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The Guardian e-paper Journal - April 17, 2018

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Section:GDN 1J PaGe:1 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Sent at 16/4/2018 18:35
Beware the latest plan: to sleepwalk us into Brexit Rafael Behr, page 3
Just what kind of a person does Netflix think I am? Lizzie O’Shea, page 4
How to get rich quick in Silicon Valley The long read, page 9
The Guardian Tuesday 17 April 2018
and ideas
There’s a life in
the high street
you will never
find on the web
s it really goodbye shop? This has been another
terrible month for retailing. Yesterday’s figures
show March footfall down 6% on last year,
and almost 9% down in high streets. Clothing
is in freefall, down 20%. My two local high
streets – one rich, one poor – both look as if
they’ve been hit by the plague, with naked
windows pockmarked by “For Sale” signs.
Toys R Us, BHS and Maplin have gone. We hear of
closures from Mothercare, Homebase, House of Fraser,
even M&S. Local data shows a net 1,700 shops shut last
year. Paula Nickolds of mighty John Lewis said last week
that this is her “toughest time in 25 years in the industry”,
adding of her own business, “we need to reinvent”.
Even allowing for variables such as the suppressant
effect of snow this March, the underlying reason is no
secret. Those online raiders of the lost high street, the
white vans. Peak shopping time for the average family
is now 8pm on a Sunday, when they are comfortably at
home. Robots will soon retrieve orders from warehouses
and drones and driverless vans will bring them to our
doors. Thousands of retail jobs are at risk.
If high-street footfall is shrinking by a 10th every
year, they will soon simply vanish. But does it matter?
These are time-honoured features of towns, but unlike
deserted churches and other “community assets”,
no one lists them for preservation. Gone will be their
diversity of shops, cafes, pavement life and humanity. A
“town” will become a zombie settlement of commercial
and residential estates. The public realm will be private.
High streets have been under assault since the 1980s,
when governments capitulated to the supermarket lobby
and its craving to get retail out of town. Hypermarkets
were the totems of the motoring age. They sprawled
across the countryside and hollowed-out town centres.
No one thought long-term, or else they didn’t care.
I watched King’s Lynn empty its shops on to its
bypass. Chichester did likewise. Penrith in Cumbria
was doughnutted by “edge of town”. Dartford in Kent
imploded because of adjacent Bluewater. Bradford
gave in to supermarkets so completely that its central
shopping streets are largely empty.
As always, markets only speak short-term. Now out
of town is feeling the pinch. In 2011 a Guardian planning
survey showed a 20% surge in supermarket planning
applications, 80% of them out of town, encouraged
by David Cameron’s let-rip planning policy. Sites were
bought, fields bulldozed, concrete laid.
Tesco proposed three new stores a week.
Four years later, the bubble burst. Overnight
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:2 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Sent at 16/4/2018 18:35
The Guardian Tuesday 17 April 2018
There’s a life in the high street
you will never find on the web
Simon Jenkins
Continued from front
Tesco abandoned 49 projects and closed
43 stores. The damage was done. As city
centres were stripped, out-of-town sites lay
derelict. It was a classic planning fiasco.
The market may be the engine of capitalism,
but regulation is its steering wheel. French towns
protected their high streets with new infrastructure
and control over uses. Tobacconists, butchers and
chemists had to remain just that. In Britain the market
was distorted the other way. Out-of-town was blessed
by planning easements, free parking, new roads and
low taxes. High streets were cursed with no parking
and business rates.
Even so, much of this is fake gloom. The internet
may be killing the high street. But we were once told
that television would kill cinemas; cinemas would
kill theatres; records would kill live music; cars would
kill trains. As for books, Amazon would wipe out
bookshops, and Kindle wipe out books. None of this has
happened. Novelty is the curse of futurology.
The key is to look not at what is dying in the high
street, but what is living. People may no longer want
video rentals, travel agents, shoe shops or banks. But
what has moved into the two thirds of BHS stores that
have been relet? The answer is gyms, golf ranges, art
galleries, market stalls and places to eat and drink.
High-street shops that are now doing well are hair and
beauty salons, coffee bars, fast-food outlets, health and
convenience stores. Farmers’ markets are booming. As
rents fall, charity shops selling “pre-loved” goods move
in – and a good thing too. John Lewis offers eye tests and
Pizza Express offers live music.
All of this is called the “experience economy”. The
reality that retailers such as Nickolds must consider
as the “reinvent” is that shopping was always a reason
for congregating, somewhere to bump into old friends
and new ones. It was always Scarborough Fair. Rather
than wander around replica airport terminals, people
are bound to buy most of their goods online. But high
streets are switching to “people” services that cannot
be supplied by drone or Deliveroo.
he tell-tale is bookselling. A decade ago
bookshops were closing by the week.
Then Waterstones was taken over and
its new boss, James Daunt, fought
against digital hysteria. “We were
loss-making and dead in a ditch,” he
said. He decided to recreate traditional
bookshops in which people could
dawdle, as in a library. Book sales are up, e-books have
gone and Waterstones has been two years in profit.
Meanwhile the great shop-slayer, Amazon, is building –
you guessed it – a chain of bookshops across America.
The truth is that a screen is not a life. We do not
want to sit at home all day punching glass. There are
no “experiences” to be had in a bypass car park. But
the key must lie in smart regulation. New high streets
are emerging where developers and planners concern
themselves with character, as in London’s Marylebone
High Street, Manchester’s Northern Quarter or
Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin.
As high streets decline in value, developers
cannot be allowed to raise rents, board up shops and
demand change of use. After the war, central York was
written off as an urban disaster, its buildings old and
outdated. No one realised that this was their salvation.
To locals and tourists alike, they were attractive
and friendly, and their buildings were adaptable.
Petergate is thriving.
Seven years ago the retail expert Mary Portas pleaded
that high streets should get wise to new markets,
but said that planners had to help rather than hinder
them. All they got for her pains was business rates and
speculators hoping for change of use. Government
has never taken high streets to its heart. The present
planning minister, Sajid Javid, has a craving for urban
towers and rural sprawl. He cannot complain if towns
depopulate, crime rises and car-miles soar.
High streets will never sprout on bypasses. They are
not just strips of property. They are social institutions,
the heart and soul of urban Britain. They must be helped
to stay that way.
Founded 1821 Independently owned by the Scott Trust № 53,385
‘Comment is free… but facts are sacred’ CP Scott
The bombing of chemical
weapons facilities may
have been a futile gesture
The weekend’s bombing of Syria, led by the United
States with the United Kingdom and France in tow, was
intended to send a message: that we will not tolerate
the use of chemical weapons against civilians, and if
diplomacy cannot prevent it then we will use force.
Narrowly targeted airstrikes against chemical weapons
facilities were a direct response to what was almost
certainly the Assad regime’s chemical attack on the town
of Douma, which left dozens dead. Parliament should
have been consulted before the missiles were fired, but
now that they have fallen we must hope their intended
message gets through.
Unfortunately, there are good reasons to doubt it
will. The strikes were calibrated with competing goals
in mind. They had to be tough enough to deter Syrian
president Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons
again, but not so tough that they would provoke Russia,
which backs the Syrian regime, into retaliatory action
that might escalate the conflict. This may prove too
narrow a strategic window to be truly effective. With
ample warning of a strike, the Syrian regime had plenty
of time to move stockpiles and soldiers away from
the target areas before the bombing started. Mr Assad
maintains the capacity to use chemical weapons
against his own people and the willingness to prop up
his tyranny at the cost of any number of civilian lives.
The weekend’s bombing was less a message than a
gesture – and a gesture that fails in its effect sends the
opposite message to that intended. That may have been
the message received by both sides in the war: “The
Artificial intelligence
Machine learning grows
cheap and widespread.
How should society react?
The House of Lords report on the implications of artificial
intelligence is a thoughtful document which grasps one
rather important point: this is not only something that
computers do. Machine learning is the more precise term
for the technology that allows computers to recognise
patterns in enormous datasets and act on them. But even
machine learning doesn’t happen only inside computer
networks, because these machines are constantly
tended and guided by humans. You can’t say that
Google’s intelligence resides either in its machines or in
its people: it depends on both and emerges from their
interplay. Complex software is never written to a state
of perfection and then left to run for ever. It is constantly
being tweaked, increasingly often as part of an arms
race with other software or networks that are being used
to outwit it. And at every step of the way, human bias
and human perspectives are involved. It couldn’t be
otherwise. The dream of a computer system with godlike
powers and the wisdom to use them well is a theological
construct, not a technological possibility.
The question, then, is which forms of bias and which
perspectives are desirable, and which we should guard
against. It is easy to find chilling examples – the Google
image recognition program that couldn’t distinguish
between black people and gorillas, because it had
been trained on a dataset where almost all the human
faces were white or Asian; the program used by many
American jurisdictions to make parole descriptions turns
out to be four times as likely to recommend that white
criminals be freed than black ones when all other things
American strikes did not change anything for Syrians
on the ground,” Osama Shoghari, an anti-government
activist, said afterwards.
