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NHS crisis grows as young Britons turn their backs on family doctors
Growing number of 18- to 34-year-olds ‘head straight to A&E’ as health service fails to match new lifestylesAn alarming new dimension to the NHS crisis has been revealed as data shows young adults are bypassing GPs and heading straight to overstretched A&E departments because they can’t get suitable appointments.A stark generational divide in the way people use the NHS is highlighted in a report by Citizens Advice, which finds that people aged 18 to 34 are more than twice as likely to attend A&E departments or walk-in centres as those aged 55 and over – and that they are far less likely than older people to be able to see a GP when they need to. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 21:23:10 GMT)

US seeks China help against North Korea cyberattacks after Sony hack – report
Officials tell New York Times approach is part of ‘proportional response’US-China relations have been strained over cybersecurity issuesNorth Korea demands joint investigation into Sony Pictures hackOpinion: Can we all calm down about cyberwar with North Korea?The US government has reportedly asked China to help block North Korea’s ability to launch cyberattacks, in the wake of the massive hack of Sony Pictures.Administration officials told the New York Times the sought-for cooperation was one of the first steps toward the “proportional response” President Barack Obama promised on Friday in his first comments on the fiasco. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:16:44 GMT)

Labour races into seven-point lead as ratings for Nigel Farage show sharp fall
Observer/Opinium poll puts Labour on 36%, with the Tories on 29% and Ukip down three points to 16%Labour has opened up a seven-point lead over the Conservatives in the latest Opinium/Observer poll, which also shows a sharp fall in the personal approval ratings for the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage.The survey will be a boost for Labour and its leader, Ed Miliband, who has endured a torrid time since the autumn conference season as the political parties prepare to enter a general election year. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 20:55:02 GMT)

Two NYPD officers 'assassinated' in Brooklyn before gunman shoots himself
Officers killed in ambush named as Wenjian Liu and Rafael RamosSuspect Ismaaiyl Brinsley also linked to shooting in BaltimoreTwo New York City police officers were shot and killed on Saturday afternoon, as they sat in their patrol car in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn. In a Saturday evening press conference at Woodhull medical center in the borough, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, his voice cracking with emotion, named the two officers killed as Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 01:53:20 GMT)

UK must probe its role in CIA torture, says UN legal expert
UN’s former special rapporteur on torture says claims such as sanctioned use of Diego Garcia as ‘black site’ to render Libyans must be examinedThe UK must launch an independent investigation into its alleged role in the CIA torture programme, according to the United Nations legal expert who unearthed evidence that the British territory of Diego Garcia was used as a “black site” to hold detainees.Professor Manfred Nowak, who between 2004 and 2010 served as the UN special rapporteur on torture, told the Observer that the publication earlier this month of a 500-page US Senate report into the CIA’s torture programme meant the role played by EU member states would finally come out. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 21:53:08 GMT)

Pakistan dares to ask: will school attack finally end myth of the ‘good Taliban’?
Decades of state support for jihadis has led to national confusion over who the real enemies are. But the latest attack might be a watershedIt is not just the survivors of Tuesday’s assault on Peshawar’s Army Public School who have been reliving the nightmarish attack that left 132 teenage boys dead. The entire country has been traumatised by graphic accounts of gunmen spraying bullets into a hall full of children and then later sadistically killing others after checking whether their parents served in the military.On Wednesday, Pakistan’s army made a point of letting scores of television crews trample over the crime scene in order that they could broadcast pictures of rooms blasted by suicide bombers, floors covered with pools of barely dried blood, and the sad detritus of an ordinary school day suddenly interrupted by seven terrorists. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:00 GMT)

Former newspaper boss tells police of VIP paedophile cover-up claim
Ex-news editor who was issued with warning against reporting on allegedly powerful paedophile ring is interviewed by policeA former local newspaper executive who claims that he was issued with an official warning in the early 1980s against reporting on an allegedly powerful paedophile ring has been interviewed by police.In a sign of growing concern that there has been a cover-up of the involvement of politicians in the sexual abuse of children, Hilton Tims, 81, was approached by officers and asked to tell all that he knows about the affair. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:33:42 GMT)

Ukip tells members: ‘Don’t go on Twitter’
Nigel Farage’s party moves to ban unauthorised use of Ukip logo after embarrassing string of gaffesNigel Farage is cracking down on Ukip supporters’ social media activity after a series of scandals over racist comments. The party has changed its constitution to prevent unauthorised use of the Ukip logo by supporters, members and officials, while Ukip’s chairman has warned those tempted to join Twitter: “My advice: just don’t.”The move follows hugely embarrassing revelations about the publicly stated views of a host of Ukip European and local election candidates. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:00 GMT)

Retailers report a shopping bonanza on ‘Panic Saturday’
Stores across country hire extra security staff to deal with crowds of shoppersBlack Friday was followed by Panic Saturday as shoppers thronged town centres preparing to spend an estimated £1.2bn on last-minute gifts before Christmas Day.Special crowd-control measures were enforced at Birmingham’s New Street station, and stores across the country were forced to hire extra security in the wake of last month’s ugly scenes, when shoppers fought over access to bargains. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 21:22:55 GMT)

Alex Salmond calls for ‘peasants’ revolt’ vote to abolish House of Lords
Former Scottish first minister says English referendum needed to ‘clean out the stables’ and provoke a ‘constitutional revolution’Alex Salmond has called for a “peasants’ revolt-type” referendum in England to abolish the House of Lords.The former Scottish first minister said such a vote was needed to “clean out the stables” and provoke a “constitutional revolution — let’s get rid of the House of Lords and stick in a people’s senate”. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 11:41:04 GMT)

Lockerbie bomber’s guilt reaffirmed by Scotland’s top prosecutor
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s guilt in killing of 270 people in 1988 Pan Am bombing remains unchallenged by Crown OfficeScotland’s top prosecutor has reaffirmed Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s guilt in the killing of 270 people in the Lockerbie bombing and has pledged to track down his accomplices.The lord advocate, Frank Mulholland, said no Crown Office investigator or prosecutor has raised a concern about the evidence in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 26 years ago. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 18:55:34 GMT)

Second man arrested over murder of off-duty Liverpool policeman
Detectives investigating officer’s death on Christmas night out interviewing a 30-year-old manA second man has been arrested on suspicion of murdering off-duty police constable Neil Doyle. Doyle, 36, was attacked in Liverpool city centre in the early hours of Friday morning during a Christmas night out with colleagues.A 30-year-old man from Huyton, Merseyside, has been arrested and taken to a police station to be interviewed by detectives. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 23:12:01 GMT)

Anti-inflammatory drugs ‘could fight depression’
Scientists to launch £5m study that explores links between immune disorders and mental illness – and could lead to new treatmentsScientists at seven UK universities are to set up a research consortium aimed at exploiting a newly discovered link between immune disorders and mental illness.The connection raises hopes that anti-inflammatory drugs can be adapted to treat patients with depression or senile dementia. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 02:12:00 GMT)

Natural disasters, not wars, prompt Brits to give to charity
Study finds that people are more willing to donate when an emergency – such as a tsunami or earthquake – is seen as beyond human controlFewer than a third of British people believe in the humanitarian principle that we have a duty to help everyone in distress, regardless of circumstances, according to a new survey conducted by the Charities Aid Foundation.The research revealed that, beneath the generosity that people show in giving to charity, there is also a judgment – which means that people give far less money to help innocent people caught up in war or conflict than to people who suffer as a result of “natural” disasters, such as earthquakes or floods. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:04:00 GMT)

Cairns stabbings: police piece together circumstances around children's murder
Police expect to lay charges against 37-year-old woman over the killing of seven of her own children and a teenage niece Queensland police have said a “much clearer picture” has emerged of circumstances around the killings of eight children in Cairns as the mother of seven of them remains under police guard in hospital on suspicion of their murder.The woman, 37, has not been charged but is under arrest after seven of her own children and a teenage niece were found on Friday stabbed to death. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:17:53 GMT)

NHS Ebola staff ‘insulted’ by UK travel ban
Volunteers’ anger at restrictions imposed on their return home from west AfricaAs the latest of the six British-built Ebola treatment centres in west Africa admitted its first three patients this weekend, some of the volunteer NHS staff working there over Christmas said they felt insulted by a draconian ramping up of the protocols they have been told they will have to follow when they return to the UK.Public Health England (PHE) has told the NHS personnel it is increasing restrictions on their movements when they return from the frontline of Ebola-infection, banning them from travelling on public transport for longer than an hour and increasing from two to three the number of weeks before they can return to work. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:03:00 GMT)

Two Scotland Yard officers fired over obscene images
Constables in diplomatic protection group dismissed without notice after admitting to gross misconductTwo police officers from Scotland Yard’s diplomatic protection group have been sacked for sending obscene images from their mobile phones.The pair, aged 34 and 36, lost their jobs after admitting gross misconduct and being found guilty of a breach of integrity by force bosses. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 20:40:29 GMT)

US releases four Guantánamo Bay prisoners to Afghanistan
Official: ‘Repatriation reflects commitment to closing facility’Release follows six men sent to Uruguay earlier this monthPrisoners released to Uruguay: ‘We’re so happy to be here’Want to know the reality of US torture? Ask Shaker AamerThe US announced on Saturday the release of four more prisoners from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. The four men were repatriated to Afghanistan.Paul Lewis, the Defense Department’s special envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, said: “This repatriation reflects the Defense Department’s continued commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo in a responsible manner.” Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:52:35 GMT)

