Friday, March 31, 2017

Some Saudi women are secretly deserting their country

Women are fed up with being treated like children


Can Saudi Arabia keep its women? Last month’s appointment of women to head two big banks and Tadawul, the kingdom’s stock exchange, offers hope that the path to a fulfilling career is not completely blocked. But the restrictions of Saudi life remain so irksome that covertly, silently, many women are finding ways out.

On family trips abroad, some jump ship. Some, having been sent to Western universities at the government’s expense, postpone their return indefinitely. Others avail themselves of clandestine online services offering marriages of convenience to men willing to whisk them abroad. Iman, an administrator at a private hospital in Riyadh, has found a package deal for $4,000 offering an Australian honeymoon during which she plans to scarper.

Propelling the flight is the kingdom’s wilaya, or guardianship, law. Although it has received less publicity than the world’s only sex-specific driving ban, it imposes harsher curbs on female mobility. To travel, work or study abroad, receive hospital treatment or an ID card, or even leave prison once a sentence is served, women need the consent of a male wali, or guardian. From birth to death, they are handed from one wali to the next—father, husband and, if both of those die, the nearest male relative. Sometimes that might be a teenage son or brother, because although boys are treated as adults from puberty, women are treated as minors all their lives.

Iman, a divorcee, is subject to the guardianship of her brother, who at 17 is barely half her age. He lets her work as a manager at a hospital, but pockets her earnings. She says she is kept like a chattel, while he spends her money on drugs and weekends in massage parlours in neighbouring Bahrain. Her ex-husband refuses to let her see their children. Her brother prevents her from completing her studies in Europe. If she protests, he threatens to beat her.

She tried going to court to have the guardianship transferred to a more sympathetic elder brother, but the judge dismissed the case, she says, while talking on his phone. Though she dressed demurely in a full veil, she suspects the judge objected to her presenting her own case. Social services offer poor refuge, since hostels for abused women resemble prisons where the windows are barred and visitors banned. When she hears other women say that their brothers don’t beat them, Iman assumes they are lying “because they are scared of social housing”.

Estimates of the number of “runaway girls”, to use the Saudi term, are imprecise, but, says Mansour al-Askar, a sociologist at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh, the rate is rising. By his estimates, over a thousand flee the kingdom every year, while more escape Riyadh for Jeddah, the kingdom’s more liberal coastal metropolis.

Dissenting Saudi scholars insist that the guardianship laws stem not from Islam, but the Bedouin customs that still hold sway in much of Arabia’s hinterland. Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, was a merchant who sponsored her husband. His subsequent wives moved between Medina and Mecca without him. “Islam freed women from the wilaya,” says Hassan al-Maliki, a theologian in Riyadh who has sometimes been jailed for free-thinking. “A woman can choose whom she marries.” But the clerics who man the judiciary maintain that guardians protect the vulnerable and keep families and, by extension, society together. Last December the courts sentenced a man caught denouncing the wilaya on social media to a year in jail. Another Saudi study, at a university in Mecca, acknowledged that some runaways might be fleeing physical abuse, but said that most had been influenced by the “misuse of social media, copying other cultures and weak beliefs”.

Economists note that the guardianship system makes Saudi Arabia poorer. More than a quarter of the 150,000 students the kingdom sends abroad every year are women. Given that many defer their return or choose to remain in more liberal places like Dubai, much of the $5bn the government spends on their studies each year is going to waste. “Saudi Arabia is losing the battle to keep its talent,” says Najah al-Osaimi, a female Saudi academic who has settled in Britain.

Awkwardly for reformers, some of the most tenacious advocates of the wilaya are women, particularly in obscurantist southern provinces like Asir. Despite such beguiling hashtags as #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen and #IAmMyOwnGuardian, a social-media campaign to end the wilaya system attracted just 14,000 signatures.

Use them or lose them

Saudi Arabia’s leaders acknowledge the need to make the kingdom more women-friendly. Already, more women attend Saudi universities than men. And although some men still send their own photographs when they apply for jobs for their wives (and even attend their interviews), in 2012 the kingdom waived the need for women to have their guardians’ approval for four types of work, including clothes-shop assistants, chefs and amusement-park attendants.

In upmarket malls, women can be seen selling aftershave, boldly spraying samples onto male hands. Broadminded men can give their female wards five-year permits to move unaccompanied (though they get updates by text message whenever their charges travel abroad). Countrywide, the dress code has relaxed a bit. In big cities, women have added streaks of colour and patterns to the black abayas or cloaks that the state requires them to wear. Even in Burayda, the bastion of Saudi Arabia’s puritanical right, women have cut slits for their eyes in veils that hitherto fully covered their faces, and let their abayas slip from their heads to their shoulders.

