UKIP pitched up in Essex today, where Nigel Farage delivered a speech launching its general election manifesto. We’ve looked at some of the headline claims on Europe, immigration, health tourism and foreign aid spending. The European Union and immigration “Save £9 billion a year in direct net contributions to the European Union budget by leaving the EU”—UKIP manifesto […]
He never seems to learn. After the scandal of his grandiose home improvements, his unsavoury association with the supremely wealthy Gupta family, and after his failed first effort to tar his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, with dubious corruption charges, Zuma might be expected to be wary, to attempt circumspection – but he’s clearly determined not to back down, even as the political tide and South African civil society alike turn against him and his party.
To add to the tawdriness, Zuma has now failed for a second time to get rid of Gordhan, whom he almost certainly regards as an obstacle to unfettered corruption. Gordhan is standing firm, which makes him a problem – although there are indications he could be hit with more corruption charges again soon.
Nevertheless, as far as Zuma’s concerned, it’s business as usual. He has come up with no solution or compromise for the increasingly furious student protests roiling the country’s campuses, no plans for expanding and improving healthcare, improving the delivery of public services, and no plan for ensuring electricity. He doesn’t seem to care if the value of the rand falls because of his machinations, which serve himself and his cronies above even the ANC, much less the nation.
And that’s precisely the point. Zuma goes on, and knows he can go on, because the ANC itself – no matter what people say about an internal struggle – has been captured by an elite cabal of corrupt people. They have firmly ensconced themselves at the top of a trickle-down structure of corruption and patronage, one that extends to the most remote parts of the ANC apparatus in South Africa’s outlying provinces. If you want a contract for public services or delivering public goods, you have to have it sanctioned by the ANC.
All this could certainly work without Zuma, but he is simply too useful for his cronies to depose him. The corrupt elite he enables are anxious to safeguard their personal revenue-raising schemes. The president is a lightning rod: as long as he’s the focus of public attention, most of his dubious associates are not.
And so they prop up an unpopular president, one who looks increasingly silly, so they can continue go about their business – which amounts to nothing less than the slow ransacking of the nation.
Gordhan might be able to keep making a stand, and he’s no doubt trying his best. But a pebble in a river is not a dam. South Africa’s corrupt elite are too lazy for their pillage to be especially sophisticated or elusive, and in one sense, that’s just as well. But in another, it simply adds to the disaster engulfing the South African body politic and body economic.
Nobody thinks any more about modernity, internationalism, South Africa’s disappearing place in the sun. Nobody thinks of complex engagement with the rest of the world. The theme of the moment is plain and simple theft on a national scale by those who control the party and the state alike.
Stephen Chan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
“Eating brains helped Papua New Guinea tribe become disease resistant,” The Daily Telegraph reports.
Some of the Fore people, who used to eat the brains of dead relatives as a mark of respect, may have developed resistance to prion diseases such as Creutzfeldt Jacob disease (CJD).
Prion diseases occur in humans and animals, and are caused by a build-up of abnormally folded proteins in the brain. Prion diseases can be passed on by eating infected tissue, such as beef that has been exposed to prions. This is known as bovine spongeform encephalopathy (BSE, or “mad cows disease”). There is currently no cure for prion diseases.
A tribe in Papua New Guinea were nearly wiped out by a prion disease called Kuru. The infection was spread as a result of their tradition of eating the brains of deceased relatives at their mortuary feasts. Some people were resistant to the infection, and this was thought to be due to a mutation called V127 in the gene encoding the prion protein.
This study used genetically modified mice to test whether this genetic mutation was protective against Kuru and CJD. The tests showed that mice with this genetic mutation were indeed resistant to these prion diseases.
The results suggest that this mutation could be responsible for the Kuru resistance seen in the survivors. It is hoped this finding may eventually help to develop effective treatments for prion diseases, but much more research will be needed to get to that point.
The hissing sound you hear in the background when you turn up the volume of your music player is called “noise”. Most of this hiss is due to the thermal motion of electrons in the music-player circuitry. Just like molecules in a hot gas, electrons in the circuitry are constantly jiggling about in a random fashion, and this motion this gives rise to an unwanted noise signal.
But there is another type of noise that only comes into play when we have an electrical current flowing. This noise is known as shot noise. Obstacles that generate shot noise in this way are found in many electronic components, such as diodes and some transistors, and electronic engineers take great efforts to try to get rid of the effects of all sources of noise, including shot noise, in their designs.
