Sunday, January 31, 2010

Picture Of The Day

Friday, January 29, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Matt Kelly: digital content director, Mirror Group

Is that it then? A bloody great iPhone? If any newspaper publishers out hoped the iWhatsit would be the missing link between digital investment and reward, the sight of Steve Jobs lazily stroking his big touchscreen while muttering "awesome" and "incredible" and "wonderful" will have come as a blow.

Just like the Amazon Kindle (another touted saviour of newspapers) at first glance, the iPad is a little underwhelming. Unlike the Kindle (when we at the Mirror were presented it, the Amazon rep told us to "please stop prodding the screen. You might break it") this is at least a thing of beauty. But I see shortcomings.

The reason my laptop has a lid is so the screen doesn't get wrecked after a couple of months – like the screen of my, er, iPhone. I can stick my iPhone in my pocket when I leave the house. Where does one stick the iPad? What do you do when it rains?

There are certain parts of the UK where it's not best advised to prance about with 500 quids worth of shiny new tech. No one ever mugged anyone for a copy of the Mirror. Also, should you drop your Mirror in a puddle, or leave it on the bus, you can replace it at any number of locations for just 45p.

One more gripe. All those lovely Apps we've built – the Guardian's brilliant newspaper one and our forthcoming app to name but two – will need redesigning. Great! Yet another format to develop.

No. The iPad is no great leap forward for newspapers. But something inside it may be. Apple's great contribution to shining light on how we may start directly charging for content is their App Store.

Emulating their elegant, frictionless, payment solution is, to my mind, the single biggest challenge we face at the beginnings of our digital future. The challenge to turn millions of users into customers.

JD Salinger (RIP)

Oh Happy Days (to G)

The skies are dark, the weather is ­terrible, your job isn't safe, the economy is in a trough, the planet is heating up, the Tories are about to win an election for the first time in 13 years and we've just put the terrorism alert up a notch to "severe". And if you gave up drinking for January, you've still got five long days to go. Can things get any worse?

The answer, thankfully, is no. This is rock bottom. From here on in things can only get better. In fact, there are signs that battered Britain is already on the mend, if you will only screw up your tired eyes and look for them. Can you see the upside yet? No? Well, look harder! The road to happiness may be partially flooded and in poor repair, but it's still right there in front of you. Let's begin:

1 Official figures released today are expected to show that the recession is finally at an end in Britain. It is estimated that GDP grew by 0.4% in the last quarter of last year, following six consecutive quarters of negative growth. The UK may be the last of the G7 nations to leave the recession ­behind, but better late than never, and let's face it: never was definitely one of the available options.

2 According to a complex and largely nonsensical mathematical equation reckoning with such variables as weather, debt, and seasonal motivational levels, yesterday was officially the most depressing day of the year. From now until Christmas the outlook can only improve.

3 Good news for mice! A pioneering new technology could soon ­allow ­cosmetics to be tested using ­laboratory-grown human skin cells instead of animals.

4 Johnny Depp is alive! Over the weekend, rumours of the actor's ­untimely death spread like wildfire online and started trending on Twitter. Fortunately, the story turned out to be a hoax – he's fine! If you hadn't heard anything about the rumours in the first place then this isn't particularly good news, but at least you didn't waste the weekend faffing around on the internet.

5 Rumours of Brad and Angelina's ­imminent split, however, are so rife that Paddy Power has put the odds of a separation at just 4/7. The good news is that the big betting money is on Brad's next partner: 1/2 for his ex, Jennifer ­Aniston, 12/1 on Rihanna, 20/1 on ­Britney Spears and 33/1 on Cheryl Cole.

6 Unemployment has fallen for two successive months, and now stands at 2.46 million, well under predictions of 3 million at the start of the year.

7 Apple's new tablet thingy is being launched tomorrow, and it's not just going to be cool, it's going to save newspapers, books, magazines and the ­music industry. Get your hopes up now!

8 The UK film industry, a perennial source of gloom, is actually doing rather well: 2009 was the second-best production year ever, cinema attendance was at its highest since 2002 and box-office takings topped the £1bn mark for the first time.

9 Two weeks ago the Hayes Hawks BMX bike club of Hayes, Middlesex, had 33 of their bikes stolen, placing the club's future in jeopardy. But police acting on a tip-off have now recovered all but six of the bikes. Nice work, snitches!

10 At first we thought it was going to be a mild winter, meaning councils had thoughtlessly stockpiled way too much grit. Then we had all that snow, and it suddenly looked as if we had far too little grit. Then, as stockpiles dwindled to nothing, the snow stopped, so we ended up stockpiling more or less the right amount of grit. Well guessed, ­professional estimators!

11 Even in this recession, car crime is down 10%, criminal damage is down 8%, and recorded instances of violence against the person fell by 6%. Gun-related murders for the year dropped from 59 to 53. Fraud, forgery, drug ­offences, burglary and knife crime are all up, but that is not the bright side, so let's not look at it just now.

12 Britain's coldest January in 37 years is just coming to a close. It has been a tricky month for travel, but the cold snap should see a big reduction in ­garden pests and fungal plant diseases in the coming year.

13 Vampire Weekend's second ­album has topped the Billboard ­album chart, pushing Susan Boyle into second place. At first glance this may look like a mildly dispiriting story about a New York band beating a ­British singer in the US charts, but wait . . . Vampire Weekend are on a British label! Well done, XL!

14 The days are getting longer. Some parts of the country may not have experienced anything ­resembling "daylight" since new year, but that can't last for ever. Eventually, you will see the sun.

15 On Saturday, shop worker Wismond Exantus was pulled alive from the ­rubble in Port-au-Prince, 11 days after the devastating earthquake struck and several hours after the ­Haitian government had declared the rescue operation over. And he managed to drink an entire bottle of whisky while trapped.

16 Mad Men is back! Series 3 of the pitch-perfect Madison Avenue drama starts tomorrow. Even if you don't like Mad Men, this news is bound to cheer up someone you know, and that can only make your life easier.

17 Tony Blair is going to give ­evidence to the Chilcot ­inquiry. On Friday, history will take a ­preliminary view of Blair's dubious ­legacy when he faces awkward ­questions about the legality, timing and ­wisdom of the Iraq war. If nothing else, it should prove the most dramatic daytime television viewing of the month.

18 The Winter Olympics are coming! People always say they don't like the Winter Olympics, but unlike the 2012 games, these Olympics are not going to be our problem, and therefore it doesn't matter how good or bad they are. We can just relax and watch the skating.

19 Lena Bryce of Glasgow had just given birth to the UK's first "iPhone" baby, conceived – after three years of trying – with the help of an iPhone fertility app that keeps track of ovulation times. Hooray!

20 If the Equality and Human Rights Commission gets its way, mandatory retirement at 65 will be abolished and we'll all be able to work until we're incredibly old. To be honest, we'll ­probably have to work until we're incredibly old, but at least we won't have to worry about all that red tape.

21 England didn't lose the cricket. OK, so they nearly lost. You could even argue they deserved to lose, but it doesn't matter because they didn't in the end.

22 A 76-year-old Polish beekeeper, Jozef Guzy, collapsed while working, stopped breathing, went cold and was pronounced dead by a doctor, but just as they were sealing him in his coffin someone noticed he had a pulse. He was then rushed to hospital where ­doctors couldn't find anything wrong with him. Obviously, there's something terribly wrong with him, but it's still a nice story.

23 A 2007 report by the International Panel on Climate Change suggesting that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 turns out to be wrong. A lot of cynics have pounced on this admittedly pretty serious mistake and the impact it will have on the credibility of climate-change science, but they are missing the Bigger Plus. The Himalayan glaciers, while ultimately doomed, probably won't disappear for 300 years or so. Phew!

24 The famous Separated Swans of Slimbridge, Sarindi and Saruni, got divorced after only two years together, something that has only happened once before in 40 years in this part of Gloucestershire. It was a sad tale, until now: both swans have returned to Slimbridge for the winter – with a new partner apiece in tow! It just goes to show that it can all work as long as you're prepared to be modern about these things.

25 England are going to win the 2010 World Cup, absolutely guaranteed – it's in the bag, mate. Start celebrating now if you like. (For Scottish edition: don't worry – England is never going to win the World Cup.)

Howard Zinn (RIP)

Nice Views

Haiti Aid Map

Monday, January 25, 2010

Picture Of The Day

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Friday, January 22, 2010

Jyoti Basu (RIP)

Jyoti Basu was a stumbling specialist of the half-finished sentence, a sometimes terrible public speaker who in his heyday attracted audiences of a million and more. He was awkward socially and fiercely private, a man given to slipping quietly away from the poverty of West Bengal for a month to imbibe London culture and occasionally a small brandy at the India Club.

He was never one of the poor millions who adored him. He was not really even a proper communist. But he was a revolutionary, and it is a measure of his impact on the lives of millions of landless West Bengal peasants that thousands thronged outside the Calcutta hospital where he lay dying to pay homage. He had seized land from the rich and turned many of the masses into subsistence farmers, and for this he was the unrivalled hero of leftist politics.

Not that his revolution ended poverty in West Bengal and its capital, Calcutta. Indeed, it arguably entrenched it. Business talent and big money fled, and Calcutta became an international icon for a particularly virulent kind of poverty that persists today amid familiar left-wing infighting.

