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Living under a tarp next to Facebook HQ: ‘I don’t want people to see me’

The sprawling Silicon Valley campus has cafes, bike repair services, even dry cleaning. But across the road a homeless community epitomizes the wealth gap

In a patch of scrubland across the road from the Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley, a woman named Celma Aguilar recently walked along some overgrown train tracks. She stopped where a path forked into some vegetation, just a few hundred yardsfrom the tourists taking photos by an enormous image of a Like icon at the campus entrance.

Welcome to the mansion, Aguilar said, gesturing to a rudimentary shelter of tarps hidden in the undergrowth.

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The campsite is one of about 10 that dot the boggy terrain, and are a striking sight alongsidethe brightly painted, low-slung buildings housing the multi-billion-dollar corporation. The contrast epitomizes the Bay Area wealth gap.

Harold Schapelhouman, a fire chief whose department has dealt with conflagrations on the land, said he was struck by the disparities. Their employees are very well taken care of. They have on-site medical facilities, dry cleaning, bicycle repair, they feed them and there are restaurants that are there. Its amazing what Facebook does for its employees. And yet within eyeshot it really isnt that far there are people literally living in the bushes.

Schapelhouman said he was not blaming Facebook, though it is true that the success of technology companies has driven up real estate prices in the area. As a whole, California is one of the lowest-ranking US states for the availability of affordable housing, and has one-fifth of Americas homeless population. Irrespective of the utopianism that imbues Silicon Valley culture, the tech campuses are not immune to these broader social problems.

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An aerial view of the Facebook campus on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. The land that the homeless encampments are on lies across the main road. Photograph: Noah Berger / Reuters/Reuters

Aguilar, 44, said she was aware of the Facebook HQ, though she wasnt quite sure what happened there as it always seemed so quiet. Can I get a job there? So I can get out from here.

The land where the encampments are located belongs largely to the state and private owners, and it takes 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Aguilar pointed out a pond, covered with scum, at which she said she sometimes washed. One campsite spills out from a huge clump of marshy greenery. Another is reached via a railway sleeper slung across a strip of water where a number of bike frames are submerged.

Salvadorian by birth, Aguilar said she once worked in nursing homes and at Burger King, and had four children. She said she had been homeless for about three years as a result of a crystal meth addiction, and thought she suffered from mental illness. Can you see how the trees move? she said as she sat on the rusted train tracks. I like to think theyre talking to me.

Friend requests and instant messages presumably zing back and forth on the other side of the street christened Hacker Way, but Aguilar said she had lost her Facebook password. No matter what I do they dont want to give it back to me.

A man named Rafael Barajas Ortiz, living in a lean-to amid mud and trash, said that, like Aguilar, he had no phone. Another resident opened the door of his shelter, which was blocked off by fencing made of woven branches, and said I dont use Facebook, before declining to be interviewed further.

Passing by on his bike, a local named Jesus said he did log on to the site, but he faced a problem familiar to many homeless people: he had nowhere to charge his phone. (He showed the Guardian his profile. The public pictures offered no hint he was on the streets.)

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A homeless encampment near Facebook headquarters. Photograph: Alastair Gee for the Guardian

Although it is not widely known, phone ownership and even social media usage are relatively common among homeless people, even if not those living next to Facebook. One Bay Area survey of around 250 homeless people found that 62% had phones. A study of homeless youth in Los Angeles indicated that more than three-quarters used social media.

Devices and service plans are readily available because the federal government offers subsidized cellular service to low-income Americans. It is known as the Obamaphone program both to its users and its rightwing critics, but in fact it originated as a landline subsidy during the Reagan era. The minimum standards specify 500 minutes per month of talk time or 500 megabytes of 3G data, and consumers can get a combination of them.

They use the phone for exactly the same reasons we use it, said Allan Baez, who launched a program that involved giving hundreds of free, Google-donated phones to homeless people. The cameras are particularly popular. They are individuals, they have kids, they have friends, they have good moments, and you take pictures.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the encampments, though he noted that the companys investments in local affordable housing include an $18.5m commitment announced late last year. Otherwise, the county provides an array of homeless services, and its homeless numbers have dipped a moderate amount, according to a 2015 count.

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The sign welcoming visitors to Facebooks campus. The company recently said it would invest $18.5m in local affordable housing. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Standing amid waving grass near a campsite, Gonzalo Apale, in a filthy jacket and work boots, described social media access as almost a marker of his progress in life. Ill try to get a telephone very soon, Ill use Facebook again, he said with optimism.

Still, he tries to avoid walking on the same side of the road as the Facebook campus because I dont want people to see me like this, he said. Because they are clean and everything.

Towards sunset, Aguilar took a path that spiraled up a small hill to a clearing littered with detritus.

Im going to make my house here, she explained, gesturing at a partially unfurled tent. The Facebook campus was visible through the tops of the bushes. Preferably, she said, it would not be.

The trees will grow and no one will see me.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/31/facebook-campus-homeless-tent-city-menlo-park-california


Draft of first Trump budget would cut legal aid for millions of poor Americans

Draft proposes elimination of Legal Services Corporation, which provides free legal assistance to low-income people, victims of domestic violence and others

Cuts in Donald Trumps first draft budget to funding for legal aid for millions of Americans could strip much-needed protections from victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities, families facing foreclosure and veterans in need, justice equality advocates warned Tuesday.

A Trump draft budget circulated over the weekend called for the elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which has a $375m annual budget and provides free legal assistance to low-income people and others in need of help, with cases involving disability benefits, disaster relief, elder abuse, fair pay, wheelchair access, low-income tax credits, unlawful eviction, child support, consumer scams, school lunch, predatory lending and much more.

The legal aid program, which represents a miniscule portion of the governments projected $4tn budget, is one of many small but mighty programs flagged for elimination in Trumps draft budget. Others include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Americorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Critics of the cuts point out that they wont budge the deficit but would erode quality of life and threaten the most vulnerable.

The possible legal aid cuts would come at a time when potentially softer enforcement by the Trump administration of laws to punish domestic violence, protect Americans with disabilities and combat discriminatory housing practices could create a spike in demand, said Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who has written on the issue.

Weve already gotten an indication that theyre probably going to cut grants for domestic violence cases, VAWA-related grants, and thats one of the biggest categories that legal aid grantees use, Buckwalter-Poza said, referring to the Violence Against Women Act. This is a huge blow to women in particular, and thats devastating.