Last year the US bombed Syria in response to a
chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun. The fact that they
are doing the same thing again a year later shows that
the message Mr Assad received from the last, limited
attack was that he would not be seriously punished
if he did it again. President Macron claimed over the
weekend that “we had reached a point where these
strikes were necessary to give back the [international]
community some credibility”. Which raises the
question: with whom did we have credibility before?
Mrs May’s claim that “we have not done this
because President Trump asked us to do so. We have
done it because we believe it was the right thing
to do” is difficult to take seriously. Had Mr Trump
not gone ahead, France and the UK would not have
bombed Syria by themselves. This is essentially a
US military operation which our governments opted
to back. That leaves the UK and France pinning their
hopes on the White House. We know that President
Trump is impulsive, abrasive, crude and thin-skinned.
The former FBI director, James Comey, has branded
him “unethical, and untethered to the truth and
institutional values”. We also know that Mr Trump is
consumed by a variety of scandals at home that will
leave him at best distracted and, at worst, seeking
distraction. There are no easy options in Syria and
the international community should be ashamed that
our interventions, be they military or diplomatic,
have failed to bring peace. Mr Trump is not the man
to repair the consequences of earlier mistakes.
We hope Assad, Russia and Iran take this latest
attack as proof that the international community is
prepared to buttress its diplomacy with force when
necessary, even as we fear that they won’t. There will
not be a military solution to this conflict. And while a
diplomatic solution has proved elusive, it is the only
one that will stop the bloodshed.
are equal. Without human judgment we are helpless
against the errors introduced by earlier human
judgments. This has been known for some time,
but the report discusses these dangers very clearly.
One thing that has changed in recent years is
that a lot of the underlying technology has been
democratised. What had used to require the resources
of huge corporations can now be done by private
individuals, either by using the publicly available
networks of Amazon, Google, and other giants, or
simply by using cleverly designed software on private
computers. Face recognition and voice recognition
are both now possible in this way, and both will be
used by malicious actors as well as benevolent ones.
Most worries about the misuse of facial recognition
software stem from their authoritarian use in places
like China, where some policemen are already
wearing facial recognition cameras, and concertgoers at large events are routinely scanned to see if
they are of interest to the police. But the possibilities
when they get into the hands of anarchists or
apolitical bullies are also worrying.
We can’t step back into the past and we can
only predict the future in the broadest terms.
The committee is right to suggest principles, rather
than detailed legislation. Since personal data
can now be used for good and ill in ways that are
impossible for the people from whom it has been
gathered to predict, the benefits of this use need to
be widely shared. The report is important and right
in its warnings against the establishment of “data
monopolies” where four or five giant companies
have access to almost all the information about
everyone, and no one else does. It is also prescient
to identify “data poverty”, where people do not
have enough of an online presence to identify them
credibly as humans to other computer networks, as
a threat for the future. But neither the problems, nor
any solutions, are purely technological. They need
political and social action to solve them.
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:3 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Tuesday 17 April 2018 The Guardian
Sent at 16/4/2018 18:37
The prime
minister calls
to mind Macbeth,
wearily committed
to seeing a nasty
business through
to the end
Beware the
latest plan – to
sleepwalk us
into Brexit
rexit was predicted to be many things –
triumphant, calamitous, impossible, a
cinch – but never boring. Yet with less
than a year to go, and vital questions
still unanswered, Westminster’s
interest has palpably waned. That partly
reflects public disengagement. Europe
is not raised much on the doorstep, say
MPs, who are mostly grateful to talk about other things.
There are pockets of Brexit passion. On Sunday
hundreds of people went to the north London launch of
the People’s Vote, a cross-party campaign demanding
a referendum on the final deal. A smaller counterdemonstration asserted the view (prevalent outside the
capital) that one referendum was enough. In news terms,
that event was no competitor to airstrikes in Syria or
wrangles with Russia over the Salisbury poisonings.
Inevitably EU affairs drop out of the headlines from
time to time. But there has been a general downgrade
in Brexit urgency since provisional agreement was
reached last month on a transition period. That means
the article 50 deadline of next March applies only to the
terms of withdrawal. The future trading relationship
can be outlined in a “political declaration”, with 21 extra
months to fill in the details.
Hardline leavers don’t like this smudging of Brexit
boundaries, but they haven’t kicked up a fuss because
they recognise that transition is a lethal trap for the
remain cause. It kills EU membership right on time next
March, while deferring any painful impact until 2021,
well beyond current political attention spans.
Pro-Europeans already find it hard to foment mass
opposition to Brexit, not least because the leader of
the Labour party is happy leaving the EU. But the
challenge of lobbying to preserve membership now
is child’s play compared to how hard it would be
petitioning for re-admission once the doors to the club
have banged shut.
Transition doesn’t diminish the need for a deal,
but elongating the timetable has taken some of the
clock-ticking drama out of the story, easing pressure
on Theresa May. Yet none of the problems that seemed
desperate in January have gone away. There is still
no magical method for keeping an invisible border in
Northern Ireland while leaving the customs union. There
A demonstrator
at a pro-Europe
day of action
in Stockport on
is still no rival to the Treasury’s cost-benefit analysis
showing only a downside to exit from the single market.
A substantial majority of MPs still believe that Brexit
is an exercise in damage limitation. Yet few dare to
follow that logic to the end: when an action can only be
measured in damage, the best limitation strategy is not
to do it at all.
Deference to the referendum result is a powerful
factor here, but not the only one. There is also
our political and media culture that much prefers
characters to processes. Brexit blips on to British
radars not when important things happen in Brussels,
but when Westminster politics turn colourful. A
boisterous banality by Boris Johnson makes a splash.
A technocratic torpedo in the form of a commission
negotiating mandate, blasting holes in May’s Brexit
ambitions, causes barely a ripple.
It has never been easy to excite a British audience
with the technicalities of the EU. It is hardest of all with
those who voted leave hoping it meant they would
never have to be bothered by such things again. And
there is great, understated power in the politics of not
being bothered. There were many remainers in 2016
who had no affection for the EU but didn’t think it was
worth the hassle of leaving. As Brexit day gets nearer,
the balance of being bothered shifts. It starts to look like
a palaver to go back.
Economists call this the sunk-cost fallacy – the
tendency to factor in the psychological cost of time and
money already spent when making a choice about the
future. This is why people tend to buy random useless
things, having driven a long way to get to the shops. To
leave empty-handed feels like a waste of all that time on
the road. But the lost time is irrecoverable – a sunk cost.
It should have no rational bearing on current purchases.
he months of fractious politics, social
division and economic uncertainty are
the sunk costs of Brexit. They shouldn’t
weigh against the potential benefits
of retaining membership if, after
gruelling negotiations, that looks like
the best item on the menu. But a false
intuition puts the weight there. British
politics is deep in that fallacy. There is no enthusiasm in
parliament for May’s Brexit, but nor is there a coherent
lobby for a U-turn. Jeremy Corbyn is wedded to the idea
of a better, socialist kind of Brexit. Most Tory MPs will
vote for May’s bad deal if the alternative is a crisis that
somehow propels Corbyn into No 10.
The prime minister herself increasingly calls to
mind Macbeth, wearily committed to seeing a nasty
business through to the end, “in blood stepp’d in so far,
that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious
as go o’er”.
Tedious, maybe. Not impossible. But it needs
political courage and imagination. Those qualities are
in short supply. There is instead growing complacency
and fatalism around Brexit. The question of whether it
should be done is treated as taboo by May and Corbyn.
But the question of how it should be done hasn’t
produced a credible answer to beat the option of not
doing it at all. So we creep in this petty pace towards
the final act, as if it were all predestined. It isn’t. If the
UK does end up leaving the EU, the referendum result
will be only half the reason. The other half will be a
parliament that knew Britain was going the wrong way,
yet couldn’t be bothered to lead the way back.
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:4 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Sent at 16/4/2018 18:06
I will stand and
fight for the
The Guardian Tuesday 17 April 2018
hese past few days I have been thinking
a lot about the Windrush generation –
the migrants who arrived in Britain, at
the invitation of the UK government, in
the early postwar years. I flew home to
London last Friday for my grandmother
Mazie Wilkinson’s funeral, amid
headlines about people who had been
raised in Britain, and lived and worked here all their
adult lives, being denied rights to healthcare and even
threatened with deportation.
Mazie was the towering matriarch of our family
and the only woman I knew who could terrify me and
make me howl with laughter all in a single phone call. I
thought her funeral was going to be a sad occasion but
to my surprise it was the most wonderful day, with as
much laughter as tears as members of my family from
America to the Caribbean gathered to pay respects.
As I gave the eulogy I was struck by the range of
people in the church, young and old, white and black:
we were all one, all there to say goodbye and wish Mazie
well on the journey. As the priest urged us to sing her
favourite hymns I was particularly struck by the sound
coming from the older West Indians in the church. They
knew every word of every hymn and they sang heartily,
grey now many of them, with walking sticks and in
wheelchairs, but you would never have guessed that
age had any effect of them as they belted out How Great
Thou Art and Mazie’s other favourites.
Hardly any of the “youngsters” like me knew the
words – we were a different generation. It was the older
ones here leading us. On the way to the graveyard on
Just what kind
of a person
does Netflix
think I am?
west London’s Harrow Road, past the million-pound
houses of Notting Hill that were once the broken-down
homes of the West Indian community in those early
years, it struck me how much things had changed and
how much we have lost.