Basu, invariably dressed in crisp white cotton, was rarely photographed wearing a smile. He came across as stern and distant, and the line between public and private life was strictly observed. His first wife died within 16 months of their marriage, and the second produced a son.

Basu’s politics and powerbase remained rooted in West Bengal, but he did have one chance at leaping out of this provincially feverish world in the mid-1990s to become India’s Prime Minister as head of a coalition government. The coalition might, had it succeeded, have stalled the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, a party despised by most Muslims and blamed for much communal tension. But his party blocked him, effectively arguing that he would have to compromise Marxist ideals to accommodate so many shades of political opinion. He was furious and disappointed, and later described it as a blunder. He returned quietly to state politics while using his heightened prestige to become kingmaker of the rulers of Delhi. He influence was decisive in forming an alliance in 2004 between left-wingers and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Basu’s tenure was his intolerance and abhorrence of communalism. Calcutta and West Bengal rarely followed the rest of the country into outbreaks of religious rioting. Had Basu been a different person he could have set Bengal ablaze for short-term political gain, as other politicians routinely did elsewhere. Not that he was a benevolent ruler; the state apparatus of West Bengal had its ruthless and dictatorial side and its nightmarish bureaucracy.

His instinctive communal tolerance stemmed from a liberal upbringing in what is now Bangladesh as the son of a prosperous doctor, who sent him to the best schools and later at Presidency College, Calcutta, from which he graduated with honours in English. In 1935 he sailed to London to study law at Middle Temple.

His father was horrified when his son declared that he intended to pursue politics when he returned home, and, to boot, that he was now a communist. He had been inspired, in part, by the communist philosopher and writer Rajani Palme Dutt, and had dabbled in the Communist Party of Great Britain. After returning to Calcutta in 1940 he enrolled as a barrister at the Calcutta High Court but never practised.

Instead he joined the trade union movement and organised railway workers in Bengal and Assam. He became secretary of Friends of the Soviet Union and the Anti-Fascist Writers’ Association, and was in charge of maintaining contact with underground party workers. He was now, by any measure, a fully paid-up left-wing agitator.

His loathing of communalism was first manifest in 1946-47, when he played a crucial calming role as strikes and Hindu-

Muslim bloodletting threatened to engulf the state. He also ensured there was no anti-Sikh rioting in West Bengal after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.

In 1964 the communist movement in India split between ideological camps that variously supported India or China over the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Basu sided with the pro-China camp and became a founder and leader of the new Communist Party (Marxist) in West Bengal. Of the nine founding members of the politburo, Basu was the last survivor.

The party gained ground quickly but was trounced in state elections in 1972, which the Congress Party probably rigged, but won decisively in 1977 — the start of Basu’s 23 unbroken years of power, the longest stint as chief minister in Indian political history. He immediately confronted feudalism, spread land and wealth among the peasantry, and was from that moment the invincible man of the poor.

The stifling state mechanisms that he established reinforced his power, ensuring that big business stayed away and which can still make entrepreneurs think twice about setting up in West Bengal. He made one blunder that he later admitted to: early in his chief ministership he banned the teaching of English in primary schools, sowing the seeds for greater isolation from the rest of India and hindering his later attempts to attract US investors.

Basu remained politically active until he retired in 2000 because of ill health, but as India’s leading elder statesman he never stopped receiving high-powered visitors at his home. His politics remained as they had always been, Marxist in name but Fabian in nature and, after the introduction of economic liberalism in India in the 1980s, latterly capitalist in fact.

Basu’s wife died in 2003. He is survived by his son.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Poem Of The Day


In anniversary, I took a box cutter & slit
the jute mat’s web of hay & smoke
& thrust a handful of manure into the wound
with a bulb of horsemint.
Under the windows of recovering men
in rooms quieted, the desiderata
of their blood slowing, we plant goldenrod
& butterfly bush on this ledge
of the converted convent.
The nuns of 182nd & Valentine
hollowed out these rooms as Saint Simon
lived years in a broken, living
tree waiting for the Virgin, who he called
by her other name: little rain
cloud. I knock the spade
against the copper, wipe clean the blade
on my jeans, the dung of camel,
gorilla, & ostrich bright in my nose,
a night soil we carted from the zoo
to be mixed with compost & ground-down
liter bottles. Yesterday, the elephants
were on hunger strike after a new cow
was placed in their pen. They huddled
under the turning maples—almost
as if they were asking to be tried for something
they knew they must have done—
while the lone elephant
lowered her trunk into a drum of water
& it began to rain.
by Colin Cheney
(from Guernica mag)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Freedom Maps (*)

(*) According to The Economist/Freedom House.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Miles Davis

Big Boys: General Electric

Jeff Immelt has entered the building, and his London branch office in Mayfair is in a bit of flap. The chief executive of the world's largest company passes through only a couple of times a year on a tour of General Electric's European outposts. He has already done Paris, Lyon, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Copenhagen and is on his way to Abu Dhabi, so persuading the 6ft 4in former college footballer to stand still for a picture presents a challenge.

When he is not pressing the flesh with 323,000 employees or behind his desk in Connecticut, Immelt is more used to negotiating with world leaders than photographers. This trip included seeing whether British ministers will fight harder than European rivals to host GE's next wind turbine factory.

Immelt likes to boast how the advantage of running a conglomerate this large is that everyone will see you once: "I saw [Chinese president] Jiang Zemin after 9/11 and, although I was there to sell gas turbines, for two hours all he wanted to do was talk about the philosophy of freedom and the mood of the American people," he says. "That was the first time I realised that the job was more than just selling aircraft engines."

The title of "world's biggest" company comes courtesy of Forbes magazine, which ranks sales, profits and stock market valuation to draw up its annual league table.

While these figures have slipped of late, and it is doubtful whether GE will stay number one this year, its place in the Guardian's series on companies likely to shape the next decade is a recognition that plenty of tomorrow's big names will be the same as yesterday's.

Though some fell during the financial crisis, the surviving multinationals are arguably more dominant than ever – with government bailouts only enhancing their grip on world affairs.

GE is perhaps the archetypal multi­national. Since its founder, Thomas Edison, made his name in lightbulbs at the turn of the 19th century, GE has grown with America into almost every corner of international commerce: from trains, planes and dishwashers, to Hollywood films, banking and commercial property. Under Immelt's predecessor, Jack Welch, GE came to embody modern management philosophy, including an infamous annual cull of the company's bottom-performing 10%.

This is still a company that does not leave anything to chance (a separate interview with a manager about 10 rungs down the corporate ladder from Immelt was supervised by three public relations staff). There are 200 people based around the world in a quasi-­diplomatic corps to "connect the dots for the company in the eyes of the governments" and it has the most feared team of corporate lobbyists working in Washington DC. If there was a spare seat on the UN security council, you could imagine a request might be lodged.

However, GE has had a shocking 18 months. Its once huge financial services division, GE Capital, has been pole-axed by the credit crunch and bad loans. Separately, GE has been forced to retreat from the media business, selling a controlling stake in NBC Universal to Comcast, but continues to be blamed for everything from Jay Leno's TV scheduling debacle to over-commercialisation of the Olympics.

An accounting scandal and dividend cut dented its reputation for financial reliability, and in Britain it was accused of medical censorship after it took a radiologist to court for claiming there were potentially fatal side effects to one of its healthcare products.

A decade ago such scandals would hang around GE like a bad smell. Pollution in the river Hudson made the company hated by the US environmental movement, but Immelt presents a cuddlier image than Welch. Through two marketing campaigns, "Ecomagination" and "Healthymagination", he has repositioned GE as a champion of green technology and even a partner in Barack Obama's healthcare initiatives.

During this recession, his main achievement is that GE is still standing. It may have lost its cherished AAA credit rating, but so has almost everyone else. GE Capital is back to being the junior partner to the conglomerate's staid industrial divisions, but its direct competitors – finance companies such as CIT, AIG and GMAC – face bankruptcy.

"You know what you say when you have a black eye?" quips Immelt. "You should see the other guy."

GE's problems could not have been foreseen, he insists. "We had McKinsey do a study in July 2007 and we asked them to say how long the global liquidity bubble will last and they came back and said forever, so it wasn't like we didn't ask the tough questions."

Instead, GE has made a better fist of making long-term calls about the direction of global society. Its once insatiable acquisitions machine has left it well-positioned in some of the fastest-growing developing markets while cleaning up the mess in the old world.

Big bets

"We made two big bets," says Immelt. "One is that the emerging market consumer is going to replace the American consumer as the engine of growth for the next 25 years, so we make the infrastructure and technologies that are going to help that happen: electricity, aviation, transportation, etc. The other bet is that in the developed world there are a couple of big problems to solve, global warming and clean energy, and affordable healthcare."

He remains upbeat about America's future but has become vocal about the problems too: challenging Warren Buffett for the role of corporate America's elder conscience by calling for restraint on matters such as Wall Street pay.

"A lot of these banks wouldn't be around if the government hadn't bailed AIG out, so it's hard for society to say that they should be earning the same amount in the future that they earned pre-Lehman Brothers," he says.

"On that Tuesday [after Lehman] there was a couple of hundred billion dollars of counterparty exposure; if the government had gone a different way, who knows what would have happened? There needs to be cognisance of that."

