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thoughts on the charlie hebdo murders

The killing of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo is a watershed moment for me. Until now I had tended to believe that in the current of flare up of tensions between Islam and the West the important thing was to avoid fanning the flames of an already volatile situation.


Islam, I told myself, had emerged in societies where the tradition of anti-authoritarian rhetoric that we rightly pride ourselves for in the West had never had chance to flourish.

Insulting Islam, therefore, was not the same as insulting Christianity which has had to accept (albeit very reluctantly) attacks on its dogma, hypocrisies and abuses as a part of life so long as it wants to continue to play a role in the modern secular West.

You had to be extra sensitive. You had to treat Islam the way you might treat an elderly relative, toning down your language in their presence, accepting there were certain modern ideas they might find unpalatable.

On top of this I didn’t want to be associated with all those right-wing reactionaries with their scare-mongering about Islamofacism and their claptrap about Europe being turned into a caliphate.

But then Charlie Hebdo happened and I realised I had it wrong.

I realised that I had taken for granted something very essential about my life in the secular West that the cartoonists and writers who died in the hail of bullets this week had not.

Namely, that the value of freedom of expression that we see as central to our western culture is not innate. It exists only because people in the past have been prepared to lay down their lives for it, and it will quickly evaporate unless we continue to fight for it now.

If you live in the West you should be prepared to have your ideas challenged, picked apart, held up to ridicule if necessary. There are no exceptions to this. This is western culture.

You might be offended, that’s your right. But it’s also my right to cause offense if I so choose. This is one of the key reasons western culture has succeeded so well and theocratic societies have not.

The results may be messy, tasteless, tactless, puerile, even hurtful. But free and open debate is also what allows progress. You might, for example, find Russell Brand and Nigel Farage hard to take but the fact that British political life can accommodate two so very different visions is a sign of the strength of our democracy not the opposite, as many have suggested.

Islamist extremists may call the West the Great Satan but the digital landscape where they make their Stone Age pronouncements wouldn’t even exist if we hadn’t done such a thorough job of kicking totalitarian religious orthodoxy to the curb. There would be no smart phone without Galileo and Voltaire.

Believe what you want. Believe in God, the big bang, lizard overlords, unicorns. I defend anyone’s right to have their beliefs. But first and foremost I defend my right to say what I like about them. To live any other way is to abandon principles that have helped create the most free and open society the world has ever known.


a scanner darkly

A version of this story was published in October 2012 edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine. 

There’s no doubt about it. Look around the world these days and you see biometrics everywhere: iris scanners used to keep tabs on prisoners on probation in the US; fingerprint verification in laptops and cash machines as far afield as Vietnam and South Africa. Even the world’s top athletes had to submit to face and fingerprint scans in order to take part in this year’s London Olympic Games.


But nowhere is the use of biometrics more prevalent, and more contentious, than in border control.

A decade ago biometrics at airports barely existed. Now the issuing of e-passports – travel documents containing a degree of biometric data (usually a photograph containing biometric markers and, in the case of the EU, fingerprints too) — is the default in most countries around the world.

Many major airports boast e-gates (or SmartGates as they are known in Australia and New Zealand) that use facial recognition to speed travelers through the security process. Facial recognition compares the digital photo stored on the e-passport with images taken by cameras at the gate, noting discrepancies in such things as bone structure, nose length, and the distance between your eyes. E-gates at Manchester and London Stansted already accommodate the latest generation of passports and plans are underway to install them at all five Heathrow terminals.

On top of this there are myriad trials going on testing out new, and sometimes frankly bizarre-sounding, methods of biometric technology that include avatars that monitor speech patterns to detect lying, a device that recognizes a person from the way he walks and brain scanning equipment.

Reading this you might be forgiven for thinking the biometric future is a fait accompli but as any traveler knows, aside from e-passports and a smattering of e-gates, security in most terminals around the world looks relatively unchanged from a decade ago and is still presided over by humans, not machines.