Spain’s new security law sparks protests across country
Human rights groups say law is parliament’s attempt to ‘gag’ public and muzzle protests over its handling of country’s financial crisisThousands of people have been protesting in Spanish cities against a new law that sets hefty fines for offences such as burning the national flag and demonstrating outside parliament buildings or strategic installations.The public security law, which was approved last week by parliament, has been heavily criticised by opposition parties and human rights groups as an attempt by the conservative government to muzzle protests over its handling of Spain’s financial crisis. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 20:24:01 GMT)

University funding reform ‘will cause brain drain’ to London
Unfashionable areas of study face funding cuts under new proposalsMinisters have been warned of a potential “brain drain” of researchers away from smaller universities and a further concentration of talent in London and the south-east if they go ahead with a major funding reform.Universities UK has been told that it will need to make a “robust case” in favour of the current system, which ensures that academic researchers working in unfashionable areas of study at less celebrated institutions are eligible for taxpayers’ money. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:00 GMT)

Mother arrested as Cairns mourns eight stabbed children
Queensland police consider murder charges against 37-year-old, mother to seven of the victims, as relatives tell of their shock and disbeliefHow police discovered ‘distressing scene’Queensland police said they were considering murder charges against a Cairns mother as relatives struggled to fathom how a woman who was a maternal figure to extended family and friends could be accused of killing seven of her own children, as well as a niece, in Australia’s worst ever such case.The arrested woman, aged 37, remained under police guard in hospital on Saturday after the stabbing deaths of the eight children at her house in the north Queensland city’s suburb of Manoora a day earlier. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 10:21:01 GMT)

Ebola death toll close to 7,400, says World Health Organisation
WHO figures show more than 19,000 people infected across west Africa, with Sierra Leone accounting for nearly half of totalThe death toll from the worst ever outbreak of Ebola has reached nearly 7,400, with just over 19,000 people infected across west Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).Sierra Leone reported 400 new fatalities this week, bringing the death toll there to 2,500. As of 18 December, it had the highest number of people infected by the virus – 8,800 cases, of which 6,900 were confirmed, according to the country’s health ministry. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:43:16 GMT)

'Obama traitor': Cuban Americans protest US push to renew ties
More than 200 anti-Castro demonstrators gathered Saturday in Miami’s Little Havana to show opposition to announcement on changing policyCubans look to future with optimism in wake of historic breakthroughVideo: Cuba faces ‘long and difficult struggle’ to lift US embargoWaving flags and chanting “Obama, traitor,” anti-Castro protesters gathered Saturday in a Little Havana park in a show of opposition to the president’s plan to normalise relations with Cuba.More than 200 people listened to speeches, and many carried Cuban and American flags. Some speakers emphasised the unity of the Cuban-American community and said there was not a generational divide, even though most in the crowd were older. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 21:21:19 GMT)

Britain’s immigration system in intensive care, say MPs
Committee report says failure to introduce system of ‘counting everyone in and out’ risks security and more illegal immigrationBritain’s immigration system has gone into intensive care, with serious doubts that a pledge to introduce 100% exit checks on all passengers leaving the country can be in place by the general election, say MPs.The Commons home affairs select committee says a failure to introduce a system of “counting everyone in, and everyone out” of Britain within the promised timetable may increase security risks and illegal immigration. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 00:01:09 GMT)

Purchase of New Era estate in London confirmed by charitable foundation
US investors had planned to evict families and more than double rents before campaigners brought change of fortunesUS investors who planned to evict dozens of families and more than double rents at the New Era estate in east London have sold the development to Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation, an affordable housing group which says it is committed to delivering low cost rents to Londoners on low to middle incomes.Rents at New Era will be kept at current levels for the next year, meaning tenants “do not need to worry about this Christmas or next Christmas,” according to John Gooding, the chief executive of Dolphin Living, the foundation’s customer-facing arm.New Era women plot next move having defeated lazy government and greedy corporations. pic.twitter.com/ASTNxI8GlW Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 15:43:00 GMT)

Raúl Castro: Cuba faces 'long and difficult struggle' to lift US embargo
Obama needs Republican-controlled Congress to support normalisationCastro: influential US exiles could ‘sabotage the process'Tell us: are you hopeful for the future of US-Cuban relations?Behind the scenes of the US-Cuba dealCuban President Raúl Castro told parliament on Saturday the country will face a “long and difficult struggle” before the US removes its economic embargo, despite the historic agreement this week to restore diplomatic ties. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama reset Washington’s cold war-era policy against Cuba, but he still needs the Republican-controlled Congress to lift the embargo. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 16:49:22 GMT)

US drone attack kills at least five Taliban fighters in Pakistan – report
Officials say two missiles fired in north-west of countryFive ‘terrorists’ killed in separate attack, say militarySchool massacre is ‘Pakistan’s 9/11’A US drone fired two missiles at a militant hideout in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, killing at least five Taliban fighters, two security officials said.In a separate operation, the military said Pakistani security forces killed five “terrorists” on the outskirts of Peshawar, where the Pakistani Taliban carried out a school massacre earlier this week, killing 148 people, mainly children. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 13:44:33 GMT)

Drug dealer jailed for helping Isis terrorism suspect flee to Syria
Ali Mohammed Said was arrested in London after trying to smuggle false passport to man seeking to join Islamic StateA drug dealer has been jailed for attempting to smuggle a passport and £2,000 in cash to a suspected terrorist who is thought to have fled Britain in the back of a lorry and is seeking to join Islamic State.Ali Mohammed Said, 23, from Camden, north London, was arrested as he tried to board a Eurostar train to Brussels with a false passport, money and a new mobile phone with one number in Belgium stored in the memory. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 19:58:45 GMT)

CIA unlikely to penalise staff over search of Senate computers – report
Review panel investigating search of staffers from the intelligence committee will not recommend disciplining CIA officials, according to the New York TimesSenate report on CIA torture claims spy agency lied about ‘ineffective’ programA panel investigating the CIA’s search of a computer network used by Senate staff will not recommend disciplining the agency officials involved in the incident, according to the New York Times.The review panel is looking into the search by agency officials of staffers from the Senate intelligence committee who were investigating the CIA’s use of torture in interrogations of detainees after the 9/11 attacks on the US. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 18:03:21 GMT)

New Era residents toast Christmas victory after charity buys London estate
Families celebrate after US investor Westbrook Partners abandons plans to evict families and triple rentsTo the sound of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” on the jukebox and with open fires crackling in the grates of the Stag pub, the residents of the New Era estate in east London last night toasted a remarkable Christmas victory.At 2pm on Friday it was confirmed that the 93 families’ battle against eviction by an $11bn US investor had finally been successful. Months of protesting, marching and petitioning had forced the millionaire executives of Westbrook Partners to sell the estate, abandoning plans to evict families and triple rents. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 19:39:33 GMT)

Judge rules against anti-whaling activists in campaign to stop Japan hunt
Environmentalists found in contempt of court as Japanese whalers demand $2m along with attorney fees and damage and cost to ships Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers were found in contempt of court for continuing their relentless campaign to disrupt the annual whale hunt off the waters of Antarctica.The ninth US circuit court of appeals on Friday ordered a commissioner to determine how much Paul Watson and members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society he founded owe Japanese whalers for lawyer fees, damage to their ships and for violating the court order to stop their dangerous protests. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 14:31:00 GMT)

Israeli aircraft bomb Hamas base in Gaza Strip after militants fired rocket
Israeli defence force says there were no casualties from bombing, the first since conflict ended in AugustIsraeli aircraft bombed a Hamas militant base in the Gaza Strip on Friday for the first time since the end of a war in the territory.The bombs struck in the Khan Younis area in the southern Gaza Strip. Local hospital officials said there were no casualties. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 01:09:42 GMT)

Strictly Come Dancing: Flack steps up to take the crown with perfect 40s
The season final was another showstopper of sidesteps, smiles and spray-tans – with a visit from the ever-shrinking Take ThatThis year’s final of Strictly Come Dancing came at the end of what we aficionados like to term an “interesting” season. As Sir Bruce Forsyth had hung up his tap shoes, the show was hosted by two female presenters, Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman (yes, two women all on their own), and the world of Saturday night light entertainment seemed to cope extremely well with this unprecedented state of affairs.Then, of course, there were the dancers, or in Judy Murray’s case “A wildly grinning jerky person who wore a sparkly dress and staggered blindly about the stage as if recently stunned by falling bricks.” You couldn’t call what Murray did “dancing” exactly, though it was very nice of her to turn up and amuse us all. Considering what her son does for a living it’s perhaps fitting that she turned out to be an extremely good sport. Of course, Murray didn’t make it to the end – that would have been a travesty, or as some of us would have put it, “Excellent!” Those who reached the final were Frankie Bridge from the Saturdays (paired with dancer Kevin Clifton), reality TV star Mark Wright (Karen Hauer), Simon Webbe from Blue (Kristina Rihanoff), and presenter Caroline Flack (Pasha Kovalev). Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:10:05 GMT)

