Somerset House is a large Neoclassical building situated on the south side of the Strand in central London, overlooking the River Thames, just east of Waterloo Bridge. The building, originally the site of a Tudor palace, was designed by Sir William Chambers in 1776, and further extended with Victorian wings to the north and south. The East Wing forms part of the adjacent King's College London. Wikipedia.
News Article | March 15, 2016
Just after midday on 25 November last year, Paul Johnson arrived at Millbank Studios, a pale stone building, used by news broadcasters, diagonally opposite the Palace of Westminster. Johnson, who is 49 and gangly, was riding a Brompton folding bicycle, his left suit trouser leg tucked into a red sock. (He claims to own socks of no other colour.) Johnson is the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent economic research organisation that occupies a unique position in British political life. Though other outfits attempt similar work, the IFS stands apart: when it comes to economic policy, its assessments have, for many, become the closest approximation to revealed truth. “It is quite extraordinary in a way that it is regarded as the ultimate authority,” says Robert Peston, the former economics editor of the BBC and now the political editor of ITV news. “Basically, when the IFS has pronounced, there’s no other argument. It is the word of God.” Johnson had been summoned to the broadcast studios on the occasion of the autumn statement, one of two announcements the Treasury is mandated to make to parliament annually. (The budget, which is typically delivered in the spring, outlines the government’s revenues and expenditure for the coming financial year; the autumn statement combines an update on progress since the last budget with economic growth forecasts.) Both events are major pieces of political theatre – and the IFS now plays a crucial role in their reception. If the chancellor is the impresario of the day’s performance, then the IFS has become Westminster’s most prominent – and feared – theatre critic. For both the autumn statement and budget, the chancellor stands up in the House of Commons to deliver his speech at 12.30pm. Immediately after the speech, Johnson and his deputy commence a tour of the TV studios, offering immediate takes on the chancellor’s offering. Meanwhile, back at IFS headquarters in Fitzrovia, some of the brightest economic minds in Britain begin combing over documents that have just been released by the Treasury. The 24 hours that follow are the busiest days of the year for the IFS. The institute’s staff must move quickly to calculate how much each new policy will cost, or benefit, certain sections of society, using a huge computerised model of the British tax and benefits system. More broadly, the IFS economists – many of whom are still in their 20s – assess whether the chancellor’s political rhetoric matches the harder reality of the numbers. This work, which continues late into the night, fuelled by takeaway pizza, involves a search for where the Treasury has buried this year’s bodies – and an attempt to reconcile the complexities of academic economics with the media’s demand for straightforward answers. “Ranges are for cattle,” US president Lyndon Johnson supposedly once quipped to an economic adviser. “Give me one number.” A select team drawn from among the IFS’s 40 full-time research staffers must race to build their findings into a presentation that is delivered at 1pm the following day – under the watchful eyes of all of Britain’s political, economic and media establishment. What the IFS says about the chancellor’s budget determines the public narrative about what the government has actually done. At a time when the British media, public, and political establishment are all fiercely polarised, the institute’s findings are taken as gospel. No one can doubt its enormous authority. But how did one small economic research institute come to occupy such a commanding position in British public life? Outside Millbank Studios last November Johnson, whose manner is cheerful and slightly awkward, met his deputy, a 41-year old LSE graduate named Carl Emmerson. Together they climbed the stone flagged stairs of the studios. At 12.30, when George Osborne stood to address the House of Commons, Johnson was ensconced in a booth in the BBC zone. In front of him lay a plate of sandwiches and a sheaf of freshly released documents from the Treasury. With headphones clamped over his ears, and his body hunched in concentration, Johnson watched the chancellor deliver his speech. Osborne began by promising “far reaching changes to what the state does and how it does it”. The main thrust came 10 minutes later, when he abandoned a proposed cut to tax credits that had caused him considerable political vexation over the preceding months – partly thanks to the IFS’s initial criticism of Osborne’s plan. In a summer budget on 8 July 2015, after the general election, Osborne had announced a cut to tax credits as part of a series of measures to shave £12bn from the welfare bill. The following day, at its post-budget presentation, the IFS claimed that the policy would cost 13 million families an average of £260 per year. A further three million would be more than £1,000 worse off annually. Johnson himself said the measure would hurt the poor “much more” than the rich. The