Jean Salomon, who runs JSalomon Consulting, his own border control security consultancy, has been in the business for 20 years. He said that there was a “quantum leap” forward in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks which helped usher in e-passport, mainly as a result of the intense lobbying of the International Civil Aviation Organization. But the momentum gained after the terrorist attacks has not sustained, he said.

“These days most of the booming and money-making biometrics business activity is centered on criminal data bases,” Salomon said. “The focus has been on developing biometrics for security reasons only, with no real intent to develop its associated seamlessness counterpart in airport facilitation.”

As a result he said a number of small and medium-sized biometric start-ups have folded in recent years and the production of the hardware used in biometric systems at border controls worldwide has concentrated in the hands of just three companies. These are the French firm Morpho, the U.S-based 3M Cogent and the global electronics giant NEC. All these companies have a stake in e-passport programs, in national biometric ID’s and in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), the technology used in biometric fingerprint scanners.

A number of other businesses exist to help integrate these technologies for specific airport’s needs. They include Liverpool-based Human Recognition Systems (HRS).

Jim Slevin, Business Unit Manager at HRS, is keenly aware that the biometrics market remains a relatively small part of airport security. Nor is this state of affairs likely to change any time soon, he said.

“A fully automated border solution may not be accommodated in mine or the reader’s lifetime,” Slevin said. “This is because the level of deployable artificial intelligence is not yet ready to deal with the complexity of situations that we, as humans, can create or deal with.”

Slevin said the take up of biometrics was also hindered by those in control of borders who were neither “technology centric, or indeed technology comfortable.”

He said the adoption of a fully automated system was dependent on completely rethinking the processes by which airports monitor the movement of passengers.

With this in mind HRS trialled a technology at Manchester Airport in 2010 capable of recognising passengers’ irises as they walked around the terminal, thanks to a remote camera set up in a security area. The camera took a photograph at a distance eliminating the need for the individual to stop and stare into the recognition camera.

The technology, called Biometrics In Motion, raises the possibility of airport security checks of the future taking place as the passenger moves around the terminal via the use of remote cameras, thus obviating the need for security gates and making for a much more fluid movement of travelers.

Aware that some travelers are put off by the idea of staring into cameras or pressing their palms onto fingerprint scanners, the security industry wants to find a fast and non-invasive biometric technology that will go over well with the public.

There have been a number of trials both in Europe and America of devices using gait recognition, a system which takes account of the unique way people walk and which, it is hoped – like Biometrics in Motion – can eliminate bottlenecks by reducing queuing times. Although most acknowledge the technology is not a significant enough marker on its own, gait recognition could be used in collaboration with other biometrics.

EU researchers in Greece, under the auspices of the Humabio (Human Monitoring and Authentication using Biodynamic Indicators and Behaviourial Analysis) project, conducted pilots using gait recognition as well as a number of other nascent technologies.

Security experts are moving increasingly towards developing systems that use a variety of physiological characteristics to identify people, largely because this lessens the chance of mistaken identity. The Humabio pilots included devices that distinguished individuals by brain patterns and heart rhythms.

The risk of relying too much on one physiological marker was brought home in Manchester in February last year when a couple managed to pass through facial recognition scanners using each other’s passports. The incident, which led to the scanner’s being temporarily withdrawn from service, was as noteworthy for the stir it caused in the press as anything else.

The reaction is symptomatic of just how divisive the use of biometrics in border control remains.

To their supporters, biometrics signal a brave new world of sleek efficiency and an important line of defence in the ongoing war against global terrorism. To their detractors they are further evidence of the Orwellian tendencies of modern states to increase surveillance of their citizens as well as leaving large swathes of the population at risk from identity theft.

Media debates about the ethics of biometrics can often drown out more prescient questions about whether the technology is actually effective in making airport travel quicker, safer and more convenient.

Facial recognition, for example, is not considered to be a very robust technology by many security experts, who say its continued application is down to the fact that the widespread availability of passport photos means it’s easy to get hold of the raw data.

