Who Cleans Up After?


Baseball's toxic tradition of chewing tobacco


Once described as the nation's religion, baseball has a special place in American culture. But there is a darker side: the cancer-causing tradition of chewing tobacco, which has claimed the lives of some of its most celebrated players.

'Dip', 'chew', 'chaw' and 'baccer' are some of the names that refer to one baseball's oldest traditions - stuffing wads of tobacco into your lips or cheeks.

Almost every American baseball film depicts the habit - Tom Hanks spits out a mouthful in A League of Their Own, and the young players from The Sandlot Kids urge each other to dip because "all the pros do it."

It originally became popular with players to keep their mouths moist on the dry, dusty field during long games, while the tobacco spit helped soften their gloves.

In the early days the dangers of tobacco were not known, and the practice persisted through generations. But Babe Ruth and Bill Tuttle are just two of the baseball greats who lost their lives to cancers linked to chewing tobacco.

More recently Major League player Tony Gwynn developed salivary gland cancer. Its effects were devastating.

He was known for his laughter and broad smile, but cancer treatment took these from him by leaving his face temporarily paralysed on one side.

After several years of treatment he died in 2014 at the age of 54.

Although doctors say a link between his cancer and chewing tobacco cannot be proven, Gywnn himself blamed the cancer on the dipping habit he had had since his days as a rookie player.

His death led to renewed calls to rid the sport of chewing tobacco, which is restricted but not banned in Major League Baseball.

'More harmful than smoking'

There is little doubt that smokeless tobacco - the umbrella term that covers chewing tobacco and the more finely ground dipping tobacco - is a health hazard.

It contains 28 cancer causing agents, and more of the highly addictive drug nicotine than cigarettes.

To put it into perspective, an average sized dip kept in the mouth for 30 minutes, releases as much nicotine as smoking three cigarettes.

Dr Jatin Shah, who runs the Head and Neck Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, says chewing tobacco is "probably more harmful than smoking," because the tobacco carcinogens are in direct contact with the lining of the mouth.

But while cigarette smoking has declined in recent years, dipping or chewing tobacco among teenagers has not.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in 10 high school boys (ages 14 to 17) use it.

There is laxer regulation of dipping tobacco compared to cigarettes.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have looked into how often baseball players dip on television.

They found that during one game of the 2004 World Series, players were visibly chewing tobacco for a total of nine minutes and 11 seconds - adding up, they said, to millions of dollars of free advertising for the tobacco industry.

'Part of the culture'

Curt Schilling is regarded as one of baseball's greatest pitchers, winner of three World Series titles - and another former user of chewing tobacco.

Today he considers himself lucky to be alive, after being diagnosed and treated for mouth cancer.

Like other major league players, Schilling was lectured about the risks of dipping, but it is so engrained in baseball culture, he says, that giving up is really hard.

He met many people who quit the habit only to take it up again at the start of the baseball season.

"To me it's very much like being an alcoholic and quitting, and having to work in a bar as a bartender."

And it's not just professional players who are putting themselves at risk.

Michael Hynes, an amateur baseball player, started dipping in high school where it was common amongst his friends.

"As soon as I step on a baseball field I just always put a dip in, just out of instinct. I've always seen Major League Baseball players do it and I always wanted to be like them."

He wasn't fooled by his parents' attempts to convince him those famous players were just chewing gum.

Calls for a ban

But baseball authorities are increasingly concerned about the image being sent to young players and fans.

Dip has been banned in the minor leagues - training grounds for the stars of the future - for over two decades, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig says it should be banned in the majors too, where the practice is arguably more visible and influential.

At the moment Major League Baseball has certain restrictions, rather than an outright ban: since 2011, teams can no longer provide smokeless tobacco products to players, and players who dip can no longer carry it in their uniform pockets or use it during interviews.

Gary Shears, the commissioner and founder of the New Jersey Independent Baseball League, an amateur league, is a former dipper.

He understands that Major Leaguers are role models, but does not believe that a ban should be instituted.

"I don't think you should say you can't chew during the game. You can't really mandate someone to have a good habit or to value their health, that's just something that somebody has to do."

Many baseball players echo that sentiment, but health organisations continue to push for a full ban.

They worry that without it, chewing tobacco will continue to be baseball's deadliest tradition.


Whatever happened to the future?

Whatever happened to interplanetary travel, hover cars, and hypersonic jets?

Once it seemed as if there were no limits to how far or fast we could travel, such were the leaps in technological development in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Inventors dreamed up all sorts wonderful vehicles, from rocket-propelled bicycles to flying cars, propeller-powered railways to monowheels.

In 1895, HG Wells even imagined a machine that could travel through time.

Steam power, the internal combustion engine and flight promised unprecedented levels of mobility and freedom.

Nation competed with nation to travel further, higher and faster by land, sea and air.

Speed was king.

Nuclear dreams

And when the nuclear age dawned it seemed as if we had another, almost limitless power supply at our disposal, prompting thrilling designs for nuclear-powered rockets, cars, planes, trains and boats.

"On that train all graphite and glitter; undersea by rail; 90 minutes from New York to Paris... What a beautiful world this will be, what a glorious time to be free."

So sang Donald Fagen in the song I.G.Y. [International Geophysical Year] from his 1982 album, The Nightfly, evoking the technological optimism of his childhood in 1950s America.

In 1957, the year the song is set, the USSR launched the world's first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik 1.

Mankind seemed to be one step away from becoming Masters of the Universe.

"People were looking at the pace of technological development and as we got into quantum physics it even seemed that the notion of teleportation was plausible," says Glenn Lyons, professor of transport and society at the University of the West of England.

"There were certainly some leaps of faith."

Commercial reality

So why did so many of those wide-eyed visions for tomorrow's transport never come to pass?

"The reason they didn't happen is the same reason why they won't happen in the future - technological utopianism," says Colin Divall, professor of railway studies at York University.

"There's always a vested interested in overhyping new transport schemes, because inventors are looking for investment."

And there's the rub - money, or lack of it.

George Bennie's Railplane - a suspended carriage driven by propellers fore and aft - made it to the prototype stage near Glasgow in 1930, but did not then get commercial backing. Bennie went bust in 1937.

"Bennie's train did work as did other prototypes, such as the hovercraft on a track in the late 1960s, but they were never commercially viable," says Prof Divall.

Rene Couzinet's elegant and intriguing Aerodyne RC-360 "flying saucer" failed to win government support and never got off the ground - literally.

Concorde, the elegant delta-winged supersonic passenger jet capable of 1,350mph (2,173kph), was noisy, polluting and pricey. It made its last flight in 2003.

Space travel in particular has proved astronomically expensive - pun intended - which is why no-one has revisited the Moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Nasa's 1972-2011 space shuttle programme cost nearly $200bn (£132bn) in total for 135 missions - or about $1.5bn per flight.

Alan Bond, founding director of Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines, believes his company has developed a jet engine capable of powering a passenger plane at Mach 5 - five times the speed of sound - meaning a flight from London to Sydney would take under five hours.

"But at the moment no-one has moved on that because it's going to be very expensive to develop - there has to be a strong commercial incentive," he says.

Innovation costs, and if the invention doesn't solve a pressing problem for the majority of people at a price they can afford, it's unlikely to take off.

Crash and burn

It also doesn't help if your futuristic transport project ends up killing people.

The sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic in 1912, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives, did little to increase the popularity of luxury ocean liners.

But it did usher in a number of new maritime safety regulations and ultimately did little to halt the mid-20th Century boom in ocean travel.

However, when the majestic Hindenburg, the largest hydrogen-filled zeppelin ever made, caught fire and crashed to the ground in 1937, killing 36 people, the disaster effectively ended the use of airships as passenger transport.

Air travel in particular demanded stringent global safety standards to win public trust, leading to a conservatism in design and a cautious, iterative approach to technological development.

The iconic Boeing 747 "Jumbo Jet", first flown commercially in 1970, looks almost identical to the 747s flying today, 45 years later.

Similarly, motor cars of the early 20th Century were more distinctive and diverse than they are now, but the need for global safety standards saw a gradual homogenisation in design.

Low carbon future?

Of course, global warming caused by manmade greenhouse gases has imposed severe strictures on all future transport projects.

Transport contributes about about 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions, yet the global population continues to rise along with demand for mobility.

Car technology may have come on in leaps and bounds, but our potholed roads are gridlocked and many megacities around the world are wreathed in lethal pollution.

Our wantonness with hydrocarbons has become self-destructive and cannot continue, argue many.

So the race is on to switch to alternative low-carbon fuels - conventional electric batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and compressed air to name a few.

There is also a lot of work going on to make our existing vehicles more efficient - using more lightweight materials, for example - and making use of data analytics to improve how we operate and integrate our urban transport systems.

But in the digital age, are we beginning to think differently about transport?

"Our cities will increasingly function through the mass movement of information rather than the movement of vehicles," argues Prof Lyons.

Others disagree, believing the human need to travel, explore and trade will always keep us on the move.

Over the coming weeks our Tomorrow's Transport series will be exploring how we are responding to these challenges and featuring forthcoming innovations in planes, trains and automobiles.


Project Blue Book: US Air Force UFO documents revealed


Amateur historian John Greenewald has spent nearly two decades requesting declassified information from the US government regarding UFOs.

Recently, he posted more than 100,000 pages of documents on the US Air Force's internal UFO investigations to the internet. Here are the top five things to know from the open files of Project Blue Book.

1. Project Blue Book had a sizeable mission

The origins of the ambitious project can be traced to June 1947, UFO researcher Alejandro Rojas tells the BBC.

The editor of Open Minds magazine says a well-respected businessman and pilot, Kenneth Arnold, was flying over Washington state when he witnessed several unidentified flying objects.

Arnold later described the crafts as "skipping like saucers", which the media adopted and took to calling flying saucers.

This high-profile incident - along with several others, including a rumoured UFO landing in Roswell, New Mexico, the same year - led the Air Force to launch an investigative body.

Named Project Blue Book and headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the programme was reportedly comprising only a handful of staff.

Nonetheless the group investigated 12,618 UFO sightings in a two-decade period.

2. Project Blue Book was created in a time of public unease

Formed in the years immediately following World War Two, Project Blue Book was intended to stop the spread of public unease about a growing number of reported UFO sightings, including over such landmarks as the White House and US Capitol.

"There was a lot of hysteria with the public, and that to the military and government at the time was a big threat in itself," Greenewald says. "It didn't matter if UFOs were alien or not, they were causing a panic, so [the government] had to settle everybody's nerves."

Though frequently met with derision today, UFO sightings are said to have been discussed at the top levels of government in the 1940s and 1950s.

"It was taken very seriously back then," Rojas says, with Central Intelligence Agency chiefs publicly claiming it was a real phenomenon and even then-Congressman Gerald Ford warning it needed to be investigated.

In 1966 a separate Air Force committee was set up to further delve into some of the cases within Project Blue Book. That group later released a report finding no evidence of UFO activity.

Project Blue Book was officially shuttered in 1969.

3. Many of the Project Blue Book cases appear open-and-shut

Though many credible sources, from Navy admirals to military and civilian pilots, reported seeing UFOs, most of the cases investigated by Project Blue Book were deemed caused by weather balloons, swamp gases, meteorological events or even temperature inversions.

In Seattle, Washington, in April 1956, a witness described seeing a "round, white object, one-half the size of the moon … [and] going round and round", according to documents.

Investigators later concluded it was a meteor and closed the case.

In January 1961 in Newark, New Jersey, a witness reported viewing a dark grey object "about the size of a jet with no wings".

That object was later deemed a jet aircraft flying in the area.

4. Some Project Blue Book cases aren't so easily explained

According to Greenewald and Rojas, more than 700 Project Blue Book entries could not ultimately be explained by investigators. Many such cases cited insufficient data or evidence.

But even some of the closed cases raise more questions than answers for UFO researchers.

In one such example, a police officer in 1964 in Socorro, New Mexico, halted vehicular pursuit of a suspect after he saw a strange aircraft overhead.

The officer followed the craft - which he described as bearing a strange red insignia - and saw it land and two child-sized beings exit.

It later took off, leaving scorch marks and trace evidence on the ground.

"[Project] Blue Book labelled it unexplained; even after all these decades they still can't explain it," Greenewald says.

5. There is still information to be uncovered about UFO activity

Though Greenewald has amassed a stockpile of government documents, he says there are still many he - and the public - has not yet accessed.

One request to the National Security Agency yielded hundreds of pages, but they were so redacted only a few words were readable on each page, he says.

Other US government entities - including the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency - also conducted UFO investigations that have not been publicly released, Greenewald notes.

"I think Project Bluebook … is simply the tip of the iceberg," he says, adding he will continue to request more information from the US government.

"There are secrets after conspiracies after scandals that continue to come out," Greenewald concludes. "There's always something to go after."


Boko Haram crisis: How have Nigeria's militants become so strong?


Nigeria's militant Islamist group Boko Haram is waging the most brutal insurgency in Africa. It has seized vast amounts of territory, threatening Nigeria's territorial integrity and opening a new frontier by targeting neighbouring Cameroon.

Officials estimate that some three million people are affected by the humanitarian crisis caused by the five-year insurgency in the north-east.

Why are the militants so lethal?

The group is said to be split into numerous factions, which operate largely autonomously across northern and central Nigeria.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank estimates there are six of them - the most organised and ruthless one is in Borno state, where Boko Haram has captured large swathes of territory.

It first sends hundreds of foot-soldiers into a town or village. Often overwhelmed due to inadequate supplies, the Nigerian army flees, paving the way for elite militant fighters to enter and conquer the territory.

This is a remarkable change in its fortunes. Soon after Boko Haram launched its insurrection in 2009, Nigeria's security forces declared victory over the group after killing thousands of its members - including its founder - during an operation in the city of Maiduguri.

Some survivors fled to Algeria, Somalia - and possibly Afghanistan - for military training. Today the group is increasingly brutal in its modus operandi, losing the support, some analysts say, of many local Muslims who once saw it as offering an alternative to the corrupt ruling elite.

How does it recruit fighters?

Increasingly through conscription - villagers are forced to join en masse or risk being slaughtered. It is also relying on criminals and thugs, "paying them for attacks, sometimes with a share of the spoils", according to the ICG.

With ethnic loyalties strong in Nigeria, most Boko Haram fighters are Kanuri - the ethnic group to which the group's leader Abubuakar Shekau belongs - suggesting that he has influence over some traditional rulers in north-eastern Nigeria.

While it is unclear how many fighters Boko Haram has, UK-based finance and security analyst Tom Keatinge puts the number at more than 9,000.

Where does it get its money from?

When Boko Haram raids towns, it often loots banks. In 2012, the Nigerian military accused Boko Haram of extorting money from businessmen, politicians and government officials, and threatening them with abduction if they fail to pay up.

Some US officials estimate that the group is paid as much as $1m (£660,000) for the release of a wealthy Nigerian, Mr Keatinge says.

With foreigners, the amount is much higher - Boko Haram was paid $3m ransom for the release of a French family of seven seized in northern Cameroon in February 2013, according to a Nigerian government document seen by Reuters news agency at the time.

