Nigerian Boko Haram rebels parade ‘liberated’ girls in propaganda video

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Boko Haram rebels parade ‘liberated’ Nigerian girls in propaganda video” was written by Sam Jones, for The Guardian on Tuesday 13th May 2014 07.59 UTC

The dozens of young women corralled into a clearing to recite the first chapter of the Qur’an, their palms turned upwards in prayer but their collective gaze fixed mainly on the forest floor on which they sit, have, in their captors’ words, been "liberated".

Few, though, seem to be relishing their four weeks of freedom. Some shut their eyes tight in concentration or perhaps fear; others fidget, glance about and let the phrase "In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful" emerge through nearly motionless lips.

On Monday, almost a month after they were kidnapped, some of the 276 Nigerian girls snatched from their school under cover of darkness appeared to re-emerge in a propaganda video shot by Boko Haram, the Islamist group that has in recent days acquired the notoriety it has sought for years.

The 27-minute film, stamped with the logo of a pair of crossed Kalashnikovs, a black flag and an open Qur’an, shows around 130 girls wearing grey and black veils. Two of them speak of their conversion from Christianity to Islam.

Against a backdrop of such nervous stillness, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, is even more animated than usual; no mean feat for a man once described as Boko Haram’s "craziest" commander.

In the video, Shekau appears nothing short of exultant as he reflects on the kidnapping and the global fury it has stirred.

"These girls; these girls you occupy yourselves with … we have indeed liberated them," he tells the camera with a grin. "These girls have become Muslims. They’re Muslims."

Dressed in combat fatigues with a camouflage scarf wrapped around his head and an assault rifle propped against his left shoulder, its long magazine curling across his chest, Shekau berates the Nigerian government for its treatment of the Boko Haram fighters it has captured.

But he also suggests to president Goodluck Jonathan a way out of the deepening crisis. "It’s now four or five years since you arrested our brethren and they’re still in your prisons and you’re doing many things to them," he says – a reference to allegations that the Nigerian military has routinely and brutally violated the human rights of those it suspects of belonging to the group.

"And now you’re talking about these girls. We’ll never release them until after you release our brothers."

Until that time, Shekau adds, the girls will be treated well – "in the way the Prophet would treat well any infidel he seized".

Asked whether the government intended to reject Shekau’s suggested deal, the Nigerian interior minister, Abba Moro, told AFP: "Of course", adding: "The issue in question is not about Boko Haram … giving conditions."

The video of the captive women – which came a week after Shekau threatened to sell them into marriage "in the market" – was swiftly condemned.

The former British prime minister Gordon Brown, now the UN special envoy for global education, accused Boko Haram of "cruelly and barbarically using 200 kidnapped girls to bargain for the release of prisoners and exploiting innocent young girls for political purposes".

He added: "It is urgent that all religious leaders in every part of the world speak out against their perverted and twisted version of Islam which involves forced conversions and the sale of girls as sex slaves."

After a fortnight in which it was criticised for failing to respond sufficiently quickly or effectively to the mass abduction, Nigeria has begun to accept international help as its forces scour the remote north-eastern reaches of the country for the girls and the men who took them.

The UK, the US and France have already dispatched specialist teams to Nigeria to share their expertise, while China has volunteered to share "any useful information acquired by its satellites and intelligence services". On Sunday, a spokesman for Jonathan said the president was pleased to have Israel’s "globally acknowledged anti-terrorism expertise deployed to support its ongoing operations".

The prospect of a more multilateral approach to the threat of Boko Haram was raised still further when the French president, François Hollande, said he had invited US and British officials to a summit in Paris this weekend to discuss how to deal with the Islamist group.

"I asked the Americans and British to send a delegation to Paris on Saturday so we can act together and in an efficient way," Hollande told journalists during a visit to the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

According to AFP, the leaders of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin could also attend the event.

At the end of last week, the Nigerian army denied allegations from Amnesty International that it had had four hours’ warning that an armed convoy of Boko Haram militants was approaching the town of Chibok, from where the girls were kidnapped shortly before dawn on 15 April. A spokesman dismissed Amnesty’s report as a "rumours and allegations", adding: "They just want to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it. Their allegations are unfounded as usual."

