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Mapumental – great digitalmashup where-to-live maps from the brilliant @mysociety and @4ip

Way back in 2007, when mammoths roamed the earth and iPhones were just being invented, the brilliant e-democ/society people at mySociety developed a time-travel map. This was a map that could send you back in time. No. Not really.
 
It was a commute-time map, centred on the place you were trying to commute to, that would snazzily show the length of commutes from different spots on the map. The cooler colours indicate the longer commute. It’s hard to express in words, so here’s a picture: 
 
Unknownname
 
It was great, except that (presumably) because it was all quite hard work and involved mounds of (expensive?) data, they only made a few prototypes, such as the one based on the idea that you wanted to commute to the DfT. Not that many people do.
 
[some years pass]
 
4iP, the digital innovation arm of publicly-funded Channel4, has developed Mapumental. It’s the same idea, but you can put in any destination postcode! And then play with sliders for acceptable length of commute! And average house prices! There’s even a ‘scenicness’ slider, which really does cut your options. It’s a lot of fun, and actually very useful for working out where to live, if ultimately rather depressing for most central London postcodes.
 
0unknownname
 
Mash in the data from Gumtree rental adverts too, and it would be perfect!
 
Sign up for a log-in at http://mapumental.channel4.com/
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‘We don’t know how to end global poverty and that’s a good thing’: notes and thoughts on LSE lecture from @billeasterly

"Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you going to the poverty lecture, the Old Theatre is completely full up. Please follow the signs to the new theatre for a videolink."

There are superstar academics. And then there's Bill Easterly. He's scruffy, he trips over long words. But he's very witty. And he's in his element with an audience of LSE development students, nervous charity workers and academics, mostly keen to hear him take on traditional aid narratives. I'd call him anti-establishment, but everybody knows he speaks several truths.

A quick round up:

His argument

1. We don't know how to end global poverty actually translates as 'we don't know what creates economic growth'. All the answers of the 60s (go plan!), 80s (loose all your price controls! Let free markets ring!), 90s (erm, it's a sort of mish-mash, long live Good Governance!), 00s (security!): none of them have been proven to generate growth. The data from sub-Saharan Africa is often seriously flawed anyway.

1a. And who's the 'we' – rich Western people? So even if we knew how, we'd have to impose it in an authoritarian manner.

2. So stop prescribing things. Benevolent dictators are not cool. It's a fluke! There's no evidence that planning works.

3. But it is okay to take a normative approach and say that our Western liberal way is the right way. Jefferson just stated his values, he didn't run 4m regression analyses to come with them. And there is a bit of evidence that suggests that respect for individual rights and the rule of law leads to growth. And check out America, we did okay for ourselves.

Critique

So he writes off prescriptive approaches, then prescribes something. It's as though he comes, blinking, out of the economists' cave where they try to model everything, into the real world, but then dives back in.

No, to be fair, he's arguing that if you free people from prescriptions then they'll make their own way to growth. There's no one answer save for the answer that gives millions of small solutions. John Bird of the Big Issue is on hand to point out that 'millions of small solutions' overlap, are inefficient etc. But that'll sort itself out.

Perhaps this is revolutionary for a development economist, but it's pretty obvious to most people. Not all developmenty people are economists. They haven't all argued that growth is the holy grail. NGOs lined up to decry the IMF's structural adjustment plans, which weren't great. The anthropologists, sociologists, even lawyers, scientists and political policy people, recognise that localism is key. Context is king. The efforts of the academic economists to find the key to growth are like alchemy. But he's right that a lot of global financial institution money tends to chase fads.

And i'm pretty sure that there are some universals: like security.  If a gunman is going to steal your earnings, it'll make development difficult. Not sure your average Somalian benefits from an absence of outside engagement.

The data thing – if we can't get accurate economic data, can't we run clever sampling surveys of quality of life?

