David Shariatmadari

The FBI's Guide to Twitter Acronyms is Worse Than Useless

People are using abbreviations on Twitter and the FBI is ON IT. A list of almost 3,000 acronyms intended to help agents navigate the world of social media has been released (most of us manage just fine with Google, but these people can't resist a good dossier) after a freedom of information request. As well as pointing out that COP can mean both "officer of the law" and "close of play", it includes classics such as FMTKFYTFO (for me to know, for you to find out) and YKWRGMG (you know what really grinds my gears?). These phrases, of course, are just as likely to be used by terrorists plotting mass-murder as by teens engaged in prom-committee election manoeuvring. Personally I feel reassured that security experts are being trained in their use.

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Why Your Brain Wants to Swear

Most of the time, words behave themselves. They're just a useful arrangement of sounds in our mouths, or letters on a page. They have no intrinsic power to offend. If I told you that skloop was a vile swearword in some foreign language, with the power to empty rooms and force ministerial resignations, you might laugh. How could an arbitrary combination of sounds have such force? But then think of the worst swearwords in your own language and you quickly understand that something else is at play here. Our reaction to them is instant and emotional.

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8 Pronunciation Errors that Changed Modern English

Someone I know tells a story about a very senior academic giving a speech. Students shouldn't worry too much, she says, if their plans "go oar-y" after graduation. Confused glances are exchanged across the hall. Slowly the penny drops: the professor has been pronouncing "awry" wrong all through her long, glittering career.

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The Hard Green Revolution

It seems that being an astronaut can bring out the protective in you. "The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone: our home, which must be defended like a holy relic."

That was how Alexei Leonov described his feelings on seeing our planet from space. He wasn't the only one to experience a sense of anxiety. For the American James Irwin, "that beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart."

At the time of the Apollo 8 mission, the first to go into lunar orbit, the wider environmental movement was still in its infancy. But seeing pictures of the earth rising over the moon, hearing the comments of those who had seen it for real, must have made a lot of ordinary people stop and think. The accounts of Leonov, Irwin and others drew attention to the ultimate vulnerability of our home planet, a tiny, defenseless object in the vast blackness of space. The earth is small, and it's the only home we have. If we mess things up, it's curtains for the whole shebang.

Well, yes and no. A lot of environmental discourse is couched in terms of "humans vs. the planet" -- as if Earth, like a Christmas bauble, will simply break if played with too recklessly. Human settlement poisons or destroys the natural world wherever the two come into contact. It's become a cliche, and it's certainly an easy concept to grasp, but might there be another way of looking at the situation we find ourselves in?

We tend to take it for granted that we are more powerful than nature. We dam rivers, cut down and occasionally plant forests, we reclaim land. If anyone's going to get hurt in this relationship, it'll be Gaia, our long-suffering mistress.

In fact, we're very far from having nature tamed, let alone on its last legs. Stephen Jay Gould took pains to point this out in his essay, "The Golden Rule: A Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis." He explains that "all the megatonnage in all our nuclear arsenals yields but one ten-thousandth the power of the 10km asteroid that might have triggered the Cretaceous mass extinction. Yet the earth survived that larger shock."

Despite what you may read in the papers, we're in absolutely no danger of extinguishing life on this planet. "We can surely destroy ourselves, and take many other species with us, but we can barely dent bacterial diversity and will surely not remove many million species of insects and mites. On geological scales, our planet will take good care of itself and let time clear the impact of any human malfeasance," says Gould.

I suspect that this would still come as a surprise to the majority of those who've picked up the environmental message over the past 30 years or so. So much of the emphasis has been on a catastrophic loss of biodiversity for which humans are clearly responsible. Evidently, the history of the biosphere is one of growth and differentiation, occasional mass extinction and further differentiation. Though we might now be killing off record numbers of species this doesn't mean those that do escape the scourge won't survive to flourish under the changed conditions. Nature will always reconstitute itself. For its ultimate destruction, we may have to wait for the explosion of its fuel cell, the sun.