The kidnapping of the schoolgirls – and the abduction last week of eight more girls in an overnight raid on another village in Boko Haram’s stronghold in north-eastern Borno state – has given rise to a global campaign and led figures including the Pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, David Cameron and Barack and Michelle Obama to call for their release.

On Saturday, the US first lady used her husband’s weekly video address to her anger over the abductions.

"Like millions of people across the globe, my husband and I are outraged and heartbroken over the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls from their school dormitory in the middle of the night," she said.

"This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education – grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls."

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Women who fear being forced to marry abroad told to hide spoon in underwear

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Women who fear being forced to marry abroad told to hide spoon in underwear” was written by Helen Nugent, for The Guardian on Thursday 15th August 2013 18.00 UTC

A number of women and girls at risk of forced marriage have avoided going abroad by concealing spoons in their underwear at airport security, according to a campaign group.

Karma Nirvana, a Derby-based charity that supports victims of forced marriage, advises people who ring its helpline to hide a spoon in order to set off metal detectors at British airports. The group says that its recommendation has prevented some women from being spirited overseas.

Last week ministers warned that young people were at the highest risk of being taken abroad for a forced marriage during the school holidays. The government’s forced marriage unit received 400 reports between June and August last year, out of an annual total of 1,500.

No one knows for sure how many Britons are forced into marriage each year. Estimates range from 1,500 to 5,000. More than a third of those affected are thought to be aged under 16.

Speaking to the AFP news agency, Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana’s operations manager, said that when worried youngsters ring the charity’s helpline, “if they don’t know exactly when it may happen or if it’s going to happen, we advise them to put a spoon in their underwear.

“When they go through security, it will highlight this object in a private area and, if 16 or over, they will be taken to a safe space where they have that one last opportunity to disclose they’re being forced to marry.”

The government wants teachers, doctors and airport staff to be conscious of the issue of forced marriages over the summer break.

Aneeta Prem, founder and president of Freedom Charity, an organisation that deals with the prevention of forced marriage through education and training, believes that summer is a crucial time for children and young adults.

“Children go out of people’s consciousness over summer because they are away for such a long time,” she told the Guardian. “The victim may think they are going away to a family wedding, not knowing it is actually their wedding. And when they go they are often gone for a long time and don’t come back until they are pregnant.”

Campaigners fear official statistics on the number of forced marriages of UK citizens are just the tip of the iceberg, partly because children do not want to report their parents to the authorities or have little idea where to go for help.

Prem said: “Nobody knows what the true figure is because so many young victims are terrified of coming forward. But it is definitely much, much higher than what is reported.”

Freedom Charity has produced an app for potential victims of forced marriage or other abuse. It is also aimed at friends of those women who may be at risk and professionals such as teachers. Since the app was launched in March, more than 1,000 people have contacted Freedom Charity using the technology. The charity also has a 24-hour helpline.

The Karma Nirvana charity usually fields 6,500 calls a year from around Britain. This year, it has already reached that number.

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Could the free university movement be the great new hope for education?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Could the free university movement be the great new hope for education?” was written by Harriet Swain, for The Guardian on Monday 28th January 2013 19.30 UTC

The smell of warm herbs and sound of clattering plates waft in from the next-door room, where a vegan lunch for 70 is being cleared away, and where from time to time a toddler loses balance and thumps against the door.

But, bent over pieces of scrap paper, students at the Thursday afternoon script-writing course in the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project are concentrating hard on today’s assignment.

There are two of them – Richard Ince, 72, and Ben Woodling, 38 – and they have been meeting their tutor, Niall Drennan, a performance writer and former probation officer, for two hours every other week since early summer, although no one can remember exactly when. Tutoring them in the alternate weeks is Alison Fisher, a former scriptwriter for EastEnders. Others have attended from time to time – they recall a Spanish group under the impression it was about improving English language skills, and a French woman who was living in a tent and writing a novel – but Ince and Woodling are the regulars.