The general gist of his argument takes me back to that question you get into when you're really deep in Development Studies – is an increase in wealth something we should actually aim for? Is development a good thing? Are '[insert name of poor community]' people actually happy with their lot? (the old poverty-glamour fun)…the point is: it doesn't matter. It's not 'our' place to say. It's for every economically poor individual to decide. And guess what most of the global poor would say…

Prof. Easterly writes regularly at www.aidwatch.org and posts even more regularly @billeasterly

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Mankind is Ruined: a piece of DR Congo in North London (Ruined, @AlmeidaTheatre until 5 June)

You don't expect much from the Almeida Theatre at first sight. Its doors onto Upper St in Islington are shabby and unappealing. Directions pinned to the door send you an age further up the street. Eventually the real theatre entrance is revealed, all glass and concrete in smooth modern blocks of grey, with a stylish bar-restaurant.

Entering the theatre ten minutes before the start of the play, you're instantly in the Congo – a soundtrack plays the chirping of crickets and a gentle rainfall, the set is a corrugated iron shed on the stage of a muddy clearing, which runs to the front row's feet. Vines and lianas drape from the ceiling; trees rise up the side of the stage.

Great theatre should knock you out of your small world view and transport you somewhere far more difficult. But this play goes further. At the end of 'Ruined', you want the ground to open and swallow you up.  

Cast of Ruined at the Almeida Theatre London

It's about the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the breakdown in the rule of law, the anarchy of young men with guns and the horrific consequences of the crimes they commit. It's set in an anonymous village near Kisangani, in Eastern Congo, near the lucrative (for a few) mining areas.

It's about the enormous, grotesque tragedy of the Congo played on an intense localised context. We never leave this rotating set of the corrugated shed, the (whore)house of 'Mama Nadi' – we just see the bar, the girls' room, and an outside view. And that's how it gets you. It reduces a suffering on such an unthinkably awful, incomprehensibly large scale down to a few people in front of our eyes. Perhaps its a shame that we need that. Or perhaps just human.

The first half is slow to start. There's a clever first scene in which the salesman brings goods to Mama, then talks about the 'other things in the truck' and the horrible truth is revealed: it's two girls, brought to Mama to become prostitutes. Except that one isn't. One cannot do that work, since she is 'ruined': taken with a bayonet somewhere in the bush by armed militia. 

The full extent of this isn't fully grasped in the early stages; the play largely runs through sitcom-style jokes, perhaps to ease us in gently, and there's impressive live music – the girl who is 'ruined' has to earn money this way. But gradually, as the scenes from whorehouse continue, we see the nights at Mama's and the play becomes increasingly uncomfortable. 

But its after the interval that the play explodes into life. Suddenly it's more real, as the war draws closer and closer to what Mama would call her 'haven' from it all, and the women's stories are told. Though Mama tries to defend her hard-nosed business attitude to running the house ('While two birds fight over a kernel, a third bird swoops down and carries it off…who do you think the third bird is?') she slowly reveals more of her character, every moment becoming more absorbing. At the time a final secret is a revealed, the audience seem to have stopped breathing.

It is an appalling play; nauseating, devastating, but brilliant. I haven't stopped thinking about it. The lead actress who plays Mama, Jenny Jules, gives an encapsulating performance. She barely smiles as she takes the applause at the end of the play, her eyes wet with tears. I'm not quite sure if we should be applauding. This must be exhausting for the cast. 

And then everybody leaves. They pile into the bar or outside for a cigarette; and go about their wealthy, secure lives. 

Ruinedwww.almeida.co.uk

Better written reviews from Time Out and the Guardian.
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Habermas in FT: “Today we need institutions capable of acting on a global scale”

You said it, Jurgen.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/eda3bcd8-5327-11df-813e-00144feab49a.html

Includes!

Jurgen on Greek debt crisis: weakness of European nations to think beyond their measly nation state. Still a long way off proper functional union.

Jurgen on internet as saviour: not likely

Jurg in own words: "Time and again, a sufficient equilibrium between the market and politics was achieved to ensure that the network of social relations between citizens of a political community was not damaged beyond repair. According to this rhythm, the current phase of financial market-driven globalisation should also be followed by a strengthening of the international community."

Ah-yeah.
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Adventuring

The strange and lonely death of London’s Heygate Estate (words+pictures)

The estate is less than 40 years old – it opened in 1974. It’s early days are described with some nostalgia, but realistically in this 2001 article from the Observer.

