Posted by: jowanderer | January 1, 2008

The Year in Ideas

From
December 29, 2007

The Year in Ideas

From Islam-friendly finance to the fall of Z-list celebrity, and from the rise of supercrunching to the return of the bonkbuster, leading commentators and Times writers chart the major cultural, economic and social changes of 2007 and offer their predictions on the shape of the year ahead

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The Big Bang – or not?

It has been nicknamed the “God particle”, and it is the keystone of modern physics. Without it, science’s best explanation for the nature of the universe would come crashing down.

The Higgs boson, first postulated in the Sixties by Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University, is certainly among the most elegant ideas in the history of physics, but it has one small problem. Nobody knows whether it actually exists.

Excitement has been mounting in boffin-land, because in a few months we should finally find out. Set in the shadow of the Jura mountains, on the border between France and Switzerland, a 17-mile (27km) tunnel as long as the Circle Line has just been sealed shut. Inside the tunnel is a $4 billion machine known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful atom-smasher.

When it starts operating next year, it will fire streams of protons against one another at close to the speed of light, releasing huge bursts of energy that will re-create the conditions that prevailed at the dawn of time, shortly after the Big Bang.

This, scientists fervently hope, should allow them their first glimpse of the elusive Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is important because it provides an explanation for why matter has mass – and thus exists in a form that allows it to make stars, planets and human beings. Professor Higgs’s ingenious solution was that the universe is permeated by a field of bosons (a type of particle), which consist of mass but little else. His theory also predicted that they could be observed only at very high energies – hence the need for an atom-smasher. A previous, less powerful accelerator at CERN, the European particle physics lab, found hints of its existence, but the new circuit should now rule it in – or out.

What if the God particle is a false god? That would mean much of what modern physicists think they know is mistaken. The denouement will also settle a famous wager. Seven years ago, when it looked like the LHC’s predecessor might find the Higgs, Professor Stephen Hawking was not convinced. He bet Gordy Kane, of the University of Michigan, $100 that the boson would not be found.

Professor Hawking, who is among the minority of physicists and cosmologists who think the Higgs is probably imaginary, won the first round, and a cheque. Dr Kane, however, is confident he is about to get his money back. Mark Henderson

The return of the bonkbuster

The bonkbuster is back, rising loud and blinging from the pastel pink ashes of chicklit. The paperbacks will be as chunky as ever. Burnished covers, brash heroines and Byzantine bonking plots will return with a vengeance – and added girl power.

Conveniently, the extra-large handbag of 2008 will be able to carry any number of the latest authors: Olivia Darling’s Vintage appears in March, and Jo Rees’s Platinum in May with the classic cover line “Hell hath no fury like three women scorned”. Plus, there is sure to be more from the hotly tipped Tasmina Perry, who led the bonkbuster revival with the bestselling Daddy’s Girls and Gold Diggers.

“What’s different about the latest bonkbusters is they’re not about rags to riches. They usually start with powerful women who are flung into something new, up to another level,” says Auriol Bishop of Hodder & Stoughton, which will publish Vintage. “They still want the ultimate prizes – men and sex and wealth – but the women are much more in control. They are not going to be swept off their feet or left heartbroken. It’s about women gaining power, too.”

Who can forget the original, seminal works: The Thorn Birds, Lace, Scruples, A Woman of Substance and Hollywood Wives? But the new-generation bonkbuster has fresh concerns. In Vintage, which is set in the champagne industry, “Three women dare to make it in the man’s world.” In Platinum, the male interest is “a handsome, ludicrously wealthy, utterly ruthless Russian oligarch with a murky past, desperate for acceptance in society”.

Bishop says the bonkbuster-revival audience was raised on Footballers’ Wives and Bad Girls and immersed in the television cult of celebrity. “The readers are much more savvy than they were about power and wealth, more interested in making money. The chicklit plot of getting your man and living in Hampstead is not enough.”

In the celebrity bonkbuster corner – a whole sub-genre – there are Jordan/Katie Price with her novels Angel and Crystal and her much-lauded ghostwriter, while Coleen McLoughlin has signed a five-book fiction deal after the success of her autobiography. “The term ‘chav-lit’,” says one fiction publisher, “is really offensive. Jordan and Coleen are seen by lots of women as heroines. People want to get blinged up.”

The traditional bonkbuster never disappeared – Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper kept it ticking over at international poolsides – but its heyday was the Seventies and early Eighties. “Jackie Collins is, after all, a woman of a certain age,” says Benedicte Page of The Bookseller. “There was a feeling that the market had not been fully catered for – there is a young, different generation writing now.” Yes, the bonkbuster just got a bit stiff with Botox for a while, but now it’s back – with added bling. Kate Muir

Art fatigue

It seems the shock of the new just isn’t shocking any more. The big news about the 2007 Turner Prize was that it wasn’t news at all – and that even Mark Wallinger’s bear film winning failed to achieve the annual tabloid fulminations about the absurdity of modern art. Oh dear, the fun has most definitely leaked away.

Partly, this is down to a general jadedness about all things shocking (Middle English grannies are well-acquainted with wild art these days – they talk of little else in Tunbridge Wells). And partly it’s down to the faster than ever assimilation of cultural trends into the mainstream. Once upon a time, an outrageous artist’s reputation seeped through the fringes before blooming across the pages of the Daily Mail. Collectors bought diligently, reputations were augmented. But today the Turner sets a seal on a respectable back catalogue and vaguely “edgy” reputation, rather than showcasing genuinely fresh, innovative work to curious audiences and collectors.