“I’ve always been a great reader and like words,” says Ince, who first came to the centre eight years ago to volunteer after retiring from his job as an administrator with IBM. “At my age I haven’t the drive to do something with it, but it’s something I’m interested in.” Woodling, who studied geography at Hull University more than 10 years ago, says he likes learning, but being on incapacity benefit meant he couldn’t afford adult education. He has done a music course at the centre and then drama, “which was very challenging for my mental health issue s and shyness”, and he just happened to be around when the scriptwriting course started. “It’s been interesting and fun and made me think about things, just by getting into the heads of characters,” he says. “So I’ve just kept coming.”

The scriptwriting course is one of dozens of free courses, workshops, lectures and discussions advertised by the new Free University Brighton, tagline “education for love not money”.

The “free university” is the brainchild of Ali Ghanimi, a Green party activist who has worked in the public sector managing organisational change The idea, she says, is to offer “something for the whole community, regardless of their financial means or previous education”.

Recent free learning opportunities advertised on the website range from a lecture at Sussex University by philosopher Simon Glendinning on “The end of history”, to a knitting group at Hove Library. It also has a wish list of subjects that people would like to learn more about, from introductory philosophy, to the Brighton sky at night, to furniture upholstery, with an appeal for potential tutors to come forward.

Many already have, and when the FUB officially launches in May, Ghanimi will put them in touch with their students in spaces offered, for free, by local libraries, community centres and cafes around Brighton. They also have the use of a caravan and 1950s Airstream trailer.

“It’s nice to do things in a group and learn and share skills and knowledge,” says Ghanimi. “But it’s also really important in the current economic climate.”

This year has seen rising interest in alternative university models, inspired not only by a difficult economy, but also by the rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000 and by the success of Tent City University, which organised lectures, discussions and workshops with anti-capitalist protesters occupying the area around St Paul’s in London last winter.

Funding changes in higher education have been encouraging alternative ways of looking at learning for the past couple of years. The Social Science Centre in Lincoln, which welcomed its first nine students this term, was conceived by Mike Neary, dean of teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln, in 2010, as a result of proposals to cut the teaching grant to arts, humanities and social science subjects. It charges no fees, but stude nts and teachers, who meet at locations around Lincoln, are able to pay one hour of their income a month through PayPal. At the end of three years of study, students are promised the equivalent of a higher education degree.

The Free University of Liverpool, which also operates from different locations around its city, offers courses delivered voluntarily by academics and others in culture. It was also a protest against the privatisation of higher education. A similar project, the Really Open University, was started around the same time in Leeds.

Just before Christmas, the movement even had its own first conference, Sustaining Alternative Universities, which took place in Oxford. Its organiser, Joel Lazarus, says: “A lot of people are motivated by the exclusion of more and more people from education, and particularly higher education opportunities. This is a response to the commodification of education and privatisation of university.”

Tim Huzar, a Phd student in philosophy at Brighton University, who has helped to set up the FUB, says the response is also practical. “It’s important to realise an alternative and demonstrate it,” he says. “But it isn’t just a political act. It’s a real service. It gives people access to education and it makes them realise that learning is something they should expect lifelong – not just something you do if you can afford £9,000 when you’re 18.”

Organisers of alternative models insist they do not want to threaten existing universities. Both Neary and Lazarus, who teaches international politics and international development at Oxford, Reading and London, point out that they continue to work within the system to change things, and many of those involved in these projects hope they will encourage more people to think of higher education as something potentially open to them.

The desire to make learning more accessible to those without the time or resources to attend a formal course is also prompting many traditional universities to put materials online, and has inspired other online projects, such as the tuition-free University of the People, founded in 2009. But Ghanimi argues these cannot replace the benefits of people meeting face-to-face in their local area and learning together. “It’s a way for people to share common interests and build relationships,” she says. “That’s about building stronger communities.”

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Stockton, California: ‘This economy is garbage’

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Stockton, California: ‘This economy is garbage'” was written by Aditya Chakrabortty, for The Guardian on Friday 2nd November 2012 17.12 UTC

In some towns, visitors are warned to keep an eye on their stuff, or to watch out late at night. In the Californian city of Stockton, the anxiety is more precise – and it kicks in early. “Take care downtown after 5pm,” one local person told me. “Don’t hang out too long.”