I wondered what the older generation, now crammed
into cars heading to bury Mazie, thought of all this
change. I wondered if they remembered the unwelcome
signs that greeted them on arriving in London:
“No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. I wondered if they
remembered the job rejections, being spat at in the street
and all the other examples of their welcome to this new
land that they were trying to make their home. My God, I
thought, we owe them so much respect, for their bravery
and for their courage. So when I learned, that very same
day, that many of these pioneers and their children were
still having to fight for their rightful place in Britain – and
in some cases have already been deported because they
didn’t have the documentation that proved their right
to be here – I was angry and appalled. I haven’t been as
angry about anything for a while and I feel I have to stand
up for this proud generation in any way I can, because
they deserve my support and respect.
Since Friday I have been tweeting and urging
everybody who will listen to consider the outrageous
position of the British government to deny them
the same respect – and instead to deport, detain and
threaten them, to withdraw NHS services for them, to
sack them, and basically ask them to prove their right
to be here when the government itself has not kept the
records to prove their case.
thought, not only has this generation suffered
the awful racism of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s:
they were still fighting for respect in Britain,
and it made me sad and angry. These people
and their mothers and fathers were invited here
– some, ironically enough, by Enoch Powell,
who as health secretary between 1960 and 1963
recruited West Indian nurses. Exactly 50 years
ago, he delivered the hate-filled “rivers of blood” speech.
The Windrush migrants didn’t need documentation:
they were deemed to be British citizens. So to treat
them like this, in the sunset of their lives, seems to me
an awful way to pay them the respect they deserve after
years of hardship. They have struggled against racism to
settle and start families. Their offspring have helped to
build up the country’s public services and businesses.
Others now win medals for Britain on the sporting field,
are noted across the world for their excellence on stage
and screen, or sing songs adored by millions of people.
I for one will do everything in my power to make sure
this wrong is put right. I can take being called a nigger, I
can take being told to go back home, but to take it from
the elected government of the day sticks in my throat
and makes me want to stand and fight. We owe this
generation so much, and they deserve our respect.
is an actor
Arrivals from the Caribbean pass through immigration at Victoria station, London PHOTOGRAPH: DAILY HERALD ARCHIVE/GETTY
Lizzie O’Shea
is a human rights
lawyer, writer
and broadcaster
ach time I scroll down to Netflix’s
“Recommendations for Lizzie” feed,
my heart sinks in shame. Honestly, it
could be a cut-and-paste job from the
Wikipedia filmography of Jennifer
Lawrence, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer
Lopez or various actors named Ryan.
Netflix, in all its machine-learned
wisdom, appears to know me better than I do. More
than 80% of shows you watch on Netflix are discovered
through its recommendations. But the personal insight
offered by Netflix’s algorithm leaves me cold.
You like romcoms? Good for you, no judgment.
But I find this feed of saccharine narratives insidious,
especially when these films codify gender roles and
relationship goals in an infantilising manner. Sure,
occasionally I watch them, however it is definitely
not all I want to see. Watching only my Netflix
recommendations would be like using the internet only
to look at cat pictures. Netflix’s biggest competitor,
according to its CEO, is not other streaming services,
but sleep. This observation is both sinister and
unintentionally revealing. But I also get it: by the time
I am scrolling around looking for something to watch, I
am usually seeking what gambling researchers call “the
zone” – a state of wellbeing characterised by a sense of
relief and an absence of stress.
I just want to tune out, and Netflix has a financial
interest in perpetuating that state, uninterrupted,
for as long as possible. Escapism is an important
component of emotional wellbeing, and thankfully a
Netflix binge is less harmful than a gambling addiction.
But I would not want Netflix’s bottom line to be a
determinant for cultural production and consumption.
Consuming culture should be about delight
and surprise. A balanced diet helps us understand
each other across social divides and make sense
of the human experience. Just as we should resist
outsourcing our ethical decisions to machines, we
should not allow them to make cultural ones for us
either. Encouraging us to make choices about cultural
consumption based on past tendencies, as the Netflix
algorithm does, is not a neutral phenomenon.
Escapism can be healthy and appropriate, but
coding our online life in ways that are slavish to
emotional states in subtle ways is hardly ideal. It might
make platforms a lot of money, but it also degrades
our sense of what is possible, and the commonality of
human experiences.
Machines make mistakes and engender specific
values in ways that are hard to detect when we rely
on them to make decisions or recommendations.
Now more than ever we must embrace the process of
defining our values publicly and collectively, to invite
scrutiny into machine learning, to find ways to keep
these algorithms accountable and make them more
transparent. Until then, I’m steering clear of anything
featuring a Ryan or a Jennifer.
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:5 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Tuesday 17 April 2018 The Guardian
Sent at 16/4/2018 17:57
The awful folly
of setting fire
to ‘red tape’
ust before 6am on 16 May 1968, Ivy Hodge
entered her kitchen to make a cup of tea.
The match she lit over the gas stove caused
an explosion, blowing out the concrete
panels in her kitchen. It also caused an
entire corner of Ronan Point, the high-rise
in east London where she lived, to collapse.
Hodge survived, but four people died
and 17 were injured. The inquiry into the disaster
found flaws in the construction of system-built
housing. This led to changes in building regulations
for tower blocks. The shocking visual impact of the
scene – one corner of the block had collapsed like a
house of cards – made clear what happens if buildings
are not constructed to withstand disasters rather than
just everyday stresses and strains.
A report on the Grenfell Tower fire leaked to the
London Evening Standard points out that the building
– which was built after the Ronan Point explosion – was
able to stay standing because of the width of the concrete
on its lower floors, despite the ferocity of the blaze. And
yet, had the tower been built to the lower end of modern
building regulations, it is likely it would have collapsed,
the report concluded.
After Ronan Point, the public clamoured for safer
homes, and measures were taken to prevent a repeat.
But in the decades that followed, this belt-and-braces
approach gave way to complacency, and an apparent
pursuit of profit over safety. This complacency is
obvious in the problems experienced by the tenants and
homeowners in a new private property development in
south-east London. New Capital Quay, a name as apt as
if Mammon himself had decided to milk the property
boom, currently has fire wardens patrolling the 11
blocks 24/7, after warnings from the London Fire and
Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) about safety
concerns, including Grenfell-style flammable cladding.
Owners and tenants of the complex’s 900 flats have
been raising concerns for months. One of the housing
association renters, Simone Joseph, expressed concern
back in February that the cladding remained, despite
failing safety tests. Ruth Montlake, an 85-year-old tenant
with hearing difficulties, worries that she won’t hear fire
alarms and will struggle to escape from the seventh floor.
Cecile Langevin, who lives in the development with
her son and husband and who passed her pregnancy
due date at the weekend, was stunned to find the value
of her home has fallen from £475,000 to £50,000. After
buying in good faith, the family, like many others on the
development, face the prospect of either mountains of
negative equity if they want the cladding gone and peace
of mind in terms of physical safety, or accepting the
financial reality and remaining in an unsafe home.
The Langevins took out a £95,000 help-to-buy loan
from the government, and are now involved in legal
wrangling over whether they owe the government 20%
of the current market value – about £10,000 – or the
original loan amount. Langevin believes many other
neighbours used the scheme, meaning the financial
stake the government stands to lose in this and
many other new-build developments with fire safety
risks is considerable. Many experts warned that the
government ploughing money into new-build housing
would only inflate the property market. That punt, after
Grenfell, looks all the more foolish.
Disasters are rare, which is why the complacency of
politicians and developers might have blossomed: fires
are relatively common but usually contained. Disasters
can be averted, which is why the rigorous approach after
Ronan Point was the correct response. After the 2009
blaze in Lakanal House, south London, which killed six
people, fire regulations should have been bolstered, and
institutions such as Southwark council, which breached
regulations, should have faced harsher penalties.
Instead, we were gifted David Cameron’s assault on
regulation. Cameron boasted that the corner-cutting
and revocation of many regulations on building and
business would save £500 per home built: a small sum
in the grand scheme of things. Weighing it against
the value of a potential lost human life should be
impossible. Ten months on from Grenfell, any form
of clarity on the future, or even the present, would be
welcome. Yet families who escaped are still living in
hotels, and thousands find they are living in homes
clad with the same kind of aluminium panels that
covered Grenfell. It was government complacency and
amenability to lobbying that created such a catastrophic
mess, and yet there is scant sign of even a wish to
provide redress for those stuck in these flats now, or of
improved fire regulations for buildings in the future.
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:6 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Sent at 16/4/2018 18:09
I am an MA student on the
journalism course at Birkbeck,
University of London, fighting for
compensation for lectures lost due
to the staff strike. We paid £3,000
last term for services that were not
provided. I wrote to the master of
the university, David Latchman,
about this and received no reply.
I then wrote to the registrar and
got this back: “Your tuition fees
contribute towards your entire
learning experience and are not
directly linked to specific contact
or teaching hours. Your tuition
fees also cover infrastructure such
as buildings, library and IT.” How
can it possibly be stated that my
entire learning experience is not
diminished by a lack of lectures?