With these sources of funding, Mr Keatinge estimates that Boko Haram's annual net income is $10m. Nigerian researcher Kyari Mohammed believes the group is running a low-cost insurgency, as it is made up mostly of young people from rural areas.

How does it arm itself?

Boko Haram has overrun many police stations and military bases in Nigeria, giving it a huge arsenal - including armoured personnel carriers, pickup trucks, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. And, according to the ICG, it has forged ties with arms smugglers in the lawless parts of the vast Sahel region.

Some of its weapons are suspected to have come from Libya, where arms depots were looted when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime was overthrown in 2011.

However, most of Boko Haram's bombs are relatively crude, made from local materials that are easy and cheap to obtain, the ICG says.

Some of its bomb-makers, according to Nigeria-based security analyst Bawa Abdullahi Wase, are local university graduates who joined the group in desperation, after failing to find jobs.

And it has recently raided cement factories, including one owned by the French company Lafarge, in search of dynamite for its explosive devices.

Can it be defeated?

The government declared a state of emergency in 2013 in the three north-eastern states worst-affected by the insurgency. The military also armed vigilante groups, vital in remote areas where the military presence is minimal.

Boko Haram was driven from Maiduguri and neighbouring villages and into the vast Sambisa forest along the border with Cameroon. But the sect responded with a new offensive in which - according to the Associated Press news agency - it has taken control of an area about the size of Belgium.

If Boko Haram succeeds in its territorial ambitions - seizing towns in Niger, Chad and Cameroon, as its leader has threatened - the conflict could take on a new international dimension. France is likely to become more directly involved in the conflict to protect its former colonies.

So far Cameroon has been relatively successful in repelling Boko attacks, despite having a far smaller army than Nigeria, which has been criticised for not pulling its weight.

Is Boko Haram linked to IS?

Mr Shekau praised Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video released last year, referring to him as "Oh caliph". He has also praised al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri, the IS leader's rival for the loyalty of worldwide jihadists. However, Shekau has not pledged allegiance to either group.

While he often speaks in a mix of Hausa, Arabic and Kanuri, his most recent video - where he praised the Paris attacks - was entirely in Arabic, leading analysts to suggest the Nigerian sect is seeking international appeal.

Solid ties with global jihadi groups would give further momentum to Boko Haram's violent campaign.


Uncanny political parallels with 1974


Both major political parties in Britain are profoundly unpopular with the electorate and their leaders regarded with some suspicion.

The outcome of the forthcoming general election is, in consequence, highly uncertain and there is much talk of coalition and of the potential political pulling power of various previously unconsidered minor parties.

The Scottish National Party is riding high and the Ulster Unionists have a new spring in their step because they know they need to be taken seriously.

The domestic economy is in deep trouble and the word "austerity" is on many lips.

There is widespread discussion of oil prices and concern about the fact that first-time buyers are being priced out of the housing market.

Legislation is proposed to curb the power of the trades unions.

The question of Britain's future in Europe is of primary political importance in the election, as is the prospect of our membership terms being renegotiated and then subject to a referendum.

Sounds like the agenda for the general election, just weeks away on 7 May?

Well, yes, although the wary may have spotted some obvious missing issues from the description of our current state of play.

The truth is that my above description of the state of British politics is actually that of the run-up to the first of the two general elections of 1974.

Heath's gambit

Then Edward Heath, as Conservative prime minister, propelled the country to the polling stations in February to answer the question: "Who governs Britain?" only to be rewarded with the answer: "We're not entirely sure, mate, but not you."

It was nightfall on 4 March 1974, and I was walking across Parliament Square towards Whitehall when I heard the cheers ringing and saw the flash-bulbs crackling into the blue-black sky from the direction of Downing Street.

It was four days after the election and the excitement heralded Harold Wilson's surprise return to office.

February 1974 Election: In Numbers:

Labour: Seats won: 301, up 20. Share of vote: 37.2%

Conservative: Seats won: 297, down 37. Share of vote: 37.9%

Liberal: Seats won: 14, up eight. Share of vote: 19.3%

Turnout: 78.8%

Over the previous weekend, Heath had remained in post, as the prime minister is constitutionally obliged to do, while trying unsuccessfully to form a coalition government with the Liberal Party which had enjoyed a hugely successful popular vote of six million, albeit only translating into 14 seats.

Their leader, Jeremy Thorpe, had been negotiating the post of Home Secretary for himself, but the Liberal Party executive put the kibosh on any coalition with the Tories in favour of a proposed Government of National Unity to sort out the country's myriad problems.

It was comprehensively rejected.

That led to Wilson's assumption of office as a minority prime minister and the inevitable second general election, the following October, which gave him a narrow overall majority of three.

What we have learned recently, as a result of Thorpe's death and the publication of much material that could not previously be printed, but most certainly didn't know then, was that the unconventional nature of the Liberal leader's private life, including allegations of homosexuality, was known in Whitehall - and to Wilson.

It would have been difficult, at the very least, for Thorpe to have become Home Secretary in such circumstances as his subsequent trial and acquittal on charges of conspiracy to murder would make only too clear.

Minority government

We knew little of any of that then, but we were to learn much in the coming years of what minority - or sliver-thin majority - government can mean in comparison to coalition.

Since the Rose Garden accord between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in 2010, the country in general and Nick Clegg in particular, has learned the price of coalition.

It has meant that the majority party has had things most of its own way and, from their point of view, the Lib Dems could go hang.

Nick Clegg may hum "it's my party and I'll cry if I want to" in the privacy of his morning shower and well he might; the opinion polls indicate that his party may lose at least half of its Westminster seats in May, including possibly his own, which has been targeted by Labour.

That is a kind interpretation: the bald statistics indicate something even worse.

Their actual level of support in the polls, which has consistently been about 7%, equivalent to that of the Green Party, would mean that they would only win a small handful of seats were it not for the individual personal reputations of many of their 56 MPs.

Perhaps in 2010 Clegg should have considered the words of Harold Wilson, reverberating down the years when Heath, in the interim between the two 1974 elections, again proposed some sort of national coalition.

Wilson retorted: "Coalition would mean Con policies, Con leadership by a Con party for a con-trick."

It was, he said, a "desperate attempt by desperate men to get back into power by any means." (Note the gender specific which would never happen today).

Knife edge

The Wilson and Callaghan governments of 40 years ago lasted five years but provided enough news for a political generation.

They lived on a knife-edge, and so did we, up above in the press gallery.

The limited nature of the government's majority did not inhibit its choice of controversial legislation which made for endless nail-biting news.

The 1975 referendum on Europe, replayed as it is today with extraordinary similarities, could well have brought down the government had Wilson as prime minister not allowed his dissident ministers the right to express their dissent.

The curiosity is, of course, that in those days being in favour of Europe was the right-on Establishment case.

It was only wild lefties who thought otherwise.

Try asking any elderly Tories now how they voted in 1975 and they will cough and hurrumph and say, well of course they didn't realise what was involved.

These are the people who UKIP have recognised as potential voters, and beside them the southern white working class, and those people in the north who feel disenfranchised by the nature of politics and the collapse of Labour's traditional voter base.

Add to this pot pourri, the Lib Dems' failure to offer any sort of alternative, the enthusiastic emergence of the Scottish Nationalists in the wake of their narrowly-defeated shot at independence, the Democratic Unionist's recognition of the power of their block vote, the Green Party's surprising emergence as a really different choice and we have a recipe for re-running the politics of the 1970s.

We may have a minority government of either stripe.

We may have a coalition of unpredictable partners.

We may have a government with a narrow majority which will then be obliged to compromise.

What we know now, however, particularly since the events in Paris in recent weeks, is that important differences may well be imposed on our politics because of the extent to which terrorism has changed - and will undoubtedly continue to change - our world.

In uncertain times the electorate will seek certainty from the government.

That is something which may, unexpectedly, put a powerful card in the hand of David Cameron as the sitting prime minister.


Greek elections: What now for the euro?


Anti-austerity party Syriza has won Greece's general election, pledging to renegotiate the enormous bailout with the country's international creditors.

It will now go into coalition with another anti-bailout party, the right-wing Independent Greeks, while the conservative New Democracy party of outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras will form the next opposition.

Why did Syriza win?

Outside Greece, it might seem odd that voters have rejected the policies of the conservative New Democracy-led coalition, just as the country emerges from six years of deep recession.

But Greeks have been hit hard by cuts in jobs, public services and pensions and the apparent light at the end of the tunnel is far from obvious in the real economy.

Unemployment is still very high at 25.5%, especially among 25-35 year olds where it hits just under 50%, and recent emergency taxes, mainly on property, have further squeezed the middle class.

Syriza campaigned under the slogan, "Hope is on its way" and in his victory speech, leader Alexis Tsipras said: "Hope has made history."

Why choose a right-wing party as coalition partner?

It seems odd at first glance that the radical left Syriza would find common cause with a centre-right splinter party from one of Greece's main establishment parties, New Democracy.

But both are vehemently anti-bailout and both have capitalised on the sense of anger and alienation felt by many Greeks towards the body of international creditors known as the troika - made up of the European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Since 2010, Greece has borrowed nearly €240bn (£185bn; $278bn) under a debt restructuring (bailout) plan. But a final bailout tranche of €7.2bn still has to be negotiated and that could be one of the first big challenges for the new government.

That could create a big dilemma for Syriza, which has campaigned on a platform of writing off of a sizeable part of Greece's enormous debt, currently 175% of its gross domestic product. How will it persuade the eurozone to lend more when it wants to write off most of the debt?

Syriza's platform is simple: tackling Greece's cost-of-living crisis and restarting the economy. One of its key policies is raising minimum monthly salaries from €580 to €751.

But it also wants a "European debt conference" to create a sustainable repayment of the remaining debt after the larger part has been written off.

So what is the chance of a 'Grexit'?

The risk for Mr Tsipras is a collision course with Greece's creditors. They have been adamant that there will be no debt write-off although there might be some leeway over restructuring it.

Even though he insists that Greece should stay in the euro, and he has vowed to co-operate with fellow European leaders on finding a "fair and mutually beneficial solution", his victory speech was unequivocal.

The mandate of Greek voters had "put the troika in the past" and the "vicious circle of austerity" was over, he said.

So where does that leave Greece's international creditors?

It all looks like quite an impasse and Greece's future in the euro is not guaranteed, even though German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she wants the country to remain "part of our story".

Perhaps the only hope of a deal might be in looking for ways of restructuring Greek debt.

Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb is against writing any of it off but has offered extending the loan periods. And that opinion was backed up by Belgium's finance minister.

The biggest question mark is likely to be Germany's attitude. Mrs Merkel's spokesman said simply that Greece's commitments had to be kept.

Syriza prepares for power

Is there a risk of market meltdown?

The markets took the result largely in their stride, as it was widely predicted. The Athens stock exchange fared worst, slipping 4% before recovering. But these are early days.

Partly, this was because the ECB has removed the threat of contagion that existed at the last Greek election in 2012, when the fear was that a Greek default could spread to Spain and Italy.

And it went further in recent days by announcing a programme of bond-buying worth €60bn (£44,5bn; $67bn) per month which may shield other eurozone economies.

Market analysts believe some sort of deal may be forthcoming, with Syriza proposing a six-month pause on the bailout programme.

But the question remains: how will a Syriza-led government handle its pending debt obligations of €4bn over the next two months, and more than €6bn of government bonds expiring by the end of the summer?

The total for Greece to repay this year is about €20bn, according to the Greek finance ministry (see the top chart on page four of this document).

The expiry of the current bailout programme in a month's time could cause liquidity problems for Greek banks, says Raoul Ruparel of the Open Europe think-tank. Currently they can use Greek government bonds as collateral to get cash from the ECB.

Will Syriza's victory have a knock-on effect elsewhere in Europe?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron believes it will "increase economic uncertainty across Europe" but the change in Greece could have even greater ramifications in EU countries where anti-establishment parties are on the rise.

Spain's Podemos party is already leading in opinion polls with a similar anti-austerity platform and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is eyeing Syriza's success warily ahead of elections later this year.

In the UK itself, Nigel Farage's UKIP could benefit as could the anti-euro party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Another party celebrating Syriza's victory was Germany's far-left Die Linke which since late last year has led a coalition in the eastern state of Thuringia.


Where next for the eurozone after the Greek vote?



So where does the eurozone go from here?

Syriza's election victory raises some difficult questions for the other countries using the currency and for the European institutions.

The party's proposals represent a challenge to the austerity that has been a central feature of the eurozone's response to the financial crisis - bailout loans combined with spending cuts and tax rises to reduce borrowing needs and economic reforms to encourage growth.

For the architects of that response - especially the European Commission and Germany - the idea of renegotiating the terms and reducing the debt is an unpalatable one.

Germany and some other eurozone countries already have political problems with the bailouts - received by a total of five countries. Many voters resented the financial assistance, even though it was loans. Any suggestion that they won't be repaid in full will aggravate those concerns.

The key to the Greek burden does lie with the eurozone and its taxpayers.

Some 60% of the outstanding debt is bailout money provided either by the member states themselves or by the European Stability Mechanism, an official EU agency which gets its funds in the financial markets but is financially underpinned by the eurozone countries.

Another 10% is owed to the International Monetary Fund which is ultimately backed by global taxpayers. It doesn't generally do debt relief.

The European Central Bank accounts for 6%. It is banned from giving relief on that by EU law. The country's debt to private sector creditors has already heavily cut back in 2012. The remainder is a variety of creditors including banks, pension funds and other investors in Greece and abroad.

After Greece, Spain?

There is a fudge that could be used to ease the Greek debt burden, and it has already been used. That is to reduce the interest rate on its debts to the eurozone and extend the repayment period without actually cutting the nominal value of the debt to be repaid.

To give ground to Syriza could also be read as suggesting that the austerity approach was a fundamental mistake.

After all many economists argued that cutting government spending and raising taxes was exactly the wrong thing to do in economies that were already weak. Austerity aggravated the weakness, they argued, and so undermined tax revenue and exacerbated the government financial problems it was supposed to fix.

Another problem for Germany and those that share its view is that concessions to Syriza might embolden anti-austerity political forces in other countries.

Spain's Podemos party is a striking recent arrival on the political scene, but others will also be watching developments in Greece very closely.

Risk reduction

That potential for political "contagion" from Greece to other countries is probably more of a worry for the eurozone than a repeat of the kind of financial and economic contagion we saw when the crisis was at its most intense, in 2011.

That's not to say that type of danger is absent. But the eurozone does have measures in place the reduce the risk.

The key one is European Central Bank proposals to buy the debts or bonds of governments whose borrowing costs go too high. This is NOT the policy of quantitative easing announced last week as a response to deflation or falling prices.

It is a proposal targeted at ensuring that countries such as Italy and Spain do not face unsustainably high borrowing costs as a result of fears they might end up leaving the euro. It's a policy announced by Mario Draghi in 2012. The mere announcement had the desired effect. It hasn't been used, but it is there if needed.

But even if the eurozone can keep the lid on any financial market fears of a wider break-up, the possibility of Greece leaving can't be discounted.

The Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras says he doesn't want it and nor does Greek public opinion. Even Germany doesn't want it, though there is a limit to the concessions that Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble are likely to make.