As Jim Slevin points out, in the popular media biometrics are frequently compared with their predecessor, which in most cases means humans, and found wanting. In these comparisons humans are often considered to be 100 percent accurate and any error on the part of the biometric replacement shows it not matching up to its human counterpart.

Yet this suggests humans are infallible, and there have been more than enough security breaches down the years for us to know different.

Slevin calls this tendency, “the ex-partner in the marriage” syndrome.

“Through thorough mathematical and empirical data collection we have a very exact understanding of how well biometric systems perform in terms of false positive matching,” said Slevin. “In almost all circumstances the same transparency in the relationship between aviation and human operators is not available.

“The general publics’ perception of biometrics in airports will usually be through popular media; and rarely does one expect a story with a strapline of ‘Biometric System Implemented At XYZ Airport Without Issues And Performing In Line With Expectations’ to make headline news.”

As for another issue about biometrics commonly raised in the media, that they increase the risk of ID fraud by placing more of our sensitive personal details on databases that could potentially be hacked in to, Jean Salomon believes this concern is somewhat over egged. Salomon said that in reality there was greater risk of ID fraud from paper documents, such as birth certificates.

He said that details kept on databases associated with e-passports had much more rigorous security — they were systematically stored and electronically encrypted – whereas in most countries no such electronic backup existed for birth certificates, making them much easier to forge.

Even so, Salomon said inevitable mistakes would ensure that “civil liberties organizations will grow more white hair; simply because of nature’s inherent fondness for entropy.”

In the meantime, love it or hate it, biometric technology continues to advance and while the fully automated airport may be a long way further off than many advocates had first predicted, there’s little doubt that it’s coming, and that the sci-fi fantasies of the past will become the reality of the air travel experience of the future.

new york underground (vote for me)

I am writing a story about New York’s underground world. There’s a New York website that are hosting my story idea. It gets voted for on the site and the story with the most votes they commission you to write. It only takes a second to vote.

Below is my pitch.

underground ny


New Yorkers. Ever stood on a street corner and wondered what’s below? Where do those clouds of steam you see billowing out of manholes on winter mornings (an iconic New York image) actually come from? I will accompany an urban explorer on a tour of the vast subterranean labyrinth of tunnels, aqueducts and underground rivers that exist just below our feet in New York City. I will learn about the fabled Mole People, a community of homeless living in disused subway tunnels, about Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat, which is as fecund as germs (some estimates say there are four for every human in New York) and are an ever-present of life underground, and see the centuries-old sewers, some of which have existed as long as the city itself.


Because while you think you may have seen everything there is to see about New York City, it may gratify you to know that there’s an undiscovered country just a few yards below your feet and, that in a city as lived in as this, there are still new frontiers to explore.


I’ve traveled the world in search of stories; from child witchcraft in the Congo, to the phenomenon of storytelling in modern American politics. Now I live a settled life in New York but my appetite for adventure still creeps up on me from time to time, hence why I want to explore the underground city.

dance of the tarantula and other spider myths

Right now the American Museum of Natural History is running an exhibition about arachnids called “Spiders Alive!” 

brown recluse

image via american museum of natural history

The exclamation is with good reason since the spiders really are alive. Safely ensconced behind glass but alive all the same. I’m not one of those people who gets freaked out by spiders but, even so, there’s something inherently creepy about them. Maybe it’s those wonderfully sinister names, which look like they could be splashed across the title sequence of a fifties B-movie: The Black Widow! The Brown Recluse! Tarantula!

Actually, the tarantula is a good example of how the popular imagination has demonized spiders. The vision of a hairy-legged tarantula coming in through an open window at night is a cinematic shorthand for everything that makes our skin crawl about them.

But even their name is a testament to the mythology of fear we’ve built around them. In ancient times the inhabitants of Taranto, a town in southern Italy, were terrified of a species of wolf spider which lived locally. When they were bitten by the spider the townsfolk would perform a frenetic dance in the belief that this would shake out the poison (though it turns out the spider’s venom was not fatal to humans). 

When early European colonizers of the New World were faced with the big hairy spiders of the tropics they recalled the dance of Taranto when finding a name for these creatures. The irony is that tarantulas pose virtually no threat to humans because – counter-intuitive as it might sound – bigger spiders tend to have less powerful venom.