A few hours later, I saw what she meant. Almost as soon as the offices shut, the city centre empties. Then the sun goes down and a different cast takes to the streets: the homeless, the drug dealers, and clusters of young men patrolling up and down on bicycles.

Stockton ranks among America’s 10 most dangerous cities, and everyone here seems to operate under a self-imposed curfew. The commuter admits she doesn’t dare go to the cinema after 8pm; the father expects his 18-year-old daughter home by 10 – “and she totally gets why.” Others prefer not to go out at all. All give the same reason: the spiralling number of violent crimes.

Last weekend, the city notched up its 60th murder of the year, up from 24 for all of 2008. At just under 300,000 residents, this river port has about the same population as a London borough. Imagine a couple of your neighbours getting killed every week, and you’ll understand why almost all the conversations here touch on a recent homicide.

It happened in this park, they tell you; outside that drive-through; on a first date. Then the inevitable coda: “It happened in broad daylight.”

The last time Stockton attracted so much attention was in 2008, as the biggest housing bubble America had ever enjoyed was turning into the biggest bust it had ever suffered.

With nearly one in 10 homes repossessed that year alone, the city became known as the foreclosure capital of the US and formed part of the backdrop of economic catastrophe against which Barack Obama was elected president.

Then: nothing. For the next four years, the name barely cropped up in the news, so that you’d have been forgiven for believing the bad times had eased off. Until this summer, that is, when it became the largest city in America to file for bankruptcy. The bushfire had not died down, far from it – while the rest of the world was not looking, it had escalated.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive there inland from San Francisco moves from coastal grooviness to municipal crack-up. You’re told as much by the local TV news network, whose reports bear the strapline Stockton in Crisis. Or you can infer it from the defensiveness of the signage. “Stockton is Magnificent!” reads one banner. “Don’t give up!!!” says the hoarding over empty shop fronts.

Apart from the odd grocery store and a giant wig emporium, what downtown Stockton has in abundance is abandoned shops.

What makes the dereliction disconcerting is that it nestles amid civic grandeur, some of it quite recent. Stockton rivalled Seattle and San Francisco for importance as a transport hub during the gold rush on the 19th-century west coast, which must help to account for its grand boulevards, spacious enough to march elephants.

But there are also marbled bank offices, refurbished theatres and government offices, none of which look more than a few years old.

“The downtown could have been like Paris’s 6th arrondissement!” local property developer Dan Cort tells me. While it sounds preposterous now, his claim underscores one thing: there can’t be many cities in America unravelling as fast as this one.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Stockton as a curio, an outlandish disaster that couldn’t happen here, for three reasons. First, many other towns in California, a state of 40 million that on its own would count among the 10 biggest economies on earth, are scrambling to avoid bankruptcy. This tale shares elements of the debacles in Greece, Spain and Britain, too – almost as if all the factors behind the western meltdown had been chucked in a Walmart blender and poured over one small town. What’s unfurling here sums up the distinctive, dangerous way in which the great slump is playing out. Extreme it may be, but Stockton’s story is also one version of a future that awaits many other cities, including those in Britain.

Let’s begin with that last point. Most recessions follow a familiar waltz. First, there is the economic downturn, then there are the politicians’ responses, before the social fallout: cause, effect, aftermath. But Stocktonians don’t talk about a recession; they call it a depression. With one in eight workers out of a job, unemployment is almost double the national average. Six years after the peak of the market, house prices are still around half what they once were.

The local council’s cash used to come from property and sales taxes; when those dried up, it rammed through cuts: the police force was shrunk by 25%, the fire department slashed by 30%, libraries and community centres either closed or are on short hours. Finally, this summer, officials ran out of services to shut, and declared the city bust.

As has happened in southern Europe, and threatens to happen under David Cameron too, this slump has been so severe and so prolonged that the economic, political and social crises are now overlapping, and amplifying each other.

To see that play out, head to Weston Ranch, a southern suburb devastated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. According to research by Maianna Voge at George Washington University, almost one in three houses on some blocks suffered foreclosure in the bust.