Theuniversity have taken my
money and banked what they have
not paid the lecturers, it seems. We
have been told that the strike may
affect lectures for the first two weeks
of next term and could be ongoing.
I have just been asked to pay my
fees for the summer term. I don’t
intend to throw more money at the
university unless I get a promise
How can it possibly be
stated that my entire
learning experience
is not diminished by
a lack of lectures?
Katrina Allen
of compensation if the strike is
ongoing. I wonder if I’ll be thrown off
the course?
Katrina Allen
• As a student of English at the
University of Southampton, I have
been affected by the recent decision
by the UCU that called for all of my
lecturers to strike with the aim of
retaining a favourable pension deal.
At the end of my four-year course, I
will have racked up debts in excess of
£54,000, a sum that will increase at a
rate of interest of approximately 6%.
I understand that lecturers are
feeling frustrated about their
pension cut, especially when the pay
of the vice-chancellor is £433,000.
This is a perfectly legitimate concern.
But without trying to mount a
pedestal of moral authority, I would
not be going on strike were I a
lecturer. The work that goes into the
six hours of lectures and seminars
that I am entitled to each week is
admirable. Oh, and the one hour
per week during which I am able to
arrange a 10-minute meeting with
my tutor to discuss my progress.
If this was back in the days of free
tuition, I might even have joined
the staff on the picket lines. But
unfortunately, I wasn’t born in the
same decade as my baby-boomer
parents, and I am paying £9,250 per
annum for tuition alone. I hope that
the lecturers don’t win this battle.
If vice-chancellors were to
now bend and snap against their
principles (however much I might
disagree with whatever they are),
Housing policy and the big shrink
Your editorial (Britons will live in
shoe boxes unless we resurrect
housing standards, 11 April) is timely.
That we have the lowest space
standards in Europe was identified
in an RIBA report, “Making Space”,
published four years ago.
This was not always the case. The
1961 Parker Morris Report, “Home
for Today and Tomorrow” published
under a Conservative government,
set what were then minimum space
standards which were voluntarily
adopted by all the London boroughs,
when the main responsibility for
the provision of public housing was
transferred to them from the LCC in
1964 before the standards became
mandatory. They were abolished
by Thatcher in 1983, since when the
big shrink set in.
So when the London boroughs
engage in their so-called regeneration
exercises, not only are they engaging
in social cleansing, breaking up
established communities, severing
The Guardian Tuesday 17 April 2018
Students on how they
are getting a raw deal
vulnerable people from their
support networks; they are replacing
homes built to decent spaces
standards with “shoe boxes”.
Chief culprit at present is
Lambeth, which has recently added
the Westbury Estate, SW8, to the
long list of decent estates within
its demolition sights. This was
designed by the architect Philip
Bottonley, now in his 90s, who is so
well regarded within the profession
that his archive of drawings is about
to be added to the collection held by
the Victoria and Albert museum.
Kate Macintosh
• That the UK is governed in
the interests of landowners and
landlords is underlined by the
presence of nine in the cabinet
and a total of nearly 200 in the
House of Commons (PM among
cabinet members earning money
as landlords, 14 April).
it would set a dangerous precedent
that students are legitimate pawns
to take advantage of in industrial
disputes. And we are not.
Ben Dolbear
• I am about to sit my GCSEs. I am
surrounded by many bright young
women every day, some who excel
in examinations and others who do
not. However, one thing we all have
in common is our strong feelings
towards standardised testing.
Every year thousands of 15/16-yearolds are forced to sit GCSEs. What
education ministers do not realise
is the harm this pressure causes
young people. It leads to high stress
levels, a loss of interest in education
and, in many cases, mental health
problems: approximately one in 10
children have them.
I have seen the harmful effects
of this robotic exam system which
leaves no room for creativity.
We need students to feel that there
is more to life than exam grades.
This can be achieved by encouraging
universities to look at the whole
person rather than just grades,
and to value experiences and
The exams should also lend
themselves to all kinds of students,
not simply those with the ability to
memorise. We are growing up in an
age of robots; surely we should be
raising humans who can do what
robots cannot do: be creative. The
government should scrap GCSEs
and focus on A-levels – maybe if the
school system did not burn so many
people out, then people would stay
on. At least ministers should realise
that, as Einstein said: “Everyone is a
genius. But if you judge a fish on its
ability to climb a tree, it will live its
whole life believing it is stupid.”
Romy McCarthy
Since 1979 the Commons has
ensured that all landlords’ rising
profits come not only from rents, but
also from a steady increase in the
value of their land to the detriment
of around 7 million renters in the
UK. Since then they have ploughed
money into bolstering the demand
for housing to such a extent that
the late Professor Peter Ambrose
was able to write in a memo to Tony
Blair in 2005 that. “The flow of
demand side subsidies are working
to enrich landlords and vendors and
not to stimulate housing output.
The analysis shows that more money
has gone into housing but fewer
houses have come out.” MPs have
also allowed unlimited international
investment in the limited supply
of UK land, as another means of
increasing land values and enriching
all landlords.
Not only ought MP landlords
declare their interest in UK land
but they should also withdraw
themselves from all debates and
votes on the subject.
Rev Paul Nicolson
Taxpayers Against Poverty
Time to
‘What was meant
to be a journey of
nine hours from
Agra to Varanasi,
turned into 18.
Bored to tears, I
walked the length
of the train,
taking photos of
how people were
passing the time.
This gentleman
caught my eye.
It was apparent
that he welcomed
this opportunity
to catch up on his
writing and that
he didn’t feel like
he was wasting
time, but using
it wisely.’
Share your
We do not
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supplied; please
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to our terms
and conditions:
Israeli snipers’ letter
divides opinion
The former combatants who wrote
concerning Israel’s security policy
on the Gaza border (Letters, 13 April)
do not represent the views of the
majority of Israel defence force (IDF)
soldiers, who appreciate the high
moral standards demanded of them
by the country they serve.
I served as a lieutenant in the
IDF tank corp and can attest that
Israel places the utmost priority on
avoiding causing harm to innocent
civilians, stringently enforcing
a rigorous code of conduct. Any
soldier who contravenes this code
faces severe consequences.
Far from being “unarmed
demonstrators”, rioters approached
the border at the instruction of terror
group Hamas. Armed with guns,
explosives and molotov cocktails,
they sought violent confrontation.
Of those killed, around 80% have
already been identified as belonging
to terrorist organisations.
Hamas alone bears responsibility
for organising violent riots with
the purpose of infiltrating Israel
in order to murder innocent
civilians. This is clearly documented
in the Hamas Charter. For the
good of both our peoples, they
must stop.
Paul Charney
Chairman, Zionist Federation UK and
• The letter from the former Israeli
snipers is a rare glimpse into the
hidden humanity inside Israel’s
overwhelmingly superior military
firepower against a dispossessed
nation of Palestinians. There are
so many recordings of brutally
cruel actions by their uniformed
forces, but so little heard from
those in Israel’s military who
sincerely want to find a way for this
to end, not just to talk of a peace
process. Such people should be
at the forefront of a drive to end
this horror. I for one honour those
Mark Lewinski
Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:7 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Tuesday 17 April 2018 The Guardian
Sent at 16/4/2018 18:10
 @guardianletters
Corrections and
• The subheading to an interview
with Ayòbámi Adébáyò said that the
writer has sickle cell disease. As the
interview itself made clear, Adébáyò
has the sickle cell trait, not the disease
itself (‘There were people who did
disappear. That sort of thing started to
happen’, 14 April, page 20, Review).
Editorial complaints and corrections can be sent to or The readers’ editor,
King’s Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU; alternatively
call 020 3353 4736 from 10am to 1pm Monday to Friday
excluding public holidays. The Guardian’s policy is to correct
significant errors as soon as possible. For more information
on the readers’ editor’s office and the Guardian editorial
code, see Find contacts for other
Guardian departments and staff at
Let the words speak
for themselves
Give yeast to provide bubbles in
beer (Letters, 13 April)? That means
reduced alcohol content in the brew,
a balance restored circa 1794 by
the head brewer, Joseph Crabtree,
of the Gordon & Hume Brewery
in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, who
discovered that adding additional
fermentable sugars suppressed
oxidation to gas and retained alcohol
content (the Crabtree Effect).
However, this increases nutrient
consumption and increases costs:
hence the recourse to gas infusion!
Iain Mowbray
The Crabtree Foundation, UCL
Theatrical dames
who set up a union
Zoe Williams says quite rightly
that all social movements of
any importance were started by
middle-aged women (Mo Mowlam
joins an esteemed roll call of
“forgotten” women, 12 April).
It isn’t widely known that women
created a trade union, led by Dame
May Whitty, the elderly lady in the
Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes.
Secret meetings were held in
her flat by the actors’ church,
St Paul’s, Covent Garden, planning
to organise performers into
what was to become the Actors
Equity Association. Alongside her
worked Dame Sybil Thorndike,
Flora Robson, Marie Burke and
Beatrix Lehmann. Also in the
group were Dame Sybil’s husband
Lewis Casson, Felix Aylmer and
Sir Godfrey Tearle, who became
Equity’s first president.