Now a new study has shown that shot noise can be eliminated at its microscopic origin. And to do so, they have borrowed an idea from an unlikely source – the early days of the steam engine.
Shot noise has its origins in the fact that electrical current is composed of a stream of individual particles – electrons – and that the behaviour of these particles is governed by the strange laws of quantum mechanics.
When an electron encounters an obstacle that you’d think would block its path, quantum mechanics offers the possibility that it can pass through it unhindered. This is called quantum tunnelling, and it makes the seemingly impossible possible. The important thing about quantum tunnelling is that it is a random process — quantum mechanics can tell us with what probability an electron might tunnel, but it can’t tell us whether any particular electron will tunnel or not.
Thus, if a stream of electrons hits an obstacle, some will tunnel and some will not, and this happens in a completely random fashion. If we could listen to the arrival of a stream of electrons tunnelling in this way, it would sound something like the random pitter-patter of raindrops on a flat roof. It is this randomness, as compared with the regimented drip-drip-drip of a tap, that makes up shot noise.
In the 18th century, James Watt was struggling to get his steam engine to run at a constant speed. To solve this problem, he came up with the “centrifugal governor” in 1788, a contraption that consisted of two metal balls rotating on a vertical spindle driven by the steam engine. If the engine ran too fast, the balls would move upwards under the centrifugal force (a force acting on a body moving in a circular path is directed away from the centre around which the body is moving).
This motion was coupled into a valve which then reduced the flow of steam through the engine, slowing it down. Conversely, if the engine was running too slowly, the balls would drop, the valves would open and the engine would speed up. In this way, Watt was able to stabilise the output of his engine around a constant speed. In doing so he had had come up with an early example of what we would now call feedback control.
James Watt to the rescue
The new experiment focuses on an ultra-small electronics device known as the single-electron transistor, which may one day form the basis of extremely efficient, miniature electronics. These single-electron transistors are somewhat like ordinary transistors, which switch electronic signals, but taken to the extreme limit of miniaturisation such that electrons move through them one at a time. This happens via quantum tunneling, which means the current through a single-electron transistor suffers from the randomness of shot noise.
Using sensitive charge measurements, the researchers were able to detect exactly when an electron had tunnelled through the transistor. Based on this electron counting, they then adjusted the voltages of the transistor, following Watt’s recipe for the centrifugal governor: if more electrons than normal had tunnelled, they changed the voltages to reduce the flow; if fewer had tunnelled, the voltages were changed to increase the flow.
In this way, they were able to show that, after a certain time had elapsed, the total number of electrons to have tunnelled through the device could be controlled precisely, with the results being almost entirely free of the randomness of the noisy tunnelling process.
The technique may not make it into your consumer electronics any time soon. The research was carried out at low temperature on a single device so we’d first need to make it work at room temperature and scale up the function. Nevertheless, it does represent an important breakthrough, as it reports the first application of feedback control in electronics that acts at the level of the individual electron.
The results are especially important for the development of future quantum technologies, which look to harness the peculiarities of quantum physics to make devices that vastly outperform our current best. Such machines could be a huge boost in areas including secure communication, code-breaking, precision measurement and quantitative analysis of “big data”. Quantum technologies however require an exquisite degree of control and, as this research shows, tried-and-true feedback techniques with their roots in the steam age may still have an important role to play.
Clive Emary does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
At 10pm on election night, everything the polls had been telling us for weeks was suddenly turned on its head. This was not the closest election in 40 years after all. Instead, according to the broadcasters' exit poll, the Tories were way out in front. Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, were heading for a humiliation, while every seat but one in Scotland was about to turn yellow.
Few believed what they were seeing. It took the steady thud of early results from Sunderland and Swindon for people to realise that the nails were indeed being banged into Lib Dem and Labour coffins.
At the centre of all this was Professor John Curtice, who has been involved in coverage of elections since 1979. On behalf of the BBC, ITV and Sky News, he fronts an exit-poll team of eight analysts from the universities of Oxford, Plymouth and Manchester and the London School of Economics. Here, he explains how the exit poll was conducted.
How unusual is such a gulf between the exit poll and all the previous polls?
Much the same thing happened five years ago. In that election we forecast that the Liberal Democrats were going to end up with fewer seats than they had in 2005. Nobody believed us. So I have been there and learned to expect the unexpected.
How do you react to coming up with unexpected results?