And whats so disturbing about the potential for the administration to eliminate LSC altogether is that at the same time, you have a Department of Justice thats probably not going to enforce the types of legislation on the governments side that supplements private action, like the Fair Housing Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act. And at the same time that theyre going to stop doing that, people are going to have fewer options for seeking out free legal assistance.

Linda Klein, president of the American Bar Association, the lawyers organization, said that the Legal Services Corporation assured access to justice for all, the very idea that propelled our nation to independence.

Our nations core values are reflected in the LSCs work in securing housing for veterans, freeing seniors from scams, serving rural areas when others wont, protecting battered women, helping disaster survivors back to their feet, and many others, Klein said in a statement. Thirty cost-benefit analyses all show that legal aid returns far more benefits than costs to communities across America.

The legal services corporation was created by a 1974 law, signed by Richard Nixon, acknowledging a need to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation. The corporation helped an estimated 1.8m people in 2013, 70% of them women living near or below the poverty line. But studies indicate that legal aid offices turn away about 50% of clients in need owing to a lack of resources.

Trumps proposed budget is not all or even mostly cuts. It emerged on Tuesday that the president had directed the Department of Homeland Security to hire 10,000 more customs and immigration agents. Trump has vowed to build a border wall costing billions and to ramp up military spending.

Trumps recently confirmed budget director, Mick Mulvaney, twice co-sponsored legislation as a member of Congress from South Carolina to abolish the Legal Services Corporation. Mulvaney told a home-state newspaper this week that he was about to become the most hated man in Washington.

Republicans going back to Ronald Reagan have opposed funding for the Legal Services Corporation and related funding, arguing in part that it was not the governments responsibility to cover legal costs. As a 1973 federal racial discrimination lawsuit against Donald Trump and his real estate company illustrated, however, legal proceedings can be crucial to protecting American freedoms and rights against unsavory actors.

These are obviously critical, livelihood-related, day-to-day issues for people who certainly cant afford a lawyer on their own, Buckwalter-Poza said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/21/trump-draft-budget-legal-aid-low-income


Foreign billionaires in London choosing to rent to avoid stamp duty

Number of lettings costing more than 3,000 a week increased by 28% in the last three months of 2016, research shows

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/feb/12/foreign-billionaires-london-choosing-rent-avoid-stamp-duty


‘The building creaks and sways’: life in a skyscraper

From Chicago to Dubai, Manchester to Melbourne, our cities are climbing above the clouds. Whats it like to live on the 64th floor?

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Manhattans avenues stretch north like tracks through a forest, eventually disappearing into Harlem. Below me, Central Park is laid out like a picnic blanket, its largest trees rendered shrub-like. To the south, the Empire State Building pierces the citys canopy of stone and iron, and the blue glass of the new World Trade Center glints beyond it. Between them, the Statue of Liberty is almost lost in the haze.

This is the view from the worlds highest home, as enjoyed virtually, using Google Earth. Because to enjoy it in person would require knowing the unnamed owner of the 800 sq m penthouse at 432 Park Avenue or buying it for more than the $88m (71m) it sold for last year.

But there are alternatives for those with a head for heights and the money to match. Next year, the 426m Park Avenue tower will lose its title to 111 West 57th Street, rising two blocks to the west. Meanwhile in India, the 442m Mumbai World One will push higher still, its Armani-designed penthouses on level 117 offering airliner views of the Arabian Sea.

Once, only offices reached so high. In 2000, there were 215 office towers worldwide above 200m high (the first, the Metropolitan Life Tower in New York, was completed in 1909), but only three residential towers that high. Today, there are 255 residential towers above that height, with a further 184 under construction. Mixed-use towers, with apartments as well as offices and hotels, include the Burj Khalifa, still the worlds tallest building, at 828m. The Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, due to be completed in 2020, will be the first to break 1,000m. Its highest apartments will be on the 156th floor.

What is life like up there? For decades, tower blocks typically comprised social or affordable housing in crowded cities or on new estates. Hundreds were built in the postwar social housing boom, in cities across Europe. But today the highest residential towers are overwhelmingly luxury developments, and many remain empty, weeks after selling. If skyscrapers broke ground as barometers of corporate hubris, increasingly they now stand for personal excess, applying gravity to the wealth divide.

Britain, traditionally a low-rise country, is part of the boom. Skyscraper clusters are casting shadows across London. In Manchester, the first 200m building outside the capital is due for completion next year. Even in Bristol, where St Mary Redcliffe church has been unrivalled in its heavenwards reach for more than six centuries, there are plans for a 22-storey residential tower that would come close.

Jason Gabel, an urban planner at the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which keeps a global skyscraper database, says advances in building technology partly explain the trend. Lifts can now travel at more than 40mph and climb for hundreds of metres, thanks to lightweight carbon fibre ropes. Sophisticated dampening systems at the tops of towers mean slender buildings can rise higher, on smaller urban plots, without toppling in a storm or swaying to the point of causing nausea.

For a growing number of city dwellers, day-to-day life can be a little different. The payoff for peace and endless views can be five-minute waits for the lift at rush hour and even sunburn. You could get tanned in winter if you sat right by the window: theres a bit of a greenhouse effect, the owner of a 64th-floor apartment above Chicago tells me. Vertigo can be another danger. At the top of a tower in east London, former taxi driver Sammy Dias rarely uses his balcony: I dont like heights, and if people go out and start messing about, I can get quite angry, he says from a safe distance inside.

I spoke to residents around the world, and many reported feeling uplifted by their elevated perspective, but there are hidden downsides: a Canadian study of heart attack victims showed survival rates dropped markedly on higher floors, because they were harder for paramedics to reach.

Skyscraping homes have always held an allure; a house with a view, a life in the sky. They frequently evoke dystopian imagery; Ern Goldfingers troubled Trellick Tower in west London, completed in 1972, is thought to have inspired JG Ballards dark thriller High-Rise. It was originally entirely owned by the Greater London Council, and rented out as council flats. Now social tenants of the Grade II*-listed building, and its sister, Balfron Tower in east London, are being displaced by upwards gentrification. Less desirable council towers are reaching the end of their habitable lives, facing decay, demolition or expensive repair.