So the odds are that some sort of compromise will emerge. It may well be messy and be slow to take shape. But then did the eurozone ever do anything that's difficult quickly or easily?


Dementia 'linked' to common over-the-counter drugs


A study has linked commonly used medicines, including over-the-counter treatments for conditions such as insomnia and hay-fever, to dementia.

All of the types of medication in question are drugs that have an "anticholinergic" effect.

Experts say people should not panic or stop taking their medicines.

In the US study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, higher doses and prolonged use were linked to higher dementia risk in elderly people.

The researchers only looked at older people and found the increased risk appeared when people took drugs every day for three years or more.


All medicines can have side-effects and anticholinergic-type drugs that block a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine are no exception.

Patient information leaflets accompanying such drugs warn of the possibility of reduced attention span and memory problems as well as a dry mouth.

But researchers say people should also be aware that they may be linked to a higher risk of developing dementia.

Dr Shelly Gray and colleagues from the University of Washington followed the health of 3,434 people aged 65 and older who had no signs of dementia at the start of the study.

They looked at medical and pharmacy records to determine how many of the people had been given a drug with an anticholinergic effect, at what dose and how often and compared this data with subsequent dementia diagnoses over the next decade.

The most commonly used anticholinergic-type drugs were medicines for treating depression, antihistamines for allergies such as hay-fever or to aid sleep/promote drowsiness, and drugs to treat urinary incontinence. Nearly a fifth were drugs that had been bought over the counter.

Over the course of the study, 797 of the participants developed dementia.

'Not causal'

The study estimated that people taking at least 10 mg/day of doxepin (antidepressant), four mg/day of diphenhydramine (a sleep aid), or five mg/day of oxybutynin (a urinary incontinence drug) for more than three years would be at greater risk of developing dementia.

The researchers say doctors and pharmacists might want to take a precautionary approach and offer different treatments instead. And when there is no alternative, they could give the lowest dose for the shortest time possible.

Dr Gray says some of the study participants have agreed to have an autopsy after their death.

"We will look at the brain pathology and see if we can find a biological mechanism that might explain our results."

Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said the study was interesting but not definitive - there was, he said, no evidence that these drugs cause dementia.

Dr Doug Brown, from the UK's Alzheimer's Society, said: "There have been concerns that regular use by older people of certain medications with anticholinergic effects, such as sleep aids and hay-fever treatments, can increase the risk of dementia in certain circumstances, which this study supports.

"However, it is still unclear whether this is the case and if so, whether the effects seen are a result of long-term use or several episodes of short-term use. More robust research is needed to understand what the potential dangers are, and if some drugs are more likely to have this effect than others.

"We would encourage doctors and pharmacists to be aware of this potential link and would advise anyone concerned about this to speak to their GP before stopping any medication."

He said the charity was funding more research in this area to better understand any connections between these and other drugs on the development of dementia.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which monitors the safety of medicines in clinical use in the UK, said it would review any new evidence.


Alexander Litvinenko 'killed on third attempt'


Two prior attempts to kill ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko may have been made before he died from radiation poisoning in 2006, the BBC has learned.

The one-time officer with the successor to the KGB fled to the UK where he became a fierce critic of the Kremlin and worked for security service MI6.

A public inquiry into the London death of the 43-year-old opens on Tuesday.

Mr Litvinenko's widow says the inquiry will give people "a chance to understand who killed my husband".

Marina Litvinenko says he blamed the Kremlin as he lay dying in hospital but Russia denies any involvement.

Her lawyer has described his murder as "an act of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism on the streets of London".

BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera said investigators followed a radioactive trail across London and it suggested Mr Litvinenko was poisoned not on the first attempt, but on the third.

'Right decision'

The judge-led inquiry will be chaired by Sir Robert Owen, who was originally appointed as the coroner at Mr Litvinenko's inquest.

Sir Robert delayed the inquest and called for a public inquiry because the inquest could not consider sensitive evidence due to national security fears. The UK government resisted the move at first but later changed its stance last July, amid worsening relations with Moscow over the crisis in Ukraine.

The death of Mr Litvinenko, who took British citizenship after his arrival in the UK, had already led to a clouding of relations between London and Moscow, with expulsions of diplomats from the embassies of both countries.

He died three weeks after becoming violently ill in November 2006 following a meeting with two former Russian agents at the Millennium Hotel in central London.

UK police say radioactive polonium-210 was administered in a cup of tea, and identified two suspects in the case - Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. But the two Russians have disputed their claims.

The issue of who was ultimately responsible for the death will be considered at the inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Parts of the evidence will be heard in private, and Sir Robert says it is "inevitable" that some of his final report will stay secret for security reasons.

Mrs Litvinenko told the BBC she had accepted this and trusted Sir Robert to "make the right decision".

The Litvinenko case
    • 23 Nov 2006 - Litvinenko dies three weeks after having tea with former agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun in London
    • 24 Nov 2006 - His death is attributed to polonium-210
    • 22 May 2007 - Britain's director of public prosecutions decides Mr Lugovoi should be charged with the murder of Mr Litvinenko
    • 31 May 2007 - Mr Lugovoi denies any involvement in his death but says Mr Litvinenko was a British spy
    • 5 Jul 2007 - Russia officially refuses to extradite Mr Lugovoi, saying its constitution does not allow it
    • May-June 2013 - Inquest into Mr Litvinenko's death delayed as coroner decides a public inquiry would be preferable, as it would be able to hear some evidence in secret
    • July 2013 - Ministers rule out public inquiry
    • Jan 2014 - Marina Litvinenko in High Court fight to force a public inquiry
    • 11 Feb 2014 - High Court says the Home Office had been wrong to rule out an inquiry before the outcome of an inquest
    • July 2014 - Public inquiry announced by Home Office

BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera: Will inquiry find answers?

The police officer who oversaw the investigation, Peter Clarke, the former head of the Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Command, says Mr Litvinenko's death was "unprecedented".

"There was a very strong forensic trail left behind because of the way - it is suggested that Litvinenko had been attacked," he said. "But what was unusual of course was having radioactivity involved. This was unprecedented."

Speaking ahead of the inquest, Mrs Litvinenko recalled her husband's deathbed claim at University College Hospital in which he said Russian President Vladimir Putin was responsible for "everything that happened to him".

It is also understood that Mr Litvinenko was visited in hospital before he died by his MI6 handler or case officer.


Ex-CIA officer convicted of leaking Iran plan


A former CIA officer has been convicted of leaking classified details of a US operation against Iran to a reporter.

Jeffrey Sterling denied the leak but was found guilty in a Virginia court of all nine counts he faced.

New York Times reporter James Risen was the recipient of what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified was one of the most closely held secrets.

But he was not called to give evidence because he said he would never reveal his sources, even if jailed.

The US operation to thwart Iran's nuclear plans involved involved using a CIA agent nicknamed Merlin to pass on erroneous nuclear blueprints to Iran.

Mr Risen's book State of War described this plan as botched and counter-productive because they could have armed Iran with nuclear expertise.

Defence lawyers admitted the journalist and former agent had a relationship, laid bare in phone calls and emails, but they argued there was no evidence the two men discussed anything classified.

Sterling will be sentenced in April.

Analysis: Tara McKelvey, White House reporter, BBC News

This is the first time in 30 years a jury has convicted a former official of leaking classified information - and shows the seriousness of Sterling's crime as well as the US justice department's aggressive approach towards leaks under US President Barack Obama.

In previous leak cases, such as one involving a former CIA officer named John Kiriakou, the accused have reached plea agreements.

Sterling's case underscores the hard line Mr Obama has taken against leaks. He has pursued more leak cases than George W Bush and all other presidents combined.

"The prosecution reflects the political climate," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, referring to the Sterling case. "It shouldn't, but it does."

In 1985 a jury convicted Samuel Loring Morison, a former naval intelligence analyst, of disclosing classified information to the media but he was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.


Fidel Castro reacts to US-Cuba diplomatic thaw


Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro appears to have given tacit approval to the recent decision by Cuba and the US to restore diplomatic relations.

In a letter, he wrote: "I don't trust the policy of the US, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a peaceful solution to conflicts."

These were his first comments since December's historic move by Cuba and the US after decades of hostilities.

High-level talks were held last week.

'Pertinent steps'

In the letter published by the state-run newspaper Granma, Mr Castro wrote: "We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the people of the world, including with our political adversaries."

The 88-year-old appeared to be backing decisions taking by his younger brother Raul - the current Cuban president who succeeded him in 2008.

The Cuban president, the letter stated, "has taken the pertinent steps in accordance with his prerogatives and the powers given to him by the National Assembly the Communist Party of Cuba".

It was hardly a ringing endorsement of US-Cuban rapprochement but nor was it a rejection of the decision to re-establish political ties with the great enemy to the north, the BBC's Will Grant in Havana reports.

Fidel Castro has spent his whole adult life in conflict with the US, and it should come as little surprise that he has not given a glowing reception now those hostilities are apparently at an end, our correspondent says.

That said, he adds, many in Cuba believe that the current efforts to warm the long-frozen relations would not have started in the first place unless Fidel had given them his benign approval.

His silence on the issue had led to growing speculation over his health.

Earlier this month, Fidel Castro sent a letter to former footballer Diego Maradona to quash rumours that he had died.


Argentina to dissolve intelligence body after prosecutor death


President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has announced plans to disband Argentina's intelligence agency.

In a TV address, she said she would draft a bill to set up a new body.

Ms Fernandez said the intelligence services had kept much of the same structure they had during the military government, which ended in 1983.

The move comes after the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman - hours before he had been due to testify against senior government officials.

He had been investigating the bombing of a Jewish centre in the capital in 1994 which left 85 people dead.

Mr Nisman, 51, had accused several senior government figures - including President Fernandez and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman - of involvement in a plot to cover up Iran's alleged role in the bombing.

'Combating impunity'

"I have prepared a bill to reform the intelligence service," President Fernandez said, adding that she wanted the proposal to be discussed at an urgent session of Congress.

"The plan is to dissolve the Intelligence Secretariat and create a Federal Intelligence Agency," she said that a new leadership should be chosen by a president but would be subject to a Senate approval.

"Combating impunity has been a priority of my government," she added.

Mr Nisman was found dead on 18 January in his flat in Buenos Aires. A gun was also discovered there.

Investigators initially said they believed he had committed suicide, but later said they could not rule out homicide or "induced suicide".

Ms Fernandez has said she is convinced Mr Nisman's death was not suicide.


Greece election: Germany counts cost as Syriza take power


"Greece elects a euro monster!" exclaimed tabloid newspaper Bild. "How many billions is this going to cost us?"

And that pretty much sums up the mood here in Germany. The government in Berlin must wait to hear what kind of concessions the new Greek government might seek but already its position is clear.

"It is important for the new government to take action to foster Greece's continued economic recovery," said Angela Merkel's spokesman. "That also means Greece sticking to its previous commitments."

And, one by one, politicians from both sides of the governing coalition went on record to emphasise the same point: there's not much more Germany can offer in the way of concessions to Greece.

"We have already restructured the debt," one MP said to me. "We have very, very low interest rates. We have very long maturity."

There is a sense of frustration here.

Just a few days ago the European Central Bank announced its programme of quantitative easing. A measure that Germany has fiercely opposed. The Bundesbank was unequivocal: structural reform is the answer.

Its president is still making the same argument. The answer for Greece, says Jens Weidmann, lies in reforming its finances, its economy. A debt "haircut" is not a long-term solution.

'Let them go'

The Greek election result has raised two questions here.

First: what happens if Greece fails to get the concessions it wants and heads for the door of the eurozone?

"Let them go," says Michael Fuchs, a senior member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats. Blackmail, he added, does not work.

And commentators point out that the eurozone in 2015 is very different to the eurozone of a few years ago when the prospect of a "Grexit" had economists in a tailspin.

Now, it is argued, there is a stability mechanism in place and other countries are doing better. Greece leaving the euro would be undesirable but survivable.

And second: how seriously to take the success of populist parties like Syriza which seem to suggest that citizens are tiring of the eurozone?

Germany has one of its own. Angela Merkel's conservatives are losing votes to Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The party is not yet represented at federal level but it has done well at regional level. AfD is populist, anti-euro and gives a voice to those fed up with bailing out countries such as Greece.

On Tuesday, Mrs Merkel sent Alexis Tsipras a congratulatory message (in German).

"You are taking office at a difficult time in which you face a great responsibility," she wrote, adding that she wished him "much strength and success".

A carefully worded message. Because, despite speculation to the contrary, the German chancellor wants Greece to stay "part of our story".

As one commentator put it: "She doesn't want to go down in history as the German chancellor who broke up the eurozone."


Why Obama's India visit charts new course


US President Barack Obama's recent Delhi visit reflects a new direction in Indian foreign policy, writes analyst Seema Sirohi.

The United States said a decade ago it was making a "long-term strategic bet" on India and the visit showed that India was also ready to reciprocate.

Mr Modi and Mr Obama declared a "global partnership" - indicating that the US was not a mere strategic partner but India's principal strategic partner in the world.

The visit was heavy both on symbolism and substance. Barack Obama became the first US president ever to be the chief guest at India's Republic Day and the first to visit India twice during his presidency.

On the substantive front, the most important takeaway from the Modi-Obama summit is the coming together of India and the US on "grand strategy" in Asia.

The signing of the "Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region" may sound mild but it is packed with signals - to China. This is the first time India and the US have come together openly to say that they do not want Asia to be dominated by one power.

They will work together to keep freedom of navigation, maritime security and air space safe, especially in the South China Sea. They asserted that all disputes must be resolved within international law.

These are pointed references to China's behaviour in the region where it is embroiled in disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and even Indonesia. The statement shows that Mr Modi and Mr Obama share a common assessment on China.

But is also important to remember that this is not an "alliance" against China since both India and the US are economically engaged with Beijing. It is a sort of building of fences to ensure China follows international rules.

The other important takeaway was the renewing of the 10-year India-US defence framework agreement, which envisages more military co-operation between the two countries. The two also decided on four defence projects for co-development and co-production.

Although modest in scope, the projects will help India to start upgrading its defence manufacturing abilities.

The personal equation between Mr Modi and Mr Obama also helped get rid of long-standing problems in putting the civil nuclear deal into operation.

The US made a concession to withdraw its demand to "monitor in perpetuity" any nuclear material it sold to India which, in turn, offered to create an insurance pool to protect US suppliers from law suits.

While some analysts are sceptical of a real breakthrough, at least the two governments have reached an understanding. Now it is up to the private sector companies in the US to take the ball further.

What the latest visit and the personal chemistry between Mr Obama and Mr Modi indicates is that Indo-US relations are set to move to the next level because the top leadership has developed a personal stake in the relationship.

This means pressure on the two bureaucracies to sort out their differences and deliver on the promise of the relationship.

President Obama's public address to Indians as his last event in Delhi was the icing on the cake - he celebrated India's diversity and hoped that the country won't splinter along religious lines or any other lines.

It was a gentle reminder from the visitor that it would take a strong India to face the multiple challenges in Asia.

Differences will remain as between any two friends but the old-style suspicion of each other which manifested itself as knee-jerk anti-Americanism in India and irritation with India in the US, will diminish.

This in the end means a stronger relationship which gives India diplomatic and strategic space against difficult neighbours.