Rule number one with conducting any exit poll is to forget anything and everything you have read, seen, or looked at in advance. You have to go with the data produced by the polling itself, and have faith in the method and design that has been developed across recent elections.
I said quite clearly in advance of polling day that this is quite a difficult exercise. We could not promise it was going to be exactly right. And indeed it was not. We said 316 seats for the Conservatives, but in the end it was 331. Indeed, because 316 seats was quite close to 326 the headline that was put on the poll was “Tories Largest Party”, thereby leaving open whether the Conservatives would have an overall majority or not.
How did the broadcasters react to the news?
The broadcasters published the results of our analysis without quibble or question, and so far as I am aware made no attempt to distance themselves from it. In doing so they showed faith and displayed courage. The BBC at least, with whose programme I was involved after 10pm, made the poll a central feature of their early coverage, and above all used it to help guide viewers as to the significance of the early results – which indeed is the principal purpose of the whole exercise.
The first few results were mostly in line with the expectations of the poll, including crucially that from Swindon North. And after a half dozen results or so, it began to become apparent that we had the broad story right after all. We began to relax a little at that point – and doubtless the broadcasters did so too!
You said beforehand that this election would be particularly difficult. Did you have to change much in your methodology?
The methodology was exactly the same as in 2010, which in turn was exactly the same as in 2005. They key feature is that wherever possible, we poll outside the same polling locations as we did at the previous election. That means that for each location we can derive an estimate of the change in each party’s support and can paint a picture of how the ups and downs of party support are varying from one kind of constituency to another,
We were able to poll at nearly all of the polling stations at which we also polled in 2010. To these we simply added some new ones to meet the two new key challenges posed by this election – what might happen in Scotland and how well were UKIP were doing.
John oversaw the broadcasters' exit poll and was the BBC's resident psephologist for its election night coverage.
International definitions of health service performance are generally incomparable. All countries have systems that have evolved independently and have different descriptors of priority.
In many countries, access to emergency health care is achieved through the strength of the patient’s insurance or the contents of their wallet. A&E arrangements take significantly different forms internationally and many countries don’t have dedicated emergency medicine personnel. For example, in Germany and Sweden emergencies are treated by assorted specialists from around the hospital.
Systems are considerably different from the UK model, as outlined in the annex to a 2014 evidence report published by Monitor, the sector regulator for health services in England. Arrangements for 24/7 cover are common to Australia, some parts of Canada, the US and some Nordic countries, although these are often staffed by on call medical staff and not permanent cover. GPs also play a larger part in some countries, such as the Netherlands.
In citing the good performance of NHS waiting times, Jeremy Hunt is likely to be referring to this evidence report, which includes a graph showing that in comparison with Victoria in Australia, the Canadian province of Ontario and the city of Stockholm, a higher percentage of people in England left A&E within four hours.
It’s clear that this is not a comprehensive international comparison of the speed of A&E waiting times around the world.
It’s also worth pointing out that waiting times and targets vary around the UK. The BBC helpfully tracks the latest data on A&E waiting times in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In England the expectation is that 95% of patients will be seen, assessed, admitted or discharged within four hours. In England, data on this target is released each Friday, and for the year to date, 92.7% of people in all A&E departments were seen within four hours. In Scotland, where the target is to see 98% of patients within four hours, for the month of February, 87.9% were seen and subsequently admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours.
Regrettably Jeremy Hunt is not comparing like with like in his comparisons so his assertion of international excellence on A&E waiting times is dubious.
Jeremy Hunt’s statement is probably the only way to put positive spin on the English A&E waiting time figures. Even then there is little comfort in the claim because, as the author points out, few countries measure A&E performance as the NHS does. We should not be reassured by comparison with three regions elsewhere.
A&E performance in England has been deteriorating under the coalition. Labour introduced a target that no more than 2% of patients should wait more than four hours in A&E from arrival to admission, transfer or discharge. From 2005, this target was usually met, though A&E departments struggled over the winter. The coalition relaxed the target to 5%, but even this less demanding target was not met this winter.
Patients stay in A&E longer than necessary because there aren’t enough consultants willing to work in this stressful environment and because hospital beds are filled with patients facing delayed discharge because social care support has been cut.
A&E departments are at the centre of a complex system but past calls to address the A&E crisis have gone unheeded. The problems are simply getting worse. – Andrew Street
Andrew Street receives funding from the National Institute of Health Research and the Department of Health's Policy Research Programme but the views expressed are his own.
Peter Bradshaw does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.