Anatomy of a hoax: how a 17-year-old built a crazy rumour that swept financial media
Tracking the fibs of a high school senior who aspired to make it in finance fills out a picture of a young man who wants more in life but isn’t quite sure how to get thereA high school senior who made $72m? Ways to spot a stock-market hoaxHigh school senior admits stock-trading fortune was a hoaxHigh school senior releases video apology for trading hoaxMohammed Islam, a 17-year-old high school senior, faced a camera in the fluorescent-lit offices of his press representatives and told an audience of strangers that his father wasn’t speaking to him: “My dad’s always told me to be truthful and I went against everything he said. I can’t even express how I can’t speak properly to him any more”. Two years earlier, Islam had told a well-known stock trader that he wanted to break into finance to help his family. Now his family was ashamed of him. He told a reporter, “my dad wanted to disown me. My mom basically said she’d never talk to me. They ... basically wanted to kill me and I haven’t spoken to them since”. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 13:00:09 GMT)

Serial is over but here are seven true-crime stories to fill the gap
The audio phenomenon ended this week, but here are more podcasts, documentaries and novels on similar tipSerial is over, and so are Thursdays. At least that’s how it feels. No longer will fans of the podcast phenomenon, which ended this week, spend their lunch hours swearing at the unreliable office Wi-Fi while they attempt to download the latest installment. All is not lost, however. The show will return in 2015 to tell a new story, and there are plenty of Serial substitutes out there which may help to pass the time. Whether you are a seasoned true crime fan, newly hooked or just looking for a last minute Christmas gift for the highbrow murder fan in your life, here are some suggestions to fill that podcast-shaped hole. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 07:00:10 GMT)

‘I felt like a piece of trash’ – Life inside America’s food processing plants
A new book offers a damning insight into conditions for low-paid, non-union, immigrant workers helping to feed our huge appetite for cheap meatMaria Lopez will never forget that day. It was 2004, the middle of an ordinary shift on the line at Hormel Foods – a sprawling brick-and-concrete complex on the southern edge of Fremont, Nebraska. The worker beside her fed pork shoulders one after another into a spinning saw, just as he did every other day of the week, while Lopez gathered and bagged the trimmed fat to go into Spam. The pace of work had always been steady, but the speed of the line had jumped recently – from 1,000 pigs per hour to more than 1,100 – and Lopez was having trouble keeping up.As her co-worker reached for another shoulder, Lopez rushed to clear the cutting area, and her fingers slipped toward the saw blade. She snatched her hand back but too late. Her index finger dangled by a flap of skin, the bone cut clean through. She screamed as blood spurted and covered her workstation. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:04:00 GMT)

Please bring back those happy days of saucy email banter
The Sony emails might be the last outpourings of people speaking their mind, a dangerous thing these daysThere has been much astonishment, in the aftermath of the Sony leak, that its principal victims, senior executives would you believe, were foolish enough to write so frankly in workplace emails. “Inappropriate” is a word favoured by the obedient, primmer-sounding type of work emailer, as well as by an apologetic Amy Pascal. What kind of irresponsible idiot, nowadays, does not self-censor? Maybe, after a succession of cautionary events, workplace discretion is more advanced in the UK. Put together, Leveson, the News International hacking cases and internal surveillance at the post-Savile BBC have done much to the discourage the punctilious worker from recording anything in an email, a text or even in a draft, that she wouldn’t mind being used, one day, as a standard text for trainee diplomats.It may be some consolation for the Sony executives that, however bad things might look, at least the hackers don’t appear to have unearthed any unsent private love letters, like Rebekah Brooks’s legendary draft. Unless that’s why The Interview was finally cancelled. Written for her colleague, Andy Coulson – later, of course, to become a trusted Downing Street employee – the internal News International love letter remains, for some of us, the highlight, out of so many, of the trial of Brooks, and a gloriously instructive advance on her Leveson texts, including “yes he Cam!”, and “Brilliant speech. I cried twice”. And just as the rest of us watched and learned from her folly, it seems a fair guess that Cameron no longer writes lol-suffixed texts about horse-riding, in the old, Chipping Norton patois: “Fast, unpredictable and hard to control but fun.” Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 00:00:09 GMT)

Strolling Havana’s quiet streets, I saw the first signs of a new age for Cuba
As Raúl Castro and Barack Obama made their historic announcements, the streets were quiet, but the parties were being held at homeOn Wednesday evening, after the US announced its plans to normalise relations with Cuba, I went for a stroll along Havana’s famed coastal esplanade, the Malecón. Although it was dusk, it was still a bit early for the usual revellers who line the seafront to be out, but there was a lone trumpet player sitting along the mostly empty wall. A few motorcycles flew past, with the riders beeping their horns and waving Cuban flags.The trumpeter, like everyone else in the island by this point, had heard the news and was happy about the plans for better relations with the US. He has family in Miami and was optimistic about Cuba’s future. There had been a spontaneous march by students nearby earlier in the day, but the streets were now dark and quiet. At first I was puzzled by the calm: shouldn’t people be out celebrating? But then I realised that Cubans had been talking and texting on their mobiles more than usual – both are expensive to do here – and others were indoors using landlines to speak to friends and relatives as the news coverage blared in the background. The party was at home. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:14:06 GMT)

A letter to … the mother of a baby born on Christmas Day many years ago
The letter you always wanted to writeWe met only fleetingly but there hasn’t been a Christmas Day since that I haven’t thought about you both and wondered what you are doing. We met on Christmas Day many years ago when I was a student nurse part way through my eight-week maternity placement at a hospital in a naval town. I had been lumbered with the unpopular late shift – 12.30pm to 8pm – on the labour ward. As a student nurse, I was deemed even less useful than a student midwife, but that was no good reason to give me Christmas Day off.There were four of us on duty, two staff midwives – one not much older than me, but alarmingly efficient, and an older, less scary, woman. The fourth was an ancient auxiliary who, thinking back, was probably younger than I am now. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 06:45:02 GMT)

Viktoria Modesta, the world's first amputee pop star : ‘If you don’t fit in, then don’t fit in’
When Viktoria Modesta had her damaged leg amputated at the age of 20, it liberated her to pursue her musical ambitions. Now she’s hijacking the X Factor and getting millions of hits, she says disability is no barrier to stardom. But do the rest of us agree?At the age of 15, Viktoria Modesta decided it was time to lose her lower left leg, but it took her another five years to convince a surgeon to do it. “Building an identity that I was more comfortable with, as opposed to the one that was given to me, was very important,” she says. She describes the surgery as a literal severing of the thing that was holding her back, as if it were a cord tethering her to the ground. It was, she says, eyes widening under the brim of her glossy black cap, “a new moment. I genuinely felt I had a life as a new person. I upgraded my opportunities, my comfort, my body. It was really empowering”.Modesta is being championed by Channel 4 as the “world’s first amputee pop artist”. Her music video for her song Prototype – “I’m the model of the future,” she sings – which the channel funded and paid to air in an ad break during the X Factor final on Sunday, has received more than 10m views on the Channel 4 website, and another 1.5m on YouTube. For all that Modesta already looks like a pop star – she is beautiful, with delicate features, and radiates a serene confidence – the video, which carries the channel’s “Born Risky” tagline, celebrates her physical difference. She wears different prosthetics: one a sparkling diamante-covered leg, another a fierce, glossy spike that makes no attempt to resemble a human limb. Perhaps even more powerful – for those of us still unused to seeing images of disability, especially in pop culture – is one particularly sexy scene in which Modesta’s natural leg is on show, the lower part missing below the knee. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 07:30:03 GMT)

My first Christmas in the UK
New arrivals reveal how far they have come – and what the country looks like through an immigrant’s eyesAna Fletcher, 28, was born in Indonesia. She arrived in the UK in August and lives with her husband, a pub manager, in Huddersfield. They have a four-year-old daughter, and Ana has a 10-year-old son in Indonesia. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 08:30:04 GMT)

Oh come all ye Jedi … California Christmas lights get Star Wars soundtrack
For Tom BetGeorge and his 100,000-light festive display nothing says Christmas quite like sound of lightsabersResidents of a California town are growing accustomed to the sound of lightsabers blasting through their neighborhood each night, as synchronised beams of white light shoot into the sky above their homes. It is all part of an elaborate, soundtracked Christmas lights display at the home of Newark resident Tom BetGeorge, who makes his living as a music teacher and director. BetGeorge’s holiday lights have been heralded by the London Symphony Orchestra and attracted the attention of lighting designers employed by Disney. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 19:56:10 GMT)

Books of the Year: Go inside Mike Tyson’s head with Danish Dynamite
From the Tour de France’s Yorkshire weekend to Roy Keane’s soul-searching and the Ryder Cup relived, our writers pick their best reads of 2014Chris Waters of the Yorkshire Post has a burgeoning reputation as an author. Following his much-lauded biography of Fred Trueman he has produced 10 for 10 (Wisden), the story of Hedley Verity and his great bowling feat at Headingley against Nottinghamshire in 1932. Verity may not have been as colourful a character as Trueman – and therefore not so easy to write about – but his achievements for Yorkshire are as phenomenal as Fred’s. Verity died at the age of 38 in the second world war. In Christopher Sandford’s The Final Over: The Cricketers of Summer 1914 (The History Press) the cricketers who gave their lives in the first world war are remembered, including another prolific left-arm spinner, the violin-playing Colin Blythe of Kent. The “Golden Age” of English cricket could not have come to a more abrupt and tragic end. The assumption is that everyone has had enough of the Kevin Pietersen saga for the moment. If not there are probably still a few copies of KP: The Autobiography (Sphere) left plus Simon Wilde’s sympathetic portrait On Pietersen (Simon & Schuster). Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 16:38:15 GMT)