Meanwhile, the upper floors of many new luxury skyscrapers serve as foreign cash stores: giant briefcases with views. The highest homes in Britain are the 10 luxury apartments between floors 53 and 65 of the Shard. They are among the most opulent in London, yet almost five years after their completion, none is occupied or even for sale or rent. The reason remains a mystery.

Stacking people on shelves is a very efficient method of human isolation, says Jan Gehl, a veteran Danish architect and renowned urban design consultant. A critic of residential towers even where they are fully occupied, Gehl likens them to gated mansions in the sky. Humans, he says, did not evolve to look up or down: We have seen, in the past 20 years, a withdrawal from society into the private sphere, and towers are an easy way to achieve that.

Is this the experience of those who live above our rising cities? Finding out isnt easy; even when or if they are home, residents of the most rarefied apartments in the world are hard to identify, much less reach. But all human life is there, way up on the 64th floor.

Mike Palumbo, 50, trader; Water Tower Place, Chicago

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Mike and Veronica Palumbo on the 64th floor of Water Tower Place, Chicago: Oprah used to live a few floors down. Photograph: Alyssa Schukar for the Guardian

Chicago born and raised, Mike Palumbo is a Bulls fan who grew up on the edge of the city, the son of a truck parts salesman. From a corner near his house, he would gaze at the John Hancock tower, the matt-black, tapering monolith near the lakeshore, and dream big. When I hit 13, I went to high school downtown, Palumbo says. I would take the L train to within a block of the John Hancock. Back then, there was this guy called Spiderman whod climb up it with suction cups. I loved it. Id walk around and I was like, man, Id rather be in the city where all the action is. This is me.

Palumbo became a fund manager and in 2007 made $100m. For 18 years, he has lived in an eight-bedroom apartment on the 64th floor of Water Tower Place, an exclusive residence right across the street from his favourite skyscraper. Oprah Winfrey used to live a few floors down, Palumbo says as we look out, and down, on a forest of skyscrapers. David Axelrod, President Obamas chief strategist, remains a neighbour and chairs the pets committee on the buildings management board. Im a dog lover, but there are people who dont want them in the building, says Palumbo, who also sits on the board. You try to get along, but youve got a lot of very successful people arguing over minuscule things.

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The Palumbos view of Chicagos John Hancock Center. Photograph: Alyssa Schukar for the Guardian

Half of Palumbos apartment is a man cave, with cigars in a jar on a bar next to a pool table. The other half is crammed with the accessories of parenthood: Palumbo and his second wife, Veronica, had twins last year, and their nanny lives with them. They add five minutes to any journey to allow time to get everything into the elevator. He has four grown-up children from his first marriage, who often visit.

As a young trader, Palumbo got job offers from Wall Street, but never wanted to leave Chicago. I just love this view, he says. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is open the blinds and let the sun come in. It doesnt get any better. Yet he is also scared of heights. Im OK with the windows, but if this was a ledge, Id be freaking out right now. He opens the window and a gust of wind slaps our faces. A spiders web somehow still clings to the frame. I never understand how these guys get all the way up here, he says.

Below us, I count more than a dozen rooftop swimming pools. The 423m Trump Tower dominates the skyline to the south. Later, a cleaning cradle winds past and the men with rags avoid looking through the glass. I would not want that job, Palumbo says.

Ian Simpson, 61, architect; Beetham Tower, Manchester

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We want to intensify the city, not spread it out, says Ian Simpson, at his home on the 47th floor of the Manchester skyscraper he designed. Photograph: Fabio de Paola for the Guardian

Ian Simpson is from a family of demolition experts and grew up in a poor northern suburb of Manchester. I spent my youth climbing up mill chimneys and blowing them up, he says. But, somewhere along the way, I went from knocking things down to putting them back up again.

Simpson became one of Britains leading architects and has been instrumental in Manchesters regeneration, not least since an IRA bomb destroyed large parts of the city centre in 1996. He now occupies a unique position at the top of his own skyscraper, a steel-and-glass eyrie from which he surveys a city he has helped shape. At 47 floors, Beetham Tower cuts a lonely, slender figure above south Manchester, the tallest building in Britain outside London. Nobody thought it was going to stand alone, Simpson says in his vast, two-storey penthouse, which includes what may be Manchesters only olive grove. Other tall buildings had consent, but then we hit the recession.

For 10 years, Simpson and his partner have enjoyed uninterrupted views. The light here is spectacular, he says. It animates the space as it moves around; I find it very uplifting. Its like a little oasis right in the city. But the architect is happy that Manchester is on the rise again. There are plans for almost a dozen new towers above 30 storeys, chief among them the Owen Street development. Designed by Simpsons practice, which he leads with architect Rachel Haugh, it will include a 200m tower of 49 floors, a new high for the city.

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Simpsons view of Manchester. Photograph: Fabio de Paolo for the Guardian

This is what Manchester needs, Simpson says. Historically, nobody lived in the city centre. If you had money, you lived in the leafy suburbs to the south; if you didnt, you lived to the north like me. Thats changing, and we need to have a critical mass to create the jobs and demand for everything else, whether its bars and restaurants or infrastructure.

I have a lovely painting in my office down there of the city in the 18th century. It was a city of towers but they were mill chimneys. When that changed, there were gaps, which generally became car parks. We want to fill those gaps and intensify the city, not spread it out. Like those chimneys, Simpson says, tall buildings provide not only a function, but also an image of confidence.

We move from the living area into the olive grove, which occupies a sort of penthouse conservatory, facing south. Thirty miles to the west, Liverpool is visible on a clear day. The trees, more than 30 of them, were shipped from Italy and lowered through the roof before the buildings crane came down. They love it up here, Simpson says. But theres no pollination: we dont get any bees this high, so there are no olives.

Farimah Moeini, 35, media sales manager; Ocean Heights, Dubai

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Its a bubble: when I was 16, you heard Arabic music and saw local people, says Farimah Moeini of Dubai, where she lives on the 68th floor. Photograph: Siddharth Siva for the Guardian

As a teenager in Tehran, Farimah Moeini would often fly to Dubai with family and friends. She knew only the old town because that was all there was. Everything you can see here was sand, she says via video call from the Dubai apartment she shares with her British husband, Luke, and their baby, Liam. The Palm, Dubai Marina, all these towers: none of it existed. I remember going to the older malls. Wed have shawarmas and use fake IDs to try to get into bars and clubs. Then it started to grow and it hasnt stopped.