When a Guardian reporter last dropped by, in 2008, he noted a forest of estate agents’ boards and window signs: “Bank-owned – no trespassing”. Four years on, there’s much less of either. Buyers have since come along – but, rather than the families of old, they’re often speculators, holding out for a blip in the market before offloading their auction bargains. While waiting, they rent the properties out carelessly and cheaply. Among these Frank Capra-esque homes, the signs of distress are now more subtle: cracked windows and lawns with overgrown brown grass.

On this afternoon, the only activity is on one driveway with a removals van. Sure enough, the bank is foreclosing on Susan and her family in the morning. Within a few minutes it all comes out: how her father moved them all here from Fremont in San Francisco’s Bay Area; how his ultra-low “teaser rate” mortgage repayments rocketed without warning. How, just as that happened, property prices plunged so that they were “upside down”, with the house worth less than they’d paid for it. How the lender didn’t return their calls. How her father was diagnosed with cancer. Finally: how he’d died at the start of this month, just as the new buyer, one of the investors taking over the area, had offered her $3,000 to return the keys and leave without smashing the place up.

The story you’re sometimes told about the sub-prime bubble is that it was a bunch of people who should never have been lent a dime suddenly being given the keys to the palace of debt. Wherever that applies, it isn’t Weston Ranch. As Voge points out, household incomes here average between $60,000 and $80,000 a year: enough to warrant a middle class lifestyle, but insufficient to afford one in the pricey Bay Area. So, just as Susan’s father did, they moved further and further out.

“At 4am, you’d see the house lights come on,” is how another Weston Ranch resident, Alicia Calhoun, remembers life during the supposed good times. “By 6am – click! — the garage doors would go up and the street would empty out.” Calhoun worked in customer services for a bank in Palo Alto: at least a four-hour round trip, on top of the 9-5 job and looking after her kids.

That commute, those dodgy mortgages, this entire “bedroom community” deep in the Central Valley: all were products of a country growing vastly more unequal within a generation. According to IMF researchers Michael Kumhof and Romain Rancière, by 2007 the richest 5% of Americans were pocketing 34 cents of every dollar earned in the US; a level of inequality last seen just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Most of the rest of the country saw negligible rises in their wages, and had to rely instead on borrowing. What followed was the crash of 2008 – and human and civic wreckage in places such as Stockton.

In T-shirt and shorts, Susan’s mood flits between volcanic and eve-of-holiday. “You know how many homes here have been foreclosed? That one. That one. That one.” She’s jabbed her finger along almost the entire cul-de-sac. “Only the family next door haven’t. I give them six months.”

Weston Ranch, which is about 80% non-white, is basically Obamaville: full of the middle-class families he claims as his bedrock. But throughout the sub-prime freefall, his administration in effect delegated responsibility to local governments and market forces. And even in the last days of this campaign, neither Obama nor Mitt Romney has seriously addressed the housing crash. Yet according to the Chicago economist, Amir Sufi, the property bust and the recession have between them wiped out the 20 years’ worth of savings by middle-income and poor families.

Susan’s brother Dusty has been helping shift boxes. Another jabbing finger: “He fought in Iraq and now he’s back here and the only jobs around are in warehouses at $9 an hour.” Breath. “This economy is garbage.”

The rec where Susan used to stroll has got so violent it’s been dubbed Bullet Park. And last summer, she says, about 60 teenagers got into a pitched battle on the grass in front of her house. “They were going at each other with metal poles.” Her husband phoned the police again and again, but they were too short-staffed to help. “It went on for hours.”

When I run this story by police sergeant Kathryn Nance, she is puzzled: “We would have come out for an incident like that.” Yet as we sit in her patrol car, she taps at the laptop: 6.30 on a Friday evening and there are already 27 outstanding calls for assistance. Top of the list is a rape reported an hour and a half ago, yet which no officer is free to deal with.