A zealot, a rebel, but no miracle-worker: film studios plot a secular take on life of Jesus
Two planned films about the life of Christ are unlikely to be welcomed by traditional believers, but reflect a renewed interest in Bible epicsLeading film-makers are courting controversy with plans for adaptations of provocative books about Jesus Christ that are likely to generate a backlash from traditional Christians.British producer David Heyman is developing a film based on Reza Aslan’s bestselling book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, while Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director, has been working on an adaptation of his own book, Jesus of Nazareth, for five years. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 02:07:00 GMT)

The Guide's review of 2014
Welcome to the Guide’s end of year review, a tradition as beloved as turning down the volume on the telly and smelling vodka on Santa’s breath. We’ve got special contributions from Vic Reeves, Sara Pascoe, David Hepworth, Roger Mellie, Stacey Dooley, Clem Fandango and many moreModern Toss: 2014 in reviewJon and Mick from Modern Toss cast a rheumy eye over the year Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 06:00:24 GMT)

The big Christmas books quiz 2014
How many characters are there in Emma? Can you name Holden Caulfield’s siblings? And from which poet did the Man Booker winner borrow its title? Test yourself with our literary teasers – then check your answers here1. Who gets a new sentry box for Christmas?a) Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandyb) Captain Edward Ashburnham in The Good Soldierc) Josef Švejk in The Good Soldier Švejk Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 07:30:03 GMT)

The Interview: just one subplot in Sony's troubled big picture
Japanese conglomerate’s CEO already faced flagging sales of electronic goods before movie brought North Korean fury down on his headOn the day that Sony Pictures decided to cancel the release of The Interview – a comedy about the fictional assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un – the firm’s employees were advised to cover their keyboard with a cloth when logging into email “so that hackers can’t see what you are typing”.The instruction came via a spoof Twitter account using the name of the parent company’s Japanese chief executive, Kazuo Hirai. Yet given the ignominy Sony has suffered in the fortnight since it was hacked, allegedly by a group connected to North Korea, parody is beginning to mirror reality. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 05:32:23 GMT)

Christmas TV: five key moments
From the first Queen’s speech to Morecambe and Wise to Downton Abbey, TV has long been central to the festive season. Joe Moran chooses significant highlights from over the past decadesOn Christmas night, 1937, the BBC television studios at Alexandra Palace on London’s Northern Heights were shrouded in freezing smog. When the Music Hall Cavalcade finished at 10pm, viewers were so concerned for the performers that they rang up the studios to offer them lifts home. That Christmas, a year after television broadcasts had begun, showed that the few thousand people with TV sets were forging an intimate relationship with the new medium. Hundreds of them sent cards to the studios or phoned to wish the artistes a happy Christmas. The idea of a special festive schedule was taking shape, with an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, a Christmas cabaret and Television’s First Grand Christmas Pantomime: Dick Whittington and His Cat. But Lord Reith was still in charge, so there was no television on Boxing Day – a Sunday.Our modern idea of Christmas owes as much to television as it does to the Victorians. Christmas and TV are made for each other: they both rely on the sense of a scattered national community, gathered together in 20m living rooms. Just as Christmas is ecumenical enough in its customs to be celebrated by people of all faiths and no faith, television requires us only to make the rudimentary commitment of turning on the set in order to join its fleeting and virtual society of viewers. Recalling the Christmas TV of the past is an evocative but slightly eerie experience. It makes you realise just how much forced bonhomie and fake snow, with a lot of it filmed under baking-hot studio lights in August, has been deployed over the last 70-odd years. All to convince us that at this time of year we have something in common. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 12:30:06 GMT)

Manchester United’s Radamel Falcao scores to save point at Aston Villa
Louis van Gaal made no attempt to conceal his frustration. The Manchester United manager conceded his players had dropped two points that could ultimately cost them the title after Aston Villa, despite playing with 10 men for the final 25 minutes, courageously held on for a draw that denied the Dutchman a seventh successive Premier League victory.Gabriel Agbonlahor’s harsh and controversial straight red card, following a challenge with Ashley Young that the United player later admitted should have ended up with him being penalised rather than his former Villa team-mate, shifted the momentum firmly in the favour of the visitors and ought to have given them the platform to go on and win the game. Instead a team with such a dazzling array of attacking riches created little and struggled to break down a resolute Villa defence in which Jores Okore was outstanding. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:09:36 GMT)

Ronnie Moore admits Hartlepool United interest in signing Ched Evans
• Moore: “If it could happen, I would want it to happen”• 25-year-old striker without a club since release from prison• Hartlepool MP leads vocal opposition to signing Evans• Sheffield divided over Ched EvansLeague Two Hartlepool are facing strong criticism after their manager, Ronnie Moore, admitted he wants to sign the convicted rapist Ched Evans – with the town’s MP attacking the move as “entirely wrong”.Evans, the former Sheffield United and Wales striker, is still looking for a way back into football after his release from prison in November. His former club retracted an offer to allow him to train with them in the wake of fierce local opposition. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 20:14:25 GMT)

Liz McColgan-Nuttall is introducing girls in Qatar to the joys of running
The former 10,000m world champion had an enthusiastic response when she answered the state’s call to produce international talent• Qatar wins world athletics championships for 2019• Steve Cram in praise of Liz McColgan-Nuttall in 2007• Qatar confronted over use of migrant workersQatar has always been more famous for buying in athletes, than producing them. But on securing some of the world’s biggest sporting events, from the World Cup 2022 to the world athletics championships in 2019, the richest nation in the world per capita is now set on developing its own talent. To do so, the Qatar Athletics Federation has hired one of Britain’s best-known distance runners in Liz McColgan-Nuttall to create a future for women’s endurance running in Qatar. The former 10,000m world champion originally relocated to Qatar to be with her new husband, British Athletics’ former head of endurance, John Nuttall, who now fulfils the same job at the Aspire Academy that produced Qatar’s one internationally successful athlete, Mutaz Essa Barshim.It is the success of Barshim, the world indoor high jump champion who has also won world silver and Olympic bronze medals, that provides the template as well as the hope for a Qatari sporting legacy. Only four female athletes represented the nation at London 2012; McColgan-Nuttall has been selected as the woman to change that by identifying and nurturing potential endurance talent. First she has to find it and that is no easy task. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:00:08 GMT)

Alastair Cook forced to pass ODI baton – but it is the bat that worries England
The England captain’s game was disintegrating in front of our eyes and it was painful to watch. Now he has the chance to restore it away from the glare of the World Cup• Gary Ballance in World Cup squad• Mike Selvey: Cook well-intentioned but miscastIt is hard to find anyone who disagrees with the decision to sack Alastair Cook as England’s one-day captain – except perhaps the man himself – yet it still came as a major surprise. No doubt Paul Downton is surprised. After the sixth ODI in Sri Lanka the England and Wales Cricket Board’s managing director spoke at length, defending the ECB’s decision to stick with Cook and outlining his virtues after a difficult year. Last Monday he said he would be “very surprised” if Cook did not lead the World Cup squad and that he would give his opinion if required to do so in the selection meeting. On Saturday he had “complete confidence in the decision made by the selectors”.James Whitaker, the chairman of selectors, must be surprised too, given his high praise of a “unique leader” before the Sri Lanka tour. And in a rational world England’s head coach, Peter Moores, must be taken aback since he said last Sunday that Cook was his man to the lead the squad to Australia. “I can’t be any clearer than that,” he said. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 14:07:38 GMT)

Football news in brief
• Gareth Bale scores as Real Madrid lift Club World Cup title• Luis Suárez on target to end his goal drought at BarcelonaReal Madrid landed their fourth title of the year by recording their 22nd straight victory to win the Club World Cup. The European champions defeated Argentinian side San Lorenzo 2-0 in Marrakesh to add the global crown to their Champions League, Super Cup and Copa Del Rey triumphs. Sergio Ramos headed the opener after 37 minutes and Gareth Bale made it two as Madrid claimed their maiden Club World Cup title. The goal completed a hat-trick of major final goals for Bale, who also netted in the European and domestic cup successes. PA Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 23:21:07 GMT)

Manchester City’s David Silva ends Crystal Palace’s resistance
Three weeks after trailing Chelsea by nine points Manchester City have caught José Mourinho’s men, with only the London club’s superior goal difference keeping them ahead in a championship race that is warming up nicely.On 29 November Chelsea stood on 33 points and City 24 in what seemed a moment when the west London club might gallop off into the distance with this season’s crown, albeit that they had played a game more. Instead, as predicted by Manuel Pellegrini in that Cool Hand Luke managerial style of his, City have reeled in Chelsea, though Monday evening’s visit to Stoke City is a game in hand that could re-establish a three-point margin. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 14:58:08 GMT)

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers rallies to defence of Arsène Wenger
• Brendan Rodgers backs ‘a real statesman of the game’• Liverpool manager backs his team to adapt tactically• Arsène Wenger: 5-1 loss to Liverpool is ‘scar in your heart’Brendan Rodgers has criticised the Arsenal fans who took a banner to the recent game at West Bromwich demanding Arsène Wenger’s resignation, claiming that such a key figure in football in this country deserves more respect. “Wenger has been amazing, for Arsenal and for football in general,” the Liverpool manager said.“As a manager you get criticised when you don’t win games but some of the personal stuff he gets is disgraceful. He fell over in a train station and people were filming it and printing it, but that’s the modern world, unfortunately. What happened at West Brom the other week was really poor. He is a leading figure in football, a real statesman of the game.” Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:30:09 GMT)

