In this week's New Statesman: Putin's reign of terror

Oliver Bullough reports from Chechnya. PLUS: A Poetry Special in The Critics.

Oliver Bullough: Far beyond Moscow

In this week’s cover story, Oliver Bullough authors a sweeping piece from Chechnya, the “flat, tawny grasslands” situated at the heart of Putin’s “trail of fear and repression”. It was here, in this year’s presidential election, that Vladimir Putin swept more than 99 per cent of the vote. Bullough writes:

In the presidential election on 4 March this year, this scrubby patch of steppe soared above not only the rest of Chechnya, but the whole of the Russian Federation. Here, Vladimir Putin achieved his single best result in the country – 99.89 per cent. Of 28,616 votes cast, Putin won 28,584. No other candidate got anything higher than single figures, and had there not been nine spoiled ballots, Putin would have breached the 99.9 per cent mark.

Bullough - author of Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus — reveals the story of a region with conflicting narratives: both of economic growth and restored nationalism under Putin’s premiership, but also a “more sinister story too: of arbitrary detention, of murder and of fear.”

“It is Putin’s Russia in microcosm”, writes Bullough.

 

Graham Brady: “I owe my career to grammar school”

In The Politics Interview this week, our online editor Caroline Crampton sits down with Graham Brady, official host of the recent “Friends of Grammar Schools” reception at the House of Commons, chair of the Conservative Party’s influential 1922 Committee of backbench MPs and a powerful campaigner for more selection in state education.

Brady defends his stance on grammar schools despite the critical backlash again him and fellow Tories who support selective education — the people who David Cameron called “inverse class warriors” in 2007. In Brady’s own words:

“The more I’ve been involved in the debate about the selective system, the more it becomes clear to me that, for a great many people discussing this issue, [they] are doing so in a time warp – they are debating the selective system as it was 40 years ago . . . It’s not just the quality of the grammar schools, it’s the outstanding quality of the [non-selective] high schools as well which I think brings us closer to a genuine selective system.”

Crampton writes that Brady stands by his argument that academic selection in schools is “an unequivocal good” despite powerful counterarguments: that it benefits only a small pool, that it privileges the middle class over the working poor. He argues that the solution to underperformance among disadvantaged children is an education system with more selection, not less.

“In my view, it’s about the quality of the other schools. There’s something tragically British in the way we approached this when the postwar settlement was implemented. If the weakness was the secondary moderns, it was tragic that what we did was abolish most of the grammar schools rather than improve the quality of the secondary moderns . . .

“The logic of what the government is doing with education – and I very strongly endorse it – is actually to transfer the power and the choice away from the government and give it far more genuinely to communities and parents to choose the kind of schools they want.” He pauses. “It’s in that context that it is more perverse than ever that the government then prohibits [one of the choices].”

 

Rafael Behr: Unlike Brown, Balls knows he can’t fulfill his ambition by plotting

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr take a close look at the relationship between “the two Eds” — the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. Despite frequent comparisons with the “machinations” that undermined Tony Blair’s tenancy, Behr asserts that Balls has everything to lose by “plotting alone”.

Balls has tested his leadership appeal in an election and lost. For now, his ambitions are limited to becoming chancellor and, confident though he might be of his intellectual primacy, he knows that to sabotage Miliband’s bid for No 10 would be to rob himself of the Treasury.

Despite a 20-year working partnership, differences between the two still “niggle”, especially on points of economic idealism.

Balls . . . is no evangelist for Miliband’s signature economic theme – “responsible capitalism”. The shadow chancellor is not by nature a moral philosopher. He stares down lofty abstractions with a cold, utilitarian eye trained in the Treasury. He won’t put his political muscle behind the Big Idea until he knows what it involves in practice.

In The Critics: A poetry special

In The Critics this week, Sophie Elmhirst reaffirms the New Statesman’s commitment to publishing original verse. Since the NS was founded in 1913, many of the finest poets in the English language have had their work published in its pages. “Poetry in Britain,” she writes, “is rich, energetic and varied.”

The New Statesman is again doing its bit to ensure that some of that energy finds its way into print. In an accompanying opinion piece, Fiona Sampson, the author of Beyond the Lyric: a Map of Contemporary British Poetry, takes the measure of the contemporary poetry scene. “British poetry is, as it has been for a very long time, cantankerous, quarrelsome, fascinating and extraordinary,” Sampson writes. Her essay is followed by original work by Samuel Beckett, James Lasdun, Rachel Boast, Azfa Ali and John Burnside.

Our Critic at Large this week is Alwyn W Turner, who considers the enduring charm of the BBC’s best-known baddies – the Daleks. Anticipating their return in a new series of Doctor Who, Turner examines the way the Daleks, when they first appeared on TV screens in the mid-1960s, drew on fears of Nazi occupation. Now, however, the “sigh of Daleks in London . . . evoke[s] the Swinging Sixties”.

Elsewhere in The Critics: Rachel Cooke on British crime drama and BBC1’s Good Cop; Ryan Gilbey on David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover; Antonia Quirke is bored by a radio interview with the composer John Williams; Alexandra Coghlan goes to the Proms; and Will Self discovers that Las Vegas has become child-friendly.

 

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

For Observations, Jonathan Wynne-Jones visits the Chicago neighbourhood where Barack Obama began his political career. Alex Hern reflects on Neil Armstrong and the future of space exploration. Michael Brooks reports on climate change and protecting wildlife. PLUS: Jonathan Derbyshire on Niall Ferguson Inc., Nelson Jones on atheism, and our columnist Martha Gill on the psychology of decision-making.

In Books, Daniel Swift reviews Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D T Max’s biography of the late David Foster Wallace. What is most moving in Max’s book, Swift writes, is the “spectacle of care . . . [Wallace] cared about writing because he believed in its offer of transcendence, community and touch.”

John Sutherland also reviews Miriam Gross’s memoir An Almost English Life; Rebecca Abrams reads Naomi Alderman’s novel The Liars’ Gospel; David Shariatmadari reviews The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind by Daniel Pick; and Robert Ronsson explores the secret life of the Glaswegian socialist and publisher John Wheatley.

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands around the country and available for purchase here

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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