This year, Wallinger’s State Britain – a re-creation of Brian Haw’s folk art-focused anti-war protest outside the House of Commons – was dutifully, positively reviewed by right-on critics. Of course. But who isn’t anti-war these days? The very fact that artists think this kind of posturing is radical is depressing. If art is supposed to be challenging, how about a pro-war work of art? Go on, surprise us. Tim Teeman

It’s the emerging markets, stupid

This may be too much of a generalisation, but I think life for companies such as ours [writer Sir Martin Sorrell is chief executive of WPP, one of the world’s largest advertising and communications services groups] in 2008 will be dominated by China, but also by other emerging markets in Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, and Central and Eastern Europe, that are often overlooked.

People are dismissive of Africa, but there have been important events there, not least when Gaddafi did his volte face in 2003, opening up Libya to global trade. The interesting recent event of Lafarge buying Orascom Construction Industries Cement Group for about $12.9 billion is a good example of the increasing importance of nations we are still tending to ignore.

While we’re focusing on Afghanistan and Iran, there are new empires – such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan – being built all the time. In Pakistan, despite its political issues, the advertising market is up 35 per cent this year and will be next year. It’s relatively difficult to get your mind round that.

The second thing is the Chinese establishing their presence in Africa. They have approximately 800,000 people working on various projects in Africa. They are developing relationships and securing commodities for the future. The Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 will mark a turning point for China. It will not just be a sporting event, it will be a political, social and economic milestone, too – the year the Chinese economy becomes the second largest market in the world, snapping at the heels of the United States and ahead of Japan. No major multinational or local company will want to miss the platform offered by the Olympics.

The actual dollar value of growth in our industry will be greater in China than in America in 2008. We will have 9,000 people there out of 102,000 worldwide. We already have about 15 per cent market share and revenues of $600 million – compared to $1.5 billion in the UK and $4 billion in the US. China is our fourth biggest market. In India we have 50 per cent of the market, with revenues of about $250 million and 6,000 people. Russia: 25 per cent market share. Brazil 25 per cent with $450 million, including associates.

This is not new. In fact, it is a case of history reversing itself. India and China accounted for the same proportion of the world economy in 1825 as Goldman Sachs predicts for them in 2025 – about 40 per cent. In time, Chinese-based companies will prove as potent a force as the Korean chaebols and the Japanese multinationals.

As I said at the Leaders in London conference in November, longer term, WPP aims to increase its business in the faster growing markets to reduce reliance on the less dynamic US and Western Europe. WPP gets about a quarter of its $12 billion in annual revenue outside those markets, and aims to raise that share to a third over the next five to ten years.

We have recently been awarded major assignments by companies such as AT&T and Dell, and if you look at their strategies, these other markets are clearly important to them. It’s not rocket science; if those markets are where the growth is, if our clients are there, they will grow, too. It’s not hard to make the connection. If you have a portfolio which is related to the faster growth markets geographically, you should have faster growth, too. Sir Martin Sorrell

Fast train to everywhere

“Golly,” dim man will bark at credulous woman, on some Thursday night this coming spring. “We’ve both got tomorrow off, haven’t we? Well, here’s a splendid plan! Why don’t we hop aboard the Eurostar and pop down to St Tropez?”

“Mmm!” credulous woman will coo at dim man, thoroughly enchanted, and thinking of beaches and restaurants, and wafting serenely around in, most likely, some sort of kaftan. “Oh golly, let’s! Why ever not?”

I’ll tell you why not, credulous woman. Because it is nine and a half hours away, even once you get to the right bit of London. And it will cost you slightly under £600. You have three days off, and you want to spend two of them crossing France on a train? What’s your idea of real fun? Hitch-hiking around the M25?

I’m going to type this really slowly, so that everybody gets it. Paris is now 20 minutes closer. Twenty. The opening of the new station at St Pancras has made it marginally more convenient to get to Northwestern Europe. It has not made it possible to commute to Biarritz. Italy is not now “basically on the Tube”. Lisbon is not just south of Croydon.

I keep having conversations like this. I formulate ambitious plans for a week off and a sleeper to Moscow. Then I realise that this will give me about 25 minutes to see the Kremlin, early on Thursday morning, before I have to turn around and come back again. Twenty minutes changes nothing – Europe is still enormous. Hugo Rifkind

Never mind organic, feel the food print

It’s not easy to do the right thing these days, especially on the food front. Not so long ago, we were happy to load up our trolleys with whatever the supermarkets pushed at us, the more battery reared, industrially grown, air-freighted and genetically modified the better. How carefree that seems now, when a trip to the shops can present enough ethical dilemmas to tax King Solomon. Animal welfare, pesticides, antibiotics, food miles, carbon emissions? there are so many issues to be considered that it can leave the conscientious shopper’s head in a spin.

Do you choose a tomato grown in a heated greenhouse here over one grown in the open air in Spain? Better an English apple kept for six months in refrigerated storage or a New Zealand import shipped by sea? Is an organic leg of lamb from a farm 50 miles away, better than a regular one from the local farm shop?

Problems, problems. And now we have another level of complexity to deal with. The latest buzz phrase is “food print”, the amount of land needed to supply one person’s nutritional needs for a year. With the world population growing by an estimated half a billion every decade, and a concomitant loss of agricultural land to housing and development, it’s not hard to understand why this has become the hot topic de nos jours.

The term was coined by researchers at Cornell University in New York state, who found that a person who followed a low-fat vegetarian diet would need less than half an acre per year to produce their food. A high-fat diet with a lot of meat, on the other hand, needed 2.1 acres. They concluded, however, that the most efficient diet was one that married the two, as raising livestock made productive use of less fertile ground unsuitable for growing crops.

Clearly food prints differ from area to area, depending not just on how fertile the land is, but also on the eating habits of the inhabitants. Equally clearly, those who demand less intensive farming techniques – free range, organic, etc – use up more land proportionately than those eating more mass-produced food.

Next year two studies sponsored by the Rural Economy and Land Use programme will report on just such issues in this country. Professor Bruce Traill, at Reading University, has been looking at the potential effects on our landscape if we were all to meet governmental targets by eating five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day, while Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones of the University of Wales has been looking at the pros and cons of eating locally produced fruit and veg against those produced abroad.