There should also be cognisance of GE's help from Washington over the years – as a major military contractor and more recently as a beneficiary of similar liquidity guarantee programmes to those received by the banks.

Immelt's embrace of the environmental movement goes little further than the order book too, and GE declined to join Apple and Nike in resigning from the US Chamber of Commerce over its lobbying against carbon emission controls. Whether it follows Google's lead in taking a tougher line with China over political repression remains to be seen. It looks unlikely, given the billions of dollars at stake. By investing in oil, gas and power infrastructure as well as green energy technologies and fuel-efficient engines, GE hopes to win, whether politicians succeed in cleaning up the environment or resource shortages drive up energy prices.

Immelt's interest in subjects such as the environment as an intellectual and engineering challenge seems genuine – he once said he slept with a stack of science journals by his bed. He regards health reform as a bigger challenge to western society than climate change: "If you told me that London wanted to reduce its carbon output by 40% by 2020, I can tell you specifically how to do it. If you told me we needed to shift the curve on healthcare, I'm not sure I could answer it – it's a more complicated, multidimensional problem."

Whether events of the past 18 months have dented his enthusiasm for the job is harder to tell behind the well-polished media drill: only when pushed about the damage to GE's reputation caused by its accounting scandal does he pause.

"There's not a lot I can say about the SEC case. People just have to look at the facts and draw their own conclusions, but I take it seriously and I take it personally."

His patience for cuddly issues also reaches limits when questioned about why GE's tax rate has been so low. While the industrial businesses can do little to escape high tax regimes, GE Capital used its international reach to the full to drive the group tax rate to among the lowest of any big American company during the long boom years.

More robust

"I think we should pay our fair share of taxes," says Immelt. "Our tax rate for GE Capital outside the US looks like our peers' outside the US. We don't have the Bermuda domicile, tax shelter and havens, but our tax rate is a function of where we've made money. We are the country's biggest exporter; that creates high-paying jobs too."

In all likelihood, General Electric will continue to outgrow America over the coming years. Already 60% of its sales are overseas, and its bridgehead into China and India looks more robust than most. Like a handful of other businesses approaching its scale, it feels more appropriate to call it a supranational than a multinational. But Immelt has seen this trap coming a long way off.

"In every way we're a global company, but I always describe us as an American company mainly because I think that if you say you are a global company, there is a sense of lawlessness that goes with that.

"If I go see the premier of China and tell him I'm a global company, he's going to think 'He doesn't care about his own country, and if he doesn't care about his own country he's not going to care about my country'."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Greed Culture

The average American consumes more than his or her weight in products each day, fuelling a global culture of excess that is emerging as the biggest threat to the planet, according to a report published today. In its annual report, Worldwatch Institute says the cult of consumption and greed could wipe out any gains from government action on climate change or a shift to a clean energy economy.

Erik Assadourian, the project director who led a team of 35 behind the report, said: "Until we recognise that our environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation to species loss, are driven by unsustainable habits, we will not be able to solve the ecological crises that threaten to wash over civilisation."

The world's population is burning through the planet's resources at a reckless rate, the US thinktank said. In the last decade, consumption of goods and services rose 28% to $30.5tn (£18.8tn).

The consumer culture is no longer a mostly American habit but is spreading across the planet. Over the last 50 years, excess has been adopted as a symbol of success in developing countries from Brazil to India to China, the report said. China this week overtook the US as the world's top car market. It is already the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.

Such trends were not a natural consequence of economic growth, the report said, but the result of deliberate efforts by businesses to win over consumers. Products such as the hamburger – dismissed as an unwholesome food for the poor at the beginning of the 20th century – and bottled water are now commonplace.

The average western family spends more on their pet than is spent by a human in Bangladesh.

The report did note encouraging signs of a shift away from the high spend culture. It said school meals programmes marked greater efforts to encourage healthier eating habits among children. The younger generation was also more aware of their impact on the environment.

There has to be a wholesale transformation of values and attitudes, the report said. At current rates of consumption, the world needs to erect 24 wind turbines an hour to produce enough energy to replace fossil fuel.

"We've seen some encouraging efforts to combat the world's climate crisis in the past few years," said Assadourian. "But making policy and technology changes while keeping cultures centred on consumerism and growth can only go so far.

"If we don't shift our very culture there will be new crises we have to face. Ultimately, consumerism is not going to be viable as the world population grows by 2bn and as more countries grow in economic power."

In the preface to the report, Worldwatch Institute's president, Christopher Flavin, writes: "As the world struggles to recover from the most serious global economic crisis since the Great Depression, we have an unprecedented opportunity to turn away from consumerism. In the end, the human instinct for survival must triumph over the urge to consume at any cost."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Big Boys: Wal-Mart

It hardly shrieks of billion-dollar glamour. The US nerve centre of the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, consists of a collection of low-slung prefabricated buildings along a four-lane highway in north-western Arkansas. Wal-Mart's head office is hundreds of miles from the nearest big city. It isn't even handy for the state capital, Little Rock, which is three and half hours' drive away.

But hopeful merchants beat a path from all corners of the world to hawk their wares here, in a series of bare Perspex rooms along a "supplier corridor". Staff work in spartan cubicles and reminders of the retailer's low-cost culture are constant – in an employee lounge an honesty box invites payment for tea and coffee with a blunt message: "Drinks are not free."

It was nearby, in the main square of the modest town of Bentonville, that Wal-Mart's founder, Sam Walton, opened a discount store, Walton's Five and Dime, in 1951. That shop, now a museum, helped spawn a retail empire that spans 8,100 stores in 15 countries generating $401bn (£248bn) of revenue annually. With a market capitalisation of $210bn, Wal-Mart is worth as much as the gross domestic product of Nigeria.

Four of America's 10 richest individuals are from Wal-Mart's low-profile Walton family, which still owns a 40% controlling stake. The company's portfolio ranges from superstores in the US to neighbourhood markets in Brazil, bodegas in Mexico, the Asda supermarket chain in Britain and Japan's nationwide network of Seiyu shops. Wal-Mart gets many of its products from low-cost Chinese suppliers. The pressure group China Labour Watch estimates that if it were a country, Wal-Mart would rank as China's seventh largest trading partner, just ahead of the UK, spending more than $18bn annually on Chinese goods.

Wal-Mart has opened a store in Beijing A Wal-Mart store in Beijing. Photo: Getty

Perhaps more than any other firm in America, Wal-Mart divides opinion. Unions loathe its relentless downward pressure on wages and its refusal to allow workers to organise. The company has been accused of unfair treatment of older, more expensive, employees. It is facing one of America's largest class-action lawsuits alleging wage discrimination against women and its hypermarkets are routinely blamed for squeezing small shops out of business.

"This is a company with a record of exploitation," says Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for a pan-union campaign group, Wake Up Wal-Mart. "They have not shared their wealth. When you spend your money at Wal-Mart, you're contributing to the wealth of one very rich family and not very many other people."

In reply, Wal-Mart's executives say the company is "saving people money so they can live better". They trumpet the availability of Wrangler jeans for $11.50, laptops for $298 and even an entire Thanksgiving turkey dinner for eight people at $20. Wal-Mart maintains that it is on the side of hard-working families who need to save every penny they can – and the company intends to spread this message globally.

Wal-Mart spent $4.1bn on international expansion in the year to January 2009, and intends to spend between $4.2bn and $4.4bn in the current fiscal year, excluding acquisitions. About a quarter of its sales are outside the US. But oddly, few of its foreign customers are aware that they are shopping at an American multinational.

Unhappy early experiences outside American shores have prompted an outbreak of new thinking at Wal-Mart. The company has embraced something of a "stealth" approach to growth. Its stores are emblazoned with an array of different names around the world – Maxibodega in Costa Rica, Todo Dia in Brazil, Despensa Familiar in Honduras and the awkward-sounding Best Price Modern Wholesale in India.

"We learned very early in the process that you simply can't take a superstore in the US, pull it out of the ground and plant it in another country and expect that to be a successful strategy," says Mitch Slape, Wal-Mart's head of international business development.

During earlier decades, the firm's approach to expansion was simple. It built US-style out-of-town discounting superstores around the world and expected shoppers to flock there for bargains. But this didn't always work. Travel patterns, family roles and shopping habits vary. Ventures into Germany and South Korea came to a sticky end with expensive exits in 2006.

Under the new approach, the "front end" of Wal-Mart's stores can look like enlarged family-run convenience stores. The contents, to some extent, are locally focused. Chinese stores offer live crustaceans, while south American outlets are heavy on spicy beans. But the "back end" is a duplicate of the US model.

"From the customer point of view, it might appear to be a certain brand," says Slape. "But everything that is 'back of house' – systems, processes, buying – we can leverage a lot of that globally."

Part of its pluralistic new approach comes from experience in Britain, where Wal-Mart bought Asda for £6.7bn a decade ago. The chain has been a moderate success, delivering consistent results, but Wal-Mart has been frustrated in its efforts to expand. Frustrated, Wal-Mart's former chief executive Lee Scott, who retired this year to make way for new incumbent Mike Duke, reportedly pondered a complete exit from the UK – but ultimately opted to stay put.