In fact, while most spiders produce venom fewer than one percent are dangerous to humans. That’s just 200 species out of a total of over 42,000. Of course our fear of arachnids is not totally groundless. Some can give you a nasty bite, others can jolt you with a wicked dose of poison and a few of them occasionally kill.

Gooty sapphire ornamental spider

image via american museum of natural history

Many species of spider are dimorphic, which means the female is larger than the male. This means you’re much worse off getting bitten by a female black widow since she carries more poison. Most humans will survive a bite from a black widow (though you should seek medical help immediately, especially in the case of the elderly or young children). The same cannot always be said of the amorous male black widow who is frequently killed and eaten immediately after mating.

Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias. According to some statistics, around 10 percent of men and 50 percent of women have an irrational fear of arachnids, which also include scorpions. If this is really true then you can’t help feeling sorry for the poor spider, who seems fated to suffer from a permanent image crisis. Fortunately for our arachnid cousins, this exhibition goes some way to redressing the balance by explaining just how amazing these creatures are.

Did you know, for example, that spiders have been on earth for 300 million years? Or that they taste with the hairs on their legs? Here’s another interesting tidbit: In the World War II the U.S. Army used black widow silk to make crosshairs for sighting devices on their weaponry. Meanwhile, in 2010 scientists identified a spider silk, from the caerostris darwini species on Madagascar, which is ten times tougher than Kevlar.

the black widow

image via american museum of natural history

Near the end of this brilliant exhibition there’s a talk by an arachnid expert who takes out a live tarantula to show the crowd. When I was there most of the audience were kids.

“How did you get to work with spiders?” One little boy asked in the Q&A, evidently eyeing the expert’s job for himself.

“It’s simple,” she answered. “You just have to really love them.”

Easier said than done for a lot of us I would imagine.

the tree of the one big fantastic idea

This is an extract from a novel I am writing about a young girl and a street urchin who tells stories that all begin on the same location – the Y-intersection of a crowded city street. This is the first story he tells.

Many years ago when the musicians who got this city jumping were not allowed to buy a coffee in the bars where they played, there was a tree grew on this spot. It was a silver birch and under its shade, on summer days, buskers came to play. One such busker was Marshall J. Marshall. He was a second rate musician but a first class snoozer.

One summer afternoon he lay asleep here and when he awoke he was struck by a revelation. He realized that he would never make it as a musician; that he just didn’t have what it took. This revelation pained him greatly because he loved music above all else in his life. He went about for days in a terrible depression. At the end of a long day wandering the city streets he came back to the square and tipping his hat over his eyes, as was his habit, he nodded off again under the silver birch. A short time later he awoke with a start. He had undergone another revelation only this one didn’t make him depressed. In his sleep he had realized a fantastic new direction for his life.

Since he would not make it as a great musician, he thought, he would do the next best thing. He would listen to music and he would write about what he heard. In this way Marshall J. Marshall became the first great reviewer of music in the city and his stories appeared in all the big papers of the day, making him rich and famous.

One day near the end of his life a reporter asked Marshall how he had come to be a reviewer and he told the man the story of the tree. “I am sure,” he said. “That there is something special about that silver birch. Twice I slept below its branches and twice it showed me how to get on life.”

Sitting at home one day in his luxurious townhouse J. Booker Jarvis read this story. He was the offspring of a wealthy family and lived in a large house in an exclusive neighbourhood of the city. Jarvis lived with his long-suffering wife Mildred. They had no children. Mildred wanted them but Jarvis insisted there was simply no time for such trivialities. You see all Jarvis’s energies were devoted to the important task of inventing. This was his passion above all others. He had spent years on his inventions and taken out innumerable patents. Until now all his attempts at reinventing the wheel had ended in failure. But when he read Marshall’s words Jarvis was struck with an interesting possibility. If he could just get that tree out of the square he could perhaps benefit from its mystical properties. But Jarvis was a shut-in and he had a mortal fear of the city streets, which he regarded as volatile and dangerous. He realised he could not manage such a thing alone and so he asked the son of his neighbor, a precocious teen with quick eyes.