Could it turn out that by doing the right thing we’ve been doing the wrong thing all along? Whatever the outcome, food prints are here to stay. Tony Turnbull

Imax redux

In November, Beowulf, the latest animated film from director Robert Zemeckis, was released in cinemas worldwide. “I will kill your monster!” promised a surprisingly chiselled version of loveable stout cockney Ray Winstone, before falling for Angelina Jolie’s nude seductress. You may have seen it, and if you did, it’s to be hoped you caught it at one of the 50-odd UK screens projecting it in digital 3D. In which case, you’ll have enjoyed a middling blockbuster elevated by an amazing sensory experience. You’ll also have caught the first wave of what many believe is the future – and the saviour – of cinema.

Studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose company DreamWorks Animation created the Shrek films, is one of those evangelists. “It is the single greatest innovation in film-making that has occurred in 70 years,” he says. “This is sensational, exceptional and a premium experience that people are going to go out in droves to see.”

It’s early days, but so far the numbers bear Katzenberg out. By early December, the 400 or so screens in the UK showing Beowulf in the regular 2D format had taken on average less than £11,000 each. The average gross at the 50 showing it in 3D was £29,000. And the four exhibiting the film in IMAX 3D had each banked £110,000. No wonder cinemas across the land are racing to convert from 35mm projection to digital, and then adding the bolt-on components that will allow them to show films in 3D.

For those old enough to remember the first wave of 3D movies in the Fifties, this turn of events may seem surprising. But the downsides to the old format – ghosting, motion blur, headaches, eye fatigue – have been eliminated with “next generation” 3D, which is a digital, not film-based, technology. And those cardboard red-and-green glasses are history; the new eyewear is reflective black plastic.

Because of the agonisingly long development periods for major motion pictures, the big buzz-kill right now is a scarcity of product for 2008 – a 3D remake of Journey to the Center of the World, starring Brendan Fraser, is the hottest property. Instead, the focus is on 2009, when DreamWorks’ first big 3D animation, Monsters vs Aliens, arrives, swiftly followed by Avatar, from technology junkie James Cameron (Titanic). These movies will be marketed as 3D experiences, and the cinema chains had better be ready. Charles Gant

Supercrunching

Forget all that reading the label and murmuring appreciatively. Forget the swilling around your mouth and spitting out. Forget drinking at all. Here’s what your wine tastes like.

The quality of your glass of wine equals 0.00117 multiplied by winter rainfall plus 0.0614 multiplied by the average growing season temperature minus 0.00386 multiplied by the harvest rainfall. Then take away 12.145 and there you go.

With this equation Princeton economics professor Orley Ashenfelter has started a revolution in the wine business. And given a glimpse of one of the coming big ideas.

Ashenfelter’s claim that you can value a vintage without drinking it is the opening story in Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres, the latest in a wave of popular maths and stats books that have followed the great success of Freakonomics.

Supercrunching is the use of objective analysis and huge quantities of data to make predictions about the real world. Supercrunching is the future of marketing – using millions of pieces of data to discover exactly what a particular consumer is likely to buy next and exactly which words to use when selling to them; it is the future of teaching – as data analysts work out what teaching methods will succeed with which pupils and which won’t; it is the future of sport – as baseball managers reject traditional scouting and pick players based only on stats and soccer managers follow suit; it is the future of healthcare – as doctors follow protocols devised by computer; it’s the future.

Computers have been around for a while, so why is supercrunching a coming idea only now? First, it is because technological development has been necessary. Supercrunching requires large amounts of data to crunch and that means computer storage space. Now cheap storage is growing as rapidly as processing speeds have for years.

Second, there is the internet. The ability to access and share data is growing all the time, making data analysis far easier. Ayres settled on the title for his book by putting a number of different titles up in Google ads, then seeing which one attracted the largest number of hits.

And thirdly, there has been cultural resistance to overcome. Supercrunchers don’t just believe that data is as good as expert judgment; they argue that it is far better. To persuade medics that they are better off using computer protocols than exercising professional discretion is hard.

In Moneyball, Michael Lewis tells the story of Billy Beane, manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Beane has challenged decades of conventional wisdom in the game, using stats to value moves, guide play and choose players. The establishment has been horrified and has tried to hold him off. But supercrunching will succeed because Beane has been winning. And other clubs have taken the point.

The rise and rise of data and the decline of individual judgment and expert opinion will be painful. But it is also irresistible. Supercrunching is here to stay. Get used to it. Daniel Finkelstein

British shows rule

The big news this year is something that isn’t happening. The writer’s strike in America is the biggest thing to happen to TV since? well, the last writer’s strike, in 1988. At the time, it cost the industry more than $500 million, pretty much directly led to the cancellation of huge shows such as Moonlighting and Kate & Allie, and precipitated the rise of reality TV – the rationale being, “We’ll make some programmes those writing bastards can’t screw up, then.”

This time around, things are pretty much the same as last time. Production on 24, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy has ground to a halt, the futures of Battlestar Galactica, The Bionic Woman and Heroes apparently lie in the balance, and American TV schedulers are hurriedly commissioning 100 rip-offs of Jackass and that surreal show where Flavour Flav from Public Enemy picks a concubine, after a series of semi-pornographic “Booty Tasks”. Frighteningly, reality TV show producers have been invited to re-pitch shows that were thrown out a year ago.

Of course, while this is all bad news for American television, it could, happily, be good news for British TV. All our clever writers are still working. Programme makers here are making no bones of the high hopes they have for their shows in the US this year – Torchwood is receiving a huge push in the States, Doctor Who continues to have a cult following, and Cranford, Fanny Hill, Spooks and The Tudors are all lined up and ready to go. Theoretically, this could be the year that British TV-making talent gets its chance to address the biggest TV audience in the world, undistracted by Eva Longoria wearing a tiny pair of pants.