Nonetheless, many women seethe with frustration. On social media, footage of women riding motorbikes has gone viral. So too has a female silhouette, whisky bottle in hand, dancing on her car roof. A female pop group, clad in black, sings songs of protest from dodgems, toy cars, skateboards, roller-skates and other wheeled vehicles that they can legally drive. Unless the system adapts, warns Mr al-Askar, the sociologist, it risks crumbling. Judges and the police should work together to strip oppressive men of their right to be walis, he says. But for Iman, the hospital manager, reform can’t come soon enough. An Australian honeymoon awaits.


The Economist

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why smoking is still so widespread

Few countries have introduced genuinely strict measures to curb smoking. Just one has the full package


More than 50 years after it became clear that smoking kills, the habit remains the leading preventable cause of death, with an annual toll of nearly 6m lives. A study published this week in the Lancet, a medical journal, helps to explain why it is so enduring.

The study examined the link between smoking prevalence and measures to curb it in 126 countries. The authors considered five measures: taxation to raise cigarette prices, smoke-free places, cessation programmes, warning labels on cigarette packs and bans on tobacco advertising. They took stock of the countries which, between 2007 and 2014, had introduced these measures at the level of stringency recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It advises, for example, that taxes comprise at least 75% of the retail price of the most popular brands of cigarettes, and that countries ban all forms of advertising, including billboards, promotional discounts and sponsorship of events by tobacco companies.

But the vast majority of countries have a long way to go. During the ten years the study considered, the average country saw only a modest reduction in smoking prevalence, from 25% to 22%. In 2014 each measure was in place in its strictest form in only about a quarter of countries or fewer. Turkey was the sole country to have followed the WHO's recommendations on all five measures. A policy of high taxation, the most effective way to reduce smoking quickly (especially in poor countries), is mostly limited to Europe. Few countries in Africa and the Middle East have instituted any of the five measures with the strictness demanded by the WHO. These two regions are home to 22 of the 24 countries in the study where smoking is on the rise.

The battle against smoking is far from being won. The Lancet study makes it clear that the governments of countries where smoking is still popular largely have themselves to blame.


The Economist

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mental illness is a better predictor of misery than poverty is


Keeping voters happy is the lifeblood of any ambitious politician’s career. So they may want to pay attention to a report, released to mark “World Happiness Day” on March 20th, from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a UN body, and the Ernesto Illy Foundation, a non-profit. In addition to the usual rankings of countries from the happiest (Norway, for the usual reasons) to the least (Central African Republic, close to a failed state), the study also tries to unpick what makes people gleeful and—more unusually—what makes them miserable.

Reducing suffering, the authors argue, may be more important than boosting pleasure, because improving the life of an already-happy person probably yields a smaller gain in total welfare than freeing someone from misery does. They analysed large-scale surveys from four countries—Britain, Australia, America, Indonesia—to identify which factors are most closely associated with the population of the least happy decile of the sample.

The authors found that in the three rich countries mental illness was the strongest predictor of misery. With all other variables held constant, people who had visited a doctor recently with emotional-health problems were 10.7 percentage points more likely to be extremely unhappy than those who were not—roughly twice the impact of being poor. On one hand, this correlation should come as little surprise: people seeking treatment for depression are by definition unhappy. However, the study also included people suffering from stress or anxiety in this group. In Indonesia, mental health is also an important factor, though less so than employment.

The authors concluded that, in rich countries at least, investing in care for mental illness provided the best return (as measured by happiness gains) on public expenditure. They calculated that relieving one person of misery in Britain by reducing poverty would cost £180,000 ($222,500), whereas achieving the same goal by treating anxiety or depression would require just £10,000. That will make bean-counters happy, but is unlikely to cheer poiliticians.

The Economist

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Story Behind the Fire That Killed Forty Teen-Age Girls

The number of teenage girls who died when a fire broke out on the morning of March 8th in a state-run home for minors on the outskirts of Guatemala City now stands at forty. Those who perished were among fifty-two girls who’d been confined to a schoolroom at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción after a night in which they’d rioted and run away, before being captured by police and brought back to the home. Nineteen died at the scene of the schoolroom blaze, and the others in the two Guatemala City hospitals that received the injured. Almost immediately, Guatemalan and international news reports began to speculate that the girls might have been locked in the schoolroom, perhaps as punishment.

Many blamed the school’s teachers and “monitors.” A woman who lived near the children’s home told the online publication Nómada that she’d witnessed some of the riot on March 7th, and had seen girls “throwing rocks at their teachers and at the police and tauntingly shouting, ‘Rape us here, in front of everybody! Come on and rape us again here, if that’s what you want!’ “ The witness continued, “That was a girls’ rebellion. Anyone who lives around here knows that place is a hell.” In 2013, several staff members at the school were found guilty of sexual abuse. Last year, a family-court judge found that the home’s practices—which included punishments that amounted to torture—were in violation of children’s human rights, and ordered that improvements be made.


