Russian rally

Was it the car or the country? The Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov travelled from St Petersburg to Ek

In an old Lada, you will surprise no one in Russia and no one will notice you; Russia and the Lada are in complete harmony. Driving into Russia in a brightly painted Mercedes, one of 70 such cars, accompanied by their own fuelling station, is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, they crossed the border without me. I got into car number 69 in St Petersburg, where the crew, which had driven from Paris, handed over the ignition key. The next leg of the Paris-to-Peking rally course would take the 70 Mercs, including mine, to the Urals and Ekaterinburg.

A handful of people covered the entire rally course. They included the technical support group, the chief driver, Johannes Reifenrath, and the 63-year-old president and chief executive of DaimlerChrysler Thailand, Karl-Heinz Heckhausen - who was driving in a generally homeward direction anyway. The others, including me, all took part in one of the five legs of the journey. The participants were from 23 different countries. I was surprised to see the Ukrainian flag in the publicity material, and asked whether there really were any Ukrainian participants.

"You, of course!" came the reply.

That was when it sank in that I was a participant. Some 50,000 hopefuls had sent CVs and eulogies to the Mercedes-Benz rally website; 500 entrants were invited to Stuttgart for interviews, a medical and a test of their driving skills. On my leg there were two Estonians (both engineers), one Lithuanian, three Poles, one South African, four Swiss, six Americans and quite a few Germans. There was also a Russian team: two young chaps frequently to be seen posing for photographers draped in the Russian flag. I was certainly the only Ukrainian, invited as a writer rather than a competitor.

At St Petersburg, we were presented with our rally equipment - jacket, gloves, hat and rucksack with unbreakable Thermos flask. Then we were given a pep talk by the chief driver which included the warning: "Europe is behind you. Beware! Bad roads, unpredictable drivers and unpredictable traffic police lie ahead."

He seemed concerned that some cars might not make it to the Urals, and so, soon, we were all feeling nervous, spacemen heading off to an unknown planet.

At eight the next morning we assembled on Isakovskaia Square to set off. I had already met my partner driver, Oliver from Switzerland, and we were expecting a third team member - a certain Joe from New York. He had last been seen in the hotel bar at three in the morning, and after all attempts to find him had failed, having waited 90 minutes, we set off without him. Joe was the first victim of this little-known planet, "Russia".

No sooner had we crossed the city limits than a grey sky lowered itself over a road riddled with potholes, reminding us of the previous evening's pep talk. On either side, wooden houses flashed by, some occupied, some abandoned. Often a village had more abandoned than occupied houses. Their wooden façades, darkened by the damp, provoked autumnal thoughts. The great metropolis of St Petersburg was a world away. We were travelling in a Russia that had changed little since 1917. Occasionally, the modern era would intrude in the midst of the tumbledown cottages - a perfectly up-to-date petrol station, for example.

But mainly, the roadside services were remarkable for their simplicity. With surprising regularity we would pass a makeshift table on which stood a huge, old samovar, watched over by a woman bundled in layers of clothes. Dark coal smoke would rise from the samovar funnels and there would be a few token buns. On Russian roads, the most important thing is tea; everything else is an extravagance.

Fishwives and pilgrims

Now and again there would be a stretch of good road and we would see samovars and their keepers less frequently. They knew that drivers would brake and stop near a samovar only when the road was poor. On a half-decent surface, drivers want to fly past (checked only by the black-and-white stripe of a traffic policeman's baton). The speeding fines amused my fellow drivers, at least those who understood Russian. For exceeding the speed limit by 25 kilometres per hour, they were fined 100 roubles (about E3). Those who understood no Russian nervously handed over ten to 20 dollars and, thinking they had got off lightly, drove on.

Soon our drivers began to understand the headlight signals given by local drivers warning of traffic police and were able to avoid the fines.

Some 300 kilometres from St Petersburg, the "fish" villages began. Along the fences and on the gates of houses, in huge letters, were written the varieties of fish caught, smoked and sold locally. In the village of Zavidovo (from the word meaning "envy") we stopped outside one such fish house. The lady inhabitant, on seeing a camera pointed at her home and at the sign advertising her trade, immediately protested: "This is not a palace! There's nothing to photograph here!"

We moved 20 metres further down the road; the lady of this next house was more welcoming. She led us into her yard where, under a cloth, lay a smoked fish. She uncovered the fish and exclaimed: "That eel! It's only 1,500 roubles!" The price of fish obviously depended on the make of one's car. When the lady realised I spoke Russian without an accent, the price immediately fell to 1,000 roubles. But I really had no need of a metre-long smoked fish, so I opted for a smaller one, costing 100 roubles, and won the right to be photo graphed with the metre-long eel.