Over here, of course, we will be affected slightly differently. After all, we were going to get the British shows all along. What we’re going to notice is, obviously, the sudden disappearance of US shows from our schedules. What we, in Blighty, have to look forward to is a lot of repeats. A lot of repeats. Caitlin Moran

Means-tested music

The record business has always had an unusual relationship with change. Ever since a bunch of small companies run by a handful of producers and entrepreneurs became a multibillion dollar industry, each successive change that’s occurred – whether it was the pop culture boom of the Sixties, the emergence of CDs in the Eighties, or the blockbuster album mentality that pervaded the Nineties – just seemed to make it easier for everyone to make money.

But real change – the important, life-altering type – tends to involve a degree of pain and sacrifice; and now that a sector of the music audience is consuming music without paying for it, record labels are suddenly faced with that proper change, the messy type that involves loss as well as gain – and they are feeling anxious.

Artists face change, too, but they are perhaps better equipped to deal with it than corporations are. Radiohead are a great band because they question things, and in deciding to experiment not just musically but with the whole notion of what a record release is for, with their current album In Rainbows, they have ended up contributing to the feeling of corporate unease – simply by doing something different, and offering the album as a download for as much as fans are willing to pay.

In all the confusion, the industry is perhaps forgetting that the music fan has always had a degree of choice over just how legal his or her chosen method of attaining music is; as a keen adolescent home-taper, I sacrificed quality and convenience due to economic constraints, then graduated to paying for my albums once I could afford to.

And it would be somewhat adolescent completely to blame the woes of the music business on the big companies; although I own and operate an independent label, I’m not anti-major; I’m pro-creativity, and just as not all independent labels are particularly creative, not all major label personnel lack passion for music.

The major labels have problems that they are trying extremely hard to fix. High-street music retailers are in a particularly unenviable position right now, but in some ways times have never been better for the artists or the audience; because it’s so easy for them to find each other.

It doesn’t matter if an aspiring artist is in the middle of nowhere and has no music industry contacts, if he or she has the requisite amount of talent and focus, then their music can now find its way out of their bedroom and into the hands of an eager media more or less instantly.

From Holy F**k to Friendly Fires to Vampire Weekend to Burial to someone we haven’t heard yet, great groups are making insanely great music right now, just as they always have, and some things about the business of music may be harder, but some have never been easier.

If you don’t know any of the above artists, Google them, hear them, find out if you like them. If you enjoy what you hear, you might want to get their music for free, alternatively you might want to go to iTunes or Amazon or Play.com, or one of the many other places you can buy a download or a CD online, and instantly consume.

You may even want to visit an old-fashioned record shop. But you’re going to want to continue to consume music, because it’s the art form that all others aspire to, that can change the world in three minutes, and which now has to deal with some changes itself. Richard russell

Richard Russell is founder of XL Recordings, an independent record label whose artists include Radiohead, Dizzee Rascal and Jack Peñate

China takes a mini-break

There’s nothing new about luxury travel in China. The lovely notion of ordering room service by telephone was first introduced at the Cathay Hotel in Shanghai in the Thirties. Come the communist takeover and the Cultural Revolution – launched by Madame Mao from that very same hotel – the perfect club sandwich was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Apart, that is, from the Chinese elite in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore or the “other China”, aka Taiwan.

But now, with the economic reforms of the Nineties and China’s much-publicised boom, all things luxe are once again on offer for a new Chinese elite on the Mainland. Along with the flash cars, Armani suits and the concubines with their must-have bags comes a wave of swanky new hotels opening up across China, in destinations served by upscale airlines such as Dragonair (recently taken over by that past master in Chinese luxe, Cathay Pacific).

It seems rich Chinese are increasingly learning to have fun spending their money, as well as making and displaying it – at golf hotels, “destination spas”, ski resorts and on cruises and beaches, with even a much-hyped surfing culture emerging on the South China Sea. Surf experts, however, say that while you can occasionally catch a good wave in China, California surfing it isn’t, as there’s no ground swell, whatever that is. But we’re confident that the Chinese will iron out that problem – once they’ve got the Olympics out of the way. James Collard

The year of the terabyte

Fewer than ten years ago, a matchbox-sized 64-megabyte MP3 player, which held a CD’s worth of music, was a thing of wonder. It wasn’t just that its capacity was that of 45 floppy discs; it had a fifth of the storage of my £2,000 IBM laptop, with its (then) massive 360Mb hard drive. Today, if a 64Mb MP3 popped out of a Christmas cracker, you might well discard it along with the plastic whistles and miniature screwdriver sets. The current top iPod has 160 gigabytes of space – 160,000 megabytes, or 450 times as much as my 1998 computer.

Yet the measly gigabyte (1,000 megabytes) is close to obsolescence as a unit of digital storage. Enter the terabyte – 1,000 gigabytes or 1 million megabytes. In 2007, high-street stores began offering terabyte hard drives at £150 or so. These are designed mostly for backing up data; people with home computers stuffed with documents, music, films and photos are learning that when computer hard drives go wrong, it is prohibitively expensive to retrieve the stuff on them. Hence the boom in back-up drives and the appearance on the consumer radar of the terabyte.

Soon, then, our gadgets will pack tens, then hundreds of terabytes of storage. But what will we keep in these monster archives?  The future is bound to be that our desktops, laptops, phones and so on will contain increasing amounts of stored information that doesn’t need to be downloaded from never wholly reliable mobile internet connections. Imagine when a pocket-sized gadget isn’t just your phone but contains, in instantly accessible form, all the music you’ve ever owned, hundreds of films and TV shows, thousands of photographs and videos, all the documents you’ve ever written, hundreds of books and reference works and detailed maps of the entire world.