China's challenge: Moving from copier to innovator


When Brent Hoberman, the founder of online interior design and furniture store Mydeco.com, visited China one man in particular was keen to meet him, offering to meet any time of day or night.

When they got together, the man explained that in 2007 he too had wanted to launch some kind of web business but had had no idea how to go about it.

Then he'd found Mydeco.com and simply copied it, very successfully, and he wanted to express his gratitude personally to Mr Hoberman, perhaps best known as co-founder of online travel firm Lastminute.com.

"From his perspective it was flattery. And from the cultural perspective I understand that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," says Mr Hoberman.

But to a Westerner this kind of imitation seems pretty outrageous.

In China, though, it is hardly unusual. In 2011, a US blogger discovered a fake Apple store, prompting an official investigation that uncovered a further 21 such stores in the south west of the country.

The set-up was so convincing that even some of the staff believed they worked for the US tech giant.

There are also Chinese hotels with similar or identical names to well-known Western brands such as Marriott Hotels or Hyatt, and the US embassy estimates that 20% of all consumer products in the Chinese market are counterfeit. "If a product sells, it is likely to be illegally duplicated," it warns.

The practice of copying and producing fakes is so entrenched in Chinese culture there's even a word for it - Shanzhai.

So far this hasn't been a problem. The world's second largest economy has expanded at a blistering double-digit pace for almost three decades, making it the envy of its Western rivals.

But with growth slowing - last year China's economy expanded at its weakest pace for 24 years - Chinese businesses will need to innovate if they want to succeed not only at home but even more importantly abroad.

Joe Baolin Zhou, chief executive of private education firm Bond Education, believes firms are already beginning to make the shift. He says the copying trend partly stemmed from a sort of gold rush when the Chinese government first began to open up its economy in the 1980s, allowing the creation of private firms.

Spending time and money on research and development simply wasn't an option for these pioneers, who had limited resources and inexperienced staff.

"For business owners who seek instant success, they usually copy. At that time it was rigid or mechanical copy, they just copied everything," he says.

In contrast, Mr Zhou says the second generation of start-ups have already started to innovate, pointing to firms such as e-commerce giant Alibaba and Tencent's messaging service WeChat as having learnt from their Western rivals but then developed and improved their services for the Chinese market.

But ensuring innovation becomes more widespread will require a radical shake-up of the way firms are managed. In China, typically, the word of the boss is absolute and for an employee lower down the ranks to suggest another way of doing things can be seen as disrespectful.

Deng Feng, chair of Chinese venture capital firm Northern Light Venture Capital, describes the current style of leadership as "managing" rather than leading.

"Managing in China means how to control people. We have to change the mindset, myself and all these Chinese entrepreneurs, to encourage and lead people rather than just manage or tell them what to do," he says.

One way that firms can help shift these cultural norms is to recruit from a variety of backgrounds and cultures.

Chinese computer giant Lenovo, the world's largest PC firm, has offices in more than 60 countries and 40% of its board members are non-Chinese. Many of its overseas businesses, including those in Europe, the US and Japan, are also led by local staff.

"For Lenovo, it's crucial that in the future it will blend the cultures of both the West and the East, because for the markets they have entered they are facing very strong rivals and fierce competition. So they will have to combine Western innovative power with Eastern culture," says founder Liu Chuanzhi.

The early signs from the second wave of start-ups founded since China opened up its economy, frequently led by people educated in the West, are encouraging.

Viktor Koo, chief executive of video-sharing giant Youku Tudou, often dubbed China's YouTube, studied in the US and subsequently worked in Silicon Valley before returning to China.

Right from the beginning, when he founded the merged entity's predecessor Youku, Mr Koo said the firm built its own proprietary technology, and also did original programming, well before its international counterparts.

"We innovated to really adapt to what is happening in our local market. Well you have to adapt. Or else you won't win. That's really, the essence of it."


28 January 2015

The Americans: Were the KGB the good guys?


Eric Kohn
While the US may struggle with its own history of espionage, its CIA and FBI have nothing on the KGB. The Soviet security agency has been of the great faceless ‘villains’ in the American imagination since World War Two. Since so many of the Cold War’s ‘battles’ took place behind closed doors, some of the conflict’s key moments – and even players – may be unknown to history. Hollywood usually responded to this lack of information about ‘what was really happening’ by portraying the Cold War as a battle against Russians who are villainous caricatures – with the KGB as a one-note, shadowy threat. The US TV series The Americans, which begins its third season on 28 January, challenges that notion by giving Soviet agents a familiar face – one we are supposed to empathise with. This is a radical shift in perspective, the full implications of which haven’t been examined as closely as they should.

In the series, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are Soviet agents posing as a quiet suburban family in the early 1980s. As The Americans explores the agents' ongoing missions to disrupt US interests and juggle other daunting orders from their handlers, it adopts the twisting structure of a classic espionage tale. The disguises they wear when assuming different identities, marked by innumerable ridiculous wigs, wouldn't feel out of place in an episode of The A-Team or Alias.

But the show has a distinctive edge thanks to creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent, whose storylines continually emphasise the similarities between the spies and their American foes. The result is a subtle parody of American suburban life: Philip and Elizabeth grapple with how best to raise their children, navigate infidelities and jealousies, deal with ‘bedroom problems’ and intrusive neighbours. It’s the stuff of soap operas, except that this nuclear family has a hand in events that might actually go nuclear. The bad guys don't just look like ‘us’; they struggle like us, too.

Seeing red

A few years ago, Sleeper Cell, another programme on US TV, attempted a similar concept but set in the present day — with Islamic terrorists fighting the CIA on American soil. Yet its plot felt hyperbolic and out of touch with reality. The lure of dramatic embellishment also holds back other popular shows about domestic terrorism such as Homeland and 24, which offer escapist fantasies about American security measures but struggle to top each increasingly outlandish plot point with events that are even more extreme.

Though it’s set in the past, the timing for The Americans couldn't be better. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, US culture has grown more paranoid than ever about what its government is willing to do in the name of security. The Americans’ KGB agents may use unsettling tactics including seduction, blackmail and murder – but their opposition in the US doesn't exactly take the high road. In fact, the FBI uses many of the same techniques as the KGB. And when an FBI supervisor meets his KGB counterpoint on a chilly street and says, "You target our people, we target yours," it's hard to determine which side can claim moral righteousness. A scene like this would have been unthinkable in American pop culture of the 1980s, with its strict divide between us and them, heroes and villains. Just think of jingoistic films like Red Dawn, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. The Americans projects contemporary fears about government overreach into the past.

Shades of grey

A revision of the typical Hollywood perspective on the Cold War fits in well with the mood of television today. Since Breaking Bad, the medium has been drawn to anti-heroes. But The Americans goes one step further. By the end of Breaking Bad, there's no doubting Walter White's intrinsic villainy, but in the case of The Americans, nothing is certain. Both sides are passionate about their cause and prisoners to it.

And the show even subverts the idea of patriotism itself by engaging with the messy humanity behind national conflicts. Philip is accused of liking life in the US too much, while Elizabeth weighs her duty to Mother Russia against her maternal instincts. (Her two children remain in the dark about their parents' missions.) The dinner table silence that concluded the second season followed the revelation of the couple's orders to turn their daughter Paige over to the KGB, who will force her to become a spy and face terrible danger. With the Jennings divided between professional and personal obligations, the season finale contained an unnerving sense of ambiguity about what might happen next.

The Americans makes history personal – and maybe even turns these Russian spies into the good guys, as it becomes clear that they are captives of their home country’s government as much as they are its agents. Far from being yet another ‘us v them’ story of the Cold War, Philip and Elizabeth’s escapades ultimately have us questioning the idea of national identity itself. That’s how you make the Cold War burn with new relevance.


China's super-rich communist Buddhists


Could China be bringing Tibetan Buddhism in from the cold? There are new signs that while a crackdown on Tibetan nationalism continues, the atheist state may be softening its position towards the religion - and even the Dalai Lama.

That a former senior Communist Party official would invite the BBC into his home might, to most foreign journalists in China, seem an unlikely prospect.

Especially if that official was rumoured to have close links to the Chinese leadership and to have worked closely with the country's security services.

But the idea that such an official would then invite the BBC to witness him praying in front of a portrait of the Dalai Lama, would seem a preposterous one. Laughable - insane even.

That, though, is exactly what Xiao Wunan did.

Inside Xiao's luxury Beijing apartment, in pride of place atop his own private Buddhist shrine, sits a portrait of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, a man long reviled by the Chinese government as a dangerous separatist.

For Tibetan monks even the possession of the Dalai Lama's photograph is a risky proposition and the displaying of his portrait in monasteries is prohibited.

But there, beneath that same image sat Xiao, with a Tibetan Buddhist guru, Geshe Sonam, sitting beside him.

It's really no big deal, the 50-year-old Xiao explains.

"In regard to the political problems between the Dalai Lama and China… we hardly pay any attention," he says.

"It's really hard for us to judge him from that angle. As Buddhists, we only pay attention to him as part of our Buddhist practice."

Xiao was introduced to the BBC by a Chinese businessman, 36-year-old Sun Kejia - one of an unknown, but reportedly growing number of wealthy Chinese, drawn in recent years to the mysticism of Tibetan Buddhism.

The increasing popularity of religion in general in China has been well documented and is often explained in terms of China's rapid economic expansion.

Millions of Chinese today may now have the kind of wealth that previous generations could only dream of, but economic growth has been accompanied by seismic social upheaval and many of the old certainties have been swept away.

"I was once confronted with great difficulties and problems in my business," Sun says.

"I felt they couldn't be overcome by human effort and that only Buddha, ghosts and God could help me."

So Sun became a follower not of merchant bankers or money managers, but monks - Tibetan monks in particular. And he has indeed since earned his fortune, which he estimates at more than $100m.

He now runs a chain of Buddhist clubs, and pays from his own pocket for Tibetan gurus like Geshe Sonam to come and preach there, giving them badly needed funds for their missions and monasteries back in Tibet.

But while Sun's invited guests - businessmen, party officials and property owners - find comfort and spirituality, he finds something else.

"What I want is influence," he says.

"My friends who come here are attracted to this place. I can use the resources they bring to do my other business. From that angle, it is also my contribution for spreading Buddhism. This brings good karma and so I get what I want."

And it seems to be working.

Sun invites us to meet other well-connected individuals who use his club.

Seated on the floor with Geshe Sonam is a woman who Sun says is connected through family ties to the highest echelons of Chinese politics.

She and a man she introduces as a senior official at China's National Development and Reform Commission, and who appears to be her driver, are placing watches, prayer beads and necklaces into the centre of the circle for Geshe Sonam to bless.

A luxury banquet follows the religious ceremony, and later the monk admits to being a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing.

"No matter how good the food is, it's still just food," he says.

"Sometimes it takes so long and I really feel I'm wasting my time. I become a bit anxious. But this can also be a way to preach. If I don't go here, or don't go there, would it be better for me to just stay in a cave and never come out?"

Buddhist monks need the money and dozens, perhaps hundreds, are now prospecting for funds in China's big cities.

Given that China is still, officially, an atheist country, that may seem odd, especially because of the links between Buddhism and political activism in Tibet.

China however is not only allowing this Buddhist evangelism to take place but may now be actively encouraging it.

There have been reports that President Xi Jinping is - relatively speaking - more tolerant of religion than his predecessors, in the hope that it will help fill China's moral vacuum and stem social unrest.

And there have also long been rumours that members of the Chinese elite have been interested in Buddhism, including Xi Jinping's wife, Peng Liyuan.

The president's father, Xi Zhongxun, a Communist Party revolutionary and leader, is himself reported to have had a good relationship with the Dalai Lama before he fled China in 1959.

And that's perhaps where Xiao Wunan comes in, because another unsubstantiated rumour has it that his father was also close to the president's father.

Much of this is speculation, of course, but the important question is whether Xiao's permission for the BBC to witness him worshipping at a Buddhist altar is meant to send a signal.

Xiao had yet another surprise up his sleeve, handing the BBC some video footage of a meeting he had with the Dalai Lama in India - his place of exile - in 2012.

Formal talks were last held in 2010 but even they were only between representatives of the two sides.

Xiao's footage is rare evidence of face-to-face talks between the Dalai Lama himself and someone close to the Chinese government.

There were at the time a few unconfirmed newspaper reports about it in the Indian press, full of speculation about the significance, but there was never any official confirmation that it took place - until the BBC received the video.

At one point in the conversation the Dalai Lama tells Xiao he is concerned about the activities of fake monks in China.

"I am also concerned about this," Xiao replies. "Therefore, we are really in need of a Buddhist leader and that's why I think your holiness can play such an important role."

Elsewhere, the Dalai Lama complains about China's whole approach to Tibet.

"Let's be honest, the Chinese government has been thinking like a crazy person on their Tibetan policy," he says.

"They haven't been facing up to it. This tough policy is not beneficial to China or to Tibetans and also gives China a very bad international image."

Xiao Wunan's exact role when he was in government is unclear - "just call me a former high official", he says.

He also insists that he was not acting as a Chinese government envoy when he met the Dalai Lama.

He says he was in India in his capacity as the executive vice chairman of an organisation called the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF).

APECF is often described as being backed by the Chinese government and is involved in some pretty substantial influence building, including a multi-billion-dollar investment in developing a Buddhist site in Nepal.

Either way, it seems unlikely that any former senior Chinese official would be able to visit the Dalai Lama in India, or for that matter be filmed worshipping in front of his picture, without some pretty powerful backing in Beijing.

So what might it all mean? I put this question to Robbie Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University in New York.

Barnett advises against reading too much into Xiao Wunan's meeting with the Dalai Lama, but says it is nonetheless symbolic.

"I can detect no politically significant activities in that meeting," he says, "but it is significant as a symbolic indicator, a glimpse of a shift that might be under consideration in, or near, the policy-making heights of the Chinese system."

He suggests that Xiao's confidence in releasing the video does not necessarily mean he has the backing of the whole of the Chinese leadership, but that he probably has the backing of a powerful faction within it, at the very least.

"We know it is meant to symbolise something," Barnett says.

"They want us to see that something might be happening, that a debate may be taking place."

There can be little doubt that the ban on the portrait of the Dalai Lama and the tightening of Chinese control over the past two decades have served to heighten tensions in Tibet.

Throughout that period there have been talks between the two sides, both formal and informal, but little has changed.

In recent months, however, some reports suggest that the unofficial dialogue has become more substantial, even raising the possibility of the Dalai Lama being allowed to return from exile for a historic visit.

So, should the release of the video by Xiao Wunan be seen as evidence that Xi Jinping really is changing China's approach to Tibetan Buddhism, or is it simply a smokescreen, designed to give the appearance of a softening line, while the harsh crackdown in Tibet continues?

If nothing else, Xiao Wunan and his Dalai Lama shrine appear to be proof that well-connected members of the Chinese elite are now taking an active interest in Tibetan Buddhism - and that monks are now being given license to encourage them.

"They may not be able to buy their way into Nirvana," Geshe Sonam says, "but in Buddhism, you can get more karmic reward the more money you spend on rituals."