Given the likelihood that Mother Earth is rather more robust than we give her credit for, it's possible to imagine a new variety of environmentalist, one whose focus is human survival. These people might choose to call themselves "Hard Greens" (they might come up with a better name). For them, the question of whether or not we should be kind to the planet would be less one of "save the whales" altruism and more one of tough-talking, practical approaches to human safety.

What would Hard Greens on the lookout for existential threats worry about most? They might do well to seek the advice of thinkers like Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute.

In his 2001 paper "Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards," Bostrom sorts the various possibilities for human extinction into bangs, crunches, shrieks and whimpers, according to the precise character of our journey down the toilet. Bostrom's a philosopher, and some of his doomsday scenarios are a little abstruse (I particularly like the possibility of "take-over by a transcending upload"), but those classified as "bangs" are easy enough to grasp. The roll call includes asteroid impact, pandemic or runaway global warming. Several are the result of unchecked scientific innovation.

Technological development has always posed a thorny problem for mankind. On the one hand it brings benefits that are labor-saving and life-prolonging -- on the other, potential dangers. Nuclear power crystalized this debate for a long time. Dreams of an almost endless supply of cheap clean fuel were marred by the prospect of accidental leaks, weapons proliferation and long-term contamination. Newer technologies -- in particular those that harness the power of natural processes -- need to be monitored just as carefully.

As with nuclear science, perhaps the greatest danger lies in civilian technology being adapted for military ends. In the bio- and nanotech worlds the consequences of weaponization would be fearsome. But public safety is usually thought of only in the wake of massive funding for scientific investigation. The trouble is, it's very easy to be seen as getting in the way of progress. In Britain, Tony Blair's appointee science minister, Lord Sainsbury, did a good job of making Prince Charles look like a fuddy-duddy in 2003 when he voiced concerns about the rapid expansion of nanotech research.

Nanoscience, which paves the way for construction on the molecular scale, will soon give birth to a technology that saves us time and helps us live longer. It will also be hijacked by rogue states and terrorists. Governments must take the long view, weighing up the predicted benefits against the potential for weapons development, then determine policy on that basis. Robust environmentalism is a question of managing technology, keeping a firm grip on the tiller, imposing severe restrictions on some types of research, erring on the side of caution.

Then of course, there's climate change. It might not spell the end for the biosphere, as we've seen, but it could very well wreck human civilization. For James Higham, a zoologist at Roehampton University, London, the outlook is gloomy. "There's an enormous amount of uncertainty, but we're potentially looking at a serious reduction in human welfare, particularly in the developing world."

The rich world must act now, not only to put their own houses in order, but to make things easy for poorer nations to do the same.

"You can't expect the world's poorest people to bear all of the burden -- it just won't happen" says Higham, who has also worked for the Overseas Development Institute. Nations like Brazil, which could make a lot of money from disposing of its natural resources, must be compensated for not doing so. Kyoto goes some way toward correcting the imbalance. Countries with large tracts of forest, which tend to be in less developed zones, will not have to adjust as much as their industrialized counterparts in order to meet the demands of the treaty since it recognizes their role in the sequestration of carbon dioxide.

As to the realities of lowering carbon emissions, Higham sides resolutely with James Lovelock, who recently revealed his support for the use of nuclear energy to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Nuclear may be unnatural, unnerving, costly, but these are considerations the Hard Greens would be willing to sweep aside. If it's what it takes, then we'd better get on with it.

Who'd be left behind by the Hard Green revolution? The kind of environmentalism that owes more to aesthetics than science would have to come clean. Let's be honest, why do European conservationists prefer the white-headed duck to the ruddy duck? Is it because the latter was introduced artificially and is now disrupting native ecosystems? Or because it's commoner, less attractive and American?

There's nothing wrong with wanting to preserve something because it's beautiful or because it has some symbolic value. We do it with cultural artifacts all the time. To pretend that it's an exercise in saving the planet isn't really necessary. Landscapes that have been restored to their "natural" states are simply the Uffizi or the Louvre of the natural world. When we create a national park or rescue a species from extinction, it must be because we want our world to be a rich and glorious place to live, not to somehow erase all traces of man's presence.