That’s what the terabyte offers. And it’s not the end of the storage story, either. Coming up in the future is the petabyte (1,000 terabytes), then the exabyte, the zettabyte, the yottabyte and, ultimately, the brontobyte – a million petabytes or so many gigabytes that your calculator will fuse. What we will keep on our brontobyte hard drives is anyone’s guess. Jonathan Margolis

The cuff, not the necklace

Women have always been partial to accessories. But they used to seek an enduring status symbol that could be handed on to a daughter. Now the Holy Grail is seasonal – and eBay-able. Profligate? Vulgar? Yup. But insatiable demand has sparked a flowering of creativity. Biggest statement in 2008? Balenciaga’s gladiator sandal, a crazed hybrid of such whimsy it had to be an instant hit. Most extravagant? Silicone injected crocodile – makes it softer. Wittiest? Chanel’s teeny, ankle, alcohol-tag bag. As for what will replace Marni’s endlessly copied resin necklaces? Marni’s resin cuffs – or other versions, such as Roger Vivier’s – will be everywhere. Book two now. Lisa Armstrong

It’s all about Iran

Towards the end of 2007, in the Iranian city of Kermanshah, the authorities put to death a young man of 21 for the crime of sodomy. The importance of this act of judicial murder was not primarily that the man had been a boy of 13 when the “crime” had been committed, nor that had Makvan Mouloodzadeh been born a citizen of most other countries in the world he would still be alive. It was that a nullification of the sentence as unIslamic by the Iranian Chief Justice was then overturned by a group of judges convened as the Special Supervision Bureau of the Iranian Justice Department.

In 2008, this divided administration, with its wildly competing understandings of what is and isn’t Islamic, will be continuing a programme of enriching the uranium necessary for the creation of a nuclear weapon while continuing to refuse access to the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the same year, the international community will have to decide whether it wants to intensify its attempts to prevent this, or to give up and allow the gradual development of an Islamist bomb – 2008 will be the year of Iran.

As the execution arrangements were being finalised in Kermanshah prision, the finishing touches were being made in Washington to the National Intelligence Estimates report of 16 US security agencies on the state of the Iranian nuclear programme. This report concluded that Iran continued its policy of uranium enrichment and also the development of missiles and other delivery systems. But what caught most international attention was the conclusion that Iran had abandoned weaponisation of a device back in 2003, around the time of the invasion of Iraq and the abandonment by Libya of its own nuclear programme. The NIE report estimated that the Iranian weaponisation was “halted primarily in response to international pressure [which] suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged”.

The NIE report, or, rather, a highly selective version of it, has been greeted with an exaggerated relief from those who have not only opposed any possibility of military action against Iran – not unreasonably – but also by those who have not really wanted any action whatsoever against Iran. As a report in The New York Times put it, not only does war appear to be “off the agenda”, but “It will be difficult to persuade the international community to approve harsher United Nations sanctions against Iran.”

The trouble in 2008 is that the reality facing our leaders and others – including any Democrat who might be elected in November – still consists of the probable progress of Iran towards the development of its own nuclear device. Also, back in 2003, the Iranian government agreed with Britain, France and Germany to stop uranium enrichment, but then reneged on its agreement. Weaponisation of a device, as Pakistan proved in the Nineties, is a relatively simple business once you have sufficient enriched uranium. Only intrusive international inspection can tell for sure whether or not this transition is under way. At the moment Iran does not allow such inspection.

The NIE’s earliest estimate for sufficient uranium enrichment to produce an Iranian bomb is 2010. Unless international pressure results in agreement this year, Iran’s neighbours must live with the prospect that the medievalists who execute gay boys could soon have the bomb. And some of them may not be able to. David Aaronovitch

The beauty doctors

Barely a day goes by without a new “miracle” cream appearing on the market. From nanobots to nanny goats, the beauty industry is awash with outlandish lotions and potions, many of them eye-wateringly expensive. In the stampede to secure the latest tube of must-have moisturiser, it is easy to get carried away. And yet, when you stop to think about it, the idea that a single pot of cream can somehow undo years of hard living, whether it be smoking, drinking, late nights or just the everyday business of being alive, is ludicrous. The skin is, after all, the body’s barrier, and it does a very good job of keeping stuff out – including many ingredients in over-the-counter skincare. Your £200 concoction can be as “miraculous” as you like – but if your skin can’t absorb it, you might as well be using olive oil.

That is why the smart money is moving away from over-the-counter preparations and embracing bespoke solutions: anti-ageing “cures” prescribed by a handful of doctors who specialise not in coughs and colds and the everyday business of medicine, but in treating the outward appearance of their patients.

These people do not merely administer shots of fillers and Botox; they tackle the problem from a physiological point of view – from the inside out. They analyse your blood for levels of hormones, vitamins and minerals, and then they put together a detailed programme of supplements, injections and treatments. The aim is not to make the patient look preternaturally young – no frozen foreheads or trout lips – but to make them into a better version of themselves. It is a truly holistic approach to beauty.

Many of these ideas originate from America, where growing old (and ugly) is considered a treatable medical condition in some sectors – a deeply controversial claim. Some (principally those advocating the use of growth hormones to combat ageing) have even tried to argue that ageing is a disease that causes the pituitary gland to function less efficiently. The medical establishment remains understandably unimpressed. For the rest of us it conjures up uncomfortable images of a world where natural human flaws are ruthlessly eliminated – a sort of Stepford Wives on steroids.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the trend is gathering pace, albeit characteristically cautiously. In London, Dr Frances Prenna Jones already caters for a small group of devoted patients, all of whom have an unshakeable faith in her credentials as a beauty pioneer.

Marion Gluck specialises in bio-identical hormone therapy to re-balance the body’s endocrine system. “Hormones regulate every function in our body, from intellect to metabolism,” she says. “When they are out of whack, we are out of whack. It is not about anti-ageing – that is a nonsense concept. It is about ageing well, with a functioning mind and body. Looking good is a natural side effect of being healthy.” Sarah Vine

The do-gooder is back

The collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market is having an impact outside the school gates. With City bonuses in retreat and austerity becoming fashionable, Yummy Mummies are beginning to look so yesterday, as mums with a social conscience step forward to take centre stage. The age of worthiness is upon us, and we’re not just talking about coughing up thousands of pounds to attend charity events organised by hedge funds.