In 2004, Southwark Council chose to embark on a multi-billion pound regeneration for the entire Elephant & Castle area, which was to include demolishing both the Heygate and Aylesbury estates. The residents were promised rehousing by the Council. But by the time they had moved a large number of residents out, and boarded up their properties, leaving the place feeling like an abandoned ocean liner, the credit crunch hit. This delayed the demolition. In late March 2010, Southwark Council said that the new regeneration agreement was ‘nearly ready’.

Since 2007, the excellent Heygate Live blog has provided regular updates on the affairs of the 1260-unit estate.

In the last sun of an April evening, the estate was eerily quiet. Though completely empty, most entrances and walkways were still open, and a pile of fresh human faeces lay in front of a lift chamber. Empty walkways, empty corridors that must have buzzed at one time, not so long ago – now still. I saw a few people cutting through the estate, and one woman ran past me on the corridor/balcony, but walking around the site, just one single flat appeared to be still occupied.

More photos here and here (mini photo essay). And Clint Eastwood.

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The real van Gogh at the Royal Academy, London – until 18 April

Despite the crowds, this exhibition is utterly absorbing. The RA has gathered an impressive selection of works from the UK, Amsterdam, the States and private collections. The sense of the ‘real’ comes through the display of perhaps twenty of van Gogh’s letters.

He wrote copious short letters, some of which include sketches of planned paintings: a detailed ‘scribble’ of a weaver at a loom on a letter to his brother, Theo, becomes the great painting hung alongside it.

Image001

There are seven rooms showing different elements of Van Gogh’s work, progressing chronologically. The exhibition begins with his ‘scratches’ (sketches), follows the introduction of colour and the impact of impressionism, his move to Arles and Provence, before his final move north of Paris. The role of literature is highlighted: we read that he was a great fan of Dickens – much moved by Dickens’ humanity and his true portrayal of the poor.

The curators translate sentences from the Dutch and French letters which concern his works, but more moving are the personal details. He begins one letter with the tragic statement that ‘I have found a restaurant where I eat for a 1 franc’, a sweeping down stroke forming a stylish ‘f’. In another he asks his brother to send him brushes and sketches the types he wants.

Image002

His addiction to his work comes through strongly, writing of his desire to constantly paint and sketch,  to record the beauty of seasons, landscapes and people, as though under an obligation to constantly improve, to perfect.

His handwriting degenerates as time goes by, he writes on both sides of paper, on the backs of sketches, on envelopes, anything he can get his hands on to explain his enthusiasm, his awesome passion and magnificent ambition that, for him, was always unsatisfied. It drove him to depression, exhaustion and ultimately suicide, though it took the poor man two days to die of his gunshot wounds.

The exhibition includes the last letters between Vincent and Theo,  both dated (thurs) 23rd July 1890, and finally the draft that Theo found upon Vincent after he’d shot himself in the chest, complete with still pinkish blood stains.

At the RA

One gallery visitor, stood next to ‘The Yellow House’, a work of breath-taking beauty, says ‘I must admit I’m not enamoured by  any of them ’, leaving one wondering what could possibly do it for her.

Image003

The RA packed its visitors in, one compared the space to rush hour on the Northern line. And on very dodgy calculations, the gallery must be taking several million pounds from ticket sales. While they must cover the costs of staging, does the surplus simply revert to the general gallery funds? They could spend some of it on decent cycle parking.

The exhibition finishes on the 18 April, but happily, you can view all van Gogh’s letters at the fantastic http://vangoghletters.org/vg/  – and if you have £400, get the book described by the Economist as possibly ‘the best autobiography of an artist yet to appear anywhere’. Could I borrow £400?

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The brilliant @HansRosling explains the world with lego bricks.

Had somehow missed Prof. Hans Rosling’s tweet on explaining the world through Lego. But of course, it’s brilliant.

“The weakest point today is the lack of global governance.”

Yup.

There’s lots more Hans Rosling, and all his fun world-comprehending tools, at www.gapminder.org.  Also lots of TED videos, which come without the muzak and pretty pictures – but he’s even more inspiring and witty in those.