Hard Greens wouldn't engage with the labyrinthine moral arguments around our right to "play God." Having made their peace with nature's realpolitik, they could waste less time hand-wringing. What's more important is not whether by some arbitrary measure it can be judged natural, but whether it's dangerous. More to the point, is it likely to devastate our habitat? If not, then it's a pretty low priority, because there are already plenty of things that could.

It would make a refreshing change to the way the debate about our environment is conducted to put humans at the center of things: We're vulnerable, though it might not suit our self-image to say so. We'll have to wait and see whether national governments, the lumbering architecture of international treaties or even individuals are capable of mustering the will to save Homo sapiens. One thing, I suspect, will hold true: Only the Hard Greens will inherit the earth.

The World Through a Looking Glass

Ever felt worn down by the modern world? Find yourself fantasising about other lives you could have lived -- as a courtier at Versailles, a geisha, perhaps a pipe-smoking Edwardian gentleman? A vision of the world as a simple place, without bio-terrorism, frankenstein foods, melting ice-caps. Life in serene freedom from latter-day horrors.

Except that some people still speak of the bad old days. My father, who grew up in Iran, used to say the second world war had been the most difficult time of his life, despite the fact that the country didn't see any fighting. "We spent hours queueing for bread, and when we got it, it was the worst kind, and all burnt," he recalled. My grandfather could have talked to you about the Depression, his own father about the shock of the Great War.

Every generation has its earth-shattering moments. So why do we tend to believe we've never had it so bad? It's easy to see a "meant to be" quality in the past that makes it seem less frightening although, at the time, it might have felt like the old certainties were unravelling. And of course, it's hardly in the news media's interests to reveal that there's nothing new under the sun.

So indulge me for a moment in a detour into my personal life. A few weeks ago I broke a full length mirror. Not only had it been my sole means of judging how well my top half matched my bottom half (faux pas have since been witnessed), like most outwardly rational people, I secretly retain one or two superstitions, among them a belief that smashing mirrors is serious bad luck. I began to worry that I had just brought seven years of misery on myself. Perhaps I should have found comfort in the fact that this would surely mean I could expect to live another seven years, and might as well stop worrying about plane crashes and terminal diseases for that period of time. Already a bad omen, it then became a source of guilt as my housemates rightly decided it was up to me to dispose of it. I wasn't sure how. In the end, I went at it with a hacksaw and a hammer, breaking it into manageable pieces and no doubt compounding the bad luck in the process.

Between the mirror and the hardboard backing were the brittle yellowed pages of a newspaper. Checking the date, I was surprised to find that it was a British Daily Mail from July 11, 1925. Back then, John Logie Baird was tinkering with the first TV set and F. Scott Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby. "Ah," I thought wistfully, falling into the trap, "another world." Not quite.

Among the adverts for liver salts, nerve tonics and baby carriages was an article titled "Tragi-comedy of Monkeyville." Monkeyville, it emerged, was Dayton, Tennessee, where John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, had been arraigned on charges of teaching evolution. Very odd. Less than a week before, I'd been listening to a woman on the news. "The last time this happened, it was in the old world and people got burnt at the stake" she protested, from the epicentre of another crisis over whether to allow the teaching of creationism in American schools. I was ready to believe her line about this being something new and alien. Countless reports give the impression the Christian lobby in the US has never been stronger. But as my paper showed, the debate about the role of biblical teaching is far from new, even on her side of the Atlantic.

Perhaps stranger was that British shock at the anachronism of the debate was as tangible in 1925 as it is in 2005. John Blunt writes "one suddenly perceives that Tennessee is a much more incredible place than New Guinea, and that America contains mysteries of outlook that make China appear simple." He articulates an uneasiness, not alien to modern-day U.K. citizens, at being closely identified with the United States but uncomfortable with some of its mores. Blunt warms to his theme: "the strange prejudices of, let us say, a Kalmuk do not astonish one, because everything about him is completely different from oneself; but the stranger prejudices of a Tennessee farmer do astonish one, just because he appears, in so many ways, to be very much like oneself."