Financial Times, the Guardian, the BBC and the Independent all ran the story, prominently referencing the IFS. In October, the Sun launched a campaign under the headline “Tax credits cut bonkers”, using a single father of two named George Osborne – annual income £6,760 – to illustrate its theory. In November, the other Osborne did a U-turn. When the chancellor’s speech was done, Johnson’s real work began. He sat for makeup and then toured the Millbank studios, first to a BBC set-up transmitting to BBC 2, the BBC News Channel and BBC Parliament. There Johnson sought to explain that Osborne’s change in policy was more cosmetic than the chancellor had suggested – that the overall cuts would in the long run be just as sharp as they were going to be when first outlined in July 2015. The key point was that, following reforms to the welfare system, new benefits claimants would receive less than at present. Johnson was playing his translator role, putting the numbers into – relatively speaking – plain English. “On that tax credit point, it is terribly important to be clear that he has changed nothing in the long run,” he said. Later, Johnson and Emmerson headed to College Green, the rectangle of distressed grass where Westminster broadcasters stage their exterior shots. It was now past three o’clock and Johnson’s left trouser was still tucked into his sock. As he moved from live broadcast to live broadcast, he was constantly greeted by fellow members of the political and media establishment. On the Millbank Studio stairs he bantered with Robert Peston; on a lobby sofa outside a Sky News studio, Johnson discussed his choice of tie with Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s longest-serving chancellor. But it was in the Sky studio itself that the IFS’s position as the ultimate explainer and umpire of British politics came into sharp focus. The Sky anchor Dermot Murnaghan sat in a studio, framed by bars of illuminated red and blue. “Ah my God, the man that knows,” Murgnahan roared, off-air, when Johnson arrived. “I feel I’m here in a Penn and Teller show,” the anchor said. “And you’re going to explain what happens.” This week, following Osborne’s budget speech on Wednesday afternoon, Johnson and his researchers will work far into the night preparing their response. The IFS occupies the top two floors of a 1960s office block on Ridgmount Street in Fitzrovia. The office is blandly corporate – staffers use PCs rather than Apple computers, and there is not a beanbag in sight. Venetian blinds hem the windows and bookshelves hold copies of Fiscal Studies, the institute’s house journal. Most IFS staff – who invariably refer to their employer as “IFS” with the definite article elided – join straight out of undergraduate or masters programmes. Altogether 40 of the overall headcount of 60 are full-time “research economists”, while others are mostly senior academics with part-time affiliations. Their wardrobe is a contrast to the corporate look of the office – the younger staffers dress like members of a university debating team: Superdry T-shirts, Adidas trainers, zip-off trekking trousers. They are expected to scrub up for TV appearances, and a room in the basement, equipped with an ISDN line for static-free radio interviews, holds racked suit jackets alongside damp cycling clothes. On budget days the institute obtains no special information before the chancellor’s speech, nor does it gain access to embargoed media briefings. Last November, by the time Johnson returned from Millbank in the middle of the afternoon, the work back at IFS headquarters was well under way. The IFS’s autumn statement analysis was done by three teams, whose work corresponds to the areas they study in their day-to-day research. The most potentially explosive work took place downstairs. There, four young men clustered at desks strewn with papers, Fox’s biscuits, a copy of Accountancy magazine and a packet of Tyrkisk Peber, a liquorice candy popular in Scandinavia. Andrew Hood, James Browne, Stuart Adam and Rob Joyce work on “direct tax and welfare”, performing the distributional analysis that has become the IFS trademark, calculating how much policy change will cost certain groups. Upstairs, two further teams were at work. The first, led by Gemma Tetlow, 34, focused on big-picture spending, while David Phillips, 30, led the final team, focusing on local government and devolution. Johnson patrolled among the teams like a gallery owner, carefully polishing his treasures before unveiling them to the public. Johnson and Emmerson also placed calls to Treasury director Stuart Glassborow to seek clarification or check points of fact. One former Treasury official told me that there was always “an open line with a junior nerd at the IFS” on budget day, pointing out it is in the interest of neither side to get detail wrong. At 6.30pm, the pizzas arrived, fresh from Olivelli, an establishment near the British Museum, and the staff gathered to eat in the common room on the third floor. Afterwards, as evening drew into night and deadlines approached, the atmosphere was calm. The scene resembled the performance of other complex tasks by an experienced team: shades of the aircraft cockpit or the operating theatre. (Exceptions are not unknown, however: Johnson told me a staffer once became so panic stricken on budget night they had to go home