Pagemaster: Brendan O'Neill (email@example.com)
The road to nowhere
Get your walking boots on. The government has set in motion a strategy to reverse the 'dominance' of the car on Britain's roads, to 'give back' some of the urban space to the general public. So a recent Department for Transport, Environment and the Regions consultation paper puts walking at the top of the list of 'transport' priorities. Second favourite is cycling. Single occupancy vehicles (those of you with the cheek to drive yourself to work without bussing kids to school or giving OAPs a lift) are way down the list in last place.
Campaigners would have us believe that urban pedestrians are faced with a panoply of barriers designed to prevent freedom of movement, brought about by a transport strategy biased in its preference for the car. As one Green Party spokesman describes it: 'People faced with an underpass won't use it, they'll run across the road, leap over a fence and into a dual carriageway. They might be killed....The traffic engineer...is responsible for that accident because pedestrians should not be forced underground.' Maybe the answer is lollipop ladies for adults. Yet the simple control mechanism described above - keeping pedestrians off vehicular thoroughfares - is nothing more sinister than an attempt to create a smooth-running and safe transport system. Roads are for cars, pavements for pedestrians. As pedestrians are not equal to cars in size, weight, speed or impact resistance this is sensible guidance. If people want to reclaim the streets, then it's hardly surprising that they get knocked down.
In 1975, Cyril Myerscough of the Pedestrians' Association sensibly wrote: 'Ideally the different kinds of traffic - vehicles, cycles and pedestrians - should be kept apart as much as possible. Provided that the environmental objections can be overcome, urban clearways are ideal for the faster through traffic.' But today we have a policy of chalking lines on narrow pavements and calling it a cycle lane or creating areas of sterile paving in the name of pedestrianisation.
It is undoubtedly true that facilities for pedestrians and cyclists are not up to par. But they aren't that good for the motorist either. Unfortunately, the current transport agenda is posed in terms of competing interests (pedestrians v motorists, cyclists v buses), which can only weaken any unity of purpose in national transport strategy.
Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group
Terms of abuse?
To start the new year on a happy note, on 4 January the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) issued guidance on bullying. According to the NAHT, bullying behaviour can be physical (pushing, kicking, hitting, pinching, any form of violence, threats); verbal (name-calling, sarcasm, spreading rumours, persistent teasing); and emotional (tormenting, threatening, ridicule, humiliation, exclusion from groups or activities). Staff are alerted to 'signs of bullying', which might include 'unwillingness to come to school', 'refusal to talk about the problem', or 'damaged or incomplete work'.
Come on! Even if pupils are not being bullied, are they keen to come to school, and do they always hand their completed work in on time? Is it really such a bad thing to refuse to grass on your classmates - and sort the problem out yourself? By equating a weekly punch in the face with being left out of a ball game, the NAHT obscures the small amount of serious bullying that does go on. Worse than that, it redefines standard playground behaviour as potential abuse. It makes you wonder whether headteachers ever went to school at all.
Stoking Chechnya's fires
Russia's acting president Vladimir Putin is struggling to conclude his country's war in Chechnya. But under the moral scrutiny of world leaders, with Russia's prestige hanging in the balance, the conflict is likely to spin further out of control.
The war began in 1994. The respite of recent years followed a cynically negotiated 'ceasefire' in April 1996 - an effort by the Yeltsin clique to distance itself from the increasingly unpopular conflict in the run-up to the presidential election that year. The military campaign had exposed the Russian army as bankrupt, poorly equipped and poorly directed, willing to trade artillery equipment for vodka, while bodies from both sides rotted in the streets.
Russia was further humiliated over its attempts to stop the bombardment of Belgrade by NATO forces in 1999 and its failed efforts to save face by sending troops into Kosovo to oversee the invasion. Following the Moscow bomb explosions at the end of 1999, then president Boris Yeltsin was able to galvanise a degree of popular support at home for renewed military action in Chechnya, as part of an attempt to restore national dignity. Yeltsin believed he could draw on the moral authority of world leaders who struggle to 'wipe out terrorism' internationally, packaging his mission as one against the 'evil forces' that threatened the Russian way of life.