Nance’s officers pile into a run-down area to chase some warrants. It’s a sweep that the accompanying local TV reporter seems ecstatic about filming, but which feels like a formulaic show of police strength; strength that the downsized force no longer has. A colleague, Mark, estimates there are promising leads on more than a dozen murder cases but no manpower to investigate them. Nance talks about how the cuts made by various council departments are making parts of Stockton into no-go areas. She drives past one block and sighs: “There used to be parks and it was cleaned up. In the past four years it’s gone bad again: dope dealers and vagrants.”. And hassling drug dealers has become an occasional pursuit

If you don’t want your area to go bad, you have to lay on your own services. On the “miracle mile”, the boutiques spend their former marketing budget on a security patrol and street sweepers. They even maintain municipal car parks. A local hotelier pays to keep two public swimming pools open.

Such a sudden, drastic downgrade in what Stocktonians can expect from their mortgage lender, their council, their police, their neighbours, not to mention their own homes and pensions is dizzying even for the well-off.

As a developer of affordable housing, Carol Ornelas patiently talks me through what the sub-prime crisis means for her customers. Then she mentions her own situation – and the rush of words is like letting the air out of a balloon: “I used to live in middle-class America; now I don’t know where I live. What I’ve seen come into my neighbourhood after all the foreclosures … I don’t even want to be around it.” Again, she talks of fights in the yard just opposite.

Yet a quarter of an hour’s drive from Nance’s block-gone-bad is Brookside: an empty six-lane highway, a country club, and a string of small gated communities bearing such names as Nostalgia, where houses back on to fake lakes. Sneak inside and you see marble statues of cherubs. One cliché about recessions is that they make rich and poor slightly more equal. Not this time: according to Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, the top 1% saw their incomes soar by 11.6% in 2010; the wages of the other 99% grew only 0.2%.

“The American dream used to be within reach of the middle class,” says Ornelas. “Now it’s on offer only to an elite.”

Stockton’s city hall bears an inscription: “Let that which the fathers have builded inspire their sons to civic patriotism.” Inside, the mayor’s office is full of photos of what the city fathers have built in the past decade: a baseball stadium, an arena (where Neil Diamond played to a half-empty auditorium for a million-dollar fee), a swanky hotel – all around a redeveloped waterfront. They’re the kind of job-free cultural makeover projects that middle-aged officials threw up all over the west in the noughties. In Stockton, estimates Jeffrey Michael at the local University of the Pacific, they were largely paid for by $100m in bonds issued over three years. For Ann Johnston, who only took over as mayor after the building spree: “Paying for these things is why we’re now bust.”

Well, yes and no; Stockton’s problems go much deeper. Spend even a little time here and you notice something missing: middle-income employment. To the south are low-wage warehouses and food-processing plants, but the local public sector is the only home for anyone who wants a middle-class job without having to drive two hours. The city’s regeneration and its encouragement of new housing estates was an attempt to bring in middle class people while skirting over the lack of decent private-sector employment. “They wanted a white-tablecloth kind of town,” says former planning official Denise Jefferson.

The most grotesque example of that was a restaurant. Paragary’s does a roaring business in the state capital of Sacramento, selling hand-cut rosemary noodles with seared chicken to people with large expense accounts. The city paid $2.7m in redevelopment funds to build a branch of Paragary’s: its valet parking and expensive menu drew more resentment than custom, and it closed down within months.

In some ways, the entire debacle was no different from what much of Britain tried under New Labour. Except that, since Californian cities depend on property and retail taxes, Stockton council had a vested interest in inflating its bubble – only then could it keep paying for services and infrastructure to the new housing estates. As former city manager Dwayne Milnes says, “The entire system was a Ponzi scheme.”

The result is a glut of houses and a glut of debt, both of which will take a long time to sort out. It’s hard to imagine a time when the builders’ cranes will start up again. The downtown developer Dan Cort tells me about a rival who recently pulled plans to build new houses on land by the motorway. “He’s made it a walnut orchard instead.” En route to the airport, the University of California sociologist Jesus Hernandez and I stop off and there they are: instead of rows of suburban homes, lines of walnut trees. Far away is the belch of Central Valley traffic; close up is the hiss of sprinklers.