Moeini left Tehran, where her father owned a textiles factory, to go to college in the US. In 2009, she got a job with Yahoo and moved to Dubai at a time when rents were cheap following the global financial downturn. She met Luke, who works in real estate, the following year. They live in a one-bed apartment on the 68th floor of Ocean Heights, a residential block in the marina. Burj Khalifa, the worlds tallest building, looms 13 miles along the coast.

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Moeinis view of Dubai. Photograph: Siddharth Siva for the Guardian

You do feel as if youre in a bubble, Moeini says. Sometimes I pinch myself, because a lot of the lifestyle is not really real. Its all so clean and neat and safe. Theres a cultural bubble, too. When I was 16, you would hear Arabic music and see local people everywhere; it was more authentic. I also miss nature. In Iran, we have four seasons, and its beautiful when they change. Here, years go by and you dont know where you are.

But its a nice bubble. Its fun and easy to meet people from all around the world. Its a happy place. I also love being up here its insane how calm you feel. Just waking up every sunrise and staring out to sea is so soothing. If I sit on my sofa and look out, I can only see sea and sky. And they are real.

Sammy Dias, 77, retired taxi driver; Petticoat Tower, London

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I cant go out on the balcony. They call this one the haunted flat, says Sammy Dias of his home on the 21st floor of Londons Petticoat Tower. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

For more than 30 years, Sammy Dias has lived in Petticoat Tower, a 1970s council block owned by the City of London Corporation, and for most of them hes been on the 21st floor, two down from the roof. On a sunny January afternoon, he draws back the net curtain in his living room and looks east towards Stratford.

Look at that you see the Olympic Stadium there? he asks. The buildings zigzag roof supports come into view three miles away. Since the 2012 Games, it has become dwarfed by taller apartment buildings. Just look at the amount of flats that have gone up: its unbelievable. Its almost happened overnight.

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The Gherkin and 110 Bishopsgate flank Petticoat Tower. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Dias drove a black cab in and around the Square Mile for 45 years, until he retired five years ago. From street level and above, he has watched London rise. The Gherkin, just 200m away, casts a shadow over his building. 110 Bishopsgate, with its rooftop sushi restaurant and exposed lifts, rears up just two streets to the west.

Dias turns his gaze down over Aldgate, a hodgepodge of housing and mushrooming hotels, and Petticoat Lane market, where clothing has been sold for centuries. I worked down there when I was an 11-year-old, pulling barrows out, he says. Every stall sells the same thing now. You see that brown building there? Thats where I was born: number one Herbert House.

Dias didnt plan to live high up, and never uses his tiny balcony. He hates heights. Im OK sitting here, but I cant go out there. They call this the haunted flat theres been a suicide from that balcony.

His first flat here was on the 11th floor, but he and his wife, Phyllis, a jewellers bookkeeper, moved up in 1994, when a two-bed flat became available. Soon after, she developed Alzheimers disease; she died in 2001.

It took a while to get used to living here alone, but I have a good routine now, Dias says, sitting in one of the rooms two armchairs. Photos of the couple stand on an old dresser. Sometimes I wake up early and lie there and reminisce, or I might read the paper. Then I get up, have a wash and the radio goes on. I listen to Radio X with Chris Moyles. I cant stand him, but I love the music. Later, Ill go out and meet the little old boy on the estate with the frame. We go to the Bell, where I had my first drink aged 16. Ill have two pints of lager, then two maximum three gin and lemonades, come back up here, have my grub, get relaxed and go to bed.

Dias plans to live out the rest of his days here. My mind is all there. I went to school up until age 11, and I could still tell you everyone who was in my class. Its the genes; Ive got a 90-year-old sister and we have a conversation on the phone. April the first I was born, I was married April 1st and, the way I feel sometimes, Im gonna snuff it on April 1st. Ill do the treble.

A City of London housing officer recently came to discuss a move into a one-bed flat. Dias had suggested it himself, but declined when it became clear that it would mean leaving the building. I said, Ive got friends here! This is my area. Ive got everything and Im happy. Do you know what I call it? I call it my castle.

Traci Ann Wolfe, 40, actor; 8 Spruce Street, New York


The hidden history of Nasas black female scientists

The diversity of Nasas workforce in 1940s Virginia is uncovered in a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly. She recalls how a visit to her home town led to a revelation

Mrs Land worked as a computer out at Langley, my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of the First Baptist church in Hampton, Virginia. My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico.

They squired us around town in their 20-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbours wed bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a 66-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.

He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.

As a callow 18-year-old leaving for college, Id seen my home town as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the citys hold on my identity and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me. That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs Land, who had been one of my favourite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired Nasa mathematician, still lived on her own well into her 90s and never missed a Sunday at church.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/05/hidden-figures-black-female-scientists-african-americans-margot-lee-shetterly-space-race


Fight the power: documentaries to unleash the activist in you

Children in poverty, rape in the military, mass murderers at large Oscar-nominated director Lucy Walker picks 10 powerful documentaries to galvanise you into action

The documentaries praised on these pages are all ones that fired me up, galvanised me into action, but they should not be considered my top 10 favourites of all time because there is just too much work that has meant too much to me. There are films that have brought justice to individuals such as The Central Park Five (directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon) about five black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted of raping of a white woman jogging in New York in 1989.

In this category, I would also mention The Jinx (directed by Andrew Jarecki) about the real estate heir Robert Durst, accused of murder and the subject of a manhunt; and The Thin Blue Line (directed by Errol Morris) about a man sentenced to death for a crime he didnt commit. Then there are films that are such titans that it seems a waste of time to consider them again here. That list would be topped by Davis Guggenheims An Inconvenient Truth, about Al Gores mission to get the planet to wake up to global warming.

The Up series (1964-present)

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7 Up, Michael Apteds original 1964 documentary following a group of British children. Our most recent meeting with them was in 56 Up. Photograph: ITV

To care for your fellow creatures is to want them to be happy and prosper, to want to change what is causing them to suffer. To see director Michael Apteds series which has followed the lives of 14 British children since 1964, when they were seven is to be confronted by social inequality. You quickly realise the evil of imagining that life is played on a level field, and that individuals can be judged fairly, or at all.