These people, who had no need
to have a union since they were
successful West End stars, had a
sense of justice about the plight of
the lesser known members of the
profession: dancers left in Europe
when their contracts ran out without
their fares home; actors having to
appear in two plays at once in order
to make ends meet – a part in Act I of
a play, then having to rush down the
road to appear in Act III of another
play, and various other ruses.
They eventually called a meeting of
the profession in the Duke of York’s
theatre, which in those days they
just fitted into, as supposed to the
40,000 members today. And thus,
in 1930, Equity was born.
Harry Landis
Former president, Equity
• I was lucky to meet Mo Mowlam
during an election campaign.
She came to Slough Lane Baptist
Church in Kingsbury. As Henrietta
Norton (Opinion, 13 April) says, she
needed no fanfare or cameras, was
just genuinely interested in talking
to the public.
Linda Theobald
Yarl’s Wood affront
to Christian values
We are concerned that the injustices
that prompted last month’s hunger
strike at Yarl’s Wood immigration
removal centre (Report, 6 March)
continue. People there are calling for
an amnesty for those who have lived
in the UK for more than 10 years
and an end to the detention of those
who came to the UK as children.
We hope that immigration minister
Caroline Nokes will intervene in the
case of Opelo and Florence Kgari – a
mother and daughter who have lived
in the UK 14 years, since Opelo was
just 13. A decision to allow them to
stay would be a step towards a more
humane immigration system based
on our shared Christian values of
fairness and decency.
Rt Rev Jonathan Clark Bishop of
Croydon, Rt Rev Dr Michael Ipgrave
Bishop of Lichfield, Ali Johnson
Associate pastor, Swan Bank
Methodist Church, Paul Parker
Quakers in Britain
• Margaret Squires (Letters, 12 April)
writes that “Nan Winton read the
news throughout the 1960s”, but
in fact she began in June 1960
and was removed from the role in
March 1961. Preceding Winton was
Sheila Borrett who, in 1933, read the
BBC 6 o’clock radio news bulletin.
Unfortunately she was sacked two
months later for reasons that were
never made public.
Professor Peter Ayton
City, University of London
• Please could you confiscate your
subeditor’s yellow highlighter?
Twice recently it has been used to
point up the salient points in a piece
by Suzanne Moore (G2). Sweet oldfashioned thing that I am, I would
rather read the whole article and
make my own judgment.
Lindy Hardcastle
Groby, Leicestershire
• So pesto is now a staple food in
the UK according to your report
(14 April). We practically live on it
in the Highlands these days, usually
on our polenta and halloumi butties
– two of our other staple (or more
correctly, basic) foodstuffs.
David Mack
Tain, Ross and Cromarty
• First two swallows sighted
flying over garden this afternoon.
Two weeks later than last year.
Valerie Adamson
Peldon, Essex
Established 1906
Country diary
This spring I’ve been amused by
our wild violets, which have spread
suddenly across one half of the
lawn. For anyone who has never
met them, they are an absolute
joy. Each flowering spike bears
an asymmetrical corolla that
comprises five petals of the most
intense purple. Down the throat of
the central spur is a delicious little
nectary that bees apparently find
irresistible. If I crouch to sniff, it also
yields this gentle odour, from which
I judge them to be sweet violets,
Viola odorata, the one common
species in the family that has such
a scent. It is highly evocative,
bringing to mind my childhood
when we used to buy those tubes
of purplish sugar known as Parma
Violets (a Derbyshire speciality,
manufactured in New Mills).
I’m amused by the plants but also
instructed, because, while their
spread suggests a hint of drama, I am
sure that suddenness has nothing to
do with it. What is more likely is that
some years ago an original pioneer
took root and then sent out rhizomes
to creep inch-wise across our lawn
bank. In fact, I recall registering
a violet or two last year and took
pictures to celebrate the “arrival”.
This spring the colony has
expanded its territory to the extent
that there are now 146 flowers
in total. Yet the whole process
represents 10 years’ patient work and
the key lesson is not that the violas
themselves have done anything in a
rush, rather it is I – my awareness –
that has changed overnight.
There is a second major flaw in
my account of our violets, namely
that they in any way belong to us.
In truth, they came without asking.
They spread without assistance.
They flourished without notice.
And it is conceivable that they could
die out without me being able to do
anything to prevent them. Our only
part in this transaction, which has
blessed our garden with glorious
colour, is to have done nothing: not
cut, not sprayed, not worried, not
intervened and not mown but once
a year. And that, in most gardening,
appears to be the hardest thing of all.
Mark Cocker
• Mark Cocker’s new book, Our Place:
Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before
It Is Too Late?, is available now from
the Guardian Bookshop
Twitter: @gdncountrydiary
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:8 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Sent at 16/4/2018 18:12
The Guardian Tuesday 17 April 2018
 @guardianobits
Zena Skinner
Television cook and author
who offered sensible,
homely advice about
traditional British dishes
ena Skinner, who
has died aged 91,
was a mainstay
of daytime and
early evening
television during
the 1960s and 70s,
when her cookery
demonstrations offered comfort,
reassurance and instruction,
in contrast to the prima donna
approach of her contemporary
Fanny Cradock or the emphasis of
her younger rivals on entertainment
and novelty.
Although Tupperware, for whom
she acted as brand ambassador,
liked to describe her as “television’s
captivating cook”, the Guardian’s
critic in 1967, Stanley Reynolds,
remarked that “her cooking seems
aimed at 14-year-olds, with tips
somewhat less exciting than the
Skinner in her
BBC kitchen at
the Ideal Home
in 1968
hints of the New Zealand lamb
handouts”. She was a motherly,
sometimes bracing teacher, guiding
her flock towards greater economy,
efficiency and gentle adventure. Not
for her the art of killing and grilling
a struggling lobster: more likely
an explanation of how to produce
a plaited sausage roll, with the
addition of Wensleydale cheese to
liven it up.
Skinner was born and brought up
in Luton, where her father owned
an electroplating company. At the
age of 17, straight out of school, she
volunteered for the Women’s Royal
Naval Service, hoping to become
a dispatch rider. In fact, she was
posted to a brisk course in scrubbing
floors in Mill Hill, north London,
before selection for work decoding
signals in Portsmouth.
With the advent of peace,
she trained as a demonstrator at
the London School of Electrical
Domestic Science which led to
a job with the Eastern Electricity
Board at their showroom in
Royston, Hertfordshire. In this,
she shared a career path with other
future television colleagues. Both
Marguerite Patten and Mary Berry
were electricity demonstrators,
while the redoubtable Cradock had
close links with the gas boards.
After four years introducing Home
Counties women to the benefits
of white goods, Skinner moved
on to the manufacturer GEC, her
responsibilities extending to much
of southern England. Soon they
offered her a wider brief, to train
demonstrators in the Caribbean and,
later, East Africa.
When in Kenya in 1959, her
participation in a show at the
Royal Nairobi Park coincided with
an official visit by the Queen. A
photograph of Skinner feeding
fairy cakes to some full-dress
Masai warriors made the British
newspapers and brought her to
the attention of a producer of
Cookery Club, a BBC afternoon TV
programme then fronted by Patten.
This was the beginning of a long
involvement with such output
which lasted, on the BBC at least,
until 1982. She was mostly seen as
part of a team on regional current
affairs and women’s magazine
shows such as Home at 1.30, Town
& Around and Indoors Outdoors, a
programme that saw out the 70s.
Heidi Alexander,
Labour MP, 43;
Chris Barber,
trombonist and
bandleader, 88;
Sean Bean, actor,
59; Victoria
fashion designer
and singer, 44;
David Bradley,
actor, 76; Clare
Francis, sailor
and novelist,
72; Bella Freud,
fashion designer,
57; Jan Hammer,
composer and
musician, 70; The
Rt Rev Mike Hill,
former bishop
of Bristol, 69;
Nick Hornby,
novelist, 61; Olivia
Hussey, actor,
67; Henry Kelly,
broadcaster, 72;
Lady Justice
(Julia) Macur,
senior presiding
judge, England
and Wales, 61;
Rooney Mara,
actor, 33; Joyce
Molyneux, chef,
86; Prof Sir Peter
Morris, transplant
84; Muttiah
cricketer, 46;
Liz Phair, singer
and musician,
51; Redman,
rapper and actor,
48; Jonathan
Shalit, chairman,
InterTalent Rights
Group, 56; Pete
Shelley, singer,
songwriter and
guitarist, 63;
Michael Stroud,
physician and
polar explorer,
63; Jo-Wilfried
Tsonga, tennis
player, 33; Curtis
boxer and
footballer, 38.
An invariable accompaniment
to these were information sheets
and books. Zena wrote more than
a dozen. She described her style of
cookery, accurately, as “good old
traditional English cooking – that’s
me. It’s the best in the world. You
just can’t beat a good steak and
kidney pudding. I always used fresh
ingredients – a) they were cheap, and
b) they were more nutritious. I was
known as the fresh food freak.”
Indeed, simple instructions for
cuts such as breast of lamb or beef
brisket get headline treatment,
alongside tips for harassed
women along the lines of using
the greaseproof inners of cereal
packets to line cake tins. Continental
cookery, introduced by cooks such
as Robert Carrier, was less of a
feature. Her surefire method for
gauging whether spaghetti was
cooked was to throw it at a wall to
see if it stuck. But she did appear
with the chef Paul Jeanroy in a series
about regional French cookery
called Bon Appétit! in 1974.