early.) Before each team went to bed, the researchers sent on their draft slides for the following day’s presentation, on blue and green IFS-branded templates, to Johnson and Emmerson. The director and his deputy provided overnight feedback. Gemma Tetlow, the last economist standing, left the office at 1.15am. The next morning, “IFS day”, as one former lobby correspondent terms it, started early. Johnson rose at six for the Today Programme, while staff were assembled in Ridgmount Street by about 8.30am. Those individuals selected to present – chosen by a process of relative democracy and a ruthless assessment of their social skills – wore suits. They rehearsed in front of Emmerson in the basement. The first slide of Tetlow’s presentation bore George Osborne’s face superimposed on Bob the Builder’s body. The caption read: “George the Builder: he can fix it (just not today – he’s enjoying the Sun)”. That morning, the Sun had triumphantly announced “Tax credit cuts scrapped by George Osborne in U-turn after Sun campaign.” In rehearsal Tetlow ran to twice her planned 20-minute length. “Serious butchering,” in her words, ensued. At a few minutes before 1pm, the team decamped from Ridgmount Street and crossed Gower Street to the University of London campus. In the lobby outside the Beveridge Hall, much of the UK’s political and media establishment, identifiable by 270 plastic lapel badges, had gathered. Johnson spoke first. “The first thing to say is that this is not the end of austerity,” he said. “This spending review is still one of the tightest in postwar history.” Tetlow followed, but this day belonged to Andrew Hood, who ran through his findings on how Osborne’s policies would affect welfare recipients. After the slides had slid, the press surrounded Hood, desperate to hear more from this young man who seemed to know more about the benefits system than anyone outside government. It was clearly exciting for Hood; he was relishing this moment after hours immersed in TAXBEN, the IFS’s computerised economic model. As Johnson had done, Hood sought to explain just how the apparent U-turn by Osborne meant rather less than it seemed, especially over the long term. As with Johnson, though, not everyone got the message. “Can I try something in journalese on you?” asked a reporter. The reporter slipped into copy mode, and presented Hood with a news line about how many people would be affected by benefits changes in the next five years. Hood mulled. “Let me think about this. Can I replace ‘Over five to 10 years’ with ‘In the long run?’” “Umm, newsdesk says no,” the reporter answered, to collective laughter from his peers. Hood continued to walk his recalcitrant audience through points of detail that they struggled to understand. At one stage he broke from spending several minutes outlining exactly why a certain, apparently simple conclusion was in fact wrong, to examine the rolling TV coverage. “Sky News have just reported exactly the line I’ve just told Sam he’s not allowed to print,” Hood lamented. “Too late now,” said another reporter. “It’s news. Too late.” The origins of the IFS go back to a bachelor weekend in 1967 at the Bell, a ritzy red-brick pub in the Buckinghamshire village of Aston Clinton. Four city men attended: tax consultant John Chown, investment manager Bob Buist, stockbroker Nils Taube and banker Will Hopper. Chown, who is now 86, recalls the Aston Clinton meeting as an opportunity “to have the four of us together for a weekend with no distractions apart from the fact that we were getting well fed and watered”. The four men were bound together by a collective disgruntlement at the introduction of corporation tax by James Callaghan, then chancellor, in 1965. At the Bell, each man wrote an article on an aspect of tax, which they offered collectively to William Rees-Mogg, then editor of the Times. They expected the pieces to seep into print gradually, but Rees-Mogg ran them together on 10 April 1967, under the headline “A charter for the tax reform.” A reproduction of this piece now hangs in the basement of the IFS office. Encouraged by the response to their article, in July the following year Chown, Buist, Taube and Hopper decided over supper at Stella Alpina, an Italian restaurant in Mayfair, to found an institute. The minutes Hopper made afterwards stated that the principal objective was “to study the economic impact of existing taxes and proposed changes in the fiscal system”. The intention was for an independent “research society”, rather than a “propaganda society”. Hopper proposed the name, including the use of “for” rather than “of”, a move that has persistently confused outsiders down the decades. In 1969 the IFS was formally incorporated as a limited company and the following year, Dick Taverne, the Labour MP for Lincoln and former financial secretary to the Treasury, became the part-time director for the new body. In 1970s Britain though, the IFS struggled to make headway. As an organisation with no established track record it could not attract top-flight staff, and its work attracted little attention. In an attempt to raise its profile, in 1975 the IFS created the Meade committee, a wholesale examination of the British tax system led by James Meade, a renowned former Cambridge economist. Meade was assisted by two young economists: John Kay, who would go on to become director of the IFS, and