Whats shocking is to see how much is already determined by the time someone has turned seven. A fairytale of social inequality, this ongoing series, so groundbreaking in format and ahead of its time in every way, offers the clearest look at contemporary Britain. To know the world, its joys and its sufferings, is to want to change it. And this series, like the best work in any medium, helps me to know the world.

The Gleaners & I (2000)

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Agns Vardas The Gleaners & I. Photograph: Zeitgeist/Alamy

This might not quite fit the galvanising notion, but Agns Vardas film is no less vital a work. And, personally, I respond more to being gently inspired than harangued. My activism comes from my love for the world: I am a film-maker not an activist. I trust the audience and want to respect them by giving them the space to create their own meaning, their own responses.

Varda travels the French countryside, as well as the city, to find and film various groups of gleaners as they hunt for food, knicknacks, and discarded items. Her film has me thinking, looking, experiencing gleaning, in fact. Varda notes that her work is another kind of gleaning, which is artistic gleaning. You pick ideas, you pick images, you pick emotions from other people, and then you make it into a film.

What I gleaned from this film helped me make my film Waste Land. Released in 2010, it focused on the lives of Rio de Janeiros rubbish-dump dwellers and inspired practical change throughout Brazil, as well as individual behaviour. When I think of what might flash before me on my deathbed, I hope it will be the impact of my film.

The Invisible War (2012) and The Hunting Ground (2015)

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The personal possessions of one servicewoman featured in The Invisible War. Photograph: Cinedigm/Docurama Films

These films by the formidable team of director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering dont just tell riveting stories they break those stories and follow them up, creating a massive impact and bringing positive change. The investigative reporting is as strong as the film-making, fearless and commanding.

The Invisible War lifted the lid on sexual assault in the US military. It featured interviews with veterans recounting their assaults and identified common themes, such as the lack of an impartial justice system and reprisals against survivors. The documentary has been praised for its influence on government policies aimed at reducing rape in the armed forces.

The Hunting Ground followed that up by transforming our understanding of sexual assault on college campuses by arguing that educational institutions are failing to deal with it adequately. Lady Gaga co-wrote the song Til It Happens to You for the film. It was nominated for an Oscar and she performed it at the 2016 Academy Awards, notably introduced by vice-president Joe Biden in a rare political moment for the event. With her on stage, survivors of sexual assault revealed parts of their bodies with things like Not your fault written on them. It may not have won a gold statue but, for most viewers, it won the Oscars outright for its emotional power.

The Farm: Angola, USA (1998)

Prisoners
Prisoners head out on farm labour duty at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Photograph: Bill Haber/AP

Everything you need to know about human justice is here in this film, directed by Liz Garbus, Jonathan Stack and Wilbert Rideau. Set in Americas infamous maximum security prison in Angola, Louisiana, the film follows the lives of six inmates who tell their own stories of life, death and survival in a place few will ever leave. It still makes me cry not because of the cruelty of the legal system and its representatives, but because of the breathtaking grace of the so-called felons.

The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014)

Lack
Lack of remorse The Act of Killing.

The first of Joshua Oppenheimers documentaries looks at the individuals who took part in the Indonesian mass killings of 196566. When Suharto overthrew Sukarno, the president of Indonesia, gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry took control of a powerful death squad and targeted communists. Anwar, who is said to have personally killed 1,000 people, recounts and re-enacts his killings for the cameras. What makes the film extraordinary is the lack of remorse, even the glee, as they put on costumes and cackle to recreate the crimes even as compatriots recall tortured relatives.

The Look of Silence, meanwhile, focuses on the story of one man whose brother was murdered and who confronts his killers. Again, none expresses sadness, though the daughter of one is evidently highly moved. Its with the second film that these works resolve and achieve masterpiece status in my mind.

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Michael
Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Ideally, I would actually include everything Michael Moore has ever done, up to and including 2015s Where to Invade Next, a sort of travelogue full of lovely inspirational stories about countries where things get done right. But Bowling for Columbine, about the 1999 high-school massacre, was Moores big breakthrough. Sometimes we need these bright lights on a dark night. We gather together and remember. Good things can be accomplished, lessons can be learned.

13th and I Am Not Your Negro (both 2016)

Two astounding new documentaries. The title of the first, by Ava DuVernay, refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution, which outlaws slavery in the US. The film progresses from that to the horrors of mass criminalisation and the prison industry.

The second, by Raoul Peck, is narrated by Samuel L Jackson and is based on an unfinished work by James Baldwin about civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

These documentaries demand to be seen now. I dont even want to delay you by listing any more. Just stop reading and track them down right now. This is your call to action. Go!

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/02/documentaries-to-unleash-the-activist-in-you-lucy-walker


Fight the power: documentaries to unleash the activist in you

Children in poverty, rape in the military, mass murderers at large Oscar-nominated director Lucy Walker picks 10 powerful documentaries to galvanise you into action

The documentaries praised on these pages are all ones that fired me up, galvanised me into action, but they should not be considered my top 10 favourites of all time because there is just too much work that has meant too much to me. There are films that have brought justice to individuals such as The Central Park Five (directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon) about five black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted of raping of a white woman jogging in New York in 1989.

In this category, I would also mention The Jinx (directed by Andrew Jarecki) about the real estate heir Robert Durst, accused of murder and the subject of a manhunt; and The Thin Blue Line (directed by Errol Morris) about a man sentenced to death for a crime he didnt commit. Then there are films that are such titans that it seems a waste of time to consider them again here. That list would be topped by Davis Guggenheims An Inconvenient Truth, about Al Gores mission to get the planet to wake up to global warming.

The Up series (1964-present)

7
7 Up, Michael Apteds original 1964 documentary following a group of British children. Our most recent meeting with them was in 56 Up. Photograph: ITV

To care for your fellow creatures is to want them to be happy and prosper, to want to change what is causing them to suffer. To see director Michael Apteds series which has followed the lives of 14 British children since 1964, when they were seven is to be confronted by social inequality. You quickly realise the evil of imagining that life is played on a level field, and that individuals can be judged fairly, or at all.

Whats shocking is to see how much is already determined by the time someone has turned seven. A fairytale of social inequality, this ongoing series, so groundbreaking in format and ahead of its time in every way, offers the clearest look at contemporary Britain. To know the world, its joys and its sufferings, is to want to change it. And this series, like the best work in any medium, helps me to know the world.