Insiders say that competing in Britain's feverishly competitive supermarket industry has taught Wal-Mart a good deal. Asda is now something of a centre for excellence for its global grocery sales. The head of global marketing for Wal-Mart is based at Asda's head office in Leeds. And, in an example of Wal-Mart's global distribution muscle, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the best-selling wine in the whole of Japan is an own-label Asda Bordeaux.

Britain is Wal-Mart's fourth-largest overseas chain, with 368 Asda outlets, behind Mexico's 1,322 stores, Brazil's 373 sites and Japan's 371 shops. All are dwarfed by the 4,200-strong network of Wal-Marts in the US. Smaller territories include Canada with 313 stores, Cuba at 266 and a newly acquired 238-strong chain in Chile. Russia and India are next in line for focus and Wal-Mart won't be taking half measures – the company only bothers to enter a market if it thinks it can be one of the top few players.

"It's important for us to be in one of the top three positions," says Wan Ling Martello, chief financial officer of Wal-Mart's international operation. "We have to have scale – otherwise it doesn't quite make sense."

That scale gives Wal-Mart muscle – and it is this brawn that, in the eyes of critics, can give it an unpleasantly bullying demeanour. At the very centre of the company's business model is a constant effort to drive down costs to an absolute minimum. Every pound, penny and tenth of a penny per unit of stock turns into millions in a firm of Wal-Mart's size.

"With the scale the company has, the economies of scale it can command, it basically extracts every last nickel out of its suppliers," says Michael Bride, deputy overseas organising director at the United Food & Commercial Workers Union in Washington. "If you're a Chinese supplier and Wal-Mart is pressing you down, you probably can't go and negotiate your electricity rates or your rent down. But you can cut costs when it comes to labour."

An investigation of five factories supplying Wal-Mart by China Labour Watch found "illegal and degrading conditions" according to a report released in November by the New York-based human rights group. At one plant in Dongguan, which supplies candles and Christmas tree lights, it found that workers were required to work 24-hour overtime shifts during busy periods and painted a bleak picture of pay as low as 44 cents (27p) an hour, bathrooms without running water and unsanitary canteens. Although Wal-Mart uses independent auditors to check on ethics at its suppliers, the group found evidence of workers being obliged to sign false pay receipts.

Wal-Mart responded to the report by saying it had begun an immediate inquiry into the factories: "We take reports like this very seriously and we will take prompt remedial action if our investigations confirm any of the findings."

While imbued with an innate conservatism by its founding family, Wal-Mart moved in recent years to introduce higher environmental standards. As of 2007, it says it succeeded in cutting the amount of waste it sent to landfills by 55%. Wal-Mart also wants to be 100% driven by renewable power and recently said that it was purchasing sufficient wind energy in Texas to account for 15% of its electricity in the US.

Under a newly launched "sustainability index," Wal-Mart's suppliers must report to the company on their greenhouse gas emissions, waste reduction initiatives and ethical sourcing. The company is working towards a labelling system to inform customers of the sustainability of each and every product.

Matt Kistler, Wal-Mart's senior vice-president for sustainability, says saving on waste is a no-brainer: "At first it was a little bit of a reaction to the negative pressures as a company we'd been receiving. But very early on, from day two, there was a tremendous appetite not only from an environmental point of view but from a business point of view to do what we're doing."

Yet even these efforts, argue critics, are modest in the context of larger questions over the globalisation of Wal-Mart's business. Wake Up Wal-Mart campaigner, Jill Cashen, says: "It's one thing to bring in a product, ship it from the other side of the planet and stick a label on it telling customers it's sustainable. How much greener would it be if it was produced within 100 miles of where it was sold?"

In North America, Wal-Mart is unashamedly anti-union. When, in a rare case in 2005, workers at a Quebecois Wal-Mart store voted in favour of collective representation, Wal-Mart simply shut it down. The case went to Canada's supreme court, which last month accepted Wal-Mart's explanation that the location was unprofitable.

Overseas, Wal-Mart has proved more flexible – it has worked with unions in Argentina, Brazil and in China, in accordance with local laws. But there are still strong reservations in the public mind about the way Wal-Mart does business.

Back in Arkansas, the Walton family are taking a stab at posterity through the construction of an impressive $50m glass and wood art gallery, Crystal Bridges. Designed by an acclaimed Israeli architect, Moshe Safdie, the 100,000 sq ft (10,000 sq metre) complex is bankrolled by Sam Walton's daughter, Alice, and is intended to put Bentonville on the cultural map with a collection of American art from colonial times to the present.

But even on Wal-Mart's home turf, visitors are far from unanimous in their verdicts on the company. "It's a symbol of free enterprise – the success of the free enterprise system," says John Niccum, a pensioner visiting Sam Walton's original Five and Dime store, now a museum.

But Kay Heaton, an AT&T telecoms employee from Missouri, is dubious: "It's beating the heck out of the little man. It kills the little guy who offers an independent service, from an independent business."

Founding father

Samuel Moore Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, was born on 29 March 1918 on a farm in Oklahoma. His father moved the family from town to town in the 1920s after quitting farming and becoming a mortgage broker. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Walton took any job that was going to supplement the family income but eventually graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a business degree. Three days after leaving college, in 1940, he joined JC Penney on the retailer's management trainee scheme, where he picked up some of the traits that were to characterise his business life, including his penchant for "managing from the floor". He was paid $75 a month.

When the US entered the Second World War in 1942, Walton joined the army intelligence corps and when fighting ended, he borrowed $20,000 from his father-in-law and used his own savings of $5,000 to buy a store in Newport, Arkansas. He quickly proved his business acumen by snapping up a women's lingerie distributor two years later, when rayon women's underwear was becoming all the rage.

Walton had to sell his Newport store after failing to renew the lease, but he did not let the setback slow him down. He snapped up another in Bentonville and renamed it Walton's Five and Dime. By the end of the Fifties he had more than a dozen stores across Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. But the first to be branded Wal-Mart – a name created by Walton's assistant Bob Bogle – did not open until July 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. It was an instant hit but the second, launched two years later, nearly ended in disaster. Opening in a heatwave, the store soon reeked of manure from donkeys been hired for children's rides.

The company officially incorporated as Walmart Stores in 1969 and the following year, Walton raised $5m by taking the company public on the New York Stock Exchange. The chain rapidly expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, opening its 1,000th store in 1987, and Walton lived to see it overtake Sears in 1991 to become the largest retailer in the US. He died in 1992 as the richest man in America, though he still drove a battered pick-up truck and made a habit of getting $5 haircuts.

Big Boys: China Mobile

Until just over a year ago, Gong ­Kangshun spent much of his life trekking over the mountains around his remote village in south-west China. It isn't easy to make a living in Xiuxi, a tiny settlement of 58 families deep in Aba county, Sichuan. Gong grows crops on a small plot and sells rare fungi found on the steep slopes nearby. Many young people, including his brother, leave to find work in the factories and shops of China's east.

But a single purchase has shortened his working hours and sent his income soaring – by helping him to find buyers for his fungi. It has even improved his relationships with family and friends. "I'd panic without my mobile phone," the 35-year-old admits.

Across China, tens of millions have similar tales to tell. Many had never enjoyed phone access until recently. Now, for as little as £20, they can buy a handset, slot in a pre-paid sim card, start calling – and change their lives.

Most, like Gong, can thank one firm: China Mobile. With more than 70% of the domestic market it has 518 million subscribers; more than any other mobile carrier on the planet.

It is the world's largest phone operator by market value and the largest Chinese company listed overseas. Its work on 4G technology and its interest in foreign acquisitions suggest its international profile may soon grow.

Already the company's influence is rippling out across the world, almost unnoticed. The rapid spread of mobiles facilitated by the company's high-speed network roll-out, is both a product of China's aggressive development and a contributor to it – accelerating the pace of life and business, shrinking distances.

Some activists are enthusiastic about the potential for mobiles and the internet to expand the flow of information in a country with heavy censorship. They point to cases where camera phones have captured and shared images of unrest or official abuse.

The authorities certainly seem to be aware of the potential – Chinese social networking sites are strictly controlled and overseas services such as YouTube are blocked. In restive Xinjiang text messaging was turned off after vicious ethnic violence. The authorities also use mobiles for everything from political education to monitoring individuals.

The social and political effects of new technology are rarely straightforward, but for most people, mobiles are simply a part of their life. Whether a highly-paid Shanghai ­executive, or an independent farmer-cum-trader such as Gong, no one can afford to be without a phone – or a signal. China Mobile's 500,000 base ­stations now cover 98% of the population. You can call home from city subway trains, distant fields, or the peak of Mount Everest.

"If you have a requirement, we will have coverage," pledged the firm's chairman and chief executive Wang Jianzhou, who has more than three decades of experience in the sector.

"When we started this business we thought very few people would use mobile phones – only the rich," he said. Now he is dissatisfied with a penetration rate of 57%. "I think every adult should have at least one mobile … they are an extension of human ears, eyes and mouths."

Before the network reached Xiuxi, in late 2008, Gong used the phone perhaps twice a month. Each time he would walk for an hour to the nearest landline to call traders interested in buying the valuable "caterpillar" and "sheep stomach" fungi used in Chinese medicine.

"Now, on a busy day, I might make 20 calls," he said. "I can contact buyers in Chengdu and Shanghai. I can do business sitting at home and buyers can reach me, too."