In the wake of the fire, the revelation that the Secretariat for Social Welfare had failed to respond to these orders led to widespread criticism of the department, and of Guatemala’s President, Jimmy Morales. Even before the deaths, Morales, a former television comedian, was regarded by many as the hapless head of a uniquely corrupt government. (In 2015, his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, went to prison on corruption charges.) Morales was particularly criticised for having named two close friends, including a former producer of his comedy show, to leadership posts in the Secretariat for Social Welfare while also slashing its funding. In a press conference the evening of the fire, the Secretary of Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, refused to resign or to accept any blame. In his speech, he claimed that the girls had sharp weapons hidden in their hair. He said that President Morales had ordered the police to return the girls to the home after their escape attempt, and that all attempts at dialogue with the girls had been exhausted. Morales hadn’t come to the press conference, Rodas said, because “he was attending to urgent matters of state.”

I arrived in Guatemala City on Friday, March 10th, on business unrelated to the fire. My close friend, the Guatemalan journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza, met me at the airport, and, with a few hours to spare, compelled by journalistic curiosity, we drove an hour to Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción.

The home is one of several institutions in Guatemala for youths who have been orphaned, abandoned, or turned over by parents who lack the means to support them. As recent newspaper reports revealed, some of the residents’ parents had felt that their daughters were in need of discipline; others wanted to protect them from the notorious mara street gangs that terrorize poor urban neighborhoods. The court had taken some of the girls into custody because they’d been abused by family members, or because they were living on the streets. The youths at Virgen de la Asunción were not deemed to be criminals—adolescents in Guatemala judged to be “in conflict with the law” are sent to juvenile-detention centers—although minors who’ve served their sentences are sometimes put into a safe children’s home like Virgen de la Asunción if they have nowhere else to go.

Virgen de la Asunción, meant to accommodate five hundred residents, was in fact responsible for approximately eight hundred youths, who were housed in separate areas for older girls, older boys, younger children, and those with disabilities and illnesses. The smallest area, called Princesas, was for pregnant youths awaiting transfer to another home in Quetztaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala. Some of the smaller children, Nómada later reported, had been born in the home to adolescent girls who may have been impregnated by the boys who were also interned there, or by staff. As we have also learned, parents who decided that they wanted to recover their daughters from the home were sometimes faced with a wall of bureaucracy, or were extorted in return for their children’s release.

When Claudia and I arrived at the home, two young policewomen, one tall and animated, one shorter and quieter, were standing outside the building. They shared what they’d seen and heard on March 8th in the manner of girls excitedly discussing a horror movie. At one point, the taller policewoman, describing the teen-aged girls as “walking like zombies,” aflame, put her own arms out and lurched from side to side. Her colleague, she said, was still traumatized by the smell of burning flesh. The fire had broken out at about nine in the morning, they explained, just as one group of policewomen was relieving those who’d been guarding the girls overnight. The taller policewoman described rushing to the windows of the schoolroom to pass plastic bags filled with water inside. The shorter policewoman then showed us photographs on her cell phone, the kind also circulating on social media—of burned and blackened bodies, many in bluejeans, amid charred wreckage. When asked why the girls hadn’t been let out, or if they knew who had held the key to the door, the policewomen fell silent.

An indigenous couple from Chimaltenango, their faces deeply lined, were also waiting out front. They’d had four children in the home and had recovered only three, but they seemed sure that their missing child wasn’t among those who’d been shut in the schoolroom. As we spoke, the home’s metal doors would occasionally open to let out small groups of teen-age boys, who were being transferred to other homes and institutions. One boy carried a large stuffed animal, a dog, under his arm. It was unclear how many children were still inside, how many had successfully escaped on the night of March 7th, or who might be missing; the home doesn’t have a computerized database.

On Sunday night, Claudia and I spoke to a judge who asked that we not name her; she said that a recent law in Guatemala forbids judges from speaking to the press. She was part of the family-court system that has jurisdiction over Guatemala’s juvenile-detention centers and children’s homes and shelters. She told us that she’d heard that sixty-two children from Virgen de la Asunción were unaccounted for. She believed that some had died, or even been murdered, before the fire. The judge also told us that the girls from the home were being prostituted, although it wasn’t clear by whom.

I was supposed to fly back to New York on Monday, March 13th, but because of a snowstorm my flight was delayed by two days. On Monday, both the Secretary and Sub-Secretary for Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas and Anahy Keller, were arrested, along with Santos Torres, the director of Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción. All three were charged with involuntary manslaughter, abuse of minors, and breach of duty. Torres insisted that it was the police who’d been in possession of the key to the schoolroom door.