José Mourinho hopes for a strong referee at Chelsea’s meeting with Stoke
• Neil Swarbrick must deal with aggressive play, he claims• Chelsea physical enough to match Stoke, says Mourinho• Stoke v Chelsea, Monday, Sky Sports 1, 8pm• Stoke 3-2 Chelsea - December 2013 • Mourinho unhappy with failure to quell Stoke • Stoke 3-2 ArsenalJosé Mourinho has called for a strong performance from the referee Neil Swarbrick as he takes his Chelsea team to Stoke on Monday but is confident his team will give as good as they receive in what could prove to be a bruising encounter at the Britannia stadium.Chelsea were beaten 3-2 in the Potteries last season, with Mourinho bemoaning their generosity with errors committed in the build-up to Stoke’s first and third goals. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:30:09 GMT)

Tottenham Hotspur’s Érik Lamela ends his wait in style to sink Burnley
When Érik Lamela’s left-footed rocket fizzed into the far corner of the Burnley net, it was tempting to think that it had been worth the wait. This was Lamela’s 26th Premier League appearance for Tottenham Hotspur since his record £30m move from Roma in the summer of last year and it was his first goal in the competition.What a goal it was, one that was worthy of deciding any match and one that fired a bit of momentum for his club, on the back of Wednesday’s Capital One Cup quarter-final win here over Newcastle United. Tottenham’s season has been scarred by their inability to beat teams who sit below them in the table at home and Burnley’s visit presented a test of their mentality. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:14:12 GMT)

Real Madrid cruise past San Lorenzo to seal Club World Cup title
• Real Madrid 2-0 San Lorenzo• Ramos 37, Bale 51• Real Madrid 2-0 San Lorenzo – as it happenedReal Madrid landed their fourth title of the year by recording their 22nd straight victory to win the Club World Cup.The European champions defeated the Argentinian side San Lorenzo 2-0 in Marrakech on Saturday night to add the global crown to their Champions League, Uefa Super Cup and Copa del Rey triumphs. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:35:36 GMT)

QPR repel West Bromwich Albion with Charlie Austin hat-trick
If Queen’s Park Rangers do stay in the Premier League – and even after this slightly ragged 3-2 victory that is a substantial if – then history will perhaps record that the campaign to erect a vast bronze likeness of Charlie Austin on Shepherd’s Bush Green started here.Austin scored a finisher’s hat-trick against a neat but brittle West Bromwich Albion to make it eight in his last five home games as Rangers recovered from going 2-0 down in the opening 20 minutes to claim an improbable home win. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:01:38 GMT)

West Ham United sink Leicester thanks to superb Carroll and Downing
Presumably this is exactly what Kenny Dalglish had in mind when he brought Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing to Anfield for a combined £55m three years ago. The only problem with that theory, however, is that while Carroll and Downing have arguably never played with this much confidence and inventiveness before, they are doing it in the claret and blue of West Ham United rather than the red of Liverpool.These two have been hapless figures of fun who could seemingly do nothing right but Carroll and Downing are forcing their critics to revise their opinions with each sparkling display of match-winning virtuoso for West Ham. Carroll and Downing scored in each half to dampen Leicester City’s festive spirit and ensure that West Ham, who visit Chelsea on Boxing Day, will be fourth at Christmas for the first time since the 1985-86 season. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:02:10 GMT)

Graziano Pellè ends Southampton’s bad run to give Everton the blues
Normal service has resumed at Southampton. If there was reason to be worried following five successive defeats, their worst run of the century, they showed no sign of panic during a ruthless attacking performance which guarantees they will spend Christmas in the top six. The closing minutes were played out to a chorus of “There’s only one Ronald Koeman” who reciprocated with applause; a contagious level of optimism has returned.For Everton, a quest for consistency lives on. Roberto Martínez’s team have managed consecutive league victories only once this season and such unpredictability is becoming a worry, no matter how much emphasis the manager is placing on the Europa League. “We were a little bit soft and got done by three goals around the six-yard box,” the Everton manager said. “We haven’t been involved in a good run of form like last season, but it is part of the learning curve. We want to be a team involved in Europe and I will never complain about having too many games.” Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:09:24 GMT)

Arsène Wenger may well spend heavily for Arsenal in transfer market
• Manager was constrained by cost of building new stadium• A new centreback will be targeted in January transfer window• Arsenal sign Alexis Sánchez from Barcelona• Wenger signs Mesut Özil from Real Madrid• Arsenal sell Thomas Vermaelen to BarcelonaArsène Wenger insists he is no Scrooge and will be happy to splash the cash in January to improve Arsenal’s chances of enjoying a jolly end to the season.“There is a huge difference between the perception that people have of me and [the reality]: I’m not scared to spend money,” said Wenger. “If you go out with me one night, you will understand that.” Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:30:09 GMT)

Lessons learned put Arsenal on course for revenge over Liverpool at Anfield
Confident victories have followed defeats for Arsène Wenger and he believes they have left his side in good shape to take on Liverpool • Liverpool v Arsenal, Sunday, Sky Sports 1, 4pm• Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal• Galatasaray 1-4 Arsenal• Arsenal 4-1 NewcastleThe memory of what happened at Anfield last season should be enough to convince Arsenal of the importance of setting their alarm clocks correctly on Sunday, but Stoke City provided a timely recent wake-up call just in case. Two weeks ago Arsenal went to the Britannia Stadium and seemed to be sleepwalking as Stoke scored after 91 seconds and stomped into a 3-0 half-time lead that proved too big for Arsène Wenger’s team to overturn even after they wiped the sleep from their eyes.That defeat raised fears among Arsenal supporters that their team had learned nothing from their ordeal in Merseyside in February, when a somnolent start by the Gunners helped Liverpool into a 4-0 lead by half-time, the hosts eventually winning 5-1. Arsenal relapsed within a month of that match, conceding four first-half goals at Chelsea en route to a humiliating 6-0 defeat in a match that was supposed to be a celebration of Wenger’s 1,000th in charge of the team. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:30:09 GMT)

Harlequins fly-half Tim Swiel keeps cool to put boot into Newcastle
Harlequins 15-7 NewcastleWhen you are nine points adrift of the play-off spots you have grown accustomed to, you take the points any which way. This Harlequins did, but after their heroics against Leinster over the past fortnight the drop-off in their performance levels was marked. It is not stretching it to say that Newcastle looked the better side for most of this game, but a lack of composure and an alarming penalty count in the second half enabled Quins to deprive them of even a bonus point without threatening their 22, let alone tryline. Tim Swiel, recently recruited to cover an injury crisis at fly-half, slotted five penalties from five to take the points.It may surprise students of the Premiership’s recent history that this started life as a clash between ninth and 10th, the Falcons having roused themselves of late from their traditional position battling against relegation. Harlequins, meanwhile, have slipped from theirs at or near the top of the table and have precious little margin for error if they are to regain those heights before the music stops this season. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:59:10 GMT)

Saturday Sundae: Jumpers at Bradford, but not for goalposts
• Paul Merson gets it wrong, but in some style• Salisbury say goodbye to their City waysCharlie Austin’s one-man show pulled QPR back from the brink of a ruinous festive defeat. Next stop: the England squad. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 22:31:42 GMT)

Hidden gems 2014: the albums that got away
From gloriously messy pop to avant-garde techno and a symphony for eight hands, the Observer’s critics pick some of the releases that didn’t get the acclaim they deserved in 2014Xylouris White: Goats(Other Music) Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:27:30 GMT)

How designer fashion is going to the dogs this Christmas
Floral neckerchiefs and sparkly jumpers as well as hi-tech waterproofs for pampered pets are flying off the shelvesIt’s tough on the high street as fashion chains struggle to offload winter woollies and coats after the warm autumn, but business has never been brisker in the market for specially tailored clothes for our canine friends.Designer dogwear, Christmas-themed jumpers, four-legged tracksuits and hoodies for pampered hounds have been flying off the shelves. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 02:21:00 GMT)

‘Exhausted’ readers shun celebrity memoirs as autobiography sales fall
Nielsen BookScan says sales of autobiographies and memoirs are down almost 4% compared with 2013• The publisher’s year: hits and misses of 2014Readers have grown tired of the slew of celebrity memoirs, with titles by Stephen Fry, Graham Norton and John Cleese selling disappointing numbers, according to publishing industry experts.Titles by Cleese and Fry sold about 60,000 copies each, according to Nielsen BookScan, which found that sales in the autobiographies and memoirs genre were down almost 4% compared with 2013. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 14:40:02 GMT)

Dapper Laughs, The Real Housewives, Benefit Street: 2014, the year in TV
In the eternal battle between ‘reality’ and more expensive forms of TV, reality won again. Plus, six of the best episodes from 2014What times we live in. With the very foundations of civilisation having been shaken by a fop with a political opinion, TV in 2014 found itself in a funny old way. “Who is the everyman, what does he want, and why does he haunt my nightmares?” it seemed to ask. TV commissioners strung out on Capriccio Nespressos and dreams of relevancy clutched their heads, surrounded by Pret A Manger receipts and Post-It Notes scrawled with things like: “YOUTH!” “SELFIE!” and “WON’T THE FOCUS GROUP EVER SHOW ME MERCY?!?!?!”Perhaps this is how Dapper Laughs – whose schtick boils down to saying “fanny” at confused passers-by – came to have his own, ill-fated series. It’s a strong contender for car crash of the year, but was pipped to the post, IMO, by Party House. If you missed it, the show documented the hedonism-by-numbers of students from across the land (Hertfordshire, mainly) as they went about throwing a party in a mansion, having sex with Tobias or Jazz or Shoey, and trying on hats. All with a Made In Chelsea-style scripted element whereby the kind of whining conversations you hear at the back of a nightbus are transposed to the best marble-clad pool area budgets can buy. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 06:00:21 GMT)