But the strongest image on that first part of the journey, for both Oliver and me, was the group of Orthodox pilgrims walking in the direction of St Petersburg. There were about ten: men in monks' gowns and women simply dressed with headscarves. One pilgrim carried a banner, another an icon. When they saw us, the icon-bearer turned it towards us as if, it seemed to me at the time, to ward off the devils in the foreign car. Later, I remembered the incident and realised that the icon had been pointed at us as a blessing for a safe journey. At the time, the dark group on the muddy road filled me with foreboding.

Moscow began suddenly. We jumped from one era into another. The single-storey wooden houses became fewer, until we were abruptly among the high rises of Moscow's suburbs. The dark evening was left behind. Above Moscow shone the bright sun of electric light, so that no one could say they had not seen the dawn of the new Russia. I felt sorry that Moscow was not a cake that could be cut into slices and shared throughout the land so that the other Russia - wooden, damp and puddle-ridden from lack of drains - could take some of the capital's energy, riches and optimism.

Later that evening, the rally participants ran about on Red Square and the nearby streets. I decided to take a walk along Varvarka, one of the corners of Moscow which dates back to when the Kremlin was Moscow. I saw the first British Mission building and the aristocratic town houses from the 15th century. Behind them, brightly illuminated, hundreds of builders were working in three shifts to dismantle the largest hotel in Europe, the Rossiya.

I stayed there once, in the Eighties. I think my room was on the ninth floor. I remember the 15-minute walk along corridors to get to it and the 15-minute search for the breakfast room the next morning. The ninth floor of the USSR's most important hotel had already disappeared. The architectural revolution is speeding up in Moscow. New buildings are overshadowing the old villas. On every road something is being built or reconstructed.

Early in the morning I made for the Old Arbat, where I wandered around for about an hour, watching the city's most popular street wake up. The first people to appear were Tajiks and Uzbeks. They swept and cleaned the road. Conversing quietly, they emerged from the side streets carting display stalls and cardboard boxes full of matrioshki and other souvenirs. A few English and American visitors walked by, briefcases in hand.

I heard the Russian language only later. Muscovites sleep longer and live a lot better than the immigrants who fill the vacancies that Russians disdain. Today, Moscow is swept and looked after by central Asia. Among wealthy Muscovites, it is fashionable to have a maid from the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia. Most popular are young women who don't speak Russian. They earn about $600 a month and often never leave the flat in which they work, terrified by the huge city and their inability to communicate.

Recently, the newspapers wrote of a curious incident. A woman reported her Filipina maid missing after she ran out of the flat wearing only her housecoat. She had been told off for some small oversight. After a two-hour search, she was found in a neighbouring yard. Coming from a culture where voices are never raised, she had understood from her employer's intonation that she was about to be murdered.

Bright lights of Kazan

The Republic of Tatarstan can boast both oil and gas and its own Kremlin, in Kazan, where, apart from a number of Orthodox churches, stands a newly built mosque, the biggest in Russia. There is also a monument: a Russian standing beside a Tatar, their expressions making it clear that, together, they are about to build a new state. But you need to remember that in the 16th century Russia seized the Kazanski kingdom, which has since been part of the Russian empire - an empire now called the Russian Federation.

Our American companion, Joe, had caught up with us by plane in Moscow and travelled with us to Kazan. He was amazed at the brightness of the evening streets in the city centre, at the number of pedestrians and their relaxed deportment. There were casinos, clubs, boutiques and shopping centres and, at the heart of it all, the luxurious Shalyapin Palace Hotel. Here the rally drivers rested before continuing the journey east.

To discover the less-well-lit Kazan, I walked half a kilometre along a murky little street and saw a policeman outside a bar, truncheon at the ready.

"It's understandable," I thought to myself. "The peace has to be protected. After all, the bright lights of central Kazan are unlikely to shed their rays on this part of town for a good while." So I thought, until I came across a noticeboard with an announcement that caught my imagination. Someone wanted to buy a railway branch line, together with land.

"Good idea," I thought. "Branches are the right things to buy, especially those with trains on. The price of transport can only go up."

On a well-lit street in Kazan, I went into a café. I ordered a hot chocolate and, as I drank it, marvelled at the way the waitress jumped back and forth between Russian and Tatar. The Tatar women do not cover their heads. Later, I was made welcome at the biggest mosque in all Russia and taken to the balcony for "the press and tourists", as it was called. During Muslim festivals, up to 2,500 people worship in the mosque. For those who can't get in, the prayers and sermon are televised.

The next day we journeyed east. The villages looked familiar, but there were more brick houses and the fences and yards seemed better kept. We passed a petrol station with small mosques attached and 50 kilometres further on we saw another mosque, this time built amid a cluster of cafés.

From Kazan to Udmurtia, the road was full of Tatar traffic police. They waved their batons cheerfully at every Mercedes they saw and it was difficult to understand what they were most interested in: a chat or extra income. "What Russian is averse to travelling fast?" wrote the great Ukrainian writer Gogol. Well, the Swiss, the French and the Germans are just as partial to it.

