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Saturday 23 August 2008
Letters: Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park and the spirit of British computer innovation
Not only should Bletchley Park be celebrated for breaking the German codes, but for inspiring an amazing flowering of computer design in the ten years that followed. The Ferranti Mercury, the English Electric Deuce, the Elliott 401 and Joe Lyons' LEO were all the result of closer co-operation between universities and industry than has been achieved since. This was the golden age of British computer design.
Sadly, in the Sixties, academia chose to abandon industry in favour of the will-o'-the-wisp of "computer science", where the end products were learned papers, not hardware and software. Consequently, Britain lost its ability to design world-beating computers, and was steam-rollered by American marketing.
Bletchley Park has further lessons for today. It was a multi-disciplinary project, with linguists, cryptographers and Post Office engineers, led by Alan Turing, a visionary mathematician. IT experts did not exist at that time. Hence perhaps its success, unlike today's public-sector computer projects.
It also had a precise purpose, to crack the codes. The Colossus was just a tool for this, not an end in itself. It is perhaps significant that the only other global British achievement in computing since, Sir Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web in 1989, also had a modest aim, as a tool to allow CERN's physicists to pass information between them. It became the way in which the world communicates.
Universities, industry and government should put their hands in their pockets for Bletchley Park, not just as a memorial for what happened in the Second World War, but as an icon of the British way in computing.
What a shame that the Gates Foundation did not deem Bletchley Park a suitable recipient for funds, on the basis that the application was not relevant to internet technology. The Park, it is said, needs £10m to give it the prosperous future it deserves.
So imagine my horror when I read (22 August) that Bill Gates is paying Jerry Seinfield a staggering $10m to be the star of Microsoft's "cool" new advertisement. It is a shame Gates feels the need to assert once more his domination in the market, when the very roots of computer technology as we know it are left shunned and gathering dust across the pond. Very cool, Bill.
But good luck to the Independent campaign. Congratulations on giving BP the column space it deserves.
Bribing voters will not revive politics
Johann Hari proposes three measures to improve British democracy, all of which are ill-conceived but the first of which is most so (Opinion, 18 August). His generous gift of £150 to those who take part in a "Deliberation Day" of information, subdivision and discussion is no gift at all, having been taxed from the population simply to be redistributed to the politically active or those seeking easy money.
Something so clearly constituting a bribe to the electorate harms the principle of participative democracy; the only incentive to vote, or to participate politically, should be the merits or faults of the parties. To choose not to vote is as valid a choice as to vote, and should be treated as such. The only comparative loss suffered from the choice not to vote should be the right to complain about the government elected.
A "Deliberation Day" is condescending to the electorate: voters may make up their minds before Johann's allotted discussion hours, and inform themselves through their own research, rather than structured television viewing and deliberation. Contrary to Johann's estimation, the British people can and do "think seriously" about the future of their country. Such a system is also injurious to the young, elderly or parents, who may not have the time or the energy to go through such a long process of voting.
If Johann really wants to improve democratic participation, then he might find an effective mechanism in business and the market. Might I suggest a system where marketing firms bid to increase voter turnout in different electoral areas of the country, with bonuses for those which best improve participation and penalties for those that perform poorly. They would be allowed to use any methods they liked, as long as they were non-coercive, non-partisan and did not involve paying voters.
Isle of Wight
In an ideal world we might see an all-party "Democracy Bill". But, as Johann Hari rightly points out, there is little hope of either Labour or the Conservatives backing any reform that would deliver a decent voting system or a sensible approach to the funding of political parties. The Government's "Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill", now being discussed at Westminster, risks challenge under trade description rules because it is so feeble.
So, we slide towards another dull election, fought with any enthusiasm only in the small number of constituencies where campaigning might make any difference, and another government claiming power on a minority of the votes.
How we change things should be for electors to decide, rather than the politicians with their clear self-interests.
The citizens' assembly approach to the electoral reform debate is one we should definitely consider. In Canada, British Columbia and Ontario have used this method, as has the Netherlands, with randomly selected "assemblies" of more than 100 electors prepared to weigh up options not just for a day but over a whole series of weekend gatherings. The assemblies' recommendations can then be put to all electors in a referendum.
There is still time to forge a simple consensus that we should put the interests of voters first, and set up a British Citizens' Assembly before the next election. Whichever party comes out on top, ignoring the recommendations of such body of citizens would not be easy.
Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society, London SE1
We need GM to feed the world
As much as I respect Prince Charles's knowledge of the agricultural issues this country faces, I feel he is being naive in damning genetically modified foods.
In an ideal world we would all eat plentiful, fresh, locally grown produce. But the reality is that there is not enough food to go round all the world's citizens, and we have to come up with a viable alternative.
By 2030, the world population will have expanded by such an extent that we will require a 50 per cent increase in food production to meet anticipated demand. By 2080, global food production will need to double. But the reality is that an area the size of Ukraine is being taken out of agricultural food production every year due to drought and climate change. Global food production is declining rather than expanding.