Mervyn King, who would later become governor of the Bank of England. The report it produced ran to 533 pages, took three years to prepare, and during this period Meade won the Nobel prize for economics for his earlier work on international trade and capital movement. On its publication in 1978, The Structure and Reform of Direct Taxation commanded five full pages of coverage in the Financial Times, and helped to solidify the IFS’s reputation. Yet funding was hand-to-mouth, relying mainly on corporate donations, with periodic infusions from grant-giving bodies such as the Gatsby Foundation. Evan Davis, now the presenter of Newsnight, arrived at the IFS in the summer of 1983 as an intern during his Oxford PPE degree, and returned full time the next year. He recalls on one occasion raiding a skip in order to acquire partitions for the office, which had relocated to Castle Lane in Victoria. (Though the partitions were not, as far as he remembers, actually used.) In 1979, John Kay took over as director of the IFS. In his first few years in charge, it remained a scrappy outsider throwing stones at Whitehall. Relationships with government in general – and the civil service in particular, who perceived a trespass on their traditional expertise – were thorny. If some of the 1980s battles were part of the growing process of a new institution, Kay agrees that his personality may have also played a role in the IFS-government spats. “I am impatient to get things done,” he told me. After Kay and two colleagues, Andrew Dilnot and Nicholas Morris, published a book that was critical of the Inland Revenue, Laurence Airey, the chairman of the board of the Revenue, summoned Kay into an enormous ballroom in Somerset House, which then held the Revenue’s headquarters, and screamed at him for 15 minutes. When Kay interjected to ask for the specifics of Airey’s grievance Airey shouted back: “I’m too angry to give details.” Kay, who is now a columnist for the Financial Times, recalls stepping down in 1986, emotionally exhausted by repeated tussles with the civil service machine. But under his tenure, the IFS’s public profile undoubtedly grew. In 1982 the IFS published its first “green budget”, which came out well before the budget, and aimed to lay out the issues at stake in the contemporary debate. The “green budget” continues to this day. The following year, the IFS presented its first “rapid response” to the budget, although at the first attempt the institute was not ready to go public with its “rapid” take until three weeks after the chancellor’s speech. Andrew Dilnot recalls limited media attention in the 1983 general election campaign. Four years later, the situation was very different. In the 1987 election campaign Dilnot found himself spending “most nights” at the BBC studios. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the IFS’s public profile continued to grow, but the wrangles with government did not entirely vanish. When Gordon Brown was chancellor, he came to see the IFS, then under the leadership of Robert Chote, as a major antagonist. During that time, it fell to Damian McBride to present Brown with the “snaps” – immediate coverage of breaking news – of the IFS post-budget press conferences. Before McBride could speak, Brown would grab the paper from his hands and yell a single word: “Chote!” (Inevitably, “Chote!” became a catchphrase among Treasury staff.) McBride believes the IFS was incentivised to pick holes in the budget because negative announcements drew more publicity. “It [the IFS] caused us more problems than the Tory party,” he told me. McBride was happy to fight back, however, once describing Paul Johnson to a journalist as a “failed Treasury economist”. Alistair Darling, who succeeded Brown as Labour chancellor on Tony Blair’s departure in 2007, was less choleric, but he still acknowledged the potential problems posed by the IFS. “Of course it’s irritating and inconvenient when the IFS offers a critical view the day after a budget,” he said. “But frankly you have to take these things in the round.” The IFS owes its prominence, in large part, to the media. It has been so successful at attracting press attention, in fact, that other thinktanks regularly contact Paul Johnson asking how they too might pick up such lavish coverage. But the secret of its success – aside from a well-drilled PR operation – is simple. First, many journalists are not confident with numbers; they want a reliable source they can turn to. (When I asked former IFS staffers for examples of the worst questions journalists had asked them, the wince-making responses included “How do you work out a percentage?”) The explosive calculation, last July, that Osborne’s proposed tax credit cut could cost some families upwards of £1,000 per year was made simply by taking the government’s projected saving and dividing it by the number of people who would be affected. That was primary school arithmetic – but it became potent only when it was stamped with the IFS imprimatur. Second, the perception that the IFS is an impartial umpire means that harried broadcasters do not have to find someone to represent the “other side”. The official IFS position is that it has no ideological agenda – that its work is beholden only to data. (“You can referee data,” Andrew Dilnot likes to say.) The IFS has built its reputation on this rigid focus on microeconomics: they will assess the costs of new policies, or the impact of tax changes, but they studiously avoid “big picture” questions such as the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, or the wisdom of government borrowing. (Bonnie Brimstone, who heads communications for the IFS, routinely turns down press requests that fall outside this regular furrow.) This narrow focus is the source of some criticism – particularly given the influence of the IFS on public debate about economics. Robert Peston argues that the IFS’s emphasis on microeconomic matters has steered British media coverage in a similar direction. “Everybody – BBC, ITV, newspapers – obsesses about what the IFS says about who the winners and losers are,” Peston told me. “Nobody really gets into the whole issue of whether austerity, for example, is good or bad for growth. Did George Osborne’s cuts at the start of the 2010 parliament make Britain richer or poorer?” The Oxford macroeconomist Simon Wren-Lewis makes a similar point, arguing that the financial crisis, and the ensuing need for governments to undertake fiscal stimulus – borrowing and spending to spur economic growth – meant that one had to look beyond narrow microeconomic questions. After 2008, Wren-Lewis said, “you needed some macro knowledge to talk about the budget – about what fiscal changes would be effective at boosting demand – which the IFS does not have”. Some left-leaning economists look with particular scepticism on the claim that the IFS has no ideology, arguing that the institute holds an excessive faith in the power of market forces. The tax expert Richard Murphy, a professor of political economy at City University who advised in Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership, said the IFS was “embedded in all the normal, standard pro-market assumptions that dominate conventional economic thinking in the UK and elsewhere”. Howard Reed, who worked at the IFS for nearly a decade and now runs an economics consultancy that has produced work for the Trades Union Congress and the thinktank Demos, took issue with the organisation’s view of itself as an impartial arbiter. “Suppose you’re a football referee,” Reed said, “and you don’t realise the pitch is sloped – you can try your best to be neutral, but one team might win five-nil just because of the way the pitch is set up.” Allies of the current government have a different complaint with the IFS – that its distributional analyses, which show the impact of policy changes on various groups, only give a snapshot at the instant the changes are implemented, rather than their effects over time. This has led some on the right to argue that the IFS has not captured the way in which recent changes to welfare and tax credit policy may change behavioural incentives over the long term. “In a sense, those dynamic questions are probably more important,” said Rupert Harrison, a former IFS staffer who served as George Osborne’s chief of staff until 2015. None of these criticisms are news to Johnson. “For nearly everything we do,” he said, “yes, we’ve got an economic framework around it – but actually we’re describing data. It’s the data that is doing the talking.” In 1974, two American political scientists, Hugh Heclo and Aaron Wildavsky, published an influential book about the workings of the British state called The Private Government of Public Money, which argued that an extraordinarily small clique of officials, who know one another well, dominate Britain’s decisions about taxation and spending. More than 40 years later, while the IFS vaunts its independence, multiple ties bind Ridgmount Street, Whitehall and Westminster. For instance, Paul Johnson served in the Treasury between his first stint at the IFS and returning as director. Prior to the IFS, Johnson was tutorial partner at Keble College Oxford to Ed Balls, the former shadow chancellor. Balls’s pre-government journalistic career at the FT moved in parallel to Robert Chote’s, who was then at the Independent. Chote preceded Johnson as director of the IFS. During his tenure at the IFS, Chote’s wife Sharon White was building a career at the Treasury that would culminate in her role as second permanent secretary at the department. In 1997 Gus O’Donnell, who would go on to become head of the civil service, was in Washington as the UK executive director on the boards of the IMF and World Bank; he held a wedding party at his house for Chote and White. Later, when Chote wrote to Gus O’Donnell to bemoan the Treasury briefing against the IFS, he ended his letter with the words “We have all known each other for a long time …” In the three decades since Laurence Airey screamed at John Kay in Somerset House, the scrappy outsider has become an accepted part of the establishment – and a pathway for individual elevation to its ranks. Today the IFS recruits between one and four researchers each year. They receive 400 applications. Nothing is a greater testimony to the growing power of the IFS than the decision made by George Osborne in 2010 to create a counterpart inside the government. On his accession as chancellor, he established an independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), in order to take the business of economic forecasting out of the Treasury in the name of greater independence. Though the IFS does not itself engage in forecasting, and nor does the OBR do distributional analysis, by dint of its position as a quasi-external oversight body, the OBR did venture onto traditional IFS turf. Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, suggests that the motivation behind Osborne’s decision to create the OBR was to dent the public profile of the IFS, which many conservatives felt skewed leftwards, owing to the perceived tendency of British academic economists to favour big government and big spending. Last year sunny economic forecasts by the OBR provided Osborne with an extra £27bn that permitted his U-turn on tax credits. In the days after the statement, some commentators suggested that the optimistic economic forecast was an example of possible OBR capitulation to political will. However, Robert Chote, the former IFS director who is now chairman of the OBR, is adamant about his organisation’s independence, and last month a Treasury select committee report indicated that while Treasury civil servants did try to lean on the OBR in the run up to the publication of the office’s earlier forecasts in December 2014, the OBR resisted. Perhaps the best way to understand the relative positions – and prospects – of the IFS and the OBR is to see them as part of a decades-long struggle to tame an over-mighty Treasury. Britain is rare among European countries to have no separation between the finance ministry, responsible for short-term matters, and an economics ministry, which traditionally manages longer-term issues. As Robert Laslett, former chief economist for pensions at the Department for Work and Pensions remarks, attempted governance mechanisms that do not have an absolute separation from mother Treasury tend to run into trouble. They are, in his words, “piglets too close to the sow”. The IFS today occupies a quasi-constitutional role in British life, but without the scrutiny on management and funding that applies to formal government bodies. Its separation from government may be one of the best explanations for its success. For the IFS itself though, life goes on. On Monday, four months after the autumn statement and two days prior to the budget, Johnson and his team were gearing up to do it all over again. With rumbles afoot in the stock market, and following the Bank of England’s decrease to its earnings and peak growth forecasts, he suspected the OBR would downgrade its economic forecasts. “To the extent that things are changing in the economy it looks like they’re changing in the wrong direction,” he said. However, Johnson emphasised that ultimately he and his team would not know how things would go down until Wednesday, when George Osborne stands up in parliament. “I don’t have any more idea than anyone else I’m afraid,” he added. “So we’re sort of as ready as we ever are.” • Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.
News Article | December 15, 2016
Over the summer, I spent a month at Stugan, a Swedish “game development acceleration camp”. That may sound like a faintly sinister concept, but it was in fact stupidly idyllic. The eight-week event, organised by alumni from game publishers Rovio and King, took place in adorable red wooden cabins perched on a hill overlooking a lake – apparently called “Bjursen”, although we just called it The Lake, because we couldn’t pronounce anything correctly. While not working on our game development projects, we watched meteor showers from a nearby mountaintop, swam beneath the Northern Lights, and sat around a campfire getting sloshed on schnapps. The Stugan attendees were from all over the world, but we’d ended up in this tiny corner of Scandinavia, brought together by the one thing we shared: the desire to create and play video games. I turned up three weeks late, and already an outsider as the only journalist, but within a few days I felt like I’d been welcomed as one of the team. There with me were people like Ivan Notaros, an incredibly talented Serbian developer who was ostensibly making a game called House of Flowers based on his experience and knowledge of the war in Yugoslavia in the 90s, but spent much of his time making tiny games, procedurally generated art, and incredible low-res photogrammetry of us as a group. There were Michael and Laura, a married team who were making a game despite being animators rather than programmers, using their artistic style to inform what their project, Thin Air, would become. Auston and Diana, another couple, were making Catdate – a game that seems like a simple dating sim (but with cats) but revealed itself to be a touching, meaningful exploration of connection, friendship and learning how to communicate with others. Robbie, Dorianne and Marc, the only three-person team, all from South Africa, were working on Kingdom in the Sky, a project they’d been unable to work on for months because of their full-time jobs. Mira and Tanja, a team of two women, one Swedish and one Danish, collaborated on their two-player game Tick Tock, when they weren’t playing incredibly tense rounds of Magic: The Gathering. The trailers of these games, and the others made during Stugan 2016, are all worth watching. It’s largely because of Stugan that I’ve started making my own games. My first - Awkward Dating Simulator - has been downloaded over 1,000 times already, which is amazing and terrifying. Next year, I’ll be taking part in Train Jam - a 52-hour train ride from Chicago to