It had emerged that the office of the government’s Procurator for Human Rights had received forty-five reports of abuses at the home from 2012 to 2016, and passed them on to the Public Ministry, which had not responded. In October last year, two rapporteurs of the Guatemalan Congress’s Office of Torture Prevention wrote to Attorney General Thelma Aldana; they claimed that the director of the home at that time, Brenda Chamán, had confessed to knowing that girls had been raped there. The rapporteurs asked Aldana—who, working in tandem with the U.N. Commission Against Organized Crime and Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, has carried out numerous high-profile prosecutions, including that of former President Pérez Molina—to open an investigation. She passed their request to the Public Ministry prosecutors responsible for investigating such complaints. On Monday, Aldana ordered an investigation into the prosecutors who may have received those denunciations of abuse and not responded to them, saying that if they are found guilty of negligence they will be subject to administrative and even criminal penalties.

Attorney General Aldana is a respected figure in Guatemala and internationally. Unlike, say, in Mexico, the Attorney General and Public Ministry in Guatemala are autonomous not only on paper but in practice. Last year, the United States D.E.A. discovered that organized crime, and perhaps political figures, were plotting to assassinate Aldana; she now moves around Guatemala City accompanied by a security team numbering dozens. As campaigns on social media reveal, the same political and criminal powers that have wanted to see Aldana eliminated are already using the tragedy against her, exploiting the popular outrage over the deaths to try to weaken her authority or force her resignation.

The same day the arrests were made, Claudia contacted a legal counsellor who was part of an official group that had conducted inspections of the government’s children’s homes and detention centers before the fire, and that had been carrying out independent investigations after it. That afternoon, Claudia and I found ourselves sitting in a café, leaning forward over a cell phone, hands cupped to our ears, listening to audio recordings that the legal counsellor had shared with us. The recordings were of interviews with three of the surviving girls, two aged seventeen and one eighteen, conducted in Roosevelt Hospital, in Guatemala City, on March 10th. One of the girls was in stable condition; the other two, with burns over seventy-five and eighty per cent of their bodies, were in critical condition. Within a few days, all three were moved to the United States for treatment.

The girl in the first interview, which opens with a barrage of questions, maintains the same even cadence throughout her testimony. “I’m going to tell only what I remember,” she says, describing how, following the riot, she, along with other girls and boys from the home, had run for “kilometres and kilometres,” with police in pursuit, into the hilly woods that surround Virgen de la Asunción, before the police found them. “As soon as they captured us, they beat us up,” she says. “The policeman who caught me told me to get down on my knees and to put my hands on my head. He put a pistol to my head, he said he didn’t care that I was female and a minor. They brought us back to the home, and they handcuffed us real tight.”

Instead of being returned to their dorms, the runaway girls and boys were made to wait outside. In a handwritten statement signed by more than a dozen members of the school staff on the night of the riots, the monitors, explaining why they had not returned the girls to the building, as per President Morales’s directive, wrote, “We don’t agree that they should be let back inside, given that during the short time they were outside they robbed and beat up innocent people, took drugs, and had sexual relations with each other. Their return puts the rest of the population, who decided not to take part in those events, at risk.”

The youths had tried to sleep on the grass, and then, at one in the morning, they were finally allowed back into the building. The boys returned to their dorms; the girls were taken to a schoolroom, where they were given mattresses but no blankets. The room was locked and guarded through the night by policewomen from the National Civil Police. In the morning, the injured girl explains in her interview, “they woke us and brought us breakfast, everything was calm.” But when some of the girls asked to go to the bathroom, the police refused to open the door. The girls got angry and put mattresses over the windows so that the police couldn’t see inside. She says that three girls caused the fire, and that she’s been told that one of those girls is dead. As the blaze grew, the girls asked for help from the police. “One of the police said, ‘Let these wretches suffer. They were good at escaping, now they can be good at enduring pain.’ “ She adds, “They were watching how we caught on fire, but they were not going to open the door.” The school staff tried to intervene. “We’d been mistreated by some of them before, but when they saw that the situation was serious, they began to spill their tears right there,” she says. “Tears, but why were they spilling them! Because they were scared.”