News from outside

His income has risen 50%, to 20,000 yuan (£1,820). And instead of walking seven hours a day to find the fungi collectors, he can call and ask them to deliver.

In his spare time, he chats to his younger brother, a chef in Zhejiang province who comes home at most once a year. Villagers hear a lot more news from the outside world these days – even Gong's 14-year-old son has his own phone. In 1997, there were just 10 million mobile users in China; by 2005, China Mobile had 240 million. Since then it has more than doubled.

The government pushes all carriers to serve the poorest. But since taking charge at China Mobile in 2004, Wang has shown sceptics that focusing on rural areas is a viable business strategy.

"Many analysts and investment bankers told me: never go to rural areas because they are low revenue. You will not make a profit," Wang said, in an interview at his spacious but low-key office in the company's headquarters on Beijing's Financial Street.

"I didn't believe that … with fixed lines, providing rural services is very, very difficult and expensive. [We have] low average revenue per user – but also low costs."

With a penetration rate of just 37%, there is plenty of room for growth among China's 700 million rural population. And there is plenty of demand. In Yangcun county, close to Beijing, Chen Fengmei anxiously scrolls through her latest text message: advice from officials on how the day's weather will affect her tomato crop. Another villager, Li Chunyu, checks the latest market prices for his pigs, no longer needing to trust middlemen or to give them a cut of his profits. "I never need to go anywhere. I can stay on the farm and find out everything," he said.

Some wonder whether China Mobile's success is down to business acumen or simply that the Chinese government owns a stake of more than 74%. Public investors hold the rest – the firm is listed in New York and Hong Kong, where it is technically domiciled.

"We are all wondering whether China Mobile really has the mojo, or whether whatever position it has is really a government favour," said David Wolf of corporate advisory firm Wolf Group Asia. "I think China Mobile would argue they have been victims of disfavour in recent years … the fact the company didn't simply implode suggests a lot of good inside the organisation."

In 2008, officials reorganised the telecoms sector, strengthening competition and awarding the firm the least mature of the 3G standards.

China Mobile had previously snapped up 83% to 88% of new subscribers, said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting, a Beijing-based telecoms and IT specialist. As its rivals settled down, that share rose. But by October 2009, it had fallen to 56%.

"Now there are three players and the market is very, very competitive," Wang said.

"We think its normal that we have a reduced share of new subscribers. But the total market still has big potential." The costs of introducing 3G and the impact of the global downturn contributed to the firm's only fall in profits for a decade, in the second quarter of 2009. Although profits have rebounded, the slight year-on-year rise to 28.6bn yuan in the third quarter was less than analysts had predicted.

Last week also saw unwelcome news when China Mobile sacked its vice-chairman Zhang Chunjiang, citing alleged serious financial irregularities. He had earlier been sacked by the parent company, according to state media. China Mobile said his removal would have no material effect on the business; reports ­suggest the claims relate to Zhang's ­previous job.

The company's mid to long-term prospects depend on customers like pig farmer Li making more frequent and longer calls and using data services – as Wang tacitly acknowledges when he remarks that "we hope all mobile phones will become smart phones".

Li's 20 to 30 calls a day bring in little income for China Mobile; perhaps 2,000 yuan (£180) a year. Even that is double the average. "I know you can use mobiles for other things besides calls and texts, but I don't know how," he confided. "Sometimes I look at their screens and feel a little dizzy."

The good news for China Mobile is that his children and their friends are using their phones to browse the web, play games and watch videos. But customers may be tempted to turn away from the firm as they trade up. The company is heavily promoting its 3G service, launched last January and in November, almost 3 million people used the network, which serves 70% of cities.


Yet China Unicom, which launched its 3G network in October, is catching up fast, with a million users in its first month. China Mobile must fight off strengthened competition with the domestically-developed TD-SCDMA (time division synchronous code division multiple access) standard.

Some wondered if the firm missed a trick when it failed to reach a deal for the iPhone, now available through China Unicom. Wang says it is still negotiating with Apple and highlights a deal for a TD-SCDMA BlackBerry as "very big progress". Yet he is noticeably unenthusiastic about 3G.

"It's a very difficult job to operate ­TD-SCDMA because no other operator has used it before. But China Mobile has big experience in rolling out and maintaining networks," he said.

"It's difficult but we think we can reach our target. And TD-SCDMA does have advantages – easy migration to LTE."

TD-LTE (long term evolution) is a 4G standard offering super-fast downloads, which China Mobile will trial at the World Expo in Shanghai this year.

Wang foresees 4G products on the market within three years and says overseas operators are already interested. "It's expected to be a much stronger competitor," Natkin confirmed.

"TD has always been playing catch-up. In the 4G arena China is actually at – if not ahead of – the starting line."

China Mobile hopes to extend its reach in other ways. In 2007 it bought Pakistan's Paktel, now renamed ChinaMobile Pakistan and branded as Zong.

Wang describes the telecoms market there as "very competitive" and "difficult". But he sees the purchase as a first step in international expansion and his eyes gleam at the prospect of snapping up other overseas carriers.

The chief executive, who spoke fluent English throughout the interview, has fostered relationships with his peers abroad and watches them closely.

"We are trying to find other opportunities for acquisitions, but it's not easy. We are waiting for ­opportunities whether in ­developed or developing countries," he said.

Big Boys: Gazprom

The next cold war may well take place in a room that looks oddly like a scene from the last one. Along one wall of a spartan control centre in Moscow, a large map of Europe is projected on computer screens. Visitors have to pass through five rings of security to reach this spot, but the few outsiders who make it through are proudly shown a display of raw power. From underground facilities deep inside Siberia, a series of trajectories are plotted on the computer screens – aiming west toward Europe's largest conurbations. An engineer explains how easy it would be to turn out the lights in a foreign city with the click of a button on his desk.

Fortunately, this is not missile command but the control room of Gazprom, the world's largest gas producer and a flagship of Russian capitalism. The plotted lines show the route of major pipelines – coloured green because they are full of natural gas flowing at more than 30km an hour. Yet the threat of plunging neighbouring states into nuclear winter remains a real one. This time last year, actions taken in this room threw much of Europe into panic. A dispute between Gazprom and Ukraine over unpaid gas bills culminated in a decision to turn off transit pipelines that also feed much of central and eastern Europe – shutting down heating and electricity generation for millions during one of the worst cold snaps for years.

Now, with the continent again in the deep freeze and running low on gas, the power of Russian energy companies is once more in the spotlight. Russia has already sparred with Belarus over oil supplies this winter in a dispute that also threatened to disrupt energy exports to Europe. Gazprom and the Ukrainian government are hoping to avoid a repeat of their 2009 pipeline brinkmanship for now, but critics claim Moscow is never far away from using its energy might to exert political influence over its neighbours.

Even Britain received a taste of how fragile Europe's gas supply infrastructure can be last week when a drop in pipeline pressure from Norway forced authorities to suspend supply to certain designated industrial users to protect homes and offices. Our reliance on imported gas is set to rise rapidly as UK reserves near depletion in less than eight years at current extraction rates.

Increasingly, one company dominates not just existing European supply but, more importantly, its future sources. Gazprom has so much natural gas under the tundra of Siberia that its energy resources are equivalent to all the oil and gas fields owned by western energy companies put together. At 33.1tn cubic metres, its gas reserves are 55 times greater than Britain's North Sea alone. In fact, only the Saudis, with their huge desert oilfields, can match Gazprom's total energy reserves. Even then, oil exports from Russia recently overtook those of Saudi Arabia.

The geopolitics of energy are well rehearsed but relatively little is known about key corporate players such as Gazprom, which rarely grants access to foreign media. Today's Guardian interview is the first in a five-part series published this week, which looks at some of the key international companies likely to shape world affairs over the coming decade. Some, like Gazprom or the mining giant BHP Billiton, control the dwindling raw materials most likely to prove strategic flashpoints.

Tomorrow we turn to China Mobile, straddling the two most powerful global trends: the rise of China and digital communications, while General Electric and Wal-Mart are examples of how powerful multinational corporations have survived the financial crisis to retain their global influence.

Not all are in good shape. 2009 was a torrid time for businesses everywhere. Gazprom has had a particularly bad year as its reputation for reliability plummeted after the Ukrainian shutdown and the recession caused Europeans to consume far less gas.

But as energy prices bounce back fast (oil, which acts as a benchmark for gas, has jumped swiftly to $80 a barrel again) Moscow is recovering the swagger of a city swimming in easy money.

A few miles south of its glitzy ­boutiques, the headquarters of Russia's largest company is more forbidding: a chilly blue neo-Stalinist skyscraper known as "The Candle" houses a bureaucracy that serves as a constant reminder of Gazprom's Soviet past. Still 50.1% owned by the Russian state, its managers are nonetheless at pains to stress its independence from government foreign policy. "We don't do politics," insists Vladimir Mikheev, an executive from the export arm who complains of the west's "Gazpromophobia".

But his boss, Gazprom's official public representative, Sergei Kupriyanov, is blunt about why the state keeps such an iron grip: "Most of the territory of the Russian Federation lies in rather uncomfortable climatic conditions – much of the year it is freezing, which means any rupture of the gas supplies will immediately lead to catastrophe."

Russia knows about energy's strategic importance better than most. Its citizens rely on heavily subsidised gas from Gazprom's monopoly and months of sub-zero temperatures make energy security a matter of life and death.