the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, where developers make games as the scenery rushes by. I’m doing it just to be around those people and that feeling again. There has always been an independent game development community. In the early 1980s, small teams made their own games, downloaded them on to cassettes and sold them at trade fairs, bypassing the retail business that was growing around software. In the 90s, the rise of the internet meant these developers had the ability to sell their games digitally, to a global audience, without ever having to produce or distribute physical copies. More recently, platforms like Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and the PC games service Steam have given indie developers access to huge online stores where they can sell their often offbeat and idiosyncratic games alongside major releases. Now, perhaps more than ever, independent games – and the communities that make them – have a vital role in video game culture. The mainstream games business, similar to the mainstream movie business, is mostly about noise and bombast. Triple A titles are sold on action and violence; the industry’s biggest annual events E3 and Gamescom are cacophonous battle zones, where the loudest, brightest booths inevitably win (last time I went to E3, one major games publisher was issued a warning by the event organiser because their booth was so loud no one else could get anything done). Indie games can often be about action and violence, too, but the creative atmosphere is very different. Instead of E3, the indie sector runs events like Mild Rumpus, a sweet, relaxing space taking up one corner of the otherwise frenetic GDC, where attendees could play titles like Lieve Oma, a game about taking a walk in the woods with a beloved grandma, or Beeswing, a semi-autobiographical game set in a small village in Scotland. This summer, London’s Somerset House hosted Now Play This, a collection of innovative experimental games and installations, beautifully curated and housed within a disused wing of the grand building. Here we played reflective, artistic titles like the painterly pinball sim Inks and beautiful Where’s Wally-like puzzler Hidden Folks. Recently, the first ever IndieCade Europe event took place in Paris, nestled in the alcoves of a grand 18th-century museum. The highlights for me were games like Chalo Chalo, a simple but brilliant multiplayer racing game that feels tense despite its treacle-slow movements; the incredibly heartbreaking Killing Time At Lightspeed, in which you can read your friends’ social interactions, but you’re light-years away, so every page refresh is another two years into the future; and Old Man’s Journey, a game about exactly what the title suggests, with a stunning art style. Within these quiet, gentle spaces, there is an atmosphere of care rather than competition. AAA games are still, for the most part, thrilling and worth talking about, but, for me at least, they’re a business. At Stugan, people talked about their projects, worked with each other, and understood when others just needed to walk up the mountain alone. In the indie game community, when problems arise, people discuss them and share resources and experience. This almost certainly happens in the mainstream industry, but there it’s confidential and hidden. Here, it is simply a part of how things work. Successful indie developers like Tom Francis (one of the attendees at Stugan and the guy behind crossover hit Gunpoint) write development blogs and talk about their design issues in video updates. Small studios even set up webcams and live stream the development process. It’s this transparency and openness that makes the community feel welcoming. There is a softness, a kindness, a sincerity, that you don’t see often in the churn of the games industry at large. Being an indie developer is incredibly hard work. A lot of teams meet and collaborate online, often living thousands of miles apart, so their work is carried out through late night Skype calls and Google hangouts; they conduct hundreds of long-distance relationships with players and other developers through social media streams; they have to manage and juggle time zones as well as any international stock trader. So when an event takes place, it can often be more like family reunion than a showcase. Developers hug each other tight because they don’t know when they’ll next see each other. This sense of openness and compassion is flowing into the games. An emerging generation of developers want to share themselves through the work they produce, to connect with others in the same way as singer-songwriters in the 1960s or indie bands in the 1970s and 1980s. They’re willing to be vulnerable with strangers, and they’re willing to explore the parameters of what games are in order to communicate how they feel. Pol Clarissou, another of the Stugan alumni, makes games like Orchids to Dusk, in which there is limited interaction, and nothing you can do to save yourself – a game that teaches you the world is sometimes just as it is, and the only thing you can do is experience it. In the last year we have also seen games like Cibele, in which creator Nina Freeman provides an incredibly personal semi-autobiographical story of heartbreak. We’ve seen Lucy Blundell’s uncomfortable morning-after narrative, One Night Stand, which puts a