The girl in the second recording similarly describes how she had escaped, gotten lost in the woods, and been found by the police, who beat her, held a pistol to her head, and sprayed her and her companions with what might have been pepper spray. “Our eyes really stung,” she says. In the morning, “we asked the police to please take us to the bathroom, and the police didn’t want to let us out. They told us to rot.” She describes the girls having built “a little house” with mattresses “so that they could do their necessities inside.” When one of the girls set fire to one of the mattresses, which were twenty years old and made of thin cotton, the flames quickly spread. “All of us, we all began to shout to the police to let us out, that we were burning. The police told us they didn’t care, that just like we’d been good for running away, that we should be good for putting up with the fire.” She recalls seeing one girl “in flames, and she asked me for help. That’s when I fainted.” When she woke up, she recalls, “I did everything I could to get up and walk, but the police, seeing that I was burning and choking, started to hit me. They told me that I couldn’t leave, and beat me. Then some monitors threw water on me because my face was burning.”

Unlike the girl in the first two recordings, the girl in the third hadn’t rioted or run away; she had found herself in the schoolroom after trying to retrieve her little sister. Speaking in a tired, hoarse voice, she says that the riot had begun after the girls were shut in a dormitory for three days. “They wouldn’t let us out for anything,” she says. “They kept us like caged dogs.” During the riot, she recalls, girls climbed up onto the buildings’ roofs and smashed windows; boys from the San Gabriel sector of the home joined them. She also mentions that the girls locked in the schoolroom had “gasoline”—the counsellor suggested that it might have been paint thinner, used for getting high. When asked if she’s had any news of her sister, she says, “No.”

All three girls agree that it was the police who shut them in the room; the monitors only returned from attending to children in the other dorms after the fire started. But it is not yet known who decided to lock them inside, who was in possession of the key that could have saved their lives, and why, when the girls were screaming for help, nobody opened the schoolroom door. Was it malice, or homicidal intent, or some kind of accident? Why were only the girls locked up, while the boys were allowed to return to their quarters? And what, exactly, had been going on at the school that made the girls so desperate to escape?

The source who gave us the recordings told us that Virgen de la Asunción was sometimes guarded by just one person at night, and that the girls’ customary dorm area had a side door that he suspected the maras might have used to take girls out for the night. (He said that he had seen the initials “M.S.,” for Mara Salvatrucha, tattooed on the feet of two of the hospitalized girls, although the tattoos might have pre-dated the girls’ arrival at the home.)

María Eugenia Villareal, of ECPAT, an international N.G.O. that tracks and fights the sexual abuse and trafficking of minors, has been helping with the efforts to relocate hundreds of minors from Virgen de la Asunción to other homes and shelters. When I spoke to her, Villareal expressed concern that none of the surviving youths were receiving trauma counselling. She had spent the last two days testifying before various Guatemalan congressional committees about the conditions of state children’s homes, including Virgen de la Asunción. She didn’t mince her words. The monitors at the home “were abusing the girls, they sold them drugs, and they took some of them out at night to prostitute them,” she said. She mentioned an article in El Periódico that had been accompanied by a photograph of monitors who had worked at Virgen de la Asunción: men with pistols in their belts and rifles over their shoulders, some holding beers and grinning at the camera. “It doesn’t matter what the children endure, because they’re indigenous or extremely poor,” Villareal said, summing up Morales’s attitude to the deaths. “This is why so many try to migrate to the United States. It’s because they’re fleeing the violence of the state, of their communities, of their families. Every type of violence is present here.”

On Tuesday night, at the San Juan de Dios hospital, I met Dr. Edwin Bravo, who had just returned from Galveston, Texas, where he’d travelled with three of the survivors to the Shriners Hospital for Children there. He was wearing a black fleece bearing the initials “U.T.M.B.,” for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which he’d bought there to keep warm; he’d left Guatemala in just his medical scrubs. Bravo was proud of how his hospital had treated the seventeen patients it had received, explaining how his team had started to set up an emergency burn and trauma unit as soon as he’d received news of the fire at the children’s home. Most of the girls were so badly burned, not only on their skin but also in their breathing passages and lungs, that they’d had to be put into induced comas. He had reached out to colleagues at Shriners Hospital’s renowned burn unit, which had immediately offered help. At Shriners, he’d seen how teams of surgeons immediately began cleaning the girls’ wounds, preparing them to receive synthetic skins. Now he was back in Guatemala, briskly walking us through the halls of a hospital where resources were clearly far more limited. Bravo exuded competence and compassion. His last patient from Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción was leaving that night, for a hospital in Cincinnati; she would be accompanied by another Guatemalan doctor. She was unconscious, and almost entirely wrapped in gauze bandages and blue robes, but I could see patches of her brown face, her toes. Bravo knew her name but little else. Nobody had come to claim her, to visit or to ask after her. She was alone, a poor Central American girl headed to the United States to receive a new skin, and perhaps the chance of a new life.