As last year's clash with Ukraine showed, it also makes for an unusually powerful form of economic weapon. Opinion remains divided over who was really to blame for shutdown, but the show of strength appears to have worked: five years after Ukraine's so-called Orange revolution, both candidates standing for election in next weekend's presidential election are now broadly pro-Moscow.

Gazprom is more than just strategically useful, contributing 20% of ­Russia's total state budget in taxes, and Kupriyanov stresses its benefits to other shareholders too: "We also have private investors who are expecting returns and that means we have to be transparent".

Unfortunately, market rules do not always apply as evenly to foreign investors in Russia, who remain scarred by a series of assets confiscations and forced disposals. Only the vast riches at stake keep overseas money flowing to invest in vital new projects such as the Yamal development scheme in Siberia or Nord Stream pipeline to Germany. Chief executives from two western energy firms who agreed to speak off the record about Gazprom conceded that they faced little choice but to continue dealing with Russia despite misgivings about the reliability of its contract law.

Gazprom's emphasis on "shareholder transparency" does little to clear up questions about its ownership either. Rumours persist that senior government figures have sizeable indirect holdings. "We haven't seen any traces," says Kupriyanov when asked whether Vladimir Putin has a personal economic interest in the company.

To Gazprom's foreign shareholders, close links with the Kremlin are a mixed blessing: protecting their asset but holding back true reform. "The government is only interested in two things: political power and cheap domestic gas," says one Moscow-based fund manager. "There is no incentive to make the business more efficient and profitable so they just take more for themselves."

For the economy as a whole, energy may be too much of a good thing. Roland Nash, head of research at Moscow investment bank Renaissance Capital, warns that over-reliance on booming energy prices may hold back Russia's otherwise strong prospects.: "The economic crisis was just the wrong length of time: long enough to undermine small companies and the emerging middle class but too short to force government into reform. Russia needs to diversify away from oil and gas."

For now though, Gazprom is in the vanguard of Russia's new energy imperialism. British consumers too may see more of "the big G". Gazprom Marketing and Trading, its overseas arm, sells gas to commercial clients such as Chelsea football club and has a target of expanding its UK market share from 2% to 10%. Kupriyanov also reveals ambitions to sell to residential customers one day. "Yes, definitely," he says. "The British market offers ample opportunities of developing downstream operations – we appreciate the fact that it's a liberalised market and all of the infrastructure is in place."

Last time Gazprom made moves on the residential market – by exploring a takeover of Centrica – it prompted intense political suspicion and even the threat of a UK government veto. Now it hopes its softly-softly approach with commercial customers will ease fears. "You all thought there would be bear scratches on the gas pipes but the headlines cried wolf," says Kupriyanov. "Our entry to the UK market was exemplary."

A bigger factor in containing Europe's "Gazpromophobia" is likely to be whether the company cuts off any more pipelines. Will there be another crisis this winter? "We have good reason to believe crisis can be averted but it is never easy to give a 100% guarantee," concludes the man from Gazprom.

Testing The Limits Of The System

We Live In Screenland

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Orhan Pamuk

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Birtukan Mideksa

At noon every Sunday an old Toyota sedan donated by supporters of Ethiopia's most famous prisoner pulls up near a jail on the outskirts of the capital. A 74-year-old woman in a white shawl and her four-year-old granddaughter – the only outsiders the prisoner is allowed to see – step out for a 30-minute visit.

Most inmates at Kaliti prison want their relatives to buy them food. But Birtukan Mideksa, the 35-year-old leader of the country's main opposition party, always asks her mother and daughter to bring books: an anthology titled The Power of Non-Violence, Bertrand Russell's Best, and the memoirs of Gandhi, Barack Obama, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political prisoner to whom she has been compared.

Mideksa, a single mother and former judge, was among dozens of opposition leaders, journalists and civil society workers arrested following anti-government demonstrations after the disputed 2005 elections. Charged with treason for allegedly planning to overthrow the government – accusations rejected by independent groups such as Amnesty International – the political leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment. After spending nearly two years in jail they were pardoned, but Mideksa was rearrested in December 2008 for challenging the official version of circumstances that led to her release. Her pardon was revoked, her life sentence reinstated, and she was sent to solitary confinement for several months before being moved to a shared cell.

"My child did not do anything wrong – she had no weapon, she committed no crime," said Almaz Gebregziabher, Mideksa's mother, in her house on a hillside in Addis Ababa after visiting her daughter one recent Sunday. "I want the world to know that this is unjust."

Many Ethiopians agree. Mideksa's treatment has turned her into a local heroine, and cast a shadow over elections due in May. Opposition parties and international human rights groups say the case is clear proof of the authoritarian government's stalled progress towards democracy.

It is also evidence, they say, of the double standards of western donors when dealing with Meles Zenawi, the prime minister, a major aid recipient and ally in the "war against terror".

While Zenawi makes no attempt to hide his disdain for Mideksa – talk of her release is a "dead issue", he said last month – he denies the case is political.

But a look at her history with his regime and at her popularity particularly among young voters –shows why few people outside his party believe him.

Born into a humble family, Mideksa excelled at university and was appointed a federal judge in Addis Ababa. In 2002, she was assigned a case involving Siye Abraha, a former defence minister who had fallen out with Zenawi and was accused of corruption. Mideksa released him on bail – a rare show of judicial independence in Ethiopia – but when Abraha left court he was immediately rearrested and jailed.

"That case showed her courage, her sense of justice," said Hailu Araya, vice-chairman of Mideksa's Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party. "But the government took this an affront."

Mideksa's relatives said she then joined opposition forces before the 2005 elections and was then arrested and released in 2007.

Upon her release her status as a rising political star soon became evident.

In her home neighbourhood they were big celebrations, and supporters chipped in to buy her the Toyota. Mideksa's mother tried to persuade he to go into exile, as some other opposition leaders had done.

But she refused, according to her cousin, Eyerusalem Yilma. "Birtukan always said: 'There's no politics from a distance'."

She set about bringing together the various opposition groups from 2005, and helped found the UDJ of which she was elected chairperson. Her age and gender made this extraordinary, not just in Ethiopia, but in all Africa.

"She is charismatic, young, smart and courageous. And that makes her a threat to Meles, of course," said Bulcha Demeksa, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, an opposition party in coalition with the UDJ.

Mesfin Woldemariam, 79, the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, who was jailed alongside Mideksa in 2005and wants the opposition to boycott the election if she is not released, said she had another key attribute – her lack of baggage. "Many young people feel they need a new political class, outside of the influence of this Marxist-Leninist government, and the previous Derg and Haile Selassie regimes, in which many other opposition leaders featured. They want a clean slate and Birtukan fits in with that," Woldemariam said.

In November 2008, while in Europe, Mideksa told an audience of Ethiopians in Sweden that her pardon had come as a result of negotiations rather than an official request made through legal channels. While people who were in jail with her the first time say this reflected the truth, the government said it equated to denying asking for a pardon, and sent her back to jail. Although Mideksa tries to assure her mother and daughter that she will be out soon, the strain on them is obvious. Gebregziabher says: "My eyes have almost gone blind from crying," and that Mideksa's daughter Halley asks: "Isn't this enough – why don't you come home mum?" during each weekly visit.

But there is no sympathy from the government. "She was advised to obey the rule of law," said Teferi Melese, head of public diplomacy at the foreign affairs ministry in Addis Ababa. "But she broke the conditions of her pardon, thinking her friends in the EU could get her released."

That foreign embassies, including Britain's, which have been refused permission to visit Mideksa, have barely made a public complaint about the case appears to back opposition complaints that when it comes to Ethiopia, as opposed to say Kenya or Zimbabwe,donors favour stability over democratic reforms or human rights.

One reason is Zenawi's status as a western ally in the horn of Africa, where Islamists are trying to take over neighbouring Somalia. Another reason, somewhat incongruously, is the huge amount of aid money that flows into Ethiopia and helps donor countries move closer to meeting their international aid commitments.

"The government says the more we make noise the more difficult it will be to get her [Mideksa] out," said one western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Are we going to risk our entire aid budget for one person? No."

A devisive government

Meles Zenawi came to power in 1991 when his rebel army ousted the brutal Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Despite presiding over strong economic growth, improving health and education services, and developing a multi-party system, Meles's ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) remains hugely divisive.

The EPRDF includes four ethnically-based parties, but the strong dominance of Meles' Tigray ethnic group, who constitute only 6% of the population, over all key aspects of government is one source of great resentment, particularly among Amharas and Oromos, who together account for 60% of the country's 80m people.

Another is the ruling regime's repressive governing style. Despite official, often Orwellian, denials – "We make it very easy for journalists in this country," Hailemariam Desalegn, the government chief whip, once said in an interview – there is very little press freedom, and civil society groups have been intimidated into silence.

The public discontent was obvious in the 2005 election, when opposition groups swept the seats in the capital Addis Ababa and made gains nationwide. In anti-government demonstrations that followed police killed at least 193 civilians and tens of thousands of people were arrested. The EPRDF, which accuses opposition leaders of fomenting ethnic hatred, says it is confident that the upcoming election in May will be peaceful.