Instead of spending their days pounding the treadmill or shopping at Selfridges, mums with time on their hands are rolling up their sleeves to work in soup kitchens, help with literacy at their local school or hone their green credentials. The big question is whether they will go for David’s wind machine or Gordon’s solar panels. Is this the end of “me culture” as we know it? Probably not, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. So get out the chocolates and crack open another bottle of wine because the mark of a fashionable mother is no longer a washboard stomach. Fiona Neill

Personal globalisation

Tim Ferriss has outsourced his sex life. He employed four assistants around the world, from Jamaica to the Philippines, just to trawl dating websites and set up dates on his behalf. Following a strict brief, they found him 20 dates in four weeks, and the whole thing cost him $350 (including a $150 bonus for the best assistant).

“It was unreal,” he says. “Perhaps a 70 per cent hit rate, far better than what I was averaging with clubs, bars, parties and the like.” On second dates, he told the girls how he’d found them. “Most of the girls called me a jerk with a smile. Those are the keepers.”

Outsourcing used to be something that only corporations did: it’s what happens when a company sacks its own staff and replaces them with workers from another company. Whether it’s corporate dinner ladies or useless Indian call centres, it has a terrible reputation. But the internet has made personal outsourcing possible: sack off the bits of your job you don’t enjoy and get the developing world to do the work. It’s like employing a Romanian cleaner and a Brazilian nanny, but on a grander scale.

The new global outsourcing works through sites such as Elance. It’s eBay for outsourcing. Anyone can sign up and post a task, then – within minutes – firms and freelancers from around the world will bid for the work.

What kind of jobs can you get outsourced? Old-fashioned secretarial skills are the most common. Thirty years ago, every professional man (and they were mainly men) had a secretary to run his diary, remind him of his wife’s birthday and type up his notes.

Today, only a handful of top executives have that luxury. Fortunately, for $15 an hour, you can employ a college graduate working in India. But that’s just the start. Parents in the US have found that they can get unlimited online maths coaching from a graduate in Bangalore for $99 a month. A graduate in the US would demand $60 an hour. Why not hire a hip graphic designer in Argentina to design your wedding invites, at $65 for the whole job?

It’s all possible because, during the first dotcom boom, $1 trillion was spent installing the infrastructure of the internet – millions of miles of optical fibre cables stretching between and across continents. That’s why everywhere in the world, from Bangalore to Nairobi to Belarus, now has fast, reliable, cheap internet access. And anything you can send digitally – from a phone call to a family video – can be worked on internationally.

Tim Ferris’s book The Four Hour Workweek presents a dreamlike vision of the future, where employees discreetly outsource all their work to the Third World, then embark on a permanent holiday (he calls it a “mini retirement”) living on the proceeds. As he says: “Fun things happen when you earn dollars, live on pesos and compensate in rupees.” Tom Whitwell

You are your own energy source

In the past ten years, the internet has put us in control of all sorts of new things. We can be music producers, film producers, bloggers on the international stage, with just a computer and a network. This is an incredible liberation, turning the old hierarchies upside down.

In the next ten years, something similar could happen to electricity. Ever since 1882, when Thomas Edison opened the first commercial power station in Manhatttan, we have been building big, remote power stations, transmitting power to households through a national grid. Economies of scale meant that it made sense to centralise energy production.

But new technologies are making it possible for individuals to produce their own energy on a much smaller scale, without having to wait for big power companies to get round to it. Some American households are already producing more energy than they need, from renewable sources like the sun and the wind, and are selling surplus power to the very companies that they used to depend on. 

One small sign of this trend will soon be on the British high street. A few companies now sell backpacks and jackets made of pliable solar panels, which will recharge your iPod, mobile phone, maybe even your laptop, as you walk around. This small innovation will free many of us from the need to rush to the office to plug in to the mains – though it won’t help much at night. (The Reactor backpack from http://www.thesolarcentre.co.uk, costs £99.99 and is apparently made from recycled drinks bottles.)

Packing power on our backs may change the way we think about energy. But the real liberation will come when we start to install micro-generators in our homes, offices or streets. Combined heat and power systems, heat pumps and solar panels all offer ways to cut waste from our centralised energy system, which, according to the DTI (now BERR), loses roughly half its energy in generation and transmission over long distances. Our current system is also extremely vulnerable to blackouts. Decentralised systems are more like an “energy internet”, re-routing energy supply swiftly if one network link fails.

The Netherlands now meets about a third of its electricity demands through decentralised energy. In Britain, the tipping point will come next year, when the Government changes the building regulations to make all new homes “zero-carbon” by 2016. This will only be possible if each development generates its own power.

Today most of us remain connected by an umbilical cord to the electricity grid, exposed to the vagaries of energy prices. The decentralised way of thinking would let us break free from that tyranny. It won’t happen all at once. But next year the concept will become much more familiar. Making our own energy could prove almost as entertaining as watching YouTube. Camilla Cavendish

Koran-compliant finance

You’re a Muslim, you’re also a free-marketeer — heir to a medium-sized Abu Dhabi construction firm, maybe, or a travel agent for the Kuwaiti football team, or a pharmacist on the Uxbridge Road. You want to expand, but Sharia law forbids the payment of interest, which is something banks might expect in return for a loan. (It also bans investment in anything that sells booze, guns, porn or pork.) What do you do?