The New Yorker

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Tourists' reputation abroad

Everyone can reel off negative national stereotypes when it comes to tourists. Germans? Humourless and demanding. Americans? Loud with garish shorts. Chinese? Rude. Canadians? Actually Canadians are all quite nice. And the Brits? Drunken, violent louts.

Stereotyping is a lazy pursuit, of course. If there is a kernel of truth to a cliché, it is swiftly magnified by confirmation bias. Every brash tourist from across the pond gets added to the “ugly American” side of one's ledger; every unassuming one is swiftly forgotten. And stereotyping, by its nature, means shoehorning very different types of tourists together. Brits’ poor reputation is well-deserved in the fleshpots of the Mediterranean. But they are a pretty benign bunch in much of the rest of the world.

Indeed, they are becoming less likely to get into trouble. According to the government’s latest British Behaviour Abroad Report, released on July 17th, over the past five years the number of UK residents requiring consular assistance has dropped markedly, from 19,387 in 2008/2009 to 17,517 in 2013/2014. Drug arrests fell from 994 to 708 over the same period. Even in Spain, the spiritual home of the loutish British holidaymaker, the total number of arrests has fallen by 41%, though there was also a 31% drop in British visitors to the country.

(As a slightly odd aside, according to the report Britons are proportionally much more likely to die in the Philippines than any other country. This is apparently because it is so popular with the elderly.)

Yet this isn’t the perception. There has recently been a spate of documentaries following the drunken exploits of the country’s youth in places such as Magaluf and Ayia Napa. It is all terribly seedy, and mayors of various Mediterranean resorts have felt compelled to act. Each evening, on television screens, a familiar pattern unfolds: yobs get tarted up, tanked up, have a punch up and then throw up (possibly getting knocked up along the way). Repeat, ad nauseam, for 14 nights.

Which brings us back to confirmation bias. Away from a few Cypriot and Spanish beaches, the British youth, like their counterparts in many countries, are becoming more staid. As our recent briefing on the subject found, they are becoming more polite, less violent, more abstemious and less sexually adventurous—characteristics that seem to be borne out in the government report. It is just that very few people seem to have noticed.

Stereotypes linger. Warren Buffett’s adage that “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it” seems to work in reverse for tourists. Which is bad news for all those debonair Americans, laid back Germans and quite unspeakable Canadians. It will, sadly, be some time before their work is recognised and the perception of their countries changed.

 The Economist

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Notting Hill

#prettycitylondon in bloom 💜. . 📸 @a_ontheroad

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hunkier than thou


When it comes to partners, men often find women's taste fickle and unfathomable. But ladies may not be entirely to blame. A growing body of research suggests that their preference for certain types of male physiognomy may be swayed by things beyond their conscious control—like prevalence of disease or crime—and in predictable ways.

Masculine features—a big jaw, say, or a prominent brow—tend to reflect physical and behavioural traits, such as strength and aggression. They are also closely linked to physiological ones, like virility and a sturdy immune system.

The obverse of these desirable characteristics looks less appealing. Aggression is fine when directed at external threats, less so when it spills over onto the hearth. Sexual prowess ensures plenty of progeny, but it often goes hand in hand with promiscuity and a tendency to shirk parental duties or leave the mother altogether.

So, whenever a woman has to choose a mate, she must decide whether to place a premium on the hunk's choicer genes or the wimp's love and care. Lisa DeBruine, of the University of Aberdeen, believes that today's women still face this dilemma and that their choices are affected by unconscious factors.

In a paper published earlier this year Dr DeBruine found that women in countries with poor health statistics preferred men with masculine features more than those who lived in healthier societies. Where disease is rife, this seemed to imply, giving birth to healthy offspring trumps having a man stick around long enough to help care for it. In more salubrious climes, therefore, wimps are in with a chance.

Now, though, researchers led by Robert Brooks, of the University of New South Wales, have taken another look at Dr DeBruine's data and arrived at a different conclusion. They present their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Dr Brooks suggests that it is not health-related factors, but rather competition and violence among men that best explain a woman's penchant for manliness. The more rough-and-tumble the environment, the researcher's argument goes, the more women prefer masculine men, because they are better than the softer types at providing for mothers and their offspring.

An unhealthy relationship

Since violent competition for resources is more pronounced in unequal societies, Dr Brooks predicted that women would value masculinity more highly in countries with a higher Gini coefficient, which is a measure of income inequality. And indeed, he found that this was better than a country's health statistics at predicting the relative attractiveness of hunky faces.

The rub is that unequal countries also tend to be less healthy. So, in order to disentangle cause from effect, Dr Brooks compared Dr DeBruine's health index with a measure of violence in a country: its murder rate. Again, he found that his chosen indicator predicts preference for facial masculinity more accurately than the health figures do (though less well than the Gini).