Sport news in brief
• Laura Deas secures skeleton silver in Calgary• Elise Christie wins World Cup bronze in SeoulGreat Britain’s Laura Deas secured her maiden World Cup medal as she took silver with a superb performance in Calgary. The 25-year-old from Wrexham – who is British Skeleton’s only Welsh slider and was competing for just the second time on the World Cup circuit, having made her debut at this level in Lake Placid nine days ago – completed her two runs in an overall time of 1min 55.62sec (57.91 and 57.71). Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 23:45:12 GMT)

Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, George Ezra: 2014, the year in music
The gulf between beige breakthrough stars and the pop underground has widened further than ever this yearLethal Bizzle, Alice Levine and Peace’s Harrison Koisser on the biggest tracks of 2014You couldn’t have picked a worse time to become a pop star than 2014. Album sales were at an all-time low, record labels were left millions in the red with artists they thought would be superstars, and fewer new artists broke through than at any time in the past 40 years.In these crisis times, only the Sainsbury’s Basics of pop stars could prevail: the inoffensive, vaguely credible white solo male. This year was dominated by Ed Sheeran, who sold out three nights at Wembley Stadium; Sam Smith, who sold more than a million records in the US; and George Ezra, along with Smith, the only new UK artists to go platinum in 2014. Those three men, along with boy/man bands Take That and One Direction, are likely to have the five biggest selling albums of the year. All offer basically the same product: pleasant music for mums and daughters that sounds a bit like the past without actually referencing any social or cultural signifiers. The days of Lady Gaga releasing mariachi songs in response to Arizona immigration law seem a long way away. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 06:00:17 GMT)

The big Christmas dilemma - to light up or to not light up?
Extravagant Christmas lights are part of a tradition that has been around in the UK for the last two decades. So why are they going out? Tess Reidy suggests it could be snobberyFor a brief period of December the A3, that great, dreary long road that goes from Portsmouth to London, becomes an intermittent bracelet of lights as people living on the busy road transform their houses into multicoloured Christmas extravaganzas. Elsewhere, all over the country, suburban homes, discreet, grey and bleak for most of the year, suddenly stand out from the rest, with a facade of illuminations, Christmas messages, Santas and snowmen. And what’s wrong with that? It’s part of a tradition that had been growing in the UK for the last two decades. So why is it now apparently on the decline? Is it snobbery? Class war at work? Why the infra Noel dig? In the US, exterior displays are a look-at-us feature of larger middle-class households. Here, it is more likely to be seen on former council-housing estates and run down suburban areas. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 16:18:03 GMT)

From the Moon to mongooses, crowdfunding rescues science research
Online donors have pledged more than £3bn to help science studiesYou can take a role in testing the effect of warming skin on memory. Or you can involve yourself in Britain’s first bid to land a spaceship on the Moon. Or you can help researchers understand the social behaviour of the dwarf mongoose.It is a mixed bag – but it has a common theme. For all these scientific projects, and hundreds more, are now getting the go-ahead through a new approach to supporting research projects: crowdfunding. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 14:48:19 GMT)

Days of Future past: Siegfried and Roy's white lion dies in Cincinnati Zoo
Zoo euthanises rare big cat loaned by Las Vegas illusionistsLion named Future was 17 years oldAn ageing white lion that was given to the Cincinnati Zoo by the Las Vegas illusionists Siegfried and Roy had to be euthanised, because of age-related health issues.The zoo said Future – one of two male African white lions loaned permanently by Siegfried and Roy in 1998 – was put down Thursday. He was 17 years old and had struggled to walk in recent days. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 17:47:29 GMT)

Vic & Bob, Stacey Dooley, Run The Jewels: 2014 celebrity lists of the year
Travelodges, gastric tape, deer with guns and squid-ink ketchup: just some of the the things that have been occupying the celebrity hive mind this year Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 05:59:02 GMT)

Sophie Heawood: my tree is lopsided, and so is my family, but our Christmas will still be merry
‘A couple of single-mother friends tell me they worried that they weren’t really giving their kids the full experience – except that, actually, the kids seemed to have a great time’This week I received a lovely Christmas card with a return address stamped on the envelope, that began with the words “From The Pearson Family”. Immediately I thought how much I’d like to get an old-fashioned stamp like that made for my cards, too, and do things properly. Then I wondered how silly I’d feel calling us “The Heawood Family” when it’s just me and a three-year-old in our house, along with some fish fingers and farts and Taylor Swift videos. Then I remembered that I hadn’t bought any cards anyway. But mostly I realised that it was there again – that background hum.However hard you try to move away from it, and however happy and fulfilled your life actually is, there is always this feeling, as a single-parent family, that there is something missing from the narrative. That your small family unit is just a bit lopsided – and there is no time of year when that narrative rises to the surface more than at Christmas, which is all about the tradition of family and the happy home. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 06:00:18 GMT)

Readers' tips: your favourite New Year's Eve pubs
From a cosy pub with delicious food to a huge bar with a party till the wee hours, where will you be celebrating this 31 December? Send us your tips for the best New Year’s Eve pubsA kiss at midnight, spectacular fireworks, and a stirring chorus of Auld Lang Syne are sure to feature somewhere but which is your favourite pub for celebrating New Year’s Eve in? A small, cosy local with a roaring fire? Or a huge boozer where the party goes on until the small hours?Let us know the pub you will enjoying as you toast the New Year this 31 December and tell us why you love it. Is it the range of beer? The most delicious food? Or the best music around? We’d love to hear your tips but don’t forget to include the pub’s address and telephone number. Continue reading...
(Tue, 16 Dec 2014 10:55:10 GMT)

Can Peshawar rage finally rouse Pakistan to act against the Taliban?
Despite the impact of a rare protest against clerics, it remains to be seen whether the Pakistani state is willing to channel this anger into reform or action‘All supporters of the Taliban are bastards,” states a banner strung up in Rahim Yar Khan, attributed to the police of this district in Punjab and posted on Facebook by a police officer. In Islamabad, protesters converged on the Red Mosque, the scene of a brutal confrontation between the Pakistani military and seminary clerics and students in 2007, to demand that the mosque’s head cleric denounce the Pakistani Taliban’s massacre in Peshawar. The Pakistani government has already begun executing convicted militants on death row.These scenes would have been virtually unimaginable in Pakistan just a few weeks ago. But the massacre of 132 children in a school in Peshawar has served to channel outrage against the state and finally to get Pakistanis to agree that militancy is a problem. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:09 GMT)

No tragedy if Wimbledon is served up by pay TV instead of BBC
The BBC and Wimbledon have gone together like strawberries and cream for nearly 80 years, but tennis went the way of cricket, football and rugby long ago‘Flog Wimbledon to pay-TV and you sell off a piece of Britain’s soul”, cries the Daily Mail, curiously warm-hearted because the BBC and the tournament “have gone together like strawberries and cream” for nearly 80 years. So repel prospective BT boarders. Slash Langham Place bureaucracy: or something.Alas, though, real tennis fans already have to wander the cable byways of ITV and Eurosport to get proper television coverage of the tennis grand slams. Would it make any difference if one more championship crossed the road - except for finals weekend? You can be suitably dismayed about pay-coverage of cricket, football, rugby, and the rest : but the essential game of sporting thrones is long since lost. Would it be a tragedy if Roger Federer couldn’t watch his own matches on BBC1? He could always catch them on Swiss TV, where the licence fee is £305. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:00 GMT)

David Cameron plays Santa
But some get better gifts than others Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:04:00 GMT)

The Pope Francis stardust worked over Cuba. Could it work with Isis and the Taliban?
Francis had a diplomatic triumph this week. If only he could resolve the world’s bloodiest conflicts tooStalin had quite a knack for the soundbite. “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” That’s said to be him. “The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election. It’s the people who count the votes who decide an election.” Him too. And, among the most enduring, the dictator’s mocking riposte on hearing that the pope was urging an end to the oppression of Catholics under Soviet rule. “The pope? How many divisions has he got?”To a practitioner of realpolitik and respecter of brute force like Stalin, the bishop of Rome was a perennially toothless do-gooder, fine for a sermon about heaven but with no heft, or troops, to see his will done on Earth. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 19:37:41 GMT)