As well as television, she was
heard on Radio 4 in the 70s as the
resident expert on Start the Week.
It was inevitable, however, that
her style of cooking began to seem
dated as the decade wore on, and as
presenters such as Delia Smith began
to make their mark. Work at the
BBC dried up and her last outing on
television was in the magazine show
Years Ahead, on Channel 4 between
1982 and 1989, hosted by Robert
Dougall and Raymond Baxter. The
men did the cooking and Skinner
was up a ladder doing DIY.
Her retirement was spent
fundraising and volunteering for
Keech Hospice Care in Luton, and
giving talks to local organisations.
A brother, Bruce, predeceased
Tom Jaine
Zena Skinner, cook, born 27 February
1927; died 6 March 2018
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:9 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Tuesday 17 April 2018 The Guardian
Sent at 16/4/2018 17:40
The Long Read
How to be a tech billionaire
(or die trying)
Corey Pein moved to Silicon Valley to pitch a startup and get obscenely rich.
What he found was a dreary culture of hustlers and con men
he most desirable career of the 21st
century, with numerous advantages
over other fast-growing occupations
such as hospice carer and rickshaw
driver, is being a billionaire. Prior to
the incorporation of US Steel in 1901,
the world didn’t have a single billiondollar company, much less a billiondollar individual. Today, more people than ever are
becoming billionaires – 2,000 and counting have made
the great leap upward, according to the “global wealth
team” at Forbes. And the US’s hottest billionaire factory
is located in the most hyped yet least understood swath
of suburban sprawl in the world: Silicon Valley.
Despite what you may have heard, hard work in
your chosen trade is absolutely the stupidest way to
join the billionaires club. In Silicon Valley, the world’s
most brilliant MBAs and IT professionals discovered
a shortcut to fabulous riches. Ambitious Ivy Leaguers
who once flocked to Wall Street are now packing up
and heading west. The Valley’s startup founders,
investors, equity-holding executives and fee-taking
middlemen have thrived above all. Inspired by their
success, my idea was to move to Silicon Valley, pitch
a startup and become obscenely rich. I left home
with some homemade business cards showing my
new email address,, and a
bunch of half-baked ideas.
The first thing I needed was a place to stay. The
best deal I could find on short notice was a place I
called Hacker Condo. Like most Bay Area newcomers,
I was relying on the short-term apartment rental
app Airbnb. At $85 (£59) per night, the place cost less
than the market average, but was still more than I
could afford. On the upside, it was in what the real
estate hucksters called SoMa – a trendy San Francisco
neighbourhood well suited to my journalistic
and entrepreneurial purposes. Once a low-rent
manufacturing district, the south of Market Street
area had become the go-to place for startups seeking
industrial-chic open-plan offices, although the poor and
homeless had not yet been fully purged.
The ad for Hacker Condo stated an express
preference for techies: “We would like to welcome
motivated and serious entrepreneurs who are looking
to expand their network,” it said. Perfect. The best part:
“No bunk beds.” I told the hosts that I was an “embryostage” startup founder and author. The hosts didn’t own
the place. I looked it up: the mortgage was held by some
European guy who seemed to spend most of his time
surfing at a resort and dabbled in the tech business as a
hobby. The legal status of this rental arrangement was,
let’s say, unclear.
I rang the buzzer for a unit labelled TENANT. A
man answered right away. He had been waiting.
After a moment, the door opened, and I met my new
roommate, a gangly Kiwi. We took the elevator three
floors up and entered a silent, beige-carpeted hallway.
Our unit was No 16. The first thing I noticed inside was
a small mountain of men’s shoes. Hacker Condo was
modern and more spacious than seemed possible from
the outside. The unit was spread over three floors. The
furniture consisted of a picnic bench and a sectional
sofa spanning the width of the living room. I counted
five other short-term tenants. The Kiwi told me that
soon, some Norwegian guys – a whole startup team –
would be moving in. We calculated that Hacker Condo
would soon have three more guests than it had beds.
“What’s the key situation?” I asked.
“There’s one key,” the Kiwi said.
“One key?” I said. “For everybody?”
There were more tricks to learn, as a consequence
of the possibly illicit nature of this type of rental
arrangement and the evident stinginess of our Airbnb
hosts. The Condo Hackers never came in through the
front door. It was too conspicuous. I followed the Kiwi
down to the ground-floor garage, then outside to the
rear of the building. He showed me how to slide my
hand along a grate to locate the tiny combination safe
that contained the exterior door key. It was best to do
this when no one was looking.
I knew not to spend too much time getting to
know my flatmates, for we were all rootless high-tech
transients, our relationships temporary, our status
The room I had booked was available for only two
weeks. As soon as I connected to the wifi network,
I would need to start looking for another
place. “My” room had five beds in it.
I thought I had paid for a private space.
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:10 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Sent at 16/4/2018 17:40
I double-checked. The listing clearly stated “no bunk
beds”, but down in the fine print I finally found the
words “shared room”.
Two weeks was not enough time to find an apartment
in San Francisco. Not on my budget. Rents were higher
than in New York or London. One-beds were running at
about $3,000 per month; studios, about $2,500; shares,
$1,500; and illegal crap shares, $1,000. It was the same
deal across the bay to the east in Oakland and Berkeley,
as well as to the south in the Silicon suburbs of Redwood
City, Palo Alto and Mountain View. Whatever I might
save in rent by living on the periphery I would lose in
transportation costs and time.
These “hacker houses” were the products of
disruptive innovation in the urban property market. The
city was once riddled with small apartments and singlefamily homes that sheltered trifling handfuls of obsolete
labourers and their unproductive children, often for
decades at a stretch. But the tech boom let such so-called
family homes reach their full potential as investment
properties. Some hacker houses were attached to
startup investment incubators or shared workspaces.
Others amounted to little more than flimsy bunks in a
windowless room. A number of trend-savvy investors
purchased or leased dozens of residential properties
around the Bay Area to rent out in this fashion.
Although I envied them from my dark and squalid
quarters, the San Francisco long-timers who lived in
rent-controlled apartments were in situations nearly
as precarious as my own. I met a musician who lived
in a $600 rent-controlled apartment in the Mission.
When I met her, she was terrified that her landlord
would evict her and sell the building so that it could
be rented out at six times the price to white techie
colonisers such as myself.
With landlords eager to cash in, formal evictions
had increased 55% in five years. More often, though,
landlords simply bullied their tenants into packing up.
“Tenants are getting evicted for having cups in their
cupboards. The landlords say it’s clutter. They’ll say
anything. Eventually the tenants just give up,” a lawyer
for a tenants’ rights organisation told me. His employer,
the Eviction Defense Collaborative, was itself getting
evicted from its offices so that the landlord could rent
the space to a tech startup.
My earnings potential had plummeted when I stopped
writing software and started writing for newspapers. I
now looked with envy at the techies, the winners, the
pioneers. They had ideas. They had momentum. Most
important, they had money. Why not me?
I wasn’t just changing careers and jumping on
the “learn to code” bandwagon. I was being steadily
indoctrinated in a specious ideology. As proud as I was
of having learned new skills, I didn’t understand that
the only way to turn those skills into a livelihood was to
embrace the economy of the digital world, where giant
corporations wrote the rules.
My idea was to pitch a tech startup and get obscenely
rich while writing a book about how to pitch a tech
startup and get obscenely rich – the Silicon Valley way.
To save money, I took to cooking my own meals most
of the time. This was when I discovered that it was much
easier to launch a tech startup if you could afford to
always have food delivered and never had to deal with
mundane chores such as doing laundry, washing dishes
or buying groceries. As one Twitter wag observed, San
Francisco’s “tech culture is focused on solving one
problem: what is my mother no longer doing for me?”
I never felt older nor crankier than when watching
these “digital natives” stumble through the daily
rituals of adulthood. One of the kids, an overachieving
Ivy Leaguer whose Google internship demanded an
advanced understanding of high-level mathematics, was
completely baffled when it came to using a simple rice
cooker. I explained the process: put in rice, add water,
press the button labelled “cook”. He grew increasingly
flustered, and I suspected he wanted me to make the
rice for him. He managed to sauté a boneless, skinless
chicken breast, but only by following the instructions on
the package to the letter.
“How did it turn out?” I asked.
“It’s terrible. Bland,” he said. “I’m full, that’s
The Guardian Tuesday 17 April 2018
San Francisco’s tech culture is
focused on solving one problem:
what is my mother no longer
doing for me?
all that matters. I don’t care how it tastes.”
When I first heard about Soylent, the startup selling
a gooey “meal replacement beverage” powder with a
determinedly “neutral” flavour, I wondered what sort
of miserable insensates would choose to subsist on such
glop. Now I knew.
It may have been better for everyone when the
overpaid nerds stayed home. “They’re importing children
to destroy the culture,” one bar owner told me.
Indeed, to overhear the baby-faced billionaire
wannabes exchanging boastful inanities in public could
be enraging. Their inevitable first question was: “What’s
your space?” Not “How’s it going?” Not “Where are you
from?” But: “What’s your space?”