How Russia outfoxes its enemies


Russia's annexation of Crimea last year caught almost everyone off guard. The Russian military disguised its actions, and denied them - but those "little green men" who popped up in the Black Sea peninsula were a textbook case of the Russian practice of military deception - or maskirovka.

At a cadet school in the southern suburbs of Moscow, Maj Gen Alexander Vladimirov heaves two enormous red volumes off his bookcase and slams them down on the table. "My Theory and Science of Warfare," he says, beaming. "It's three times longer than Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace!"

Vladimirov, vice-president of Russia's Collegium of Military Experts, is an authority on maskirovka - the hallmark of Russian warfare and a word which translates as "something masked" or "a little masquerade".

"As soon as man was born, he began to fight," he says. "When he began hunting, he had to paint himself different colours to avoid being eaten by a tiger. From that point on maskirovka was a part of his life. All human history can be portrayed as the history of deception."

Vladimirov quotes liberally from the Roman general Frontinus and the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu who described war as an eternal path of cunning.

But it's Russia, he tells me, with unmistakable pride, that has over the centuries really honed these techniques to perfection.

One of the most famous examples is the Battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380, when the young Muscovite, Prince Dmitry Donskoy, and 50,000 Russian warriors fought against 150,000 Tatar-Mongolian soldiers led by Khan Mamai. It was the first time the Slavs were fighting as a united army - Russia against the Golden Horde.

"The fighting was very tough, but we eventually triumphed thanks to one regiment hiding in the forest," says Vladimirov. "They attacked ferociously and unexpectedly and the ambushed Tatars ran away."

But that was just a start. Vladimirov reels off some more recent legendary battles in which Russia outfoxed its enemies, with flare and cunning.

There was the Jassy-Kishinev operation of August 1944, which featured dozens of dummy tanks as well as whole Red Army divisions sent in false directions to throw the Germans off the scent.

And that came just after Operation Bagration in Belorussia had dealt Hitler's troops a devastating blow.

"It was clear the military skill of Soviet leaders outclassed the Germans," Vladimirov says. "Our generals decided not to go the easy way along the road but through the swamps! That way they attacked the rear of the German forces. That's mastery for you! All throughout Bagration, there were colossal examples of maskirovka involving thousands of tanks and troops. After that the war was practically over."

Out of 117 divisions and six brigades, half were destroyed and the rest suffered 50% losses - half a million Germans died there.

Surprise is a key ingredient in maskirovka and the clandestine forces which occupied Crimea last February certainly delivered that.

Pyotr Shelomovskiy, a Russian photojournalist, was there as they arrived. He had rushed down to Crimea expecting tensions to arise after Ukraine's Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country - and on 24 February he watched local pro-Russian activists building a small barricade on the square outside parliament.

"They started brewing tea and distributing drinks. Some journalists, myself included, were allowed to take pictures," says Shelomovskiy, "and that was it for the night."

Or so he thought. But in the small hours, unmarked military trucks drove up filled with heavily armed men.

"They ordered those demonstrators to lie face down on the ground - until they realised they were on the same side," says Shelomovskiy. Then they made them carry ammunition into the parliament.

He was told this story by the activists the next morning. "They didn't really understand themselves what was going on," he says.

The troops which had arrived in the dark, as if by magic, with no insignia on their olive-coloured uniforms, were soon nicknamed "little green men".

"We know now these guys were Russian special forces," says Shelomovskiy. "But no-one said so at the time."

Denial is another vital component in maskirovka. At a press conference a few days later Vladimir Putin coolly batted away awkward questions about where the troops came from.

"There are many military uniforms. Go into any shop and you can find one," he said.

But were they Russian soldiers? Poker-faced, the president said the men were local self-defence units.

Five weeks later, once the annexation had been rubber-stamped by the Parliament in Moscow, Putin admitted Russian troops had been deployed in Crimea after all. But the lie had served its purpose. Maskirovka is used to wrong-foot your enemies, to keep them guessing.

Maj Gen Gordon 'Skip' Davis, in charge of operations and intelligence at Nato's military HQ in Belgium, admits it took him and his colleagues some time to figure out the "size and the scale" of the troop reinforcement which was "continuously denied by the Russians".

But if Nato was taken by surprise, the historian and journalist Anne Applebaum was not.

"I knew immediately what it was because it reminded me of 1945. It looked so familiar," she says.

"With Crimea I got a bizarre sense of deja vu, because bringing in soldiers who weren't really soldiers - that was what the NKVD did in Poland after the war. They also created fake political entities which nobody had seen before, with fake ideologies already attached to them… It's a game of smoke and mirrors."

After Crimea came the war in eastern Ukraine. Officially there are no Russian troops or little green men fighting there either - only patriotic volunteers who have gone to the region on holiday.

But there is growing evidence of Moscow's intervention in the separatist conflict including a mounting toll of Russian soldiers killed in action.

In August Russian TV showed footage of water and baby food being loaded on to lorries heading for Ukraine's war zone. The Russian government called this humanitarian aid but many were more than a little suspicious. Nato already had plenty of intelligence about Russian air defence and artillery forces moving into Ukraine.

Maj Gen Davis calls the first convoy "a wonderful example of maskirovka" because it created something of a media storm. TV crews breathlessly followed the convoy, trying to find out what was really inside the green army trucks which had been hastily repainted white. Was this a classic Trojan horse operation to smuggle weapons to rebel militias? And would the Ukrainian authorities allow the convoy in?

"All the while at other border crossing points controlled by the Russians - not by the Ukrainians - equipment, personnel and troops were passing into Eastern Ukraine," says Davis. He sees the convoy as a clever "diversion or distraction".

The fog of war isn't something which just happens - it's something which can be manufactured. In this case the Western media were bamboozled, but the compliant Russian media has also worked hard to generate fog.

Ukrainian novelist Andrei Kurkov says he is constantly amazed by what he calls "the fantasy and imagination of Russian journalists". One of the most lurid stories broadcast on a Moscow TV channel claimed that a three-year-old boy in Sloviansk - a town in eastern Ukraine with a mostly Russian-speaking population - was crucified... for speaking Russian.

The TV report is still online. A blonde woman, her voice choked with emotion, tells a serious-looking Russian news reporter that the three-year-old child was nailed to a wooden notice board in front of his mother and died in agony. The mother she alleges, was then tied to a tank and dragged through the streets until she died. She adds that she is risking her life by talking but wants to protect children against Ukrainian soldiers who behave like beasts and fascists.

"The lady claimed she'd witnessed this horrible story in Sloviansk," says Kurkov. "But then she mentioned the name of the square where it happened and this square doesn't exist in Sloviansk. There's no such place."

As Kurkov says, the story doesn't stand up. It emerged that the woman eyewitness had a history of filing false police reports and her own parents said they thought she'd given the interview for money.

The elements of maskirovka
    • Surprise
    • Kamufliazh (camouflage) - such as the white uniforms worn by Russian troops in snow during their invasion of Finland in World War II
    • Demonstrativnye manevry - manoeuvres intended to deceive
    • Skrytie - concealment
    • Imitatsia - the use of decoys and military dummies
    • Dezinformatsia - disinformation, a knowing attempt to deceive

TV and the digital world are awash with similar reports. A group of Kiev journalism students who set up a website to expose fake stories say some approaches are more sophisticated than this, mixing truth and falsehood to produce a report that appears credible. But even an incredible story may serve to confuse, and create uncertainty.

Peter Pomerantsev, who recently spent several years working on documentaries and reality shows for Russian TV, argues that Russian state media are not just distorting truth in Ukraine, they go much further, promoting a seductive nihilism.

"The Russian strategy, both at home and abroad, is to say there is no such thing as truth," he says.

"I mean, you know, 'The Americans are bad, we're bad, and everyone's bad, so what's the big deal about us being a bit corrupt? You know our democracy's a sham, their democracy's a sham.'

"It's a sort of cynicism that actually resonates very powerfully in the West nowadays with this lack of self-confidence after the Iraq War, after the financial crash - and that's what the Russians are hoping for, just to take that cynicism and then use that in a military environment."

Of course, every country uses strategies of deception. Churchill famously said: "In wartime, truth is so precious she should always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." The Americans call such tactics CC&D - concealment, camouflage and deception.

So what sets Russia apart? Maj Gen Skip Davis argues Western forces are sometimes economical with the truth but says they don't tell outright lies: "We are talking about denial of information - in other words, not confirming facts - versus blatantly denying. Saying, 'No that's not us invading, that's not our forces there, that's someone else's.'"

But what about the false information that propelled Britain and the US into war with Iraq? Few would now deny that the facts on WMD were massaged in a maskirovka-type way. The word Davis keeps coming back to is "mindset". He insists maskirovka has become a modus operandi for Russia itself.

"I think that there is an alignment between what probably started out as military doctrine, but now is much more a part of state policy and there's an alignment between the strategic down to the tactical level in terms of the mindset of maskirovka."

This perception is nothing new for Russia's neighbours. A decade ago Andrei Kurkov predicted recent events in Ukraine in his book, The President's Last Love. He writes in Russian and most of his books are on sale there but this one was stopped at the border.

"Putin is one of the main characters," he says. "In this book he promises the Ukrainian president that he will annex Crimea and cut the gas supply and lots of other things that later became reality - this is the reason why the book is banned."

Isn't it uncanny that he managed such accurate predictions?

"I don't think it was difficult - somehow when you live in a not very logical world, when the logic of absurdity prevails and the players don't evolve - it's actually quite simple."


League tables branded a 'nonsense' by private schools


Scores of England's top private secondaries expect to be at the bottom of the school league tables, following confusion over International GCSEs.

School leaders dismissed this year's tables as a "nonsense", with many schools "caught unawares" by a shift in which qualifications are recognised.

It centres on the phasing out of unaccredited IGCSEs from the tables.

The government said it had made important changes to a system that had rewarded the wrong outcomes.

The IGCSE is sat by candidates overseas, but has also long been favoured by many private schools and some leading state schools in England as a more rigorous assessment.

They were once heavily promoted by the coalition government as a way of increasing rigour in the exams system, but now it wants pupils to take the new "more ambitious" GCSEs currently being phased into schools.

Richard Harman, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), which represents many leading independent schools, said the decision to drop IGCSEs made a "nonsense" of the league tables.

"Several of the UK's most highly performing independent schools and others offering this excellent qualification will now appear to be bottom of the class in the government's rankings.

"This obviously absurd situation creates further confusion for parents as they cannot compare schools' performance accurately and transparently.

"Many HMC schools will continue to offer the IGCSE, as experience tells us it is rigorous and offers a good basis for sixth form study."

But Graham Stuart, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, said the publication of performance data was aimed at state schools, not fee-paying ones.

"They're not designed to serve independent schools. They are designed to create a benchmark for state schools."

'Caught unawares'

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College leaders, said "quite a few schools have fallen foul" of the various changes to school league tables "by continuing with exams that don't count".

"In spite of this, the children themselves have received a good set of qualifications," he added.

"This calls into question the validity of the performance tables, and the government has promoted these qualifications [IGCSES] heavily in the early years of the coalition, but now they have decided that they want everyone to do the new GCSEs.

"Lots of independent schools are carrying on with IGCSEs and have no intention of stopping - their reputation goes beyond the league tables."

He added that some state schools had been "caught unawares", adding that many were already unhappy with the way their results had been presented in government data.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, told the BBC's Today programme the removal of IGCSEs and other qualifications mean year-by-year statistics are "not comparable".

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "As part of our plan for education we are making GCSEs more ambitious and putting them on a par with the best in the world, to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain.

"We have made important changes to a system that rewarded the wrong outcomes.

"We have stripped out qualifications that were of little value and are making sure pupils take exams when they are ready, not before.

"The changes may result in some variation across all types of schools, ensuring they are held to account for the right outcomes.

"We issued guidance to all schools on this."

'Perverse incentives'

The DfE added that in some independent schools, pupils had continued to be entered for unregulated qualifications that did not count in performance measures, such as IGCSEs, and they had not been moved across to the regulated certificate versions.

"The effect of this has been enhanced in 2013-14 by the final group of unregulated IGCSEs reaching the end of their grace period and not being included in results."

A spokesman for exams regulator Ofqual said it was not possible to guarantee that GCSEs and IGCSEs would be sufficiently comparable qualifications for accountability purposes.

"If IGCSEs were perceived to be less challenging, their inclusion in performance tables could create perverse incentives for exam boards and schools and may not ensure a level playing field for all," he added.


Castro demands Guantanamo Bay in return for US-Cuba diplomatic deal


Cuba has demanded the US hand back the Guantanamo Bay military base before relations with Washington are normalised.

In a speech, President Raul Castro also called for the lifting of the US trade embargo and Cuba's removal from a terror list.

Last month the two countries announced a thaw in relations, agreeing to restore diplomatic ties. They were severed in 1961.

High-level talks were held last week.

A Congressional delegation arrived in Havana to begin negotiations aimed at reopening embassies in the two countries' capitals.

Meanwhile, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro appeared to signal his approval for the political rapprochement.

Cuba's state-run newspaper published a letter on Tuesday in which he wrote: "We will always defend co-operation and friendship with all the people of the world, including with our political adversaries."

He wrote that although he did not "trust the policy of the US", it did not mean he rejected a "peaceful solution to conflicts".

'Illegally occupied'

His brother Raul, who succeeded him as president in 2008, made his demands at the summit of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Costa Rica.

"The reestablishment of diplomatic relations is the start of a process of normalising bilateral relations," he said. "But this will not be possible while the blockade still exists, while they don't give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo naval base."

The land on which the base stands was leased to the US government in 1903 by Cuba's then-rulers.

US officials have so far not responded to Mr Castro's remarks.

President Barack Obama has called on Congress to put an end to the trade embargo, which has been in place since 1962.

Earlier this month he also used his executive powers to loosen trade and restrictions on travel to the Caribbean island.


Could Syriza win tilt Greece's foreign policy towards Russia?



While much of the world's attention has been focused on the wider economic ramifications of the new Syriza-dominated government in Athens, this curious coalition of far left and nationalist right raises all sorts of questions about the trajectory of Greek foreign policy as well.

Could Athens, for example, now block further EU sanctions against Russia? Will the new Greek coalition be committed to Nato? Might Greece's improving economic and security relationship with Israel be reconsidered?

And what about the curious mixture of friends and sympathisers that Syriza seems to have gathered around the world? What does this tell us, if anything, about the Greek coalition's likely direction?

The Russian ambassador to Greece was the first foreign diplomat welcomed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Russia is a major commercial partner of Greece and the Greek economy has inevitably suffered from the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the EU in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and from the counter-measures instituted by Moscow in return.

"We do not agree with the spirit of the sanctions against Russia," said the new Greek Minister for European Affairs Nikos Chountis on Wednesday.

It is true that on Ukraine, Syriza has been much more sympathetic to the Russian position than most of its EU counterparts.

Syriza MEPs have consistently voted against motions critical of Russia in the European Parliament, and they opposed the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine - a deal establishing economic ties between Brussels and Kiev.

With an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers due on Thursday - which will discuss a new set of sanctions against Russia - the new Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has already made it clear that Athens is not going to be bounced into anything.

He has accused EU nations of seeking to present Greece with a fait accompli. "We made that clear from the beginning," he noted on Tuesday. "It will not be accepted."