You relax. Help is at hand. As the rest of the financial services industry writes off duff loans and furls once-billowing bonus expectations, Islamic banks are booming. They offer loans and bonds and even Sharia-compliant hedge funds, none of which pays or charges interest. They pay and charge agreed percentages of profit or loss instead, and the distinction, which may seem trivial, has been enough to attract tens of billions of petrodollars that would otherwise have been invested in impure Western institutions for want of an alternative.

The global volume of certified Koran-friendly assets has grown by 30 per cent to more than £250 billion in the past year alone. In the past five years, the international Islamic bond business has expanded more than 80-fold. And there’s no crash in sight: an estimated £750 billion is still sloshing around the Middle East in search of a good home. Post-9/11 transparency rules in the US have made Wall Street an even less congenial home for devout Muslim money. And Islamic banks are finding, to their delight, that non-believers like their products almost as much as believers. All of which leaves Islamic entrepreneurs with plenty of options. But it is even better news for a tiny clique of richly rewarded advisers who lay claim to the ultimate cross-cultural financial specialism – the Sharia compliance experts.

What does the Koran say about the reinversion of the yield curve? Or exploiting negative convexity in the debt markets? Not a lot. Such questions have been left to the very small number of Koranic scholars – a few hundred worldwide, with as few as 50 ominating the sector – who have troubled to cross-ref Muslim scripture’s general condemnation of usury and vice with the fine print of the global financial markets.

One of the elite, Sheikh Nizam Yaquby, sits on the boards of Citigroup, AIG and HSBC and has complained that banks aren’t doing enough to train more people like him. In fact, Sharia-compliance training is a growth industry in Bahrain and Malaysia, but it has some way to go to immunise itself against claims of conflict of interest among self-appointed experts in a self-regulated field.

An Islamic bond, or sukuk, is currently regarded as Sharia-compliant if a sufficiently respected “expert” says it is. Standardisation and external regulation of the industry are in the pipeline. For now, it looks rather like the organic veg business five years ago – just much, much bigger. Giles Whittell

Manlove for ladies

When Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt of BBC comedy The Mighty Boosh snogged on air recently, it may have looked as if they were pandering (tongues literally in cheeks) to gay male fans. Comments on the YouTube clip of the clinch seemed to confirm this: “The hottest thing I’ve ever seen!”; “Oh sweet baby Jesus!” Until you get to: “I broked my ovaries!!”, and then you realise that many of the posters perving shamelessly over this man-on-man action are actually female. Welcome to the wonderful, if sometimes slightly perplexing, world of ladies who love men loving men.

Once, this scene was confined to obscure online groups of “slashers” – women who subversively outed a homoerotic subtext within the “buddy” genre for an online audience of other slashers. So Starsky played with Hutch’s clutch and Sam felt Master Frodo’s ring.

The Mighty Boosh snog aside, the semi-secret reason so many, from Desperate Housewives to Coronation Street, have boy-on-boy romances now is not political correctness, but because a large segment of their (mostly female) audience like seeing them get it on. Earlier this year, a gay bar in Melbourne had to go to court to get an order banning women. Apparently they were descending on the club en masse to ogle the canoodling men. Mark Simpson

Dust off the tombola

There is no subject more vexed in Westminster than party political funding. Indeed, a recent debate on the subject was an unedifying slugfest. I sat and watched it and thought that this was democracy at its worst. Its low point came when Dennis Skinner screeched at the Tories: “Tell me why you didn’t know that Asil Nadir was a crook. Why did you take $1 million from a Chinese drug baron?” Ancient history, ancient hatreds.

Politicians have enjoyed nurturing those hatreds, using them time and time again to prevent change. But now, at last, all that must stop. Indeed, the rustling that can be heard at Westminster these days has been traced to the library where politicians have actually taken to reading the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It’s taken two major scandals to achieve this basic interest.

So as much as politicians will hate it, when it comes to raising cash, they must reform or die. They must do this, first, to avoid going to jail, which can look so bad on your CV. And, second, because what they are doing now isn’t working. Labour is losing membership and is £20.9 million in debt. The Tories, who claim they don’t know how many members they have, are £8 million in hock, which is bad but not nearly as dire as it was before David Cameron arrived and the phones starting ringing with donations.

There is much chatter, from Labour about a £50,000 cap on donations, and from the Tories about the need to reform union donations. This coming year, there will have to be moves in both these areas, and the result will transform the practical business of raising cash. At the moment, political fund-raisers are the equivalent of big-game hunters on safari. In the future, they are more likely to be shooting rabbit and squirrel (though only the hated grey ones, of course).

The parties shouldn’t see this as a problem, but as an opportunity. The way they raise cash now is stuck in the Stone Age. Their use of the internet is painfully backward. Put simply, political parties haven’t been concentrating on us, the little people, for some time. They need to drag themselves into the future, use the internet as the wonderful networking tool that it can be, and get back into our lives. In short, they must bring the tombola to us and, incidentally, make it cool, too. Ann Treneman

The new billboard

Outdoor advertising is about to change for ever as technology and creative ambition fuse a new reality and turn the traditional medium into something unexpected. If you hoped to escape the influence of the marketing folk on a stroll to the shops, think again. Consider the contemporary Tube escalators adorned with HD digital screens that engage us with glossy commercials and films. The revolution now integrates performers, props, product displays and other branded 3D elements into the new LED (light emitting diode) billboard medium.

In 2007, adidas sponsored soccer matches between two athletes suspended on wires high above the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. The players acted out a game of football with an adidas billboard serving as the football field backdrop (above). Meanwhile, as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for KFC, a giant Colonel Sanders image was laid out in the Nevada desert and can now be seen on Google Earth.

There are Bluetooth billboards that interact with mobile phones, BlueCasting (transmitting) songs or movie clips to the PDAs and phones of passers-by. LED also allows instant message uploading via the internet, so community messages and public-service announcements can also run on the signs. There are even roadside listening billboards that profile commuters as they speed by, then personalise ads based on those profiles. So, if the road is clogged with Classic FM listeners it might make a pitch for a high-quality car. If Radio 4 is on, the billboard could change to ads for an airline or gourmet grocery.