The Christmas shutdown just makes us drunker, fatter, lazier and lonelier
It might feel like the near-total lack of trains and tubes at Christmas was ever thus, but in fact it’s a fairly recent development. Religion and economics may be equally to blameOne of the great paradoxes of British life is our behaviour in the Christmas season. We are the least Christian country in Europe – quite possibly the least Christian of any country in the world that has a substantial Christian population – and yet we observe the anniversary of Christ’s birth with the kind of rigour last seen in the Hebridean Sabbaths of the 1950s. No public transport moves. To get from A to Z without a private car or an overpriced taxi is impossible. The rest of the world carries on much as it always does: trains carry Catholics from Paris to Frankfurt and Calvinists from Geneva to Milan; Lutherans sail on Baltic ferries; airliners fly Baptists across oceans and continents. But when these aircraft touch down at, say, Heathrow, their passengers find themselves marooned; the country beyond the airport is impenetrable unless they can afford its inflated cab fares. It lies there hushed and immobile, smelling faintly of roasts, quite unlike anywhere else.“Oh, but people need their Christmas,” the apologists for this tyranny say, meaning that to ask people to work on 25 December would be an offence against the natural order, imagining that British Christmases have been like this since Dickens was a boy. In fact, our immobility is relative recent: a late-20th-century phenomenon. London Transport ran its last Christmas tube in 1979, British Rail its last Christmas train in 1981. Presbyterianism’s complicated relationship with the festival meant that Scotland held out for some time against the English trend, preferring a closedown at New Year. My parents, for example, were married in Fife on Christmas Day, and in my childhood the railways were no quieter than they were on Sundays, which in those days meant quiet – signals wouldn’t betray the coming of a train for hours – but not dead. Now, engineering work can shut down important lines for the entire post-Christmas week. This year, for example, only the most intrepid traveller should try to reach Glasgow from southern England after the last train has left Euston on Christmas Eve; several days of closures are scheduled north of Watford and again north of Crewe. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 08:00:03 GMT)

The Observer view on the Sony hacking attack
Threatening North Korea is not the way to solve the crisis over The InterviewSony Pictures’ decision to cancel the release of The Interview, its much-trailed comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, the eccentric North Korean dictator, has raised concerns ranging from the trivial to the deadly serious. Cyber attacks on computer systems at Sony’s Hollywood studios by anonymous hackers led to publication of gossipy company emails about stars such as Angelina Jolie and Barack Obama’s taste in movies. This was embarrassing, but hardly earth-shattering. But when North Korea insisted the film constituted an act of war and when the hackers, styling themselves the Guardians of Peace, threatened terror attacks on American cinemas, the affair suddenly assumed a higher order of magnitude.The ensuing confused and panicky reaction in the US has been unedifying. Major cinema chains and distributors declared they would not screen or market The Interview out of fears for customer safety, obliging Sony to cancel not just the film’s cinema, but also its home movie, release. Michael Lynton, Sony’s CEO, said it had not backed down and hoped the film would be shown. So far, no distributors have volunteered their services. Although it has already been publicly premiered in Los Angeles, this ill-starred movie seems destined to become the Californian equivalent of cold war samizdat – covertly viewed, subversively disseminated – or a collector’s item, possessed by the supposedly fortunate few. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:03 GMT)

The Observer view on a broken housing system
Homelessness can be solved, but only if there is the political will for changeWhile congratulations should go to the activists on the New Era estate who successfully fought off the potential loss of their homes to an American property developer, the crisis in housing offers more sad stories than triumphs. According to the charity Shelter, 93,000 children will be in temporary accommodation this Christmas. Many will be living with their family in one room, with limited cooking facilities and nowhere to play. Yes, there is room at the inn, but it’s not good for the young or the peace of mind of their parents.Families may not know their rights and charities such as Shelter, offering invaluable free advice, are at times overwhelmed with the demand. (£188 funds a Shelter helpline adviser for a day.) Bed and breakfast hostels were a disgrace in the 70s and 80s and they are no better now. Yet none of the political parties has a bold enough strategy to sort out the mess. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:04 GMT)

A brain-dead Irish woman’s body is being used as an incubator. Be angry
Ireland’s politicians tell us not to be emotional about the abortion debate but these are women’s lives and it’s right to be upsetIn Ireland, a woman who is clinically dead but 17 weeks pregnant is being kept alive against her family’s will. At this painful time, her relatives must go to court to stop the Irish state treating their loved one’s body as a cadaveric incubator.Do those facts emotionally affect you? Then please calm down. What we need here is balance. Indeed, the Irish media considers it a moral virtue to trot out pro-life arguments alongside the facts of each and every new horror story that arises from Ireland’s abortion laws. There are two sides to this debate, after all. And Taoiseach Enda Kenny has cautioned us against “knee-jerk” reactions to sensitive cases such as this. What is the opposite of a knee-jerk reaction? Is it a tropism towards the light so slow that we wither and die in the dark? Because I think that might be a more fitting analogy here. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 16:52:14 GMT)

Was Serial just feeding our appetite for stories about murdered women?
The hit podcast’s investigation of Hae Min Lee’s 1999 murder offered little in the way of new evidence, or indeed, respect for her memory. This was a case of fact being treated as fictionInnocent until proven guilty. Society puts great faith in that phrase, so much faith that one thing has been all but forgotten. The premise is noble, but it has no basis in reality or fact. If you’ve committed a crime, you’ve committed a crime, whether anyone but you ever knows that or anyone can ever prove it. The end.Far from representing the power of justice, the presumption of innocence exists to acknowledge the responsibilities and the limitations of justice. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a conceptual compromise that sounds like a statement of fact. It’s a guideline, not a truth. Neither infallible nor impartial, it’s simply part of a foundation constructed to allow trials to proceed as fairly as possible, a “clean slate” starting point that makes it clear that it’s up to the prosecution to show that a person is guilty, not up to the defence to show that he isn’t. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 15:00:09 GMT)

Why you really don’t need that ironic reindeer jumper
Don’t buy less, buy better. After all, being wise and bearing gifts is part of the Christmas storyTo the modern cynic, the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem uncannily foreshadows how Christmas would become primarily about the giving of useless gifts. According to this, revisionist reading, our contemporary offerings are now made not for the worship of God, but to placate Mammon, since our economic salvation depends on this ritual of excessive spending. The narrative that Jesus came to save our economic skins was given extra credibility with news that retails sales in November were significantly up on last year, thanks to the shopping scrum that was Black Friday. This is a myth now more potent than the story of the baby of the manger. It persists, however, because it’s a story that is equally convenient for both defenders and detractors of the economic status quo.It’s easy to see why the cheerleaders of laissez-faire should like the narrative. What better way to beat back the puritanical enemies of consumer goods, designer brands and throwaway fashion than to remind them that without all this there wouldn’t be the tax receipts to fund the hospitals, schools and art galleries that they cherish? Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 17:17:23 GMT)

London garden bridge: the Thames is now a playground for private fantasies
It’s no surprise that Boris ‘self-styled tsar of novelty infrastructure projects’ Johnson has rubber-stamped this bridge follyThames garden bridge plan gets green light from London mayorLondon’s garden bridge: the public park where groups and cyclists aren’t welcomeThe news that Boris Johnson has rubber-stamped the garden bridge should come as no surprise. Since taking office he has become the self-styled tsar of novelty infrastructure projects, bestowing London with an empty cable-car (the Emirates Airline doesn’t see a single regular user according to recent TfL figures) , a fleet of sweltering buses and misty renderings of a glowing airport floating in the estuary. But what is staggering is quite how quickly a plan for a private tourist attraction planted in the centre of the city, at the whim of a celebrity, has been swept through the planning system – and taken £60m of public funding with it.Joanna Lumley has been peddling her idea for “a chance to walk through woodlands over one of the greatest rivers in the world” for more than a decade, but Boris has been the first to take it seriously. She originally conceived the project as a Princess Diana memorial bridge and pitched it to Ken Livingstone in 2002. He had the good sense to turn it down, but she has now managed to seduce City Hall, Lambeth and Westminster councils alike with a liberal sprinkling of architectural fairy-dust, courtesy of “the Da Vinci of our day” Thomas Heatherwick – who also designed the Boris Bus. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 16:17:48 GMT)

Die-ins demand that we bear witness to black people's fears that they'll be next
After Ferguson, after Eric Garner, calls for racial justice are made by reenacting the men’s deaths. It’s a storied – and successful – protest tacticDie-ins – protests in which participants lie in public areas to mime death –are effective not just because they are acts of theatre that identify with the dead, but because they are visible expressions of fear by people who believe they might be the next to die. And they have roots deeper than the protest ingenuity that has defined so much of 2014.Across the US and the UK and beyond, thousands of young people are halting street traffic, shutting down shopping malls and disrupting other people’s lives to “die-in” for racial justice. Convened largely by black youth activists, well-attended marches against police violence in dozens of US cities are convincing displays of growing dissent – but the related acts of urgent public mourning are tools of moral indictment, not just protest. Activists are staging their own deaths because speaking out against systemic racism no longer feels like enough. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 18:05:02 GMT)

Why we painted over Berlin’s most famous graffiti
Berlin’s gentrification and zombification is in full swing. We would rather destroy our street art than let it contribute to that processThe sound of a megaphone shrills through the cold Berlin night air. Some passersby yell at us in anger. Others silently wipe tears off their cheeks. “It’s the first time in my career as an artist that somebody is booing me,” says a voice next to me. We stop painting for a moment to watch the small crowd that has gathered on the other side of the fence, about 25 metres beneath our lifting platform. But there’s little time for introspection: almost 1,000 sq m of brick wall still needs to be covered with black paint by tomorrow morning.Last week, from late Thursday night to early Friday morning, I and several others painted over two murals by Italian artist Blu in Kreuzberg, often referred to as Berlin’s most iconic street art. Since then, the German capital has been full of speculation as to who did this and why. Many assumed that property developers had killed off their beloved mural, and few realised that the people behind it were the ones who created it in the first place. So we have decided to tell our side of the story. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 16:20:25 GMT)