This was perhaps the most insufferable bit of tech
jargon I heard. “What’s your space?” meant “What
does your company do?” This was not quite the same
as asking: “What do you do for a living?” because one’s
company may well produce no living at all. A “space”
had an aspirational quality a day job never would. If you
were a writer, you would never say “I’m a writer”. You
would say “I’m in the content space”, or, if you were more
ambitious, “I’m in the media space”. But if you were
really ambitious you would know that “media” was out
and “platforms” were in, and that the measure – excuse
me, the “metric” – that investors used to judge platform
companies was attention, because this ephemeral thing,
attention, could be sold to advertisers for cash. So if
someone asked “What’s your space?” and you had a
deeply unfashionable job like, say, writer, it behooved
you to say “I deliver eyeballs like a fucking ninja”.
In my former life I would have sooner gouged out my
own eyeballs than describe myself in such a way, but in
post-recession, post-boom, post-work, post-shame San
Francisco, we all did what we had to do to survive.
I was beginning to become acquainted with the infinite
solipsism of my new milieu. We were grown men who
lived like captive gerbils, pressing one lever to make food
appear and another for some fleeting entertainment –
everything on demand. Airbnb and Foodpanda served
the flesh, Netflix and Lifehacker nourished the soul.
I relied on sites such as EventBrite and Meetup to keep
my social calendar full and my expenses down. I went
to a party at the Yelp office – like most of the freebies
around town, it was advertised online. The venue was
a forbidding art deco tower – the old PacBell building,
constructed for the California branch of the national
telephone monopoly in its heyday. Now the tower’s
largest tenant was a website that allows anonymous
semi-literates to post critiques of local establishments.
Most of the crowd seemed to work at Yelp, and felt
obliged to stick around for the event. But there was
something else keeping these people here – an overriding
anxiety about unfamiliar spaces.
Life outside the startup bubble was frightening and
unpredictable. Inside, it was safe. “Fun” was mandatory
in the Bay Area tech world, and inebriation strongly
encouraged. The bar at Yelp, for instance, featured three
kegs of high-end craft beer and an array of wines and
spirits. This was not a temporary selection for the benefit
of us honoured guests, but a permanent fixture of the
commissary. Normally open only to employees, the
Yelp Cafe had a perfect five-star rating ... on Yelp. “Well,
looks like I’m never leaving my office compound!” one
reviewer wrote.
A corporate recruiter explained to me the forces
driving the “perks war”, an escalating tit-for-tat of such
freebies as steak dinners delivered to employees’ desks,
free laundry service, free bikes and bike repair, free
concierge service and, of course, free drinks.
“They might get a $20 steak, but with the extra time
they’ve stayed at work, they’ve provided an extra $200
in value to their employer,” the recruiter said. Thus the
seemingly lavish enticements were a way to attract profitproducing programmers, who were in exceedingly high
demand, without offering higher salaries. The perks also
provided effective cover for the companies’ slave-driving
work schedules.
My flatmates seemed happy with the arrangement, at
least at first. “Everything they say about Google is true,”
one intern told me after his orientation at the Googleplex.
“There are 20 cafeterias, a gym – everything.” Early
each weekday morning, he and the other Googlers in his
neighbourhood swiped their ID cards to board a chartered
bus parked near the Bart station, then rode 35 miles to
Mountain View. They started working onboard the bus,
which was equipped with wifi, and didn’t leave the
campus until about 8pm, when another bus ferried them
home after they ate at the company cafeteria. This was a
pretty standard deal at the big Silicon Valley companies.
Even rinky-dink startups in SoMa warehouses offered
free catering. “The perks, man!” another roommate, a
non-Googler, raved after arriving home at 10pm from his
first day on the job.
“I worked until 9pm because dinner is free if you work
that late ... And they’ll pay for your cab home,” he went
on. That became his routine, and he never questioned
it. Come to think of it, like a lot of his contemporaries, he
never questioned anything.
A Google
conference in
San Francisco
In this milieu, a certain tolerance for phoniness was
prerequisite. It was not enough to have the right skills,
put in your time and get the job done – you had to be
fucking pumped about your job. Certain specialities
were in more demand than others. Any chump with
a humanities degree could talk his or her way into a
marketing job, but programmers were harder to come
by. One sunny day, I followed the waterfront to the event
center at Pier 27 and signed in to the DeveloperWeek
DevWeek, as everyone called it, was basically a weeklong recruitment fair sprinkled with slideshows and
panel talks. It was jarring to see employers desperate
to hire, not the other way around. In 2010s America,
the only place that was always hiring, apart from
Silicon Valley, was the local US army recruiting centre.
Hundreds upon hundreds of people had flocked here
to look for a better job and still there were not enough
applicants to fill all the openings for “Java Legends,
Python Badasses, Hadoop Heroes”, and other gratingly
childish classifications describing various programming
specialities. Techies would call themselves just about
anything to avoid the stigmatising label of “worker”.
They could only face themselves in the mirror if their
business card proved that they were rock stars or ninjas
or something romantic and brave and individualistic –
anything but the truth, anything but a drone.
I had an important realisation at DevWeek: I wasn’t
the only one bluffing my way through the tech scene.
Everyone was doing it, even the much-sought-after
engineering talent. I was struck by how many developers
were, like myself, not really programmers, but rather
this, that and the other. A great number of tech ninjas
were not exactly black belts when it came to the actual
onerous work of computer programming. So many of
the complex, discrete tasks involved in the creation
of a website or an app had been automated that it was
no longer necessary to possess knowledge of software
mechanics. The coder’s work was rarely a craft. The apps
ran on an assembly line, built with “open-source”, offthe-shelf components. The most important computer
commands for the ninja to master were copy and paste.
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:11 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Tuesday 17 April 2018 The Guardian
Sent at 16/4/2018 17:40
Under the latest iteration of the
American Dream, if you aren’t a
billionaire yet, you haven’t tried
hard enough
Barack Obama’s White House had endorsed Silicon
Valley’s “learn to code” campaign – it was an official
government job-creation programme. With the
traditional US job market still a smouldering charcoal
pit after the 2008 crash, computer programming skills
were promoted as one sure way to attain the sort of
prosperity and stability Americans had over many
decades come to expect.
And yet, many programmers who had “made it” in
Silicon Valley were scrambling to promote themselves
from coder to “founder”. There wasn’t necessarily more
money to be had running a startup, and the increase in
status was marginal unless one’s startup attracted major
investment and the right kind of press coverage. It’s
because the programmers knew that their own ladder
to prosperity was on fire and disintegrating fast. They
knew that well-paid programming jobs would also soon
turn to smoke and ash, as the proliferation of learn-tocode courses around the world lowered the market value
of their skills, and as advances in artificial intelligence
allowed for computers to take over more of the mundane
work of producing software. The programmers also
knew that the fastest way to win that promotion to
founder was to find some new domain that hadn’t
yet been automated. Every tech industry campaign
designed to spur investment in the Next Big Thing – at
that time, it was the “sharing economy” – concealed
a larger programme for the transformation of society,
always in a direction that favoured the investor and
executive classes.
In the first seven years after the 2008 crash, 16 million
people left the US labour force. And in that same period,
thanks to Silicon Valley’s timely opportunism, the
country gained an endless bounty of gigs. Tech startups,
backed by Wall Street, swept in to offer displaced workers
countless push-button moneymaking schemes – what
Bloomberg News called “entrepreneurialism-in-abox”. Need fast cash? Take out a “peer-to-peer” loan,
or start a crowdfunding campaign. Need a career? Take
on odd jobs as a TaskRabbit or pitch corporate swag as
a YouTube “vlogger”. Nine-to-five jobs with benefits
and overtime may be in the process of getting disrupted
out of existence, but in their place we have the internet,
with endless gigs and freelance opportunities, where
survival becomes something like a video game – a matter
of pressing the right buttons to attain instant gratification
and meagre rewards.
More than a third of American workers now qualify
as “freelancers” or “contingent workers” – that is,
their livelihoods are contingent upon the whims of
their managers. That’s because the choice to become
entrepreneurs has been made for them. The destruction
of social welfare, public education and organised labour
has created what might be called the 50 Cent economy,
a system structured to offer only two options: “Get rich
or die trying.” George W Bush called it the “ownership
society”. Obama, smitten with his Silicon Valley donors,
gave us “Startup America”. And Donald Trump, history’s
luckiest winner, reigned over a nation of “losers”. Under
the latest iteration of the American Dream, if you aren’t a
billionaire yet, you haven’t tried hard enough.
The contemporary equivalent of an entry-level job in
the corporate mailroom was a work-from-home service
called Mechanical Turk, operated by Amazon, the $136bn
online retailer controlled by Jeff Bezos. The idea with
Mechanical Turk was to create a digitised assembly line
featuring thousands of separate “human intelligence
tasks”, designed to be completed within seconds and
paying pennies. Academic surveys found that many
Turkers worked more than 30 hours per week for average
wages of under $2 per hour. Yet these workers were
considered self-employed small business owners. Their
work was commissioned by social scientists seeking to
cut costs on large-sample surveys, but also by profitminded companies that hired hundreds of Turkers as
needed, instead of a full- or part-time employee.