However, in a rejoinder published in the same issue of the Proceedings, Dr DeBruine and her colleagues point to a flaw in Dr Brooks's analysis: his failure to take into account a society's overall wealth. When she performed the statistical tests again, this time controlling for GNP, it turned out that the murder rate's predictive power disappears, whereas that of the health indicators persists. In other words, the prevalence of violent crime seems to predict mating preferences only in so far as it reflects a country's relative penury.

The statistical tussle shows the difficulty of drawing firm conclusions from correlations alone. Dr DeBruine and Dr Brooks admit as much, and agree the dispute will not be settled until the factors that shape mating preferences are tested directly.

Another recent study by Dr DeBruine and others has tried to do just that. Its results lend further credence to the health hypothesis. This time, the researchers asked 124 women and 117 men to rate 15 pairs of male faces and 15 pairs of female ones for attractiveness. Each pair of images depicted the same set of features tweaked to make one appear ever so slightly manlier than the other (if the face was male) or more feminine (if it was female). Some were also made almost imperceptibly lopsided. Symmetry, too, indicates a mate's quality because in harsh environments robust genes are needed to ensure even bodily development.

Next, the participants were shown another set of images, depicting objects that elicit varying degrees of disgust, such as a white cloth either stained with what looked like a bodily fluid, or a less revolting blue dye. Disgust is widely assumed to be another adaptation, one that warns humans to stay well away from places where germs and other pathogens may be lurking. So, according to Dr DeBruine's hypothesis, people shown the more disgusting pictures ought to respond with an increased preference for masculine lads and feminine lasses, and for the more symmetrical countenances.

That is precisely what happened when they were asked to rate the same set of faces one more time. But it only worked with the opposite sex; the revolting images failed to alter what either men or women found attractive about their own sex. This means sexual selection, not other evolutionary mechanisms, is probably at work.

More research is needed to confirm these observations and to see whether other factors, like witnessing violence, bear on human physiognomic proclivities. For now, though, the majority of males who do not resemble Brad Pitt may at least take comfort that this matters less if their surroundings remain spotless.


The Economist

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The taxi ride


When I stepped out f the tube station, it was raining heavily outside. I opened my umbrella and started walking. But something was wrong. The atmosphere was somehow very unpleasant.

Strange ...

Every single person I walked past didn't have an umbrella over them. Everyone was silent and looking grim; and they walked on, all facing the same direction.

Then suddenly a taxi stopped by, and the driver put out his hand and beckoned me to come over. I gestured to him that I didn't need a taxi, but the taxi - driver said, 'Come on, get in!' He was so insistent that I had to give in. Besides I wanted to get away from this unpleasant atmosphere.

Later the driver pale-faced, said to me; 'Well you know ... When I saw you walking as if you were trying to avoid bumping into people on an empty street, I thought I should help you ...'

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Customer Service


Monday, March 06, 2017

Μια φωνή - C: Real


Μόνος σου έρχεσαι σ’αυτή τη ζωή
γεμάτος ελπίδες στο τέλος ν’αλλάξεις
μόνος σου γίνεσαι από στάχτη φωτιά
κερδίζεις αυτά που’χεις μάθει να χάνεις

Και μια φωνή σ’ακολουθεί
σου δίνει ακόμα δυο λεπτά
να θυμηθείς ποιος είσαι εσύ
κι αν όλα τα’κανες σωστά πριν φύγεις

Μόνος σου κάνεις την ελπίδα φωνή
μα δε την αφήνεις αλήθεια να λέει
σπάει η καρδιά σου σε κομμάτια γυαλί
αδειάζει το σώμα μα ακόμα αναπνέει

Και μια φωνή σ’ακολουθεί
σου δίνει ακόμα δυο λεπτά
να θυμηθείς ποιος είσαι εσύ
κι αν όλα τα’κανες σωστά πριν φύγεις


A Voice

You come alone into this life
full of hope to change in the end
by yourself from ash you become a fire
you win those things that you'd learned to lose

And a voice is following you
she's giving you two more minutes
so that you remember who you are
and if you did all the things right before you leave

By yourself you transform the hope into voice
but you don't let it to tell the truth
your heart breaks into pieces of glass
the body empties but it still breathes

And a voice is following you
she's giving you two more minutes
so that you remember who you are
and if you did all the things right before you leave

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Differences of opinion by Wendy Cope


He tells her

He tells her that the earth is flat -
He knows the facts and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell
She cannot win. He stands his ground

The planet goes on being round.