Equally disconcerting is the American love of spectacle, the desire to turn the proceedings of a courtroom into a piece of entertainment (O.J. Simpson springs to mind). The paper's special correspondent notes sniffily that on arrival the presiding judge stopped to allow photographs to be taken. Clearly enjoying his few moments of fame he posed again, his gavel raised, before calling the case. Blunt wonders that "the most modern business instincts appear to be mixed up with a mentality that flourished hundreds of years ago, and the dark intolerance of the Middle Ages to be mingled with a strong desire to "boost the occasion." That desire to "boost" the occasion is now so much in evidence that it passes without comment. This is one aspect of the article, at least, that would seem quaint to the modern reader.

Monkeyville wasn't the only story with eerie parallels to the present. I found British hooligans making nuisances of themselves on the continent, and the enormous cost to the taxpayer of the mass-slaughter of diseased cattle (tuberculosis, not foot and mouth or bird flu, was the animal affliction of the moment). Some unlucky hack had been sent across London to see how long it would take to get from Marble Arch to Liverpool Street at 11.30 in the morning. He spent 52 minutes behind the wheel, including the 12 minutes it took to cross Tottenham Court Road -- a time that would raise few eyebrows today. Though there was the occasional grocery barrow to contend with on his nightmare drive, at least he didn't have to risk encountering one of Mayor Ken Livingstone's unlovable new "bendy buses."

In the parliamentary section I read that Conservative M.P. Sir Robert Gower intends to ask a question about the British Broadcasting Company. At the time solely a radio broadcaster, then as now it was funded by a licence fee. Gower wanted to ask the minister responsible whether, in view of the profits made by the BBC over the past year, a reduction in the fee would be in order. The BBC's funding is still hotly debated today -- so when was the golden age of consensus on our public service broadcaster? It never existed.

Among the letters, a Major Bagley holds forth on the lamentable record of Great Britain's sporting representatives before attempting to explain "why foreigners win". The reason, he claims, is the lack of "organised games" in all but the best schools and universities in the UK. To anyone who follows the British press today, hand-wringing about our international sporting performance and the 'crisis' of physical education in schools is familiar background noise, though the Ashes victory and successful Olympic bid may have produced a brief lull.

On the back pages, America reappears, but this time the mind of the tourist, not the Tennessee farmer, is dissected. To understand the annual influx of visitors from the U.S., Europeans need look no further than the tedious uniformity of American culture: it doesn't matter where you are in the States, "buildings, furniture and clothes are everywhere identical, and language is too". It is the variety of the old world that attracts them, though with prohibition in full swing, the chance to sink a few can't have been far from their minds. But something odd is afoot; parts of London, Paris and Rome are beginning to look the same as well, the same as everywhere else, that is. "The imposing new Regent Street, for example, that has arisen in the last few years might just as well be a piece of Winnipeg or Sydney as of London." Anxiety about globalisation, a favourite 21st-century preoccupation, was already in full swing in 1925. Many now see the classical canyon of Regent's Street as the epitome of Grand Old England and instead deride the proliferation of Norman Foster's glass blobs. The objects are different, but the sentiment is the same.

Browsing my old newspaper I wonder at the egotism in assuming we are the first to experience anything. It seems bizarre that the surprise is fresh every time we are reminded that people in the past were just like us. Here is reason not to take the media's frequent predictions of doom, disaster and cultural decline too seriously. There are some things, you could argue, that genuinely are new: modern weapons, AIDS or global warming. But on examination, how similar even these problems are to the challenges faced by earlier generations: no small comfort -- they survived them, after all. The man on the street in 1925 was as beset by uncertainties as we are. The prospect of another, much more frightening war loomed large, and everyday tribulations, the traffic, the economy, the loss of old ways of life, were stories beloved of editors then as now.

My advice, the next time you're anxious about the rise of creationism, cloned coffee shops or the state of the world in general, is to go to the library and ask to see a copy of a daily paper from 1930, 1910 or even 1860. The longer view may be the more realistic.

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