The spectre of empty supermarket shelves, even in the West, must now be considered a real possibility. Already we have seen food shortage riots in Africa, consumer protests against rising prices in Europe and significant falls in rice production in Asia. Food security is now top of the political agenda and only genetically modified foods offer a potential way out of this looming crisis.
There are already many millions of farmers worldwide growing genetically modified crops and millions of people eating GM food, with no ill-effects. We need to accept that we no longer live in a world where fresh food is plentiful and readily available. We need to cast aside our fears and biases and realise that GM food is the only way to ensure that we can feed the world.
Struan Stevenson, MEP (C, Scotland)
Prince Charles may, or may not, be right about GM crops, but he is wrong to get involved in a matter of such debate. Under a system of hereditary monarchy, those in line must surely play by the rules and stay out of controversy – as the Queen has over a long period.
An alternative, which seems increasingly attractive, would be to have an elected head of state. Prince Charles would then only have to keep quiet if he wished to stand for election.
The myth of the Prudent Chancellor
Michael Brown's article (20 August) underlines the Prime Minister's dilemma about who is responsible for bringing about good and bad economic times.
Not many among the British press have pointed out that Gordon Brown was not an exceptional Chancellor. For four years he followed budgetary policy set down by the previous Conservative government, when he could have allowed budget deficits to grow a little. When he came to make his own budgetary decisions he spent as if there was no tomorrow, leaving the Government with no reserve to fall back on now that the inevitable bad times have arrived. His economic behaviour encouraged boom and bust.
Gordon Brown's performance to date as Prime Minister suggests that he is not capable of holding that position either.
Paradox in the market for science
You are right to consider that the CBI's call for more science graduates might be special pleading (leading article, 12 August). You suggest that our economy copes only by hiring science graduates from abroad, but there is little evidence for demand for such graduates, and particularly for physicists.
In last week's New Scientist, for example, there is just one advertisement aimed explicitly at physicists (and that from the public sector). Graduate salaries are laughably low (about £20,000) and PhD salaries are not much better. It is hard not to conclude that there is very little demand for physicists as such.
If the CBI does not want to hire physicists, why does it claim there is a lack of them? It is true that physicists have little difficulty finding employment; a good physics degree signals that the holder is numerate, analytical and good at problem-solving, all highly transferable skills.
But it is not at all obvious that physics "teaches" these skills; it is at least as likely that people are attracted to physics because they already possess them.
Oddly, despite huge fluctuations in the numbers of students taking physics at school, the proportion of school-leavers taking physics at university has remained almost constant for the past 30 years. The simplest explanation is that we are already identifying most students with the necessary motivation and ability. In that case, efforts to increase the proportion are a waste of time and money.
The war for Britain's place in Europe
Martin Copsey writes that his father joined the RAF in 1939 because he did not "want his children to be ruled by Europeans" and implies that victory was undermined when "Ted Heath betrayed us" (letters, 16 August).
Those in the Cabinet who advocated war did so because an expansionist Germany had upset the balance of power in Europe. They were opposed by a popular and diverse body of opinion which was wary of Britain becoming too engaged in European affairs; this group had believed that Hitler's ambitions posed no underlying threat to Britain's longstanding place in the world.
I suggest that it is much of this broad church – and their political descendants – who have always felt most betrayed by Ted Heath's pro-European policy. Many of the varied subscribers to euroscepticism today, with their ludicrous belief that Britain can maintain its influence and economic dynamism without engaging properly in the European project, have much in common with the isolationists of the 1930s.
Glitter not welcome
Why on earth does the UK government want Garry Glitter back in the country? Would it not be more appropriate for all countries of the world to reject him, leaving him to for ever rove the netherworld of VIP departure lounges – a milieu in which he is unlikely to find any children to befriend?
John Eoin Douglas
I recently cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats, giving me the opportunity to study more than 1,000 miles of our roadside verges. Why is it that nine out of every 10 drinks cans discarded by negligent drivers are Red Bull? Should the Government impose an environmental tax on this product?
Putin's next move
Russia's next strategic move may not be Ukraine, but Belarus, already in customs union with her. In Minsk, capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States, looking over the monument to soldiers lost in Afghanistan, I met a woman who mused: "All this talk of unity with Russia worries me. They have a habit of international adventures." Stalin annexed half of Poland to move his line west. Will "Putin's Line" go back to the Polish border?
Market Harborough, Leicestershire
Is Alex James sure that they are rooks that nest in and fall down his chimney (Rural Notebook 20 August)? Rooks nest in large colonies in trees; crows are far less gregarious, but I have never heard of them nesting in chimneys. It is far more likely that they are jackdaws.
Stoke St Gregory, Somerset
I apologise for returning to the problem apostrophe, but I believe that I have seen the worst example. On a van of a lift installation company in a car park in Shrewsbury I read "Wale's only lift installers".
Our Olympic team
As Northern Ireland is not competing separately in the Olympic Games, the team name should not be Team GB (letter, 21 August) but Team United Kingdom.
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