Challenge to Nato

Strident Greek opposition to further sanctions - or indeed to the renewal of existing measures - could seriously compromise the EU's concerted approach towards the Kremlin. Clearly such a policy would win the Greeks few friends in other European capitals.

But it could strengthen the voice of the small number of EU countries that have reservations about the sanctions.

On Nato, Syriza describes its approach as "a multi-dimensional, pro-peace foreign policy for Greece, with no involvement in wars or military plans." It seeks "the re-foundation of Europe away from artificial divisions and Cold War alliances such as Nato."

Last year one Syriza MP called for Greece to leave Nato altogether, though the comments were rapidly played down by senior party officials.

One interesting aspect of recent Greek foreign policy has been the developing defence and economic relationship with Israel. In part this was a measure of the worsening relations between Israel and Turkey.

But it was also an indication of their joint concern about the developing chaos in the region and of the potential for co-operation in developing energy links between Israel's gas fields in the Mediterranean and European markets.

Syriza is a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, but that does not necessarily mean that improving ties with Israel will be damaged.

The appointment of Nikos Kotzias as foreign minister is seen as a pragmatic choice. Greek security policy looks likely to continue to be orientated around its concerns about Turkey. That suggests that defence ties with Israel may not suffer.

Nonetheless, the appointment of right-wing coalition partner Panos Kammenos as defence minister could cause some bumpy moments. The Independent Greeks leader drew strong criticism last year when he made a statement accusing Greek Jews of not paying their taxes.

His presence in this coalition points to another curious aspect of the new government - the way its members have drawn support from an odd mixture of parties and politicians abroad, especially those on the nationalist right of the political spectrum.

Such supporters range from controversial Russian right wing ideologue Alexander Dugin to the leader of France's far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen.

From opposition to government

It is Syriza's apparent anti-capitalism, its sympathy towards Vladimir Putin's Russia, its opposition to Nato and so on, that makes it attractive to such people. It is, in large part, the same set of reasons that has brought the Independent Greeks party into the coalition in Athens.

But what all this tells us about the likely direction of Greek foreign policy is unclear. Syriza has to make a rapid transition from being the voice of dissent and opposition into a governing party with economic catastrophe looming.

It is the economy and negotiations with the EU that are going to dominate this new Greek cabinet's first months. Everything else will be secondary.

Radical changes in Greek foreign policy will only alienate countries that Athens needs to influence. Don't be surprised then, if there is a good deal less change than many outside Greece may have feared.


The girl with three biological parents


Alana Saarinen loves playing golf and the piano, listening to music and hanging out with friends. In those respects, she's like many teenagers around the world. Except she's not, because every cell in Alana's body isn't like mine and yours - Alana is one of a few people in the world who have DNA from three people.

"A lot of people say I have facial features from my mum, my eyes look like my dad… I have some traits from them and my personality is the same too," says Alana.

"I also have DNA from a third lady. But I wouldn't consider her a third parent, I just have some of her mitochondria."

Mitochondria are often called the cell's factories. They are the bits that create the energy all of our cells need to work, and keep the body functioning. But they also contain a little bit of DNA.

Alana Saarinen is one of only 30 to 50 people in the world who have some mitochondria, and therefore a bit of DNA, from a third person. She was conceived through a pioneering infertility treatment in the USA which was later banned.

But soon there could be more people like Alana, with three genetic parents, because the UK is looking to legalise a new, similar technique which would use a donor's mitochondria to try to eliminate debilitating genetic diseases. It is called mitochondrial replacement and if Parliament votes to let this happen, the UK would become the only country in the world to allow children with three people's DNA to be born.

The structure of a cell

Nucleus: Where the majority of our DNA is held - this determines how we look and our personality

Mitochondria: Often described as the cell's factories, these create the energy to make the cell function

Cytoplasm: The jelly like substance that contains the nucleus and mitochondria

Alana was born through an infertility treatment called cytoplasmic transfer.

Her mum, Sharon Saarinen, had been trying to have a baby for 10 years through numerous IVF procedures.

"I felt worthless. I felt guilty that I couldn't give my husband a child. When you want a biological child but you can't have one, you're distraught. You can't sleep, it's 24-7, constantly on your mind," she says.

Cytoplasmic transfer was pioneered in the late 1990s by a clinical embryologist Dr Jacques Cohen and his team at the St Barnabus Institute in New Jersey, US.

"We felt that there was a chance that there was some element, some structure in the cytoplasm that didn't function optimally. One of the major candidates that could have been involved here are structures called mitochondria," he says.

Cohen transferred a bit of a donor woman's cytoplasm, containing mitochondria, to Sharon Saarinen's egg. It was then fertilised with her husband's sperm. As a little bit of mitochondria was transferred, some DNA from the donor was in the embryo.

Seventeen babies were born at Cohen's clinic, as a result of cytoplasmic transfer, who could have had DNA from three people.

But there was concern about some of the babies.

"There was one early miscarriage, considering there were twelve pregnancies that is an expected number," says Cohen.

He and his team believed that miscarriage occurred because the foetus was missing an X chromosome.

"Then there was another twin pregnancy, where one [of the twins] was considered entirely normal and the other had a missing X chromosome.

"So that's two out of the small group of foetuses that was obtained from this procedure. This did worry us and we reported that in the literature and in our ethical and review board that oversees these procedures," he says.

At the time of birth, the other babies were all fine. A year or two later, another of the children was found to have "early signs of pervasive early developmental disorder which is a range of cognitive diseases which also includes autism." Cohen told me.

He says it's difficult to know if the abnormalities happened by chance or because of the procedure.

Other clinics copied the technique and Cohen estimates that around 30 to 50 children worldwide were born who could have DNA from three people as a result.

But in 2002 the American regulator, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) asked clinics to stop doing cytoplasmic transfer due to safety and ethical concerns. All of them did.

"There was a reaction from scientists, ethicists, the public at large, I think most of it was supportive, some of it was critical - I think this is normal, every time an experiment is done in medicine there is a reaction - what are the risks here?" says Cohen.

At the time, some were concerned because they felt this was germ line genetic modification. What "germ line" means is that a child like Alana would pass her unusual genetic code down to her children. And their children, would pass it to their children and so on.

Because we inherit our mitochondria only from our mothers, only female children would pass their unusual genetic code on. Crossing the germ line as it is known has never been done before so very little is known about what the outcome could be.

Due to a lack of funding, Cohen says, it hasn't been possible to find out about how any of the children like Alana who were born from cytoplasmic transfer are doing. But the St Barnabus Institute is now starting a follow up study to check their progress.

Sharon Saarinen says her daughter Alana is a healthy, typical teenager

"I couldn't ask for a better child. She is an intelligent, beautiful girl inside and out, she loves math and science … she does really well in school. She helps me around the house… when she's not texting!"

"She has always been healthy. Never anything more than a basic cold, or a flu every now and then. No health problems at all."

The health of the children, like Alana, born from cytoplasmic transfer is under scrutiny now because of the UK's decision to consider legalising mitochondrial replacement, where the mitochondria of a donor woman will be used to create a child.

It would not be available for people with fertility problems but for those who carry diseases of the mitochondria and would otherwise pass down these genetic abnormalities to their children.

Exactly how it is done still needs to be determined as there are two ways of doing the procedure, depending on when the eggs are fertilised.

  • Eggs from a mother with unhealthy mitochondria and a donor with healthy mitochondria are collected
  • The nucleus, containing the majority of the genetic material, is removed from both eggs. The donor nucleus is destroyed
  • The mother's nucleus is inserted into the donor egg - it now has healthy mitochondria. The egg is then fertilised by the father's sperm
  • Both the mother's and donor's eggs are fertilised with the father's sperm to create two embryos
  • The pronuclei, the nuclei during the process of fertilisation, contain the majority of the genetic material. They are removed from both embryos. The donor's is destroyed
  • A healthy embryo is created by putting the parents' pronuclei into the donor embryo

"Mitochondrial diseases tend to involve tissues or organs which are heavily dependent on energy," says Prof Doug Turnbull from The University of Newcastle. He has treated people with mitochondrial disease for decades and is one of those who has developed these new techniques to try to cure these debilitating diseases.

"The conditions can therefore involve the heart, the brain or sometimes the skeletal muscle," he says.

"People can have very bad heart problems which can cause the heart to fail eventually, they can be very weak and require respirators or be in a wheelchair. With the brain, they can get epilepsy, strokes and eventually severe dementia."

Turnbull estimates that around 1 in 3000-5000 people in the UK have a mitochondrial disease. "We can treat the symptoms. We can improve the quality and length of peoples' lives but we can't cure them."

The mitochondria carry some DNA, around 13 "important genes" says Turnbull.

That compares to the "23,000 important genes" in the nucleus where most of our DNA is held. This is the DNA that determines our traits and personality.

"We're not trying to create some characteristic that makes this person a stronger person or [someone who] will have blonde hair. We're trying to prevent disease and I think that is the only justification for doing this," he says.

Sharon Bernardi, from Sunderland in the North of England, is someone who mitochondrial replacement could have helped.

Bernardi has lost seven children to mitochondrial disease.

"I have babies in three different cemeteries," she told us in her sitting room, surrounded by photographs of all her children.

"That is not the way you plan your life when you're trying to have a family. I have lovely photos and lovely memories but obviously that's all I have got now."

The doctors didn't know why Bernardi's babies kept passing away only hours after they were born. So that's why she kept trying, hoping she would have a healthy child.

With her fourth child, Edward, at first everything seemed different. He was healthy until he was about four and a half. But it was then that he was diagnosed with Leigh's disease, a type of mitochondrial disease, and his health deteriorated throughout the years.

"From the age of 20 Edward [found] getting around more difficult. He started to get new symptoms - spasms. He'd start screaming... four, five, six hours at a time. His muscles used to tense up, his hands, his face. It was like dystonic spasms - a really bad spasm. [For] eight hours he'd be in pain, screaming. His face would twist up and his hands would get really stiff. It was hard to see."

Edward Bernardi passed away three years ago, when he was 21.

"My life was totally for Edward. Even now sometimes if I have gone to sleep, I still wake up, and think, 'It's very quiet.' I have to slip back into reality and think, 'Don't be silly, Edward's not there. He's not in his room'."

"Without a heartbeat I would have gone for this [mitochondrial replacement]. I hope this is a new option. I hope people take it seriously and it's approved.

"I don't want my son to have just died for nothing. I want him to have made a difference."

"His life was robbed at 21. We're trying to stop this. People have to understand this is a life disease. We're trying not to pass it on to children and make it better for future families."

But some people believe this technique could set us on a slippery slope towards genetically modified humans.

"These regulations would authorise the crossing of a rubicon for the first time. It would authorise germ line therapy... to alter the genes of an individual. This is something defined by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as effectively constituting eugenics," says British MP Fiona Bruce who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group.

"We will have approved a technique and what that technique could be used for in the future who knows. We're opening a Pandora's box."

The regulator in the UK, the HFEA or Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, has held three independent reviews to scrutinise the safety of this technique. The conclusions were that mitochondrial replacement is "not unsafe".

That means "it would be reasonable, with some additional experiments, to take it into clinical practice if all circumstances are fulfilled" says Peter Braude, emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Kings College London. He sat on all three HFEA scientific reviews.

"In any move from science to clinical practice there is a leap of faith - it has to be done," he says.

He adds that many of the concerns being raised now about this are the same as the ones cited in the early days of IVF. The UK has for decades been a leader in assisted reproduction science and is where the world's first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978.

"The headlines then were 'playing God' and 'genetically modified humans'," says Braude.

"There have been few episodes I'm aware of in the history of assisted reproduction that have had to be stopped because of hazard. It's all gone pretty swimmingly as far as I'm aware."

Braude says that mitochondrial replacement has gone through much more scrutiny than previous, now well established, assisted reproduction techniques did, such as IVF.

"Whereas the original techniques were used with only [experiments from] mice, rabbits, lab animals... the big difference here is we also have issue of human embryos and this work has been tested in macaque monkeys in primates. All those were very useful, reassuring… hence why we came to the conclusion that this is not unsafe."

The experiments done on macaque monkeys were done in Oregon, US and the monkeys are now five years old and seem to be healthy.

Braude also points out that having a third person's DNA in your system is "nothing particularly new".

"Think about bone marrow transplants, let's say unfortunately you have leukaemia and you have to have your bone marrow radiated for the cancer to be killed and then it is replaced by bone marrow from someone else - say me. Effectively from that time onwards, you will have circulating in your body DNA from me. You won't be related to me, you may be grateful to me, but you will have DNA from a third person circulating in your body."

What is different, say critics, about mitochondrial replacement, is that DNA from the donor will be passed down future generations.

Dr Ted Morrow, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Sussex, and colleagues have carried out mitochondrial replacement experiments on other animals. He raised safety concerns about mitochondrial replacement to the scientific reviews.

"For mice, there were changes in cognitive ability... to learn and do things using their brain. In fruit flies and seed beetles there were changes in male fertility, changes in ageing, a range of different traits were effected in various experiments," he says.

The HFEA's scientific reviews dismissed Morrow's findings as not relevant to humans because they were done on inbred animals.

Morrow stands by his research and says the scientific panels should not have dismissed his findings so quickly.

It is Morrow's evidence that critics such as Fiona Bruce cite when saying this technique is not safe enough.

She has called a debate in the House of Commons today to discuss mitochondrial replacement. She does not believe there has been enough debate about what the UK is proposing to do. "The technique itself could allow the child to inherit untried untested medical complications," she says.

Morrow says that all the coverage of his research has been "a rather odd experience".

"In the press it's sometimes portrayed that the scientists think this, and the pro-life group this. I'm a scientist but I'm not a pro-lifer. I think this is a genuine safety concern - that's it."

Alana and Sharon Saarinen have been watching the debate in the UK with interest.

"I wish I could meet her, the donor, to tell her I am so grateful for what she did for us. How can you thank someone for giving you a life? That's impossible," says Sharon.

Alana agrees with her mum. "I think it would be nice to thank her. But I wouldn't want to have a relationship or connection with her. The DNA I have of her is just so small."

"I know she might have another person's mitochondria, [but] look what a great person she turned out to be, and healthy. Just because she'll pass it on to her children it won't bother me in the least. I know it was the right thing to do. I have the living proof every day to see how great it turned out."


Ebola outbreak: Virus mutating, scientists warn


Scientists tracking the Ebola outbreak in Guinea say the virus has mutated.

Researchers at the Institut Pasteur in France, which first identified the outbreak last March, are investigating whether it could have become more contagious.

More than 22,000 people have been infected with Ebola and 8,795 have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Scientists are starting to analyse hundreds of blood samples from Ebola patients in Guinea.

They are tracking how the virus is changing and trying to establish whether it's able to jump more easily from person to person

"We know the virus is changing quite a lot," said human geneticist Dr Anavaj Sakuntabhai.

"That's important for diagnosing (new cases) and for treatment. We need to know how the virus (is changing) to keep up with our enemy."

It's not unusual for viruses to change over a period time. Ebola is an RNA virus - like HIV and influenza - which have a high rate of mutation. That makes the virus more able to adapt and raises the potential for it to become more contagious.

"We've now seen several cases that don't have any symptoms at all, asymptomatic cases," said Anavaj Sakuntabhai.