Saturday, March 04, 2017

The lessons of violence and inequality through the ages


Only catastrophe truly reduces inequality, according to a historical survey

As a supplier of momentary relief, the Great Depression seems an unlikely candidate. But when it turns up on page 363 of Walter Scheidel’s “The Great Leveler” it feels oddly welcome. For once—and it is only once, for no other recession in American history boasts the same achievement—real wages rise and the incomes of the most affluent fall to a degree that has a “powerful impact on economic inequality”. Yes, it brought widespread suffering and dreadful misery. But it did not bring death to millions, and in that it stands out.

If that counts as relief, you can begin to imagine the scale of the woe that comes before and after. Mr Scheidel, a Vienna-born historian now at Stanford University, puts the discussion of increased inequality found in the recent work of Thomas Piketty, Anthony Atkinson, Branko Milanovic and others into a broad historical context and examines the circumstances under which it can be reduced.

Having assembled a huge range of scholarly literature to produce a survey that starts in the Stone Age, he finds that inequality within countries is almost always either high or rising, thanks to the ways that political and economic power buttress each other and both pass down generations. It does not, as some have suggested, carry within it the seeds of its own demise.

Only four things, Mr Scheidel argues, cause large-scale levelling. Epidemics and pandemics can do it, as the Black Death did when it changed the relative values of land and labour in late medieval Europe. So can the complete collapse of whole states and economic systems, as at the end of the Tang dynasty in China and the disintegration of the western Roman Empire. When everyone is pauperised, the rich lose most. Total revolution, of the Russian or Chinese sort, fits the bill. So does the 20th-century sibling of such revolutions: the war of mass-mobilisation.

And that is about it. Financial crises increase inequality as often as they decrease it. Political reforms are mostly ineffectual, in part because they are often aimed at the balance of power between the straightforwardly wealthy and the politically powerful, rather than the lot of the have-nots. Land reform, debt relief and the emancipation of slaves will not necessarily buck the trend much, though their chances of doing so a bit increase if they are violent. But violence does not in itself lead to greater equality, except on a massive scale. “Most popular unrest in history”, Mr Scheidel writes, “failed to equalise at all.”

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book is the careful accumulation of evidence showing that mass-mobilisation warfare was the defining underlying cause of the unprecedented decrease in inequality seen across much of the Western world between 1910 and 1970 (though the merry old Great Depression lent an unusual helping hand). By demanding sacrifice from all, the deployment of national resources on such a scale under such circumstances provides an unusually strong case for soaking the rich.

Income taxes and property taxes rose spectacularly during both world wars (the top income-tax rate reached 94% in America in 1944, with property taxes peaking at 77% in 1941). Physical damage to capital goods slashed the assets of the wealthy, too, as did post-war inflations. The wars also drove up membership in trade unions—one of the war-related factors that played a part in keeping inequality low for a generation after 1945 before it started to climb back up in the 1980s.

The 20th century was an age of increasing democratisation as well. But Mr Scheidel sees this as another consequence of its total wars. He follows Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, in seeing democracy as a price elites pay for the co-operation of the non-aristocratic classes in mass warfare, during which it legitimises deep economic levelling. Building on work by Daron Acemoglu and colleagues, Mr Scheidel finds that democracy has no clear effect on inequality at other times. (A nice parallel to this 20th-century picture is provided by classical Athens, a democracy which also saw comparatively low levels of income inequality—and which was also built on mass-mobilisation, required by the era’s naval warfare.)

Catastrophic levellings will be less likely in future. Pandemics are a real risk, but plagues similar in impact to the Black Death are not. Nor are total revolutions and wars fought over years by armies of millions. On top of that, since the Industrial Revolution general prosperity, regardless of inequality, has risen. And in past decades global inequality has fallen.

Good news in general, but news which leaves readers who would like to see significantly less unequal individual economies in a bit of a pickle. Futile though Mr Scheidel thinks it may prove, attempts to ease inequality democratically through redistributive policies and the empowerment of labour at least show no signs of doing actual harm. They may, indeed, keep the further growth of inequality in check, but they can hardly dent the direction of change. And they may have opportunity costs; if history provides no support for thinking that deep, peaceful reduction of inequality is possible, perhaps progressives should set themselves other tasks.

There are two other possibilities. One is to note that historical circumstances change. As Mr Scheidel shows, the 20th century was quite different from all those that came before. Is it not possible that another less horrible but equally profound transformation in the way that people and nations get along with each other, or fail to, is yet to come? If, for example, increasingly economically important non-human intelligences decided that they would rather not be owned by anyone, thus in effect confiscating themselves from their owners, could that not make a difference?

The other possibility is that some may see civilisational collapse as a price worth paying for the Utopia they might build in the rubble—or may just like to see the world burn. Individuals and small groups can dream of nuclear- or biotechnologically-mediated violence today on a scale that was inconceivable in the past. Wealth may ineluctably concentrate itself over time; the ability to destroy does not.

The Economist
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