We are in a brave new world in which the dark art of ad craft is operated by disciples with a desire to bewitch the consumer with anamorphic engagement. It is improperganda – an alchemy of brand experience geared to generate consumer buzz. Our streets will never be free from legal graffiti, subversive mobile posters, in-your-face brand experiences and guerilla projections. Mark Borkowski

Mark Borkowski is Publicist-Agency Head of Borkowski PR

The end of Z-list celebrity

I wish I could say it was the beginning of the end – it’s not, but at least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. During 2007, something shifted in the public psyche towards the concept of “celebrity”. Blame over-saturation, over-stimulation, ennui or the prevailing of good, old-fashioned common sense; whatever it is, if you are a celebrity of anything other than five-star status, you’d better have an exit plan. 

It’s not just the falling ratings or the fact that Biggins’s victory on I’m a Celebrity? Get Me Out of Here! failed to make the front pages; it’s not Britney’s unsightly and tragic breakdown; it’s not even OK!’s declining circulation figures that signify a celebrity slowdown. Somewhere out there, bubbling under in the Zeitgeist, is the germ of an idea that being famous for famous’ sake is no longer the thing.

You can see it everywhere – in the Hollywood A-list’s refusal to be quite so obliging to the press (Vanity Fair, yes, the broadsheets yes, OK!, no) – I’m thinking Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, George Clooney, Matt Damon here. These are proper movie stars with talent, who these days rarely open their mouths without something bona fide to sell or say.

“It’s a return to old Hollywood,” says an LA insider. “Too many people got burned. They gave away too much and had nothing left to hide.” You can see it, too, in the choices made by magazine editors. “We’re going back to models,” says the editor of one of the major British glossies. “We’ve had enough of competing for what amounts to little more than a puff interview and some secondhand pictures.” Of course, you could blame us – the media – for letting so much daylight in upon a world once vaunted and venerated. I blame Paris Hilton (below left). When she miraculously “found God” after just ten days in a prison cell, any shred of dignity “celebrity” might once have claimed was lost, perhaps for ever. Tina Gaudoin

Love not profit

Next year is the year that emotional design moves mainstream. Like most powerful movements that change the way we think, the ideas behind it usually waft around before they gather steam and eventually reach what author Malcolm Gladwell calls the “tipping point”, the moment at which they are embraced by wider society and take off stratospherically. So it is with emotional design. It’s been around in the work of such movers as Tord Boontje, whose lyrical pieces for Habitat, Moroso and Swarovski showed that there could be more to design than icy logic. It’s also in the fantastical pieces Hella Jongerius created for Nymphenburg Porzellan, and there are many others.

It’s hard to pinpoint when this more human approach to design first began to manifest itself, but Ilse Crawford’s lovely book Home is Where the Heart Is? was certainly one of the trigger points. She pointed out that, very often, the language surrounding the home reeked “simply of the balance sheet”, when what people craved was much more the notion of home as “a safe place, a loving place and a creative place. A place where we can explore our inner life.” And, looking back, it seems amazing that the cold logic of “form follows function” and the almost universal aversion to anything decorative reigned so supremely for so long.

Today, more and more designers acknowledge that their job is not just to produce efficient products but also to provide things that give much deeper, emotional pleasure. Which is why this trend is now reaching the high-street chains. Once they aped the minimalism of the fancy designer pad; today their wares are looking prettier, curvier, more romantic than ever. Even Ikea, that bastion of cool Scandinavian good taste, has sensed this coming change: “Love not money,” runs one of its new ads, “is what gives a home a soul”. It was Karl Lagerfeld who once summed up for me the job of a designer when he said it was “endlessly to recreate desire”. Cold rationalism never did that. Lucia Van Der Post

Arena darts

Between February and May of 2007, the Professional Darts Corporation staged its Premier League of Darts competition. Its televised weekly contests between the eight best darts players in the PDC division did not take place in cramped clubs or minor hotel ballrooms. Rather they were staged in 2,000 and 3,000-seater venues – the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre. The classic pub game had, unpredictably, become an arena entertainment.

Darts had not previously seemed to cry out for exposure in the kinds of venues in which one might more regularly watch Prince or the Tweenies on Ice. What the sport offers by way of action is pretty much limited to two blokes in courageous nylon smocks, standing 7 ft 9¼in from a wall and, with vast concentration, lobbing thin missiles into tiny, coloured segments of a board. There is little scope, during play itself, for dancers and laser shows. Guitar solos are unheard of. Yet every night, crowds rammed the venues to the rafters, holding up signs improvised in Biro on paper plates, hoarsely hailing the 180s, the “ton-forties”, the three-dart checkouts, while the players, disobeying a basic law of stage-craft, stood with their backs to the auditorium, still concentrating, still throwing darts.

A point was proved. Padded with dry-ice, amplified music and vamped-up, boxing-style “walk-ons” for the competitors, the game’s precisely tooled, white-knuckle drama could become a plausible large-scale diversion. Encouraged to screen darts for the first time in more than 20 years, ITV spent a week in November covering the newly instituted Grand Slam of Darts at the 5,215-capacity Civic Hall, Wolverhampton. This year, the PDC World Championship abandoned its established home at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, a sweaty Essex mosh-pit just east of the Dartford Tunnel, and headed for the plusher spaces of the Alexandra Palace. It is clear that darts is enjoying a boom unlike any since its televised heyday in the Eighties.

Meanwhile, the players get smaller. The hospitalisation in 2005 of a 30-stone Andy “The Viking” Fordham – one of a small number of professional players to have left a darts arena on a medical trolley – sent a warning across the sport which has been extensively heeded.

Today’s professional is not automatically obese, and there is talk, among a new generation of players, of treadmills and fitness regimes. Everything else about the sport, however, is bigger. Giles Smith

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