The Gleaners & I (2000)

Agnes
Agns Vardas The Gleaners & I. Photograph: Zeitgeist/Alamy

This might not quite fit the galvanising notion, but Agns Vardas film is no less vital a work. And, personally, I respond more to being gently inspired than harangued. My activism comes from my love for the world: I am a film-maker not an activist. I trust the audience and want to respect them by giving them the space to create their own meaning, their own responses.

Varda travels the French countryside, as well as the city, to find and film various groups of gleaners as they hunt for food, knicknacks, and discarded items. Her film has me thinking, looking, experiencing gleaning, in fact. Varda notes that her work is another kind of gleaning, which is artistic gleaning. You pick ideas, you pick images, you pick emotions from other people, and then you make it into a film.

What I gleaned from this film helped me make my film Waste Land. Released in 2010, it focused on the lives of Rio de Janeiros rubbish-dump dwellers and inspired practical change throughout Brazil, as well as individual behaviour. When I think of what might flash before me on my deathbed, I hope it will be the impact of my film.

The Invisible War (2012) and The Hunting Ground (2015)

The
The personal possessions of one servicewoman featured in The Invisible War. Photograph: Cinedigm/Docurama Films

These films by the formidable team of director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering dont just tell riveting stories they break those stories and follow them up, creating a massive impact and bringing positive change. The investigative reporting is as strong as the film-making, fearless and commanding.

The Invisible War lifted the lid on sexual assault in the US military. It featured interviews with veterans recounting their assaults and identified common themes, such as the lack of an impartial justice system and reprisals against survivors. The documentary has been praised for its influence on government policies aimed at reducing rape in the armed forces.

The Hunting Ground followed that up by transforming our understanding of sexual assault on college campuses by arguing that educational institutions are failing to deal with it adequately. Lady Gaga co-wrote the song Til It Happens to You for the film. It was nominated for an Oscar and she performed it at the 2016 Academy Awards, notably introduced by vice-president Joe Biden in a rare political moment for the event. With her on stage, survivors of sexual assault revealed parts of their bodies with things like Not your fault written on them. It may not have won a gold statue but, for most viewers, it won the Oscars outright for its emotional power.

The Farm: Angola, USA (1998)

Prisoners
Prisoners head out on farm labour duty at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Photograph: Bill Haber/AP

Everything you need to know about human justice is here in this film, directed by Liz Garbus, Jonathan Stack and Wilbert Rideau. Set in Americas infamous maximum security prison in Angola, Louisiana, the film follows the lives of six inmates who tell their own stories of life, death and survival in a place few will ever leave. It still makes me cry not because of the cruelty of the legal system and its representatives, but because of the breathtaking grace of the so-called felons.

The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014)

Lack
Lack of remorse The Act of Killing.

The first of Joshua Oppenheimers documentaries looks at the individuals who took part in the Indonesian mass killings of 196566. When Suharto overthrew Sukarno, the president of Indonesia, gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry took control of a powerful death squad and targeted communists. Anwar, who is said to have personally killed 1,000 people, recounts and re-enacts his killings for the cameras. What makes the film extraordinary is the lack of remorse, even the glee, as they put on costumes and cackle to recreate the crimes even as compatriots recall tortured relatives.

The Look of Silence, meanwhile, focuses on the story of one man whose brother was murdered and who confronts his killers. Again, none expresses sadness, though the daughter of one is evidently highly moved. Its with the second film that these works resolve and achieve masterpiece status in my mind.

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Michael
Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Ideally, I would actually include everything Michael Moore has ever done, up to and including 2015s Where to Invade Next, a sort of travelogue full of lovely inspirational stories about countries where things get done right. But Bowling for Columbine, about the 1999 high-school massacre, was Moores big breakthrough. Sometimes we need these bright lights on a dark night. We gather together and remember. Good things can be accomplished, lessons can be learned.

13th and I Am Not Your Negro (both 2016)

Two astounding new documentaries. The title of the first, by Ava DuVernay, refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution, which outlaws slavery in the US. The film progresses from that to the horrors of mass criminalisation and the prison industry.

The second, by Raoul Peck, is narrated by Samuel L Jackson and is based on an unfinished work by James Baldwin about civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

These documentaries demand to be seen now. I dont even want to delay you by listing any more. Just stop reading and track them down right now. This is your call to action. Go!

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/02/documentaries-to-unleash-the-activist-in-you-lucy-walker


‘Learn English’: LA landlords allegedly harassed Latinos to get richer tenants

Exclusive: lawsuit paints disturbing picture of company that targeted Latinos, low-income tenants and those with mental disabilities in illegal eviction scheme

The Latino families all got the same threat posted on their doors: if their children played in the apartments hallways, they would be evicted. When the Spanish-speaking parents asked the Los Angeles property managers for help reading the notices, they were told: Learn English.

According to a federal discrimination lawsuit filed Thursday against a major California real estate investment firm, when four mothers inquired about the notices, management threatened to call immigration, social services and the police.

I was in shock, said Carmen Castro, one of the mothers. That really created a fear in us.

The complaint against Optimus Properties paints a disturbing picture of a company that has targeted and harassed Latino residents, low-income tenants and renters with mental disabilities as part of an illegal eviction scheme to replace them with wealthier, younger people.

Civil rights advocates said the suit, filed on behalf of 15 tenants and advocacy group Strategic Alliance for a Just Economy, provides a window into the tactics of profit-driven real estate investors who are aggressively purchasing and flipping older buildings, accelerating gentrification, displacement and income inequality in cities across the US.

Hilda
Hilda Deras, 76, has received baseless eviction notices and faced harassment from her landlords, according to the federal lawsuit. Photograph: Joshua Busch

The allegations come at a time of increased anxiety for Latino families and immigrants tied to the surprise victory of Donald Trump. The president-elect has called Mexicans rapists, has threatened to deport millions and in the 1970s was accused of discriminating against African Americans at his real estate properties.

The lawsuit, filed by the not-for-profit groups Public Counsel and Public Advocates, covers five buildings with a total of 150 units in Koreatown, a gentrifying neighborhood that has historically been affordable to working-class people, with a high concentration of Asian American and Latino families.

The complaint alleged that Jerome Mickelson, Optimus director of construction and multifamily asset manager, along with a number of his affiliated real estate companies, have systematically targeted tenants protected by rent control.