Thus, not noticing any signs of Muslim fundamentalism, and lost in thought concerning the raison d'être of the Tatar traffic police, we left Tatarstan behind and entered Udmurtia. The republic was expecting us, and the welcome was warm. The head of the border region's administration was waiting for us with a giant samovar, a pile of Udmurt pies, and a song-and-dance troupe. Amid the snow, on a concrete platform, before a concrete symbol of the new republic, these Russian Udmurtis threw a tea-party-cum-concert for us, their bright costumes warming our spirits as the tea warmed our bodies. The dance troupe wanted us all up dancing and, in the end, even less-than-sociable Joe joined in.

The Russian birch trees that had accompanied us on the trail from Moscow came to an end in Udmurtia. Firs and pines took their place. There were far fewer villages, but the roads were excellent. None the less we came across several lorries, their long trailers lying in the snow-filled ditches beside the road. The many crosses and wreaths along the roadside also warned us to drive with extra care. Russians don't like to observe regulations, and traffic regulations especially, so it is not enough to drive carefully; you have also to be aware of what everyone else is doing and allow those in a hurry to overtake.

Hidden from Brussels

On a hill, roughly a hundred kilometres outside Ekaterinburg, stands a concrete obelisk marking the border between Europe and Asia. It is just as well that they don't know about that obelisk in Brussels. What nightmares the bureaucrats would have if they knew where Europe really ended. Most of Europe, it turns out, has nothing to do with Brussels at all.

Having said that, Ekaterinburg, with its population of just over a million, is a completely European city. The moderate-sized central shopping mall has two mobile-phone shops. It is a rich town effusing calm, in contrast to Moscow, which is a rich town effusing frenzy. Here, in 1918, in the cellar of Ipatiev House, the last tsar and his family were executed by firing squad. A church has been built on the spot and it bears the name "Church on the Blood".

Just outside Ekaterinburg, in the village of Ganina Yama, the Bolsheviks burned the remains of the royal family. Here, for the past six years, a huge monastery has been under construction. It already contains nine churches. Schoolchildren come on excursions and the monks show them the miracle-working icons - one of them belonged to the imperial family but, by some miracle, survived.

The funds to build the monastery were donated by a local metallurgy company. Ekaterinburg has dozens of industrial plants and factories. The local brewery was bought up by Heineken. At the English pub I visited in the evening, more than half the customers were British, German or American, and had nothing to do with our rally. The town is growing and is becoming more expensive.

A circus ring was to be the venue for the ceremony of handing over car keys. The teams picking them up would drive on to Almaty.

Circus elephants performed for us, along with camels, dogs and one clown. I felt strangely ill at ease. It seemed we had been cheated. Our journey had gone without a hitch: no wild bears on the city streets, no Russian bandits trying to hijack our shiny Mercedes on a quiet stretch of road. Everything had been too civilised. That is how I felt that evening, as I tried to decide whether or not to go to bed. I had to leave for the airport at four the next morning to catch the direct flight to Frankfurt. I decided not to go to bed.

But early the following morning, Ekaterinburg's newly extended airport did display a bit of the Russia we had expected. After a long wait while our e-tickets were being printed, we found ourselves in the departure lounge, where the two ladies selling duty-free goods shut up shop in front of us and went off to have coffee. My rally colleagues were outraged and proceeded to reopen the shop themselves, marching in and filling their baskets in the normal way. The shop assistants were forced to return to their posts to serve the queue of international clients who so wanted to take their bottles of Ural vodka back to far-off Europe.

"He must have been a complete idiot to imagine you could take over this country!" said Oliver, sitting back in his airplane seat at last. He was referring to Hitler. "It's totally impossible to control it."

"And nobody does control it," I replied. "It's just held together by the rouble and the dollar."

As I spoke, I remembered the billboard I had seen on the outskirts of Ekaterinburg. The text of the advert was written in Russian and Chinese. Surprised, I asked a passing woman who the Chinese script was for.

"We've got whole streets of Chinese here," she said calmly.

We were between six and seven thousand kilometres from Russia's easternmost borders and about two thousand from Moscow. Our flight was taking us west. Beyond the round windows, the night went on and on. We crossed three time zones that night and, in the morning, awoke in Germany. I understand the logic of time zones a good deal better now. Every large country, be it Russia, China or the United States, lives in its own time zone, its own epoch and according to its own rules. And none of these countries will ever set its clocks to Brussels time. Whether their wealth comes from underground or from the sweat of workers on low wages, they are all self-reliant in their political folly and their economic miracles.

Russia's wealth is underground. There is enough there to last hundreds of years. The important thing is that there should be someone to get the wealth out. There must have been something behind the government's recent call to all Russians living abroad to return to the motherland. In 30 or 40 years there will be no one left to dig, especially where the wealth is greatest, in the Urals and Siberia.

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.