Russia: Why oil crash could threaten Vladimir Putin with a palace coup
With a growing economic crisis and less money to share among the oligarchs, there is talk of splits in the Kremlin elite that could undermine the president’s power ■ How other oil exporting countries are being affectedWhen Vladimir Putin was asked at his annual marathon press conference whether he feared the possibility of a “palace revolution” at some point in the future, the Russian president cracked a smile. “I can assure you that we don’t have palaces, so a palace coup isn’t really possible,” he said. Immediately photographs of the vast mansions of some of Putin’s inner circle, photographed from the air by anti-corruption campaigners, began doing the rounds online.But the question last week had a more serious substance to it. While a popular revolution against corrupt officials has never looked very likely in Russia, what about a split in the elites? Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:07 GMT)

Michael Brown is shot dead sparking protests
9 August: Riots follow the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, by a policeman in Ferguson, MissouriI first heard about the shooting through social media. Throughout the protests, social media played a big role in telling the real story and not just the Hollywood version. We romanticise the civil rights movement of the 60s and put certain leaders on pedestals. But there are key influential people who we don’t remember who were just as important. Social media makes it easier for them to become visible.On 9 August, another Democratic committee-person tweeted me to say someone had been shot in my city. I was only three minutes away so I got in my car and went round and saw all these people standing around. What I now know is that I was watching Darren Wilson’s [the police officer who shot Michael Brown] truck being towed away. I got to the scene just as it happened and there were all these people in the streets, upset and angry, who had been forced to witness Michael Brown’s body lying in the street for four and a half hours. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:06 GMT)

How oil price fall will affect crude exporters – and the rest of us
Lower oil prices will hit the Russian economy, the US fracking industry and Iran, but could be good for shoppers and firms in the UK, and delay the long-expected interest rate riseJohn Paul Getty’s formula for success was to rise early, work hard and strike oil. But a dependence on the black stuff can create its own problems, especially when the price tumbles as it has over the last few months.The price of a barrel of Brent crude has almost halved from $115 in the summer to stabilise around $60 last week. Most forecasters expect the cost of oil to remain low well into next year. Continue reading...
(Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:05:14 GMT)

Godzilla comes home: Japanese reptile takes on Hollywood rival
Toho, creator of the 1954 original, plans new film 10 years after it killed off the giant reptileA decade after a Japanese film studio sent Godzilla on his “final” journey of destruction, the irradiated monster is set to stomp ashore and trample across Tokyo again as the country attempts to reclaim its creation from Hollywood.Toho, the Japanese studio that first brought Godzilla to the big screen in 1954, says it plans to rehabilitate the giant reptile in a film to be released in 2016, despite sending him back to the ocean in Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004, supposedly never to be seen again. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 16:31:12 GMT)

Santa's real workshop: the town in China that makes the world's Christmas decorations
Inside the ‘Christmas village’ of Yiwu, there’s no snow and no elves, just 600 factories that produce 60% of all the decorations in the worldThere’s red on the ceiling and red on the floor, red dripping from the window sills and red globules splattered across the walls. It looks like the artist Anish Kapoor has been let loose with his wax cannon again. But this, in fact, is what the making of Christmas looks like; this is the very heart of the real Santa’s workshop – thousands of miles from the North Pole, in the Chinese city of Yiwu.Our yuletide myth-making might like to imagine that Christmas is made by rosy-cheeked elves hammering away in a snow-bound log cabin somewhere in the Arctic Circle. But it’s not. The likelihood is that most of those baubles, tinsel and flashing LED lights you’ve draped liberally around your house came from Yiwu, 300km south of Shanghai – where there’s not a (real) pine tree nor (natural) snowflake in sight. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 11:02:07 GMT)

Jim Murphy: ‘The SNP know they’re up against someone who isn’t crap’
… except ‘crap’ wasn’t the word he used. So can the new leader rebuild Scottish Labour – and escape Ed Miliband’s shadow? He explains why he’s up for the fight (and why he’s teetotal)Jim Murphy has had a busy week. Since his victory in the Scottish Labour leadership election last Saturday, his timetable has been carefully choreographed, with speeches, events and photo opportunities almost daily, exhibiting an organisational heft and dynamism that the party has been wholly lacking of late.At the centre of it all, the 47-year-old MP for East Renfrewshire has appeared supremely relaxed, joking with reporters and putting across his chosen point in a measured, constructive tone somewhat at odds with the megaphone blaring of his referendum tour this summer, when he travelled round Scotland delivering the case for the union and sparring with yes voters from his perch on top of a couple of Irn-Bru crates. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 19:21:24 GMT)

Paris: glass triangle looms large on horizon of a city caught between past and future
The landmarks Parisians love were all derided in their time. Now a skyscraper plan is the focus of arguments about renewal and preservationParisians used to joke that the view from the rooftop terrace of the Centre Georges Pompidou was the best in the city. It was not what you could see – the Eiffel tower in one direction, Notre Dame in another and the ethereal dome of Sacré Coeur over a vast expanse of roofs. It was what you could not see: the Centre Georges Pompidou itself, with its inside-out, colour-coded architecture once described as having all the charm of an oil refinery.Today the joke has worn thin. Like Gustave Eiffel’s once-derided iron “monstrosity”, the Pompidou, commissioned by the French president of the same name, has gone from eyesore to icon in the public mind. A new generation of city officials, led by the Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, wants to change the view from the Pompidou, calling for ideas to “reinvent” the cityscape. However, plans for a skyscraper, known as the Triangle Tower, have divided Parisians and prompted a wave of protests that the city’s cherished skyline is about to be violated. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 13:03:26 GMT)

Writing about my parents’ escape from Hungary brought our family closer
When his father had a stroke, Nick Barlay was overwhelmed by the need to put into words the harrowing history of his Hungarian Jewish familyI remember when I made the decision to write a family history. I was in the garden of a stroke rehabilitation unit, holding my father’s hand – the one that had turned into a claw. I was sitting on a bench, my mother crying, and an overwhelming feeling came to me in the form of a question: if not now, then when?The closeness of death seemed to quicken an already ticking clock. Setting down the story of my family suggested a past tense, as if I could write only about the dead and not the living. Continue reading...
(Sat, 20 Dec 2014 06:30:01 GMT)

Why methane on Mars has reignited our quest for life on other planets
Quantities of this gas on the red planet are measly, but Curiosity’s rover analysis could lead astrobiologists to distant worlds and watery moonsThe existence of life beyond Earth is a prospect so profound that few others could be more deserving of Carl Sagan’s caution that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. What else competes? Proof of God? Proof that we are, as an Oxford professor has speculated, hapless characters in a computer simulation?The announcement this week that Nasa’s Curiosity rover had detected unusual bursts of methane on Mars prompted a flurry of speculation that the gas came from alien life – that microbes on Mars could be churning out the gas, much as happens on Earth. Continue reading...
(Fri, 19 Dec 2014 19:09:00 GMT)

The race to save Peter Kassig
The American aid worker was killed by his Isis captors on 16 November. Here, for the first time, is the story of an extraordinary effort to secure his release, which involved a radical New York lawyer, the US government, and the world’s most revered jihadi scholarListen to the Guardian team tell of the daring and extraordinary effort to secure Kassig’s releaseOn the evening of 3 October, the New York attorney Stanley Cohen got a phone call about Peter Kassig, the young American aid worker held hostage by Islamic State (Isis). The callers were Palestinians from the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon who knew Kassig, and they were “very upset”, Cohen recalled. They had just seen the footage of Alan Henning, a British hostage, being beheaded. At the end of the video, when the masked terrorist who has been dubbed “Jihadi John” paraded another hostage before the camera, they recognised their friend Peter.Kassig had done relief and medical work in Sabra and Shatila, and even helped raise money for the refugees, before he was kidnapped in October 2013. “He’s a good guy,” the callers told Cohen. Given the pace of previous Isis executions – roughly once a fortnight since August – they feared Kassig might have only two weeks left to live. They were desperate to save him, and thought that Cohen would have contacts among militants in the region who could lobby for Kassig’s release.I wish this paper would go on forever and never run out and I could just keep talking to you. Just know I’m with you. Every stream, every lake, every field and river. In the woods and in the hills, in all the places you showed me. I love you.Calls will be limited to discussions with religious scholars about the hostage and working for his release and some obvious small talk. Jordan agrees that it will not require him [Maqdisi] to make the calls from one of its intelligence locations, nor file charges against him for the calls or otherwise interrogate him about them.And, of course, the calls will not be controlled or tracked for purposes of military or drone attacks. The Sheikh [Maqdisi] if allowed would also like to discuss the need for a complete halt to taking hostages that are journalists, relief workers, civilians and Muslims and obviously execution of any of them by any means.Maqdisi tried to download the instant messaging service WhatsApp – one of Isis’s favoured modes of communicationI full well understand that an agenda independent of the Kassig release may have been under way. On the other hand, I saw no such evidence of it and the protocol which was agreed upon among myself and the folks in Jordan, with your knowledge and approval, was well under way and moving ahead – I thought – with positive indicators until the Sheikh’s arrest and the apparent visit of Kuwati intelligence to my “contacts” in that country. Continue reading...
(Thu, 18 Dec 2014 16:18:07 GMT)

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