O come all ye faithful: Pope Francis greets wellwishers outside the Vatican after an audience for health workers, 22 November. Photo: Getty
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Religion vs medicine, trouble at Fifa and Clive James’s final performance

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know . . .

A E Housman, from “Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying”

There is so much to admire about Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit who has become a talisman for many on the left. He lives modestly and has great humility. He scourges inequality and global poverty. He has courageously intervened in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which becomes ever more hopeless with each new atrocity committed. Yet his reported remarks condemning in vitro fertilisation – or “the scientific production of a child” – and embryonic stem-cell research were dismaying, if not altogether surprising. He is, after all, the Pope and not some kind of Latin American bandit-revolutionary, as some would have it.

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance. Just as the Catholic Church was humiliated into accepting the Copernican revolution, so in time it will be forced to accommodate further advances in medicine, from gene therapy to embryonic stem-cell research. We live on a hostile planet and the human journey has been about making it incrementally less inhospitable.

Meanwhile, Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and his team are edging closer to finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes after discovering how to produce from embryonic stem cells huge quantities of the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells required in transplantation. Professor Melton’s two children were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as infants and it became his life’s mission to find a cure.

My elder sister’s son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a young boy and he has borne his illness with fortitude and grace. No one would wish anyone to suffer as he and others have from such an illness, least of all young children. Christian fundamentalists value above all the sanctity of human life, hence the opposition to contraception, abortion and assisted dying. But life is not an end in itself: how a life is lived is what matters, its quality and dignity. Why be in thrall to what neither knows nor cares?


David Bernstein, a former chairman of the Football Association, has called on England and other European nations to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia in protest at the machinations of Sepp Blatter, the Swiss megalomaniac who seems, in effect, to run Fifa like a personal fiefdom. Fifa’s report into the World Cup bidding process has hilariously exonerated Russia and Qatar of any duplicity but condemned England for breaking the rules. Fortunately, Michael Garcia, the American lawyer hired by Fifa to investigate corruption, has condemned the way his report has been misrepresented.

Football is a fabulously simple game debased by those who control and seek to profit from it. Blatter, who is 78, is seeking election for yet another term as Fifa president. Does the beautiful game have the leader it deserves?


To the Cambridge Union Chamber, to see Clive James perform in the winter leg of the literary festival of which the New Statesman is media partner. James was there to talk about his latest book but what we were treated to was a virtuoso one-man show. “Here I am making another final performance!” he joked.

This was a reference to his chronic illnesses. James has emphysema, “reward for a lifetime’s smoking”, and leukaemia, which is in remission. Modern medicine (“the meds”) and the dedication of Addenbrooke’s Hospital have prolonged his life beyond what even he imagined was possible. When you are living under a death sentence, one course of action, he said, was “inaction”. The other was “to go on working, as if you have all the time in the world”, which is what he says he has been doing. In truth, the poems he has published recently, several of them in the NS, are mostly about the period of his long, drawn-out dying. These late works offer a kind of extended leave-taking. They are about memory and forgetting and about what will soon be lost for ever: yet the tone is resigned, not bitter. And, because this is James, there is sardonic humour.


Clive James is unusual in having had a dual career as a prime-time TV presenter and as a serious man of letters: poet, novelist, memoirist. “Television looks as if it dissipates energy,” he said, “and it does. It takes five days to get one hour of television. But I enjoyed those days and I won’t knock them.”

Yet his first and greatest love was poetry, as a reader and writer. James is a wonderful raconteur, moving between different registers, high and low – from Philip Larkin to Game of Thrones in one smooth, easy movement. Dressed in a brown corduroy jacket, a beat poet’s black turtleneck sweater and black trousers, he moved at the “pace of a racing snail”, as he put it. He is thin now and very frail and his voice is weak and wheezy but still unmistakable. He recited from memory some of his favourite poems – Auden’s “Lullaby”, Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love”, something by e e cummings (“a rebel poet who had the distinct advantage of having a trust fund; he could afford to be a communist”) – as well as one of his own. He said the art of poetry was “to capture [experiences] with the excitement of things well said”.

Clive James said many things that night and all of them well – and it was exciting for those of us who were there to see him perform one more time, for one last time. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.