The neighbor’s boy was called Arty.

One night Arty and Jarvis took a cab to the square and to this same Y-intersection where the silver birch grew. With shovels and pitchforks they dug up the tree and wrapping it in a shawl they carried it back home. Jarvis planted it in his back yard and the very next night he slept under it. He slept under it every night for the next month and nothing happened. He began to despair.

Then, one afternoon in late summer he was gardening in his back yard when he found himself getting sleepy. He lay down under the tree and dozed off. When he awoke an incredible idea had occurred to him. He had long lived in fear of impostors breaking into his home in the dead of night and he knew that burglary was a terrible blight on the city. It was an invention for a new type of lock. Jarvis was filled with excitement as he wrote down the calculations.

In a flurry of hand-waving and garbled words he told his wife, who said it sounded like a great plan and smiled with half her mouth. But when Jarvis read the calculations again and he was suddenly filled with doubt. Hadn’t he come up with a hundred ideas that had come to nothing? Why should this one be any different? And hadn’t his wife told him it sounded like a great plan every time he came up with a new idea?

He hesitated over the idea for weeks, mulling it over in his head, wondering if it was indeed the one big fantastic idea or just another dud. This poor nervous wreck of a man thought and thought and thought until his brain ached and he could think of nothing more. Around a month after his first revelation he slept again under the tree and when he awoke he found that once more he had dreamed about the new miracle lock. This time he wasted no time. He went down to the patent office to register his idea.

Imagine his horror when the clerk told him that the design for the lock had already been patented. Jarvis demanded to know how this could be. He had poured through the patent records in the days after his great idea and found no such lock in existence. The clerk said the patent had been filed only two weeks before. Jarvis was dumbstruck. He looked at the signature of the person who had registered the patent and saw in black and white the name of his betrayer. It was Arty, his young neighbour.

Back home he slammed hard with his fist on his neighbor’s door. When the boy’s father opened the door he looked nervously at Jarvis. In a fit of rage Jarvis said the man’s son was a thief and a fraud and he demanded to see him. The old man, who was inclined to see no wrong in his offspring, took great offence at this outburst and shut the door on him, refusing to have anything more to do with his volatile neighbour. For the next few days Jarvis waited by his window for the boy to leave but his wait was in vain. Arty had returned to boarding school in another state and was not due back for some months.

With his terrible fear of the streets, Jarvis would not be able to go find the boy. Instead he decided to wait it out for his return. In the meantime he sat at his back window gazing out on the tree, wondering how the boy could have stolen his idea. The more he contemplated the great deception that had been played on him the angrier he grew, and the more he thought about it the more this anger was directed towards the silver birch. That lone tree came to represent for him all the failures of his life and eventually, unable to contain his disgust any longer, he took an axe and chopped it down. When this was done he returned to his back window but looking out he was still bothered. The stump of the tree remained. Deciding to remove all trace of it from his life he hired a gang of workmen and had them yank the tree up, roots and all.

That night it rained heavily and Jarvis slept fitfully. In the morning his wife awoke and went out to do some shopping. When she returned she found a pile of rubble where her house had once stood.

The firemen dug all afternoons through the remains until eventually they found her husband, in his usual spot by the back window. In his hand he still clutched his morning coffee. At the inquest they discovered that the roots of the silver birch were the devil in the piece. They had reached under the house and when they were pulled up the heavy rain had poured into the holes left behind and weakened the foundations of the building. After the funeral, Mildred moved away to live with her sister in another state in a house by the ocean where she spent her days making socks for children in need.

Gazing out on the sea one day she remembered two things about her married life that had not seemed significant before. The first was that her husband was frequently in the habit of talking in his sleep and the second, in case you haven’t guessed, was that the quick-eyed Arty had a bedroom window that faced onto the yard. Mildred smiled with half her face and turning her head from the window she went back to her knitting.