"These people may be the people who can spread the virus better, but we still don't know that yet. A virus can change itself to less deadly, but more contagious and that's something we are afraid of."

But Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, says it's still unclear whether more people are actually not showing symptoms in this outbreak compared with previous ones.

"We know asymptomatic infections occur… but whether we are seeing more of it in the current outbreak is difficult to ascertain," he said.

"It could simply be a numbers game, that the more infection there is out in the wider population, then obviously the more asymptomatic infections we are going to see."

Another common concern is that while the virus has more time and more "hosts" to develop in, Ebola could mutate and eventually become airborne.

There is no evidence to suggest that is happening, however. The virus is still only passed through direct contact with infected people's body fluids.

"At the moment, not enough has been done in terms of the evolution of the virus both geographically and in the human body, so we have to learn more. But something has shown that there are mutations," said Institut Pasteur virologist Noel Tordo.

"For the moment the way of transmission is still the same. You just have to avoid contact (with a sick person)"

"But as a scientist you can't predict it won't change. Maybe it will."

Researchers are using a method called genetic sequencing to track changes in the genetic make-up of the virus. So far they have analysed around 20 blood samples from Guinea. Another 600 samples are being sent to the labs in the coming months.

A previous similar study in Sierra Leone showed the Ebola virus mutated considerably in the first 24 days of the outbreak, according to the World Health Organization.

It said: "This certainly does raise a lot of scientific questions about transmissibility, response to vaccines and drugs, use of convalescent plasma.

"However, many gene mutations may not have any impact on how the virus responds to drugs or behaves in human populations."

'Global problem'

The research in Paris will also help give scientists a clearer insight into why some people survive Ebola, and others don't. The survival rate of the current outbreak is around 40%.

It's hoped this will help scientists developing vaccines to protect people against the virus.

Researchers at the Institut Pasteur are currently developing two vaccines which they hope will be in human trials by the end of the year.

One is a modification of the widely used measles vaccine, where people are given a weakened and harmless form of the virus which in turn triggers an immune response. That response fights and defeats the disease if someone comes into contact with it.

The idea, if it proves successful, would be that the vaccine would protect against both measles and Ebola.

"We've seen now this is a threat that can be quite large and can extend on a global scale," said Professor James Di Santo, and immunologist at the Institut.

"We've learned this virus is not a problem of Africa, it's a problem for everyone."

He added: "This particular outbreak may wane and go away, but we're going to have another infectious outbreak at some point, because the places where the virus hides in nature, for example in small animals, is still a threat for humans in the future.

"The best type of response we can think of… is to have vaccination of global populations."


Islamic State builds links with al-Qaeda lands


The Islamic State (IS) group has forged links with militants across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, embracing regional franchises that have pledged allegiance to the group.

The latest branch was announced in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, on 26 January.

The first new branches beyond the group's strongholds in Syria and Iraq were announced by IS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi in November when he accepted pledges of allegiance from jihadists in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Some of those pledges came from existing groups which went on to re-brand themselves as new IS "provinces", or wilayat, such as the Egyptian Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Algeria's Jund al-Khilafah.

The most prolific branches have been those in Libya and Egypt, which have tapped into the IS media network to publish a steady flow of propaganda, highlighting attacks and publicising their attempts at governance.

Others have maintained a shadowy presence. For example, the IS Yemeni and Saudi provinces have yet to claim any activities or establish propaganda channels.

But the impact of the IS expansion has nevertheless been felt by its jihadist rivals in al-Qaeda, which has branches in many of the areas IS has moved into.


The IS branch in Egypt, Sinai Province, was essentially a re-branding of an existing group known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which first emerged in 2011 in the wake of the Egyptian revolution.

Sinai is the highest-profile established jihadist group to be accepted into the fold by Baghdadi and has kept up the tempo of its operations following the change in November.

The group swiftly changed its name and re-branded its media to reflect the new affiliation, adopting a new logo reminiscent of IS branches in Syria and Iraq.

Its activities are focused on the Sinai Peninsula but it has also claimed attacks in Cairo and Egypt's western desert, suggesting it might have some ability to link up with the IS branch in Libya.

Full profile: Sinai province group


The Libyan branch of IS has been the most active since it was formally embraced in November and its propaganda output has most closely resembled that of IS branches in Syria and Iraq.

Three distinct Libyan IS "provinces" were announced in November - Barqah in the east, Tripoli in the west and Fazzan in the south.

Since then, most activity has been centred on the country's coastal strip, reflected in a steady stream of propaganda highlighting the group's attempts at governance alongside brutal attacks and executions. Only one attack has been claimed by Fazzan Province.

Barqah Province, active mainly in the eastern urban centres of Darnah and Benghazi, appears to have grown out of the jihadist group Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, which pledged allegiance to IS in October.

The branch's highest-profile operation took place in the west - the 27 January attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which left at least nine dead including five foreigners.


Little has been heard of the Algerian branch of IS since the pledge of allegiance from Jund al-Khilafah was accepted by Baghdadi in November.

The group, which broke away from al-Qaeda's North Africa branch (AQIM) last year, later restyled itself as the Algeria Province of IS.

The group rose to prominence in September when it beheaded French tourist Herve Gourdel.

But it has been largely silent since then, failing to comment on reports that its leader Khalid Abu-Sulayman (aka Abdelmalek Gouri) was killed by Algerian forces in December.

It has not claimed any activities.

Yemen and Saudi Arabia

IS drew the ire of al-Qaeda's Yemen branch (AQAP) when Al-Baghdadi unilaterally announced new "provinces" in Yemen and Saudi Arabia in November.

Although the new branches have not claimed any activities or set up any propaganda feeds, the move represents a symbolic challenge to al-Qaeda, which is competing for ascendancy in the leadership of the global jihad.

When IS originally declared its caliphate in Syria and Iraq in June 2014, al-Qaeda restricted itself to veiled criticism.

But the gloves came off after the expansion into al-Qaeda territories in November, with various al-Qaeda branches issuing angry and explicit condemnation.


The new Afghanistan-Pakistan branch of IS is the only franchise to have been formally announced since the November flurry of allegiances.

The leader of the new province is said to be Hafiz Sa'id Khan, a former Pakistan Taleban commander.

Two weeks earlier, Khan appeared in a video which showed 10 jihadist commanders from Afghanistan and Pakistan pledging allegiance to IS under his local leadership. That film included the beheading of a Pakistani soldier.

The new branch has taken the name Khorasan Province, after the historical term jihadists use to refer to the region, and covers Afghanistan, Pakistan and "other nearby lands", according to IS.

The move amounts to another major challenge to al-Qaeda and the Taleban, which have been the main jihadist operators in the region.

Can Islamic State move into South Asia?

Other regions

While IS has made no further declarations of new "provinces" elsewhere, there have been reports that other groups of jihadists around the world have pledged allegiance to IS.

The group recently signalled in its English-language magazine Dabiq that new announcements may be in the pipeline.

The November edition, issued after Baghdadi's expansion declaration, acknowledged that other unnamed groups in the Caucasus, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria and elsewhere had also pledged allegiance and that IS had accepted them.

But it said further conditions needed to be met before new "provinces" were formally announced.

The mention of Nigeria could be a reference to Boko Haram, whose propaganda output has recently received a boost - apparently with help from IS media operatives.


The middle-class voters who can't resist Karl Marx


When Greece's new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, gave his victory speech flags were flying high. Supporters of his left-wing Syriza party gathered from across Europe to celebrate an event which they are hoping will change the continent.

Their euphoria seemed tinged with apprehension. Old friends embraced and kissed as they recognised each other on the square.

Perhaps they were comrades from the early days, when Syriza was struggling to attract more than a few percent of the vote. I say the early days, but that was only five years ago. Things are changing fast.

"It's the beginning of a new era," said Poppy Kotsiandi, a little uncertainly, putting a protective arm around her teenage son.

"What do you do?" I asked. Poppy didn't quite fit the image I had of a typical Syriza voter.

"I'm freelance," she said, evasively, "in advertising." Work is scarce.

"There will be tough times ahead," mused her friend Yanis, a studious-looking man in middle age who said he sold life insurance for a living.

Where were the firebrands? Where the militant Marxists? Why were these polite, middle-class professionals waiting for Alexis Tsipras to sweep onto the stage and usher in the first ever radical leftist government in the European Union?

They were the same sort of people as the elderly lady I'd seen the previous day - dressed in a smart, dark blue skirt below the knee and matching jacket, her hair immaculately blow-dried - scavenging for leftover vegetables in the market as the stallholders cleared up for the day.

They were what would, in any prosperous nation, constitute the political middle ground.

Back in 2001, that arch-centrist, Tony Blair, said: "The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux."

He was speaking a few weeks after 9/11 - a different era. Today, it is the European consensus that lies in broken shards upon the pavements of Athens.

To give you an idea of how fractured and confused politics is in Greece right now, let me recount a conversation I had with a Greek journalist before the election who was explaining to me why he wasn't planning to vote Syriza.

The reforms imposed upon Greece by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU - while painful - were a necessary step, he said, to shake the country out of a state of moribund corruption.

"You probably think I'm really right wing," he added, apologetically. "I'm not, honestly, I'm very centrist. I love Marx."

In that context, can it be surprising that Syriza has chosen as its coalition partner not the communists - who you'd think might be their natural bedfellows - but a group called Independent Greeks?

They're a centre-right anti-immigration party whose only common ground with Syriza is their shared opposition to the policies of austerity. On pretty much everything else they disagree.

But Syriza needs to move fast, and a fractious coalition is going to be the least of their worries. Greece is about to start negotiations with its creditors. Neither side knows what the rules are anymore.

But in essence, here's the deal - a coalition of radical left groups that believes capitalism is a bad thing now runs a country that owes around 280 billion euros (£210bn; $320bn) to institutions that are wedded to the economics of the free market and whose credo is austerity.

For each side to come out of this confrontation intact, both will have to compromise. Failing that, one of the two will break. And the EU could be the one to crack.

In other European capitals, that thought fills many with dread. But not all. Athens has become a beacon for thousands of leftists, who are flocking to Greece to be part of what they hope is the beginning of a revolution.

On the square - as Polly, Yanis and their fellow Greek voters waited for the new prime minister - a group of 200 Italians unfurled a bright red banner. "L'altra Europa con Tsipras," it read - "An alternative Europe with Tsipras."

Mingling among them were dozens of young men and women in purple T-shirts emblazoned with the Podemos logo. Podemos is Spain's answer to Syriza, and they believe their country could be next when they hold general elections later this year.

British Marxists, French socialists, they all joined in the celebrations, as Patti Smith's anthem People Have the Power blared over the loudspeakers.

This is surely not what Tony Blair had in mind when he addressed the Labour Party conference. "This is a moment to seize," he had said back then, to a political party he'd dragged kicking and screaming from the left into the centre-ground.

"The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again," he went on. "And before they do, let us reorder this world around us."

That was October 2001, and the world was reordered. It may be about to happen again.


Army sets up new brigade 'for information age'


The Army is setting up a new unit that will use psychological operations and social media to help fight wars "in the information age".

Head of the Army General Sir Nick Carter said the move was about trying to operate "smarter".

The 77th Brigade, made up of reservists and regular troops and based in Hermitage, Berkshire, will be formally created in April.

It has been inspired by the Chindits who fought in Burma in World War Two.

'Bespoke skills'

An Army spokesman said the unit would "play a key part in enabling the UK to fight in the information age" and that it "consists of more than just traditional capabilities".

He said: "77 Brigade is being created to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare.

"It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent and it draws heavily on important lessons from our commitments to operations in Afghanistan amongst others."

Recruitment for the brigade, 42% of whose personnel will be reservists, will begin this spring.

Its members will come from the Royal Navy and RAF as well as from the Army.

The unit will also seek "new ways of allowing civilians with bespoke skills to serve alongside their military counterparts".

The Army spokesman said it would share the "spirit of innovation" of the Chindits in the Burma Campaign of 1942 to 1945.

Chindits was the name given to the Long Range Penetration (LRP) groups that operated in the Burmese jungle behind enemy lines, targeting Japanese communications.

The new unit will also use the old Chindit insignia of a Chinthe, a mythical Burmese creature which is half-lion and half-dragon.


By BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale

The Army says it's learnt valuable lessons from Afghanistan - not least that it can't win wars using pure military force alone.

The brigade will be made up of warriors who don't just carry weapons, but who are also skilled in using social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and the dark arts of "psyops" - psychological operations.

They will try to influence local populations and change behaviour through what the Army calls traditional and unconventional means.

Civilians with the right skills will work alongside regular troops and reservists and could be sent anywhere in the world to help win hearts and minds.

It can be seen as proof that the Army is adapting to modern asymetric warfare, and that it remains relevant at a time when there are fears within the British military of more cuts after the election.

'Rebranding attempt'

Paul Rogers, a professor of international security at the University of Bradford, said the announcement represented a "big expansion" of the Army's psychological operations and was an "attempt to rebrand and update" this area of its work.

"We had so much difficulty in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's about trying to learn the lessons of how these groups are using social media," Prof Rogers explained.

He added: "In some senses it's defensive - trying to present the case from this side against opponents who hold many of the cards.

"We've seen with Islamic State, its incredible capability on the net, Facebook, Instagram and all the rest."

A former Army officer involved in psychological operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, Simon Bergman, predicted it would help build "the Army for the future".

"For example, 77 brigade have a large component of civil affairs soldiers who'll be operating in populations, working with them, achieving military effects - and a broader effect, because as we know from Afghanistan, the military doesn't work in isolation. It works as a component of government."


Islamic State: Can its savagery be explained?


Since the sudden appearance of the extremist Sunni Islamic State (IS), the group has seized headlines with a shocking level of blood-letting and cruelty - but can its savagery be explained, asks Fawaz A Gerges.

Islamic State has become synonymous with viciousness - beheadings, crucifixions, stonings, massacres, burying victims alive and religious and ethnic cleansing.

While such savagery might seem senseless to the vast majority of civilised human beings, for IS it is a rational choice. It is a conscious decision to terrorise enemies and impress and co-opt new recruits.

IS adheres to a doctrine of total war without limits and constraints - no such thing, for instance, as arbitration or compromise when it comes to settling disputes with even Sunni Islamist rivals. Unlike its parent organisation, al-Qaeda, IS pays no lip service to theology to justify its crimes.

The violence has its roots in what can be identified as two earlier waves, though the scale and intensity of IS' brutality far exceeds either.

The first wave, led by disciples of Sayyid Qutb - a radical Egyptian Islamist regarded as the master theoretician of modern jihadism - targeted pro-Western secular Arab regimes or what they called the "near enemy", and, on balance, showed restraint in the use of political violence.

Beginning with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1980, this Islamist insurgency dissipated by the end of the 1990s. It had cost some 2,000 lives and saw a large number of militants head to Afghanistan to battle a new global enemy - the Soviet Union.

'Killing machine'

The Afghan jihad against the Soviets gave birth to a second wave, with a specific target - the "far enemy", or the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe.

It was spearheaded by a wealthy Saudi turned revolutionary, Osama Bin Laden.