Advice For Would-Be Plotters

This is just getting embarrassing. If there is one thing politicians are meant to be good at, it's backstabbing and treachery: yet after this week's shambolic efforts to unseat Gordon Brown, it's obvious the vital art of plotting is in sad decline. Whatever the merits of Brown's leadership, our future putsching cannot be allowed to become an international laughing stock. Here's how to do it properly:

1 Definitely think harder about the name. The "Snow Plot" just lent itself to headlines about slush and melting away. You want something that sounds less like rosy-cheeked winter frolicking, more like cold-blooded murder. It's all about the branding, especially when it comes to the inevitable (surely?) plot-associated merchandise. T-shirts might be nice. Team Gordon or Team . . .

2 Ah. Before overthrowing a leader, do line up a replacement. Thinking that David Miliband will be interested (again) only to have David Miliband dither for a few hours before retreating (again) isn't enough.

3 Coups are political theatre, which makes them all about casting. So probably don't put Patricia Hewitt in the lead. Good egg though she is, the mere sound of her voice makes too many male Labour MPs reach for their guns. Consider, too, whether the radical left really will rise up and follow the man who was defence secretary through the Iraq war. Maybe don't ask Tessa Jowell to be the ruthless, cold-eyed executioner, either.

4 Don't be so squeamish. Do not, for example, launch a coup and promptly insist that of course it isn't a coup, you're just trying to be helpful. Did Wat Tyler claim the peasants were revolting in order to support the jolly popular poll tax? Did Brutus suggest Caesar might welcome a stabbing to clear the air?

5 Emailing fellow MPs about one's plot could have been a good wheeze, avoiding the need for old-fashioned, tell-tale huddling in corners. Unfortunately, it means they can then email back being spectacularly rude about you. And then leak their emails to the LabourList website, in humiliating detail. Ever since Michael Portillo got caught installing phone lines, technology has not really been the plotter's friend.

6 Don't try whipping up a frenzy of despair on the one day things are vaguely looking up. He had a half-decent joke about marriage at prime minister's questions! He's only, um, nine points behind the Tories! For Gordon Brown, that's a day of glittering triumph.

7 Do it in summer. Have we definitely ruled out the possibility that the cabinet stayed on board because it was freezing out in front of the cameras? The best time for Hoon and Hewitt to act might have been just before parliament's summer recess: say, June. Maybe straight after some lousy local election results, but still a year away from a general election. Perhaps just as a young cabinet minister with leadership potential resigns, describing Brown as a loser. Shame that opportunity never arose, eh?

8 Learn from the Tories. Forget the myths about what brilliantly ruthless plotters they are: they were useless under William Hague (or he wouldn't have survived a parliament) and Iain Duncan Smith (or he wouldn't have survived a fortnight). But they improved with practice. And they realised the business of collecting enough MPs' names to force a contest (they only needed 25: it's 70 for a Labour contest) is hopeless: you can get 24 easily, but nobody wants to be the 25th, the one everyone blames.

9 Know your enemy. Westminster is littered with the corpses of people who crossed Gordon Brown en route to Downing Street: he is not going to quit because a few backbenchers criticise him on the telly. Also, know your allies in cabinet. Possibly even talk to them first. Always useful to know they didn't really mean it when they said they were with you all the way.

10 When it all goes wrong, avoid the next day's papers. If they're not full of untrue rumours started by Downing Street about your sex life, they'll be full of sanctimonious Tories pretending to feel sorry for you. Lick your wounds, and remember: at least you tried. And you can always say I told you so.

Smile! You´Ve Got Cancer

If you had asked me, just before the diagnosis of cancer, whether I was an optimist or a pessimist, I would have been hard-pressed to answer. But on health-related matters, as it turned out, I was optimistic to the point of delusion. Nothing had so far come along that could not be controlled by diet, stretching, painkillers or, at worst, a prescription. So I was not at all alarmed when a routine mammogram aroused some "concern" on the part of my gynaecologist.

How could I have breast cancer? I had no known risk factors, there was no breast cancer in the family, I'd had my babies relatively young and nursed them both. I ate right, drank sparingly and worked out. When the gynaecologist suggested a follow-up mammogram four months later, I agreed only to placate her.

The result of the mammogram, conveyed to me by phone a day later, was that I would need a biopsy, and, for some reason, a messy, surgical one with total anaesthesia. Still, I was not overly perturbed and faced the biopsy like a falsely accused witch confronting a trial by dunking: at least I would clear my name. I called my children to inform them of the upcoming surgery and assured them that the great majority of lumps detected by mammogram – 80%, the radiology technician had told me – are benign.

My official induction into breast cancer came 10 days later with the biopsy, from which I awoke to find the surgeon standing perpendicular to me, at the far end of the bed, down near my feet, stating gravely, "Unfortunately, there is a cancer." It took me the rest of that drug-addled day to decide that the most heinous thing about that sentence was not the presence of cancer but the absence of me – for I, Barbara, did not enter into it even as a cation, a geographical reference point. I had been replaced by it, was the surgeon's implication.

I know women who followed up their diagnoses with weeks or months of self-study, mastering their options, interviewing doctor after doctor, assessing the damage to be expected from the available treatments. But I could tell from a few hours of investigation that the career of a breast cancer patient had been pretty well mapped out in advance: you may get to negotiate the choice between lumpectomy and mastectomy, but lumpectomy is commonly followed by weeks of radiation, and in either case if the lymph nodes turn out, upon dissection, to be invaded – or "involved," as it's less threateningly put – you're doomed to months of chemotherapy, an intervention that is on a par with using a sledge hammer to swat mosquitoes.

The pressure was on, from doctors and loved ones, to do something right away – kill it, get it out now. The endless exams, the bone scan to check for metastases, the hi-tech heart test to see if I was strong enough to withstand chemotherapy – all these blurred the line between selfhood and thing-hood anyway, organic and inorganic, me and it. As my cancer career unfolded, I would, the helpful pamphlets explained, become a composite of the living and the dead – an implant to replace the breast, a wig to replace the hair. And then what will I mean when I use the word "I"? I fell into a state of unreasoning passive aggressivity: they found it, let them fix it.

Fortunately, no one has to go through this alone. Forty years ago, before Betty Ford, Rose Kushner, Betty Rollin and other pioneer patients spoke out, breast cancer was a dread secret, endured in silence and euphemised in obituaries as a "long illness". Today, however, it's the biggest disease on the cultural map, bigger than Aids, cystic fibrosis or spinal injury, bigger even than those more prolific killers of women – heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke. There are hundreds of websites devoted to it, not to mention newsletters, support groups and a whole genre of first-person breast cancer books.

The first thing I discovered as I waded out into the relevant sites is that not everyone views the disease with horror and dread. Instead, the appropriate attitude is upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive. There is, I found, a significant market for all things breast cancer-related. You can dress in pink-beribboned sweatshirts, denim shirts, pyjamas, lingerie, aprons, shoelaces and socks; accessorise with pink rhinestone brooches, scarves, caps, earrings and bracelets; and brighten up your home with breast cancer candles, coffee mugs, wind chimes and night-lights. "Awareness" beats secrecy and stigma, of course, but I couldn't help noticing that the existential space in which a friend had earnestly advised me to "confront [my] mortality" bore a striking resemblance to a shopping centre.

This is not entirely a case of cynical merchants exploiting the sick. Some of the breast cancer accessories are made by breast cancer survivors themselves, and in most cases a portion of the sales goes to breast cancer research. It is also clear that the ultrafeminine theme of the breast cancer marketplace – the prominence, for example, of cosmetics and jewellery – could be understood as a response to the treatments' disastrous effects on one's looks. There is no doubt, though, that all the prettiness and pinkness is meant to inspire a positive outlook.

I needed whatever help I could get, and found myself searching obsessively for practical tips on hair loss, how to select a chemotherapy regimen, what to wear after surgery and eat when the scent of food sucks. There was, I soon discovered, far more than I could usefully absorb, for thousands of the afflicted have posted their stories, beginning with the lump or bad mammogram, proceeding through the agony of the treatments, pausing to mention the sustaining forces of family, humour and religion, and ending, in almost all cases, with an upbeat message for the terrified neophyte.

I couldn't seem to get enough of these tales, reading on with panicky fascination about everything that can go wrong – septicemia, ruptured implants, startling recurrences a few years after the completion of treatments, "mets" (metastases) to vital organs, and – what scared me most in the short term – "chemobrain" or the cognitive deterioration that sometimes accompanies chemotherapy. I compared myself with everyone, selfishly impatient with those whose conditions were less menacing, shivering over those who had reached Stage IV (there is no Stage V), constantly assessing my chances.

But, despite all the helpful information, the more fellow victims I discovered and read, the greater my sense of isolation grew. No one among the bloggers and book writers seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments. What causes it and why is it so common, especially in industrialised societies? Why don't we have treatments that distinguish between different forms of breast cancer or between cancer cells and normal dividing cells? In the mainstream of breast cancer culture, there is very little anger, no mention of possible environmental causes, and few comments about the fact that, in all but the more advanced, metastasised cases, it is the "treatments", not the disease, that cause the immediate illness and pain. In fact, the overall tone is almost universally upbeat. The Breast Friends website, for example, features a series of inspirational quotes: "Don't cry over anything that can't cry over you"; "When life hands out lemons, squeeze out a smile"; "Don't wait for your ship to come in… swim out to meet it," and much more of that ilk.