But, while fragile support was consolidated within Russia, there was an outcry about Chechnya from the international community. Western leaders and organisations have been drawn into the humanitarian issues surrounding the bombardment. At the risk of destabilising international relations, they became embroiled in a diplomatic standoff and attempts to resolve a refugee crisis in Ingushetia. Yeltsin thought he was confounding international ridicule of the Russian army by showing off its ability to stamp out his own 'forces of evil' in Chechnya. But the moral agenda, now well established as the modus operandi of international politics, means nobody is left to sort out their own business. At the very mention of a crisis, Western leaders rush to get involved because nothing gives them prestige like an international human rights crusade.
Nobody can fail to be concerned about Chechen casualties and refugees. But under the spotlight of international attention, local conflicts like Chechnya quickly become intensified - inevitably making things worse for everybody, including those whom the international community professes to be helping. The West's response has raised the moral stakes, making it impossible for Russia - despite increasing casualties, a weakening military campaign and disquiet in the Russian media - to withdraw with its dignity intact. The problem facing Putin after Yeltsin's resignation was that the Chechen mission could not be abandoned until the last sniper was destroyed, without deepening the humiliation of Russia.
I hate to say i told you so...but I did. It seems that the millennium bug was in fact a red herring all along. LM predicted this over a year ago, when it was clear that the scale of the problem was being exaggerated and that the omens of Y2K doom fitted into the pattern of other panics.
A rational look at the problem of handling the date change made it plain that the transition would be straightforward. The problem was technically easy - a 'no-brainer' for programmers. The number of systems critically dependent on dates was not that large and there was plenty of notice of the problem. Now it emerges that, according to the Year 2000 Research Centre, the millennium bug caused only 67 serious computer failures worldwide in the first week of 2000. Leader columns have responded with cries of 'we woz conned' by profiteering IT consultants. But the very same leader columns had been among the main exponents of the Y2K panic.
The extensive and expensive response to the Y2K bug was driven, not by a fear of definite technical problems, but by the rather more nebulous 'precautionary principle'. Rather than letting the techies get on with it as they went along, government agencies, media pundits and business leaders demanded a guarantee of 'no problems'. In this strange worldview, uncertainty could - just possibly - lead to doom, and even knowingly exaggerated claims were justified as being necessary to wake people from their complacency. Trusting technical experts to get on with it was not an option.
Committees were set up, audits were done, forms were circulated to suppliers demanding a response, tests and retests and re-retests were done, lawyers were consulted, an army of bugbusters was trained, consultants were brought in, useless panic spreading seminars were held and massive media and direct mail campaigns were rolled out. And for what?
Rather than taking it on the chin and admitting that they panicked, commentators are hurriedly blaming the fat cats of the computer industry for misleading the world. But a better lesson to learn is that the one doomsday that we could test turned out to be nothing more than an exercise in irrational fear. Input that.
Mark Beachill is a computer programmer
The what's NOT on guide
MODIFIED LUNCH: GM food has been banned from the staff canteen of GM food manufacturers Monsanto in High Wycombe. The canteen's managers defended the move on the grounds that it addressed 'concern raised by our customers'. GONE TO THE DOGS: Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher and numerous other celebrities have contacted Downing Street demanding that Ken Livingstone's proposed anti-hunting bill be implemented. Not content to churn out their pop dirges, it seems that Noel ('Cigarettes and alcohol') Gallagher and Paul ('Let it be') McCartney also want to stiff other people's fun. POACHER TURNED GAMEKEEPER: Shock-jock Howard Stern has spent the past decade challenging American censors with his obscenities and discussing his marital problems on air. But now his attorneys have threatened the proprietor of the website HowardSternDivorce.com, demanding the site be shut down. Bizarrely, given Stern's well-known love of porn stars, his attorneys object to the site's pornographic links. OSCAR - THE GROUCH: There will be no Academy Award for Best Original Song Score this year - allegedly because only the scores of Tarzan and the South Park movie were eligible. The potential embarrassment of nominating the South Park song 'Uncle fucka' might have something to do with it.
Compiled by Sandy Starr
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000