As we set off, I mumble something sentimental about Stockton’s retreat from postmodern financial engineering back to its agricultural roots. Jesus corrects me: “He’s probably passing it off as farmland and getting a great tax break.”

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CES 2013: as big as ever, but is it out of date?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “CES 2013: as big as ever, but is it out of date?” was written by Rory Carroll in Las Vegas, for The Guardian on Wednesday 9th January 2013 08.53 UTC

The world’s biggest consumer technology expo opened on Tuesday to a familiar scene: thousands of gadget buffs streaming down Paradise Road to the cavernous Las Vegas convention centre, eager to glimpse the devices and trends of the future.

For the next four days the Consumer Electronics Show will unveil technological advances and launch 20,000 products and prototypes – a vast bazaar showcasing new phones, new televisions, new tablets, new everything.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here!” squealed a voice as crowds surged through the doors. Tweets from those visiting the booths of Samsung and the like declared them “awesome” and “amazing”.

The event is as big as ever: around 150,000 industry professionals – entrepreneurs, executives, designers, bloggers – crawling over 1.85m sq ft of exhibition space. The chief executive of mobile chip maker Qualcomm, Paul Jacobs, who delivered the keynote speech on Monday night, said its wares would change the world. “There are almost as many mobile connections as people on earth. Pretty soon mobile connections will outnumber us.”

But there is a problem. Sceptics say that the world has changed faster than CES, that the pre-eminence of the internet and software has marginalised an event still tethered mainly to hardware, and that CES is sliding into limbo as a consequence.

Wired, the technology magazine, declared on the convention’s eve: “As software matters more and more, CES matters less and less. The internet is already the world’s largest trade show. Gadget blogs are the new conventions.

“Sure, big electronics shows offer the opportunity to meet people and forge relationships. But even that transaction is being moved online in the era of real-time social media.”

Hardware has become increasingly meaningless as upgrade cycles accelerate and spread across platforms, it argues, citing the Nokia Lumia 900, a flagship phone hailed as the next big thing at last year’s CES. It was a hardware triumph but disappeared after Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8, rendering the Lumia, which used Windows Phone 7.5, obsolete.

Wired at least sent reporters to Las Vegas. The news site BuzzFeed boycotted and published a story headlined “Why We’re Not at the Biggest Tech Show in the World.”

After years of dwindling relevance CES was no longer the most important place to go to see trends in technology, it said. “Seriously doesn’t the word ‘electronics’ in the conference’s dusty title make your eyes instantly droop a bit?”

One problem raised by the news site BuzzFeed was the event’s focus on hardware at the expense of software and services. The other was that social media had displaced traditional conventions as forums to showcase products and ideas. It noted that none of the four technology companies which “truly matter to people” – Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google – were exhibiting at the expo.

For years Microsoft’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer, had given the keynote speech at the Venetian resort hotel. But the company pulled out this year, handing the job to Jacobs of Qualcomm. In his speech Jacobs exuded optimism and said “Gen M” – generation mobile – would keep the industry humming. He underlined his point by unveiling Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 800 Series processor. Due on the market this summer, it should improve the performance of smartphones and cars and give rival Intel a run for its money. And as if to rebuff accusations of dwindling relevance, Jacobs spiced up his speech with eclectic celebrity guests. Director Guillermo del Toro came on stage to show a clip of his new robot film, Pacific Rim, streaming it from a tablet that uses a new Qualcomm chip.

“Snapdragon ensures the film you see will be viewed exactly as I want it to be seen. When you’re watching a great film, you want a great experience.”

The Nascar driver Brad Keselowski displayed an app which lets fans follow drivers during races. The actor Alice Eve lauded a new app for her new film, Star Trek: Into Darkness. Big Bird from Sesame Street appeared to plug an app which helps children with vocabulary. For the industry audience the biggest and most welcome surprise was Microsoft’s Ballmer, who made a cameo to talk up the tech giant’s new generation tablets and smartphones.

This week’s CES is expected to be dominated by ultra HD TVs, supersized smartphones, acrobatic PCs and sensors which replace the mouse by tracking gestures and eye movements. If any of that catches on CES will claim, as ever, that you saw the future here first.

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