As in the Aids movement, upon which breast cancer activism is partly modelled, the words "patient" and "victim," with their aura of self-pity and passivity, have been ruled un-PC. Instead, we get verbs: those who are in the midst of their treatments are described as "battling" or "fighting", sometimes intensified with "bravely" or "fiercely" – language suggestive of Katharine Hepburn with her face to the wind. Once the treatments are over, one achieves the status of "survivor", which is how the women in my local support group identified themselves, AA-style. For those who cease to be survivors, again, no noun applies. They are said to have "lost their battle" – our lost brave sisters, our fallen soldiers.

The cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease. Writing in 2007, New York Times health columnist Jane Brody quoted bike racer and testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who said, "Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me", and cited a woman asserting that "breast cancer has given me a new life. Breast cancer was something I needed to experience to open my eyes to the joy of living." Betty Rollin, one of the first American women to go public with her disease, was enlisted to testify that she has "realised that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer – that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were".

In the most extreme characterisation, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance – it is a "gift", deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude. One survivor writes in her book The Gift Of Cancer: A Call To Awakening that "cancer is your ticket to your real life. Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live." And if that is not enough to make you want to go out and get an injection of live cancer cells, she insists, "Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say that again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine."

The effect of all this positive thinking is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage – not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood. Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalise the disease. Indeed, you can defy the inevitable disfigurements and come out, on the survivor side, actually prettier, sexier, more feminine. In the lore of the disease – shared with me by oncology nurses as well as by survivors – chemotherapy smoothes and tightens the skin and helps you lose weight, and when your hair comes back it will be fuller, softer, easier to control, and perhaps a surprising new colour. These may be myths, but for those willing to get with the prevailing programme, opportunities for self-improvement abound. Breast cancer is a chance for creative self-transformation – a makeover opportunity, in fact.

In this seamless world, dissent is a kind of treason. As an experiment, I posted a statement on a message board, under the subject line "Angry", briefly listing my complaints about the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies, environmental carcinogens and, most daringly, "sappy pink ribbons". I received a few words of encouragement in my fight with the insurance company, which had taken the position that my biopsy was a kind of optional indulgence, but mostly a chorus of rebukes. "Suzy" wrote to tell me, "I really dislike saying you have a bad attitude towards all of this, but you do, and it's not going to help you in the least." "Mary" was a bit more tolerant, writing, "Barb, at this time in your life, it's so important to put all your energies toward a peaceful, if not happy, existence. Cancer is a rotten thing to have happen and there are no answers for any of us as to why. But to live your life, whether you have one more year or 51, in anger and bitterness is such a waste..."

Exhortations to think positively – to see the glass half full, even when it lies shattered on the floor – are not restricted to the pink ribbon culture. A few years after my treatment, I ventured out into another realm of personal calamity – the world of laid-off white-collar workers. At the networking groups, boot camps and motivational sessions available to the unemployed, I found unanimous advice to abjure anger and "negativity" in favour of an upbeat, even grateful approach to one's immediate crisis. People who had been laid off from their jobs and were spiralling down toward poverty were told to see their condition as an "opportunity" to be embraced. Here, too, the promised outcome was a kind of "cure": by being positive, a person might not only feel better during his or her job search, but actually bring it to a faster, happier conclusion.

In fact, there is no kind of problem or obstacle for which positive thinking or a positive attitude has not been proposed as a cure. Having trouble finding a mate? Nothing is more attractive to potential suitors than a positive attitude, or more repellent than a negative one. Need money? Wealth is one of the principal goals of positive thinking. There are hundreds of self-help books expounding on how positive thinking can "attract" money – a method supposedly so reliable that you are encouraged to begin spending it now. Practical problems such as low wages and unemployment are mentioned only as potential "excuses". The real obstacle lies in your mind.

Like a perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle, the injunction to be positive is so ubiquitous that it's impossible to identify a single source. Oprah routinely trumpets the triumph of attitude over circumstance. A Google search for "positive thinking" turns up 1.92m entries. A whole coaching industry has grown up since the mid-90s, heavily marketed on the internet, to help people improve their attitudes and hence, supposedly, their lives.

In my case, however, there was, I learned, an urgent medical reason to embrace cancer with a smile: a "positive attitude" is supposedly essential to recovery. During the months when I was undergoing chemotherapy, I encountered this assertion over and over – on websites, in books, from oncology nurses and fellow sufferers. Eight years later, it remains almost axiomatic, within the breast cancer culture, that survival hinges on "attitude". One study found 60% of women who had been treated for the disease attributing their continued survival to a "positive attitude". In articles and on websites, individuals routinely take pride in this supposedly lifesaving mental state.

"Experts" of various sorts offer a plausible-sounding explanation for the salubrious properties of cheerfulness. A recent e-zine article entitled Breast Cancer Prevention Tips – and the notion of breast cancer "prevention" should itself set off alarms, since there is no known means of prevention – for example, advises that: "A simple positive and optimistic attitude has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. This will sound amazing to many people; however, it will suffice to explain that several medical studies have demonstrated the link between a positive attitude and an improved immune system."

You've probably read that assertion so often, in one form or another, that it glides by without a moment's thought about what the immune system is, how it might be affected by emotions and what, if anything, it could do to fight cancer. The link between the immune system, cancer, and the emotions was cobbled together somewhat imaginatively in the 70s. It had been known for some time that extreme stress could debilitate certain aspects of the immune system. Torture a lab animal long enough, as the famous stress investigator Hans Selye did in the 30s, and it becomes less healthy and resistant to disease. It was apparently a short leap, for many, to the conclusion that positive feelings might be the opposite of stress – capable of boosting the immune system and providing the key to health, whether the threat is a microbe or a tumour.

You can see the theory's appeal. First, the idea of a link between subjective feelings and the disease gave the breast cancer patient something to do. Instead of waiting passively for the treatments to kick in, she had her own work to do – on herself. At the same time, it created expanded opportunities in the cancer research and treatment industry: not only surgeons and oncologists were needed, but behavioral scientists, therapists, motivational counsellors and people willing to write exhortatory self-help books.

The dogma, however, did not survive further research. In the May 2007 issue of Psychological Bulletin, James Coyne and two co-authors published the results of a systematic review of all the literature on the supposed effects of psychotherapy on cancer. The idea was that psychotherapy, like a support group, should help the patient improve her mood and decrease her level of stress. But Coyne and his coauthors found the existing literature full of "endemic problems". "If cancer patients want psychotherapy or to be in a support group, they should be given the opportunity to do so," Coyne said in a summary of his research. "There can be lots of emotional and social benefits. But they should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives."

It could be argued that positive thinking can't hurt, that it might even be a blessing to the sorely afflicted. Who would begrudge the optimism of a dying person who clings to the hope of a last-minute remission? Or of a bald and nauseated chemotherapy patient who imagines that the cancer experience will end up giving her a more fulfilling life? Unable to actually help cure the disease, psychologists looked for ways to increase such positive feelings about cancer. If you can't count on recovering, you should at least come to see your cancer as a positive experience.

But rather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugar-coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost. First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. This is a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, but it is not so easy on the afflicted. One 2004 study even found, in complete contradiction to the tenets of positive thinking, that women who perceive more benefits from their cancer "tend to face a poorer quality of life – including worse mental functioning – compared with women who do not perceive benefits from their diagnoses."

Besides, it takes effort to maintain the upbeat demeanor expected by others – effort that can no longer be justified as a contribution to long-term survival. Consider the woman who wrote to Deepak Chopra that her breast cancer had spread to the bones and lungs: "Even though I follow the treatments, have come a long way in unburdening myself of toxic feelings, have forgiven everyone, changed my lifestyle to include meditation, prayer, proper diet, exercise, and supplements, the cancer keeps coming back. Am I missing a lesson here that it keeps reoccurring? I am positive I am going to beat it, yet it does get harder with each diagnosis to keep a positive attitude."

Chopra's response: "As far as I can tell, you are doing all the right things to recover. You just have to continue doing them until the cancer is gone for good. I know it is discouraging to make great progress only to have it come back again, but sometimes cancer is simply very pernicious and requires the utmost diligence and persistence to eventually overcome it."

But others in the cancer care business have begun to speak out against what one has called "the tyranny of positive thinking". When a 2004 study found no survival benefits for optimism among lung cancer patients, its lead author, Penelope Schofield, wrote: "We should question whether it is valuable to encourage optimism if it results in the patient concealing his or her distress in the misguided belief that this will afford survival benefits... If a patient feels generally pessimistic... it is important to acknowledge these feelings as valid and acceptable."

Whether repressed feelings are themselves harmful, as many psychologists claim, I'm not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking "fails" and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place.

I, at least, was saved from this additional burden by my persistent anger – which would have been even stronger if I had suspected, as I do now, that my cancer was iatrogenic, that is, caused by the medical profession. When I was diagnosed, I had been taking hormone replacement therapy for almost eight years, prescribed by doctors who avowed it would prevent heart disease, dementia, and bone loss. Further studies revealed in 2002 that HRT increases the risk of breast cancer, and, as the number of women taking it dropped sharply in the wake of this news, so did the incidence of breast cancer. So bad science may have produced the cancer in the first place, just as the bad science of positive thinking plagued me throughout my illness.

Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a "gift", was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.

by Barbara Ehrenreich