erosion of privacy and energy.</p> <p>Explains Canadian economist Elisabeth Gugl, “After balancing work with the sudden loss of school or day care, parents simply didn’t have the bandwidth.” Abortions and miscarriages increased due to financial and emotional stress. Singles delayed weddings. Couples deferred fertility treatments.</p> <p>The pandemic-induced worries appear temporary, but they accelerated the global downward trend: birth rates have fallen 50 per cent in the past 50 years, from 5.1 births per woman in 1964 to 2.4 in 2018. To offset death rates, a country should have a replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. Korea’s birth rate is now 0.84, the lowest rate recorded for a major economy. Populations in many countries, including Italy, Korea and Japan, are predicted to drop by more than half by the end of this century.</p> <p>The long-term reasons for declining global birth rates are well documented: urbanisation, modernisation, emancipation, working mothers, expenses in raising children, nuclear families and welfare states that provide elderly care, among others. The increasing age at which women in developed countries are having children contributes to difficulty in conceiving. But there is another alarming reason for rising infertility.</p> <p>In a paper, legendary British investor and philanthropist Jeremy Grantham says, “there is a shocking 50 per cent decline in sperm count since 1970s and an equally rapid increase in age-adjusted miscarriage rates.” He blames “endocrine disruption”, or the toxicity in the body’s hormonal system caused by the chemicals in the products we use daily—plastics, toys and food. Europeans are aghast by the American “Kehoe” rule, whereby suspicious chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Thus, the lead in petrol, pipes and paint continued to be used for 50 years after its danger was first raised. While the US has banned only 11 substances in cosmetics, the EU prohibits over 1,000.</p> <p>Low fertility has high costs. Experts say low birth rates depress economic growth. Less children mean more elderly people, relative to the population, as in China, which is getting old before it gets rich. Ageing population means higher health care and pension costs. Optimists claim low birth rates are reversible. Birth spikes do happen nine months after power outages or Christmas holidays. When the pandemic ends, experts predict celebrations will result in a rise in births. Not a boom to compensate the bust, but an increase nevertheless from the current lows. We will know if the experts are right, nine months after the worst is behind us.</p> Thu Mar 25 16:16:06 IST 2021 from-grace-to-grass <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>He was the man who could be the president of the United States. Now he is disgraced, contrite and cringing, a diminished version of the Colossus that strode the planet’s most exciting city. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, 63, is accused of sexually harassing five young women. Four of them had worked for him. He apologised for causing “unintended offence” and insisted: “I never touched anyone inappropriately”. That only reminded everyone of Bill Clinton’s infamous claim, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Clinton was impeached, not for sexual relations, but for lying.</p> <p>Cuomo swears he was not making advances, merely greeting in his customary, “playful” manner. He is of Italian descent and Italians are customarily effusive in their greetings. Long ago, he had wisecracked, “As my Sicilian grandfather used to say, you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The tough-guy governor is known both for his harm and charm offensives, using his power to punish foes and promote friends. An ageing alpha male touching 25-year-olds in any manner is controversial, not customary; prurient, not playful. The same age as his daughters, the complainants accuse Cuomo of kissing, stroking bare backs and making lewd comments.</p> <p>Cuomo’s marriage to Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter Kerry ended in divorce in 2005. His relationship with celebrity TV chef Sandra Lee ended in 2019. Aide-turned-accuser Charlotte Bennett alleges Cuomo propositioned her in his office, prattling about “looking for a girlfriend” because he was “tired” and “lonely”, moth-eaten ploys used by powerful men to prey on pretty women. Cuomo is now under investigation.</p> <p>Like his father, Cuomo is a three-term New York governor and has implemented popular progressive policies: fighting climate change, passing the strictest gun control laws in the US, raising taxes for the wealthy, reducing it for the middle class, equalising wages and providing free tuition for the underprivileged, among others. During the early months of the pandemic, Cuomo was the polar opposite of President Donald Trump: in-command, coherent, visible and taking tough, data-driven decisions. That is when his supporters began to extol him as the most effective Democratic presidential candidate to take on Trump.</p> <p>But that is also when Cuomo’s enemies got activated. He himself has said: “I am sort of the Antichrist to the Conservative Party.” Republicans first pounced upon the scandal over his aides hiding Covid-19 deaths of the elderly in nursing homes. The sexual harassment charges came as a bonus. But Cuomo also has rivals within, most notably, the Democratic Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio. Sprawling New York is not big enough for the oversized egos of these two feuding men. After the sex scandal erupted, de Blasio called Cuomo’s alleged behaviour “grotesque,” “perverse” and “terrifying”.</p> <p>As if enemies in the Republican and Democratic parties are not enough, Cuomo can be his own worst enemy. Detractors accuse him of abrasive, aggressive, arrogant behaviour. “I am the government,” he has pronounced to his critics’ annoyance. His younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, once said on-air while interviewing him, “No matter how hard you are working, there is always time to call mom.” The national fame garnered by his riveting televised pandemic press conferences has made him feel “he is untouchable”, says Bennett. Hubris probably contributed to Cuomo’s travails.</p> <p>Cuomo is now a wounded lion. He may wind up as the man who would, not could, be president. The investigation’s outcome will determine whether he can even cling on as governor.&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 11 10:44:22 IST 2021