For this population, new landlords are barred from raising rents beyond small annual increases and cannot evict them if they continue to pay rent, but the laws havent stopped Mickelson, according to the complaint.

In an email to the Guardian, Mickelson strongly denied the allegations. We take these allegations very seriously and categorically deny each and every such allegation, he said. He added that the lawsuit was filed without proper analysis and investigation and that the companies look forward to working with the Plaintiff to educate them about the real facts and if need be, to exonerate ourselves at trial.

Residents are treated with respect at all stages of their tenancy, he added.

However, according to the complaint, property managers in the buildings allegedly filed a series of illegal eviction notices and have created a hostile and threatening environment for tenants.

The landlords in one building allegedly told tenants that the new managers dont want to rent to people with mental disabilities, that they should move, and that they belong in group homes, the suit said.

Landlords have additionally told Latino tenants that their food smells disgusting and foul and that the tenants need to learn to read English since they are in America, according to court records.

Tenants
Tenants targeted for eviction have struggled to get management to address infestations of rodents, roaches and bedbugs, broken heaters and bathtubs, plumbing problems, leaks, peeling drywall, mold and other maintenance problems, according to the complaint. Photograph: Joshua Busch

Utilizing a practice that activists say is common for real estate investors who flip buildings, Optimus has also allegedly allowed for uninhabitable living conditions in the apartments with rent control while providing freshly renovated units in good and sanitary condition to new tenants who are English-speaking.

Tenants targeted for eviction have struggled to get management to address infestations of rodents, roaches and bedbugs, broken heaters and bathtubs, plumbing problems, leaks, peeling drywall, mold and other maintenance problems, according to the complaint.

Optimus has advertised a Koreatown strategy in its marketing materials, explicitly stating that it is focused on value creation by investing in old buildings and renovating units as they become vacant.

Deepika Sharma, attorney with Public Counsel, said these kinds of campaigns against tenants are not unique.

It is wide-scale, she said, adding that tenants fears of racial discrimination have escalated since Trumps victory. Even before this election, our clients experienced this racism that threatened their ability to live in their homes.

Arthur
Arthur Rivera, a 67-year-old tenant with a disability, has received numerous unlawful eviction notices, the lawsuit alleged. Photograph: Joshua Busch

Demetrius Allen, a 45-year-old African American tenant who has a mental disability, was chronically homeless before he moved in to the Koreatown building in 2012. He has received more than a dozen eviction notices since Optimus purchased the property all of which were illegal, according to the complaint.

Im completely overwhelmed, he said. Every day of the week its always something.

An on-site manager allegedly told Allen that the landlords planned to rid the building of persons with mental disabilities, the suit said.

When he first moved in, he said, It was a sanctuary. But he said the nonstop threats from management and the fear that he may be homeless again have taken a severe toll on his mental health.

Its really destroyed my peace of mind. Youre always angry or paranoid. You never know whats going to happen next.

Castro, 31, whose sons are ages five and 11, said that she doesnt know how her family could find another affordable place if her landlord successfully pushes her out. We would end up homeless, out on the streets.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/18/latino-evictions-california-housing-discrimination


Qatar wins approval to turn US embassy in London into hotel

Westminster council accepts plan to build 137-room hotel in Grade II-listed building in Grosvenor Square

The Qatari royal familys property company has won approval to turn the US embassy in London into a luxury hotel.

Westminster council agreed Qatari Diar Real Estates plan for the Grade II-listed building in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, on Tuesday. The nine floors, three of which are underground, will include up to 137 hotel rooms, shops, restaurants and bars.

The US state department agreed to sell the building to Qatari Diar in 2009 to fund a new embassy in the Nine Elms regeneration project south of the Thames. Estimates put the Grosvenor Square sites value at 500m before it was made a listed building, which would have reduced the value because of restrictions on development.

Qatari Diar, part of the Qatari Investment Authority, has snapped up several high-profile London properties including the former Chelsea barracks, the former Olympic athletes village and most of Canary Wharf. Qatari investment interests also own Harrods and substantial stakes in Heathrow airport, Sainsburys, Barclays Bank and IAG, the parent company of British Airways.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/nov/16/qatar-wins-approval-to-turn-american-embassy-into-luxury-hotel


Fitbitters of the world, unite! How the Soviets invented fitness tracking

Health and fitness monitoring devices promise a future of good health and pre-emptive diagnosis. Not to mention reduced (for some) insurance premiums. So what connects our new obsession with personal productivity with the dogma of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin?

At this years Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, I happened upon a robot made of hacked and 3D-printed surgical components that can perform DIY keyhole surgery. Its builder, the Dutch artist Frank Kolman, was inspired by YouTube videos in which impoverished hackers and makers, largely without insurance, share medical tips and tricks. No money for bridgework? Try Sugru moldable glue.

A revolution is afoot in medicine. And like all revolutions, it is composed of equal parts inspirational advance and jaw-dropping social catastrophe. On the plus side, there are the health and fitness promises inherent in the artefacts of a personal health surveillance industry all those Jawbones and Fitbits and Scanadu Scouts, iPhones and Apple Watches that promises to top $50bn in annual sales by 2018. The devices arent particularly accurate (yet), and more than half of them end up at the bottom of a drawer after six months. Still, DIY devices are already spotting medical problems before their users do, raising the likelihood of a future in which illness and medical conditions are treated long before the patient gets sick.

On the minus side, there is Kolkmans terrifyingly practical robot, and its promise of a future in which DIY medicine is the only medicine the ordinary individual can afford. The sunny west coast self-reliant rhetoric of the making and hacking and quantified self movements disguise the disturbing assumption that they can be a substitute for civic life.

We have been here before. Not much more than a century ago the Russian empire was a ramshackle agglomeration of colonies, held together by military force and hooch. There were no institutions for reformers to reform: no councils, no unions, no guilds, no professional bodies, few schools, few hospitals worth the name; in many places, no roads.

The
The Fitbit. Photograph: Fitbit

The responsibility for improvement and reform inevitably fell on the individual. Utopia was a personal quest in Nikolay Chernyshevskys novel What Is to Be Done? according to Lenin, the greatest and most talented representation of socialism before Marx. Even more hysterical, Tolstoys The Kreutzer Sonata prefers the prospect of human annihilation to its current unreformed (read: lustful) condition. Outside the library and drawing room, pre-revolutionary Russia floundered in a sea of cults, from machinism and robotism to primitive reticence, antiverbalism, nudism, social militarism, revolutionary sublimation, suicidalism One outfit called itself the Nothing, its members neither writing, reading or speaking.