Bin Laden went to great lengths to rationalise al-Qaeda's attack on the US on 11 September 2001, calling it "defensive jihad", or retaliation against perceived US domination of Muslim societies.

Conscious of the importance of winning hearts and minds, Bin Laden sold his message to Muslims and even Americans as self-defence, not aggression.

This kind of justification, however, carries no weight with IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who cannot care less what the world thinks of his blood-letting.

In fact, he and his cohorts revel in displaying barbarity and coming across as savage.

In contrast to the first two waves, IS actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base. It is a killing machine powered by blood and iron.

Going beyond Bin Laden's doctrine that "when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse", al-Baghdadi's "victory through terrorism" signals to friends and foes that IS is a winning horse. Get out of the way or you will be crushed; join our caravan and make history.

Increasing evidence shows that over the past few months, hundreds, if not thousands, of diehard former Islamist enemies of IS, such as the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic Front, answered al-Baghdadi's call.


IS' sophisticated outreach campaign appeals to disaffected and deluded young Sunnis worldwide because it is seen as a powerful vanguard that delivers victory and salvation.

Far from abhorring the group's brutality, young recruits are attracted by its shock-and-awe tactics against the enemies of Islam.

Its exploits on the battlefield - especially capturing huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, and establishing a caliphate - resonate near and far. Nothing succeeds like success, and IS' recent military gains have brought it a recruitment bonanza.

Muslim men living in Western countries join IS and other extremist groups because they feel part of a greater mission - to resurrect a lost idealised type of caliphate and be part of a tight-knit community with a potent identity.

Initially, many young men from London, Berlin and Paris and elsewhere migrate to the lands of jihad to defend persecuted co-religionists, but they end up in the clutches of IS, doing its evil deeds, such as beheading innocent civilians.

The drivers behind IS' unrestrained extremism can be traced to its origins with al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by the Americans in 2006.

Not unlike its predecessor, IS is nourished on an anti-Shia diet and visceral hatred of minorities in general, portraying itself as the spearhead of Sunni Arabs in the fight against sectarian-based regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.

Al-Zarqawi and al-Baghdadi view Shias as infidels, a fifth column in the heart of Islam that must be wiped out - a genocidal worldview.

Following in the footsteps of al-Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi ignored repeated pleas by his mentor Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of al-Qaeda, and other top militants to avoid indiscriminate killing of Shia and, instead, to attack the Shia-dominated and Alawite regimes in Iraq and Syria.

Sights on US?

By exploiting the deepening Sunni-Shia rift in Iraq and the sectarian civil war in Syria, al-Baghdadi has built a powerful base of support among rebellious Sunnis and has blended his group into local communities.

He also restructured his military network and co-opted experienced officers of Saddam Hussein's disbanded army who turned IS into a professional sectarian fighting force.

IS has so far consistently focused on the Shia and not the "far enemy". The struggle against the US and Europe is distant, not a priority; it has to await liberation at home.

At the height of Israeli bombings of Gaza in August, militants on social media criticised IS for killing Muslims while doing nothing to help the Palestinians.

IS retorted by saying the struggle against the Shia takes priority over everything else.

Now that the US and Europe have joined the conflict against IS, the group will use all its assets in retaliation, including further beheading of hostages. There is also a growing likelihood that it will attack soft diplomatic targets in the Middle East.

While it might want to stage a spectacular operation on the American or European homeland, it is doubtful that IS currently has the capabilities to carry out complex attacks like 9/11.

A few months ago, in response to chatter by his followers, al-Baghdadi acknowledged that his organisation was not equipped to attack the Americans at home.

He said though that he wished the US would deploy boots on the ground so that IS could directly engage the Americans - and kill them.

Fawaz A Gerges holds the Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is author of several books, including Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.


London's population high: Top metropolis facts


London's population has hit 8.6m people, according to the Greater London Authority - and the last time it was that big was 76 years ago. The metropolis is already Europe's largest city and the 6th richest place on Earth. Here are some key facts about the capital.

1. Fastest growing borough

Tower Hamlets in east London is expected to see the fastest growth according to the Greater London Authority's (GLA) figures. Between 2015 and 2039 its population is forecast to grow by 101,000. Newham will see predicted growth of 91,000 between 2015 and 2039. Followed by Barnet which expects to see growth of 76,000 between 2015-2039.

2. Largest growth

Hillingdon is the borough projected to see the largest growth. In 1939 there were 159,000 residents. By 2039 there will be 316,000 people living there - a rise of 82%. Havering closely follows with an increase of 80%. In 1939 there were 139,000 residents but by 2039 there will be 291,000 people living there.

3. Water, water everywhere

To cope with 8.6m Londoners, Thames Water has 10,000 miles of pipes under the city and deals with 4.4bn litres of wastewater per day. The company reports that Londoners use 10% more water a day than anywhere else in the UK.

London's sewerage network was built following a series of outbreaks of cholera that killed 40,000 people in the first half of the 19th Century - the Victorians believed the disease was contracted through airborne "miasma" due to sewage in the open air.

The sewers overflow on a weekly basis, flushing 39m tonnes of raw sewage straight into the Thames each year. To cope with the growing population a £4.2bn, 15-mile (25km) long "super sewer" - officially known as the Thames Tideway Tunnel - should be operational by 2023.

4. Buses, trains and automobiles

The capital's masses need to get around and London Underground set new historic records for passenger numbers at the end of last year - a record 4.725m in one day during November, beating the 4.5m recorded during the London 2012 Games. London's red buses are now dealing with 6.25m passenger journeys every day, the highest demand since the late 1950s according to Transport for London.

Meanwhile the London Drivers Association reports there are 24,500 cabbies picking-up and dropping-off across the city.

5. The decline and rise of inner London

The GLA figures show inner London's population dropped between the 1940s and late 1980s. In Westminster, the population stood at 347,000 in 1939 but fell to 172, 000 by 1988. In 2011 it increased again to 219,000. Tower Hamlets, meanwhile, fell from 419,000 in 1939 to 159,000 in 1988. However, by 2011 it had shot up again to 254,000. The overall inner London population was 4.4m in 1939, had declined to 2.5m by 1988 but returned to 3.2m by 2011.

The post-1939 decline in London's population has been attributed in part to the Blitz and evacuations during World War 2, and the construction of new towns that followed.

6. London's packed classrooms

London, unlike anywhere else in the country, is a graduate economy. According to the Office for National Statistics, 60% of the working-age population in inner London has a degree.

In terms of the diversity of the population, more than 80% of children in inner London primary schools are from ethnic minorities and more than half do not speak English as a first language.

7. Slowest growth

The City of London is in line for the slowest growth. Between 2015 and and 2039 its population is forecast to grow by 4,000 people.

Richmond has the second slowest population increase, where the number of people is expected to expand by 15,000 between 2015 and 2039, while Sutton follows with a predicted 19,000 increase.

8. All squeezed in...

The total area of London is 1,572 sq km (607 sq m) with a population density of 5,491 people per sq km.

9. Hatched and dispatched

According to GLA figures there were 131,011 births in 2013 - that's 359 babies born each day.

And during 2013, some 48,078 Londoners died - equivalent to 132 people passing away each day.


Seven big myths about top-performing school systems


Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says she wants England to get into the top five of the international Pisa tests for English and maths by 2020.

The man in charge of the Pisa tests, Andreas Schleicher, says the evidence from around the world reveals some big myths about what makes for a successful education system.

1. Disadvantaged pupils are doomed to do badly in school

Teachers all around the world struggle with how to make up for social disadvantage in their classrooms. Some believe that deprivation is destiny.

And yet, results from Pisa tests show that the 10% most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai have better maths skills than the 10% most privileged students in the United States and several European countries.

Children from similar social backgrounds can show very different performance levels, depending on the school they go to or the country they live in.

Education systems where disadvantaged students succeed are able to moderate social inequalities.

They tend to attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms and the most capable school leaders to the most disadvantaged schools, thus challenging all students with high standards and excellent teaching.

Some American critics of international educational comparisons argue that the value of these comparisons is limited because the United States has some unique socio-economic divisions.

But the United States is wealthier than most countries and spends more money on education than most of them, its parents have a higher level of education than in most countries, and the share of socio-economically disadvantaged students is just around the OECD average.

What the comparisons do show is that socio-economic disadvantage has a particularly strong impact on student performance in the United States.

In other words, in the United States two students from different socio-economic backgrounds vary much more in their learning outcomes than is typically the case in OECD countries.

2. Immigrants lower results

Integrating students with an immigrant background can be challenging.

And yet, results from Pisa tests show no relationship between the share of students with an immigrant background in a country and the overall performance of students in that country.

Even students with the same migration history and background show very different performance levels across countries, suggesting that where students go to schools makes much more of a difference than where they come from.

3. It's all about money

South Korea, the highest-performing OECD country in mathematics, spends well below the average per student.

The world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly-educated ones. Success in education systems is no longer about how much money is spent, but about how money is spent.

Countries need to invest in improving education and skills if they are going to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.

And yet, educational expenditure per student explains less than 20% of the variation in student performance across OECD countries.

For example, students in the Slovak Republic, which spends around $53,000 (£35,000) per student between the age of 6 and 15, perform on average at the same level at age 15 as the United States which spends over $115,000 (£76,000) per student.

4. Smaller class sizes raise standards

Everywhere, teachers, parents and policy-makers favour small classes as the key to better and more personalised education.

Reductions in class size have also been the main reason behind the significant increases in expenditure per student in most countries over the last decade.

And yet, Pisa results show no relationship between class size and learning outcomes, neither within nor across countries.

More interestingly, the highest performing education systems in Pisa tend to systematically prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes. Wherever they have to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, they go for the latter.

Rather than putting money into small classes, they invest in competitive teacher salaries, ongoing professional development and a balance in working time.

5. Comprehensive systems for fairness, academic selection for higher results

There is a conventional wisdom that sees a non-selective, comprehensive system as designed to promote fairness and equity, while a school system with academic selection is aimed at quality and excellence.

And yet, international comparisons show there is no incompatibility between the quality of learning and equity, the highest performing education systems combine both.

None of the countries with a high degree of stratification, whether in the form of tracking, streaming, or grade repetition is among the top performing education systems or among the systems with the highest share of top performers.

6. The digital world needs new subjects and a wider curriculum

Globalisation and technological change are having a major impact on what students need to know.

When we can access so much content on Google, where routine skills are being digitised or outsourced, and where jobs are changing rapidly, the focus is on enabling people to become lifelong learners, to manage complex ways of thinking and working.

In short, the modern world no longer rewards us just for what we know, but for what we can do with what we know.

Many countries are reflecting this by expanding school curriculums with new school subjects. The most recent trend, reinforced in the financial crisis, was to teach students financial skills.

But results from Pisa show no relationship between the extent of financial education and financial literacy. In fact, some of those education systems where students performed best in the Pisa assessment of financial literacy teach no financial literacy but invest their efforts squarely on developing deep mathematics skills.

More generally, in top performing education systems the curriculum is not mile-wide and inch-deep, but tends to be rigorous, with a few things taught well and in great depth.

7. Success is about being born talented

The writings of many educational psychologists have fostered the belief that student achievement is mainly a product of inherited intelligence, not hard work.

The findings from Pisa also show this mistaken belief, with a significant share of students in the western world reporting that they needed good luck rather than hard work to do well in mathematics or science. It's a characteristic that is consistently negatively related to performance.

Teachers may feel guilty pushing students who are perceived as less capable to achieve at higher levels, because they think it is unfair to the student.

Their goal is more likely to be enabling each student to achieve up to the average of students in their classrooms, rather than, as in Finland, Singapore or Shanghai-China, to achieve high universal standards.

A comparison between school marks and performance of students in Pisa also suggests that teachers often expect less of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. And those students and their parents may expect less too.

This is a heavy burden for education systems to bear, and it is unlikely that school systems will achieve performance parity with the best-performing countries until they accept that all children can achieve at very high levels.

In Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong, students, parents, teachers and the public at large tend to share the belief that all students are capable of achieving high standards.

Students in those systems consistently reported that if they tried hard, they would trust in their teachers to help them excel.

One of the most interesting patterns observed among some of the highest-performing countries was the gradual move away from a system in which students were streamed into different types of secondary schools.

Those countries did not accomplish this transition by taking the average and setting the new standards to that level. Instead, they "levelled up", requiring all students to meet the standards that they formerly expected only their elite students to meet.

In these education systems, universal high expectations are not a mantra but a reality.



Alibaba begins drone delivery trials in China


China's biggest internet retailer says it has begun testing drone-based deliveries to hundreds of customers.

It says the trial will last three days and be limited to areas within a one-hour flight of its distribution centres in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The company's blog adds that it believes the technology has the potential to speed up deliveries.

Amazon, Google and parcel service UPS are among other companies carrying out more private trials of such aircraft.

Alibaba is using its drones to deliver orders for a specific type of ginger tea, helping limit the maximum weight of the packages to 340g (12oz).

The Tech in Asia blog, which was one of the first to report the development, said the experiment was being undertaken by Alibaba's Taobao division - an eBay-like marketplace that connects third-party sellers and buyers - and would involve 450 shoppers.

"Even though it's very limited in scope, Taobao is delivering real goods to real people, which is a step further than its Western counterpart Amazon has gone," Tech in Asia's Paul Bischoff told the BBC.

"That said, which company will actually roll out a fully functioning drone-based delivery service remains to be seen and [such a deployment] is still a long way off."

In 2013, a much smaller Chinese company - the InCake bakery - began delivering cakes to customers in Shanghai using remote-controlled drones. However, the trade was quickly halted by a local aviation watchdog, for operating without a licence.

Restrictions on the use of drones in the US have led Google to carry out its own drone-based delivery tests in Australia.

Safety concerns

Alibaba's founder, Jack Ma, has said he aims to expand his company's operations across the globe in order to reach a target of having two billion customers by 2025.

In 2014, the company raised a record $25bn (£16.4bn) when it listed its shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

However, its ambitions were threatened last week by a high-profile spat with one of China's regulators, which alleged that Alibaba had not done enough to tackle the sale of counterfeit goods on Taobao, letting this "abscess fester until it became a danger".

Mr Ma later said that the regulator's actions were not supported by "certain government officials", and he indicated that the matter had been resolved.

The tests provide Taobao with a chance to generate more positive headlines.

But one expert said it would be wrong to dismiss them as a PR stunt, even if drone-based deliveries were still years away from becoming the norm.

"It's well established that drones can be flown autonomously above the tree-line - but below it, there are still a lot of issues," said Ravi Vaidyanathan, a robotics lecturer at Imperial College London.

"They will need to get around moving obstacles like children and pets when they come to land below the roof of your house. And the kind of co-ordination it would take to get airspace reserved for drone flights is also a big issue too.

"I don't think these problems are insurmountable, but the safety considerations must be addressed, and obstacle-free take-off and landing zones may need to be considered in the near term."

A video released by Alibaba indicates it will use quadcopter drones that fly far beyond the sightlines of their operators, travelling over roads, rivers and buildings before landing in open spaces close to apartment blocks.

However, the company has not provided technical details abut how it intends to achieve this.


  Who Owns the World?
 Who is a Migrant?
 Who Owns the Debt?
 Who's Dream?


Project HomeFarm
Garden Diary

Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2015