Another sharing economy upstart called Fiverr was
a catalogue of freelance “gigs”, from illustration to
translation, all sold at a fixed cost of $5. Launched in
2010 by two Israelis, Fiverr raised more than $50m in
investment within five years, on annual revenue of $15m.
Silicon Valley investors praised the founders’ “incredible
Employees at
the Square Inc
headquarters in
San Francisco
Corey Pein
is an
reporter and
writer who lives
in Portland,
vision” and swooned over the “liquidity, velocity
and engagement” the company brought to the global
It was remarkable what people were willing to do
for $5, or more like $3.92 after service fees. A lot of ads
promised custom website development. Others offered
quick-and-dirty logos, proofreading, or résumé writing.
I hoped to forge my place in the strange niche of bargain
basement flat-fee consulting. Thousands of people were
paying $5 to strangers for direction on matters they found
too difficult, too stressful or too trivial to face alone.
Fiverr’s terms of service forbade “nonsense” and “uncool
stuff ” but the service seemed to tolerate ads like one for
an Amazon “Kindle ghostwriting machine”; or another
for tools designed “to cheat likes on social networks”;
and still another for “a profitable forex cheating strategy”
– an obvious scam that Fiverr marked for a while as
“recommended”. I had entered a murky ethical realm. I
scanned gigs methodically. I learned that it paid to overpromise. No matter was too momentous:
“I will teach you to make Life and Death Decisions
for $5.”
This gig was listed by a Fiverr-certified “top-rated
seller” who claimed experience as a broker of precious
“I will help you Survive the Fatal Ebola Virus Epidemic
for $5.”
As far as I knew, there was no cure for Ebola. But who
was I to argue with a five-star-rated seller? Could 2,679
customers be wrong?
On the site’s discussion boards, sellers swapped
stories of unfair competition from scammers, insufficient
payments from Fiverr, capricious rules, meagre sales
and endless hours. Some sounded genuinely desperate.
Fiverr even sent its workers emails about increasing
productivity by avoiding depression. Full-time Fiverring
took a physical toll, as well, with many slavish gigpeddlers reporting rapid weight gain. “I know what you
mean! I bought some jeggings this weekend,” one woman
wrote. Another commenter saw opportunity. “If anyone
is interested,” he wrote, “I’m putting together a Fiverr gig
where I will be offering online fitness coaching.”
Fiverr offered a glimpse at the new model worker:
a fat, depressed con artist forever scheming against
his comrades, egged on by the distant architects of the
virtual marketplace– the only real winners. The company
eventually embraced this image and celebrated it with
a subway ad campaign featuring a fatigued-looking
model with frizzy hair and circles under her eyes. “You
eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow
through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice,” the
ad said. “You might be a doer,” it concluded. When
busy-ness became a status symbol, the glamorisation of
exhaustion was inevitable.
I found Corey Ferreira through his website,, which was a marketing vehicle
for his ebook, Fiverr Success: $4,000 a Month. 8 Hours of
Work a Week. Having made a decent amount on Fiverr,
Ferreira had found rates of pay had halved. Faced with
slowing business, he had adopted a new approach: he
could “sell the method”. He got the idea from a book
called The Laptop Millionaire, which describes “a
guy’s journey from being basically homeless to making
money online. One of the things he talks about is making
‘information products’.” Hence Fiverr Success by Corey
Ferreira was born, selling “hundreds” of copies at $17.
The book marked a transition for Ferreira, as he spent
less time doing labour-intensive web design and more
time searching for the cold fusion of internet marketing:
“passive income.” “I remember when eBay started,” he
told me. “I was kinda young. Everybody was talking
about how to make money on eBay. I remember
somebody telling me, ‘During a gold rush, you should
sell shovels’.”
I felt he had let me in on some oracular wisdom.
Don’t dig for gold: sell shovels to all the suckers who
think they’ll get rich digging for gold. To post an ad on
Fiverr was to announce one’s status as an easy mark.
To hawk get-rich-quick manuals to all those eager
Fiverrers, however, was to join the exalted ranks of the
shovel merchants.
My Airbnb landlord, I realised, was a shovel
merchant. As was the company that rented me server
space for website hosting. As were the “startup
community organisers” selling tickets to conferences
and networking parties. As were the startup awards
shows and Hacker News and the whole Silicon
Valley economic apparatus promoting the ideal of
individual achievement. We startup wannabes were
not entrepreneurs. We were suckers for the shovel
merchants, who were much cleverer than the thickskulled “innovators” who did all the work while trading
away the rewards.
For a business incompetent such as myself,
this concept of selling a method, rather than a
straightforward product or service, was revelatory. I
understood this lesson as an extension of that old saying
about teaching a man to fish instead of just giving him
a fish. Now the idea was: you made him pay for fishing
lessons, offering student loans if necessary, and failed
to mention that you had already depleted the pool. In a
late capitalist society with dwindling opportunities for
cash-poor workers and few checks on entrepreneurial
conduct, what could be better to sell than false hope?
This was a smart business.
Unfortunately, the techie hustlers can be a little too
clever for their own good – and ours. With decades
of unwavering support from the military-industrial
complex, Congress and Wall Street, the pallid princelings
of Silicon Valley rewrote the rules of the global economy
in their favour. The public, fooled as it was by the tech
industry’s slick marketing and lulled by the novelty
and convenience of its gadgetry, might be forgiven for
missing some early warning signs. (Remember when
the Google guys used to rhapsodise about beaming
the internet – with the attendant targeted advertising
– directly into people’s brains? It doesn’t sound so farfetched and quirky now, does it?)
If we are feeling generous, the same retrospective
clemency could even be shown to politicians who
mistook Silicon Valley for just another well-heeled
lobby looking for favours, and to the reporters who
were suckered by the rapid rise of “revolutionary”
companies such as Theranos and Uber. But the builders
of our digital dystopia – the tech titans themselves, and
their armies of engineers – have no such excuses. They
will talk about the mistakes they have made. They will
express regret for their oversights and make a show of
contrition. Don’t be fooled.
The dark side of Big Tech, which many consumers
are only beginning to come to grips with, is not some
byproduct of California-style “conscious capitalism”
– an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise heroic effort
to “change the world”. Profit-hunger, philistinism and
misanthropy are and always have been at the core of the
enterprise. The new breed of Silicon Valley billionaires
knew exactly what they were doing. The plan was to take
all the money and run – to Mars, if necessary. •
Adapted from Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey
into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, published by
Metropolitan Books in the US, and forthcoming from
Scribe in the UK
Section:GDN 1J PaGe:12 Edition Date:180417 Edition:01 Zone:
Sent at 16/4/2018 16:47
The Guardian Tuesday 17 April 2018
Killer Sudoku
Each letter of the alphabet makes at least one appearance in the grid,
and is represented by the same number wherever it appears. The letters
decoded should help you to identify other letters and words in the grid.
Killer Sudoku
The normal rules of
Sudoku apply: fill each
row, column and 3x3 box
with all the numbers from
1 to 9. In addition, the
digits in each inner shape
(marked by dots) must
add up to the number in
the top corner of that box.
No digit can be repeated
within an inner shape.
Cryptic crossword
Solution No. 27,484
Guardian cryptic crossword No 27,485 set by Boatman
Stuck? For help call 0906 200 83 83.
Calls cost £1.10 per minute, plus your
phone company’s access charge.
Service supplied by ATS.
Call 0330 333 6946 for customer
service (charged at standard rate).
Want more? Get access to more than
4,000 puzzles at
crossword. To buy puzzle books, visit or call
0330 333 6846.
1 Criminal boss — the first one died
violently (6)
4 Gang joined by Italian-American
stripper? (6)
9 Call to stop lying in new hoax (4)
10 Helping or turning back detective
taken in by this criminal racket
11 Tomorrow, exchange money for
Bahamas’ foremost fruit (6)
12 Hunters, winging it in battered
deerstalkers, dare to go out (8)
13 Part of gun detective loses points
to a Scandinavian location (9)
15 Eat into racket with threats at its
core (4)
16 Fight roughly, getting head
knocked off (4)
17 After a dispute, subdue with
sweetener (9)
21 Fixed charge for flycatcher (8)
22 Of late, wrong to demand with
menaces (6)
24 Here in Ohio, crime reported
twice (returning thanks,
Boatman) (10)
25 Sarcasm not unknown as a
weapon in the US (4)
26 Detective on racket: “It’s fishy”
27 Deal with body of crime writer (6)
1 Recite Farewell, My Lovely from
memory (2,5)
2 US lawman conceals memory of
tragedy? (5)
3 If man performs evil acts, charge
him — leaders included (7)
5 Menacing suggestion: loser
beaten up with rifle butt (2,4)
6 Prohibition: having three in
charge (9)
7 “Pole lifted stolen goods” — that’s
an informer (7)
8 Examine local yokels — to put
through the wringer (4,7,2)
14 26 perhaps the result of acid
attack on hotshot in California (9)
16 Criminal libel: “US thugs” (7)
18 Where organised crime
penetrated society that
rejected drink (7)
19 Tough guy who investigated
more lawbreaking (7)
20 Not exactly The Big Sleep, taking
DNA in abduction case (6)
23 Gang gets time over botched raid
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