Into this stew came the railways and the clock and all of a sudden self-regulation became easy and practical. In Leningrad in 1923, a theatre critic, Platon Kerzhentsev, founded the League of Time, in order to promote time-efficiency. Eight hundred time cells were set up in the army, factories, government departments and schools. The Timists carried chronocards in order to monitor time-wasting, wasted motion and lengthy speeches. Without watches, they tried to guess the passage of minutes and hours, and were awarded medals for spontaneous time discipline. They kept meticulous diaries of their every daily action. Lenin had the leagues personal productivity posters pasted up on the wall behind his desk.

Man will finally begin to really harmonise himself, Leon Trotsky prophesied in 1922: He will put forward the task to introduce into the movement of his own organs during work, walk, play the highest precision, expediency, economy, and thus beauty.

The poet Alexei Gastev whose forbidding toothbrush-moustache and crew cut concealed a lot of mischief took Trotsky at his word. He built a social-engineering machine. This giant structure of pulleys, cogs and weights was a thing of no fathomable use whatsoever, yet Gastev insisted that a few hours workout would turn you into a new kind of human being. He rolled these machines out across the young Soviet Union, as a sort of mascot for his Central Insitute of Labour which, with Lenins personal backing, taught peasant workers how to behave in modern factories. A class at the Central Institute of Labour was a sort of drill practice: pupils stood before their benches in set positions, with places marked out for their feet. They rehearsed separate elements of each task, then combined them in a finished performance. (Judging by the sheer popularity of the classes, and the speed of the institutes expansion, the classes must have been quite enjoyable.)

Bernsteins
Bernsteins kymocyclograph. Photograph: HANDOUT

Joining Gastev at the beginning of his career was the young Nikolai Bernstein, whose childhood spent assembling radios and building models of steam engines and bridges, set him in good stead when it came to mechanically registering the movements of the human body. He developed a high-speed camera called the kymocyclograph. The shutter, a round plate with holes in it, rotated before the camera lens, so that the photographic plate would record multiple images, each exposed a fraction of a second after its neighbour. (Motion-capture cinema, VR and all the other technologies that keep Gollum actor Andy Serkis on the talkshow circuit begin here.)

By the end of these studies, Bernstein had good evidence that motion could not be a simple matter of Pavlovian reflexes. His more nuanced model of motor responses amounted to a fully fledged theory of cybernetics, decades before Norbert Wiener coined the term in 1948.

The early Soviet Union gathered unprecedented amounts of data on human motion, fitness, behaviour and genetics, making it a world leader in the field. A new kind of human being healthy, fit, psychologically integrated and free of heritable disease seemed, for a few heady days in the 1920s, an achievable aspiration.

Then, in 1927, a miner called Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov went to work in a mine. He was no superman, but he was energetic and intelligent, and he could see ways of organising his work crew to increase the amount of coal they were able to dig in a single shift. On 31 August 1935, it was reported that he had mined a record 102 tonnes of coal in four hours and 45 minutes 14 times his quota. Barely three weeks later, on 19 September, Stakhanov and his crew more than doubled this record.

Alexey
Alexey Stakhanov explains his system to a fellow miner, 1936. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Others rushed to follow Stakhanovs example, and newspapers and newsreels across the Soviet Union celebrated their efforts. In Gorky, a worker in a car factory forged nearly 1,000 crankshafts in a single shift. A shoemaker in Leningrad turned out 1,400 pairs of shoes in a day. On a collective farm, three female Stakhanovites proved they could cut sugar beet faster than was thought humanly possible. Such workers were awarded higher pay, better food, access to luxury goods and improved accommodation. Stakhanovism soon became a mass movement. In factories and even in scientific institutes, wrote the American psychologist Richard Schultz, the workers names may be posted on a bulletin board opposite a bird, deer, rabbit, tortoise or snail relative to the speed with which they turn out their work. A great deal of prestige is attached to the shock brigade worker.

For as long as human beings labour for others, their lot will improve only so far as their productivity rises. Investment beyond this point makes no sense. The Soviet Union of the 1920s was an impoverished state dotted with institutes of labour, health and maternity clinics, mental health services, housing offices and countless censuses. Coming to power at the end of the decade, Joseph Stalin replaced all this social engineering with, well, engineering. Magnitostroi, which is still the largest steelworks in the world, housed its workers in tents downwind of the chimneys. The construction of the White Sea Canal cost 12,000 lives around a 10th of the workforce.

Drunk as we are on the illusion of personal control, we should remember that data trickles uphill toward the powerful, because they are the ones who can afford to exploit it. Today, for every worried-yet-well twentysomething fiddling with his Fitbit, there is a worker being cajoled by their employer into taking a medical test. The tests are aggregated and anonymised, and besides, the company is giving the worker a cut of the insurance savings the test will make. So wheres the harm?

Joseph
Joseph Stalin: imagine how he could have exploited your Fitbit data Photograph: Hulton Getty

Well, for a start, anonymising data is incredibly hard to do. The bigger the datapool, the easier it is to triangulate data sets and home in on an individual. And while people can get thrown in jail for this sort of thing, algorithms are a lot harder to police. Has the computer said no to your mortgage application? Well, sorry, but there may simply be no human to blame: the machine has figured things out on its own.

An even bigger worry is the way that, in our smartphone-enabled and meta-data-enriched world, complete knowledge of human affairs is becoming increasingly possible, making redundant the entire gamble of insurance. At that point the scope for individual self-determination shrinks to zero and we are living in the world of Andrew Niccols excellent 1997 film Gattaca.

Unregulated wellness programmes are begging to be used as tools of surveillance, and thats not because anybodys actually doing anything wrong. Its because we have taken control of our own data, while at the same time forgetting that data ultimtely belongs to whoever can make the most use of it.

And it need not even be a problem, unless the class in power decide to replace social engineering with, well, engineering, health services with making and hacking, and civic societies with a desert, littered with the grinning skulls of people who aspired to west-coast radical self-reliance and failed.

Stalin and the Scientists by Simon Ings, is published by Faber & Faber (20).

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/02/personal-health-surveillance-medical-revolution-or-stalinist-nightmare


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