stranger in your bed and asks you how you feel now you’ve woken next to them. These games – so open and honest with the feelings they explore – exist because the developers couldn’t see their lives, selves or experiences reflected in mainstream games, and so created them themselves. In turn, that inspires others to do the same. This growing counter-culture of highly personal, highly experimental game design has faced criticism, resistance and even aggression from incumbent communities – the self-identifying ‘gamers’ – who think they know what games should be: the same thing they’ve always been. Many people who demand guns, explosions and intensity (which is all good), somehow see the existence of quiet, kind, thoughtful games as a threat. In 2013, when the developer Zoe Quinn released her interactive fiction game Depression Quest on PC, she was threatened with physical harm. Dealing with mental health was considered provocative. Somehow in video games, vulnerability is a political act. The games I saw being made at Stugan, being shown and shared at IndieCade, Now Play This and Mild Rumpus, are important and they will not be pushed from the industry. Video games are culture, and culture reflects life. For a lot of people, life is hard right now: global economies are failing, money is tight; 2016 has been a year of mourning and political upheaval, old certainties have crumbled. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen an explosion of interest in self-care concepts like hygge and mindfulness. In difficult times, we seek simple, meaningful pleasures: we need to take care of ourselves, we need to wrap ourselves up against the cold. Not all of the games I’ve seen this year are comforting or “nice” in the sense of being pleasant experiences. But they are real, personal and powerful. Like all true art, they invite us into the most intimate thoughts and feelings of others. Sometimes that’s what is needed: a way back to the warmth. A selection of highly subjective and intimate projects set to arrive next year The borderless, softened colours of 29 evoke the kind of place you want to climb inside and live in, even if one of its inhabitants is a huge, many-eyed monster. It follows two housemates, both transgender and non-binary, as they co-exist and explore their corner of the world. Their story is told in snippets and parenthetical observations, and it’s beautiful, calm and quiet. Sometimes there comes an idea that’s so perfect and simple that you wonder how it hasn’t been done before. Vignettes is a game, at its heart, about rotating things until they change into other things, but it’s so much more than that: it’s a game about appreciating design, noticing details, immersing yourself in simple interactions. Many games give you control over the world; Vignettes gives you control over one object, asking you to focus, almost like cognitive behavioural therapy, on one thing at a time. Pokémon is great, but the thread of any Pokémon game is to fight to the finish line. Ooblets is more like a walk in the woods, accompanied by a host of cute lumpy friends that toddle behind you like something in between a puppy and a two-year-old. Its palette is that of an old-fashioned sweet shop; its design is Adventure Time-esque, sweet but knowingly humorous. Every gif that the (two!) developers post on Twitter is filled with lightness and the kind of heartwarming loveliness that we could definitely do with right now. OK, first off, Old Man’s Journey is the only game I know of that has given out temporary tattoos as part of their promotional merch. Secondly, this game is an absolute joy to look at and play. It’s reminiscent of a run-down but well-loved seaside town, in which you help an old man clamber around, sitting down now and again to reminisce about his long lost past. It’s beautifully layered, creating a sense of depth and warmth that invites you to explore and discover more. When we’re most stressed, we retreat into behaviours that remind us of the safety of childhood. Nostalgic experiences are soothing, because they coax out memories of happier, simpler times. With soft, dappled light, gentle colours and music, and a very obvious Zelda influence, Secret Legend is the game to play if you want to escape from everything new into something that feels so comforting and familiar that it might have just been in your pocket the whole time.
News Article | November 20, 2015
Since its first appearance in a Belgian newspaper in 1929, The Adventures of Tintin—the beloved comic that follows the escapades of an intrepid boy reporter and his trusty dog Snowey—has been translated into more than 50 languages. Though considerably more popular in Europe than stateside, the comic was adapted in a 2011 Steven Spielberg film, and Tintin's creator Hergé could once count Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein among his many fans. Hergé had his own influences as well (for Warhol and Lichtenstein, the appreciation was mutual), which ranged from the Constructivist work he studied during his childhood in Belgium to a later fascination with modernist graphic design and artists like Joan Miró. A new exhibition at Somerset House in London, Tintin: Hergé’s Masterpiece—along with a companion book of the same name out this month from Rizzoli—explore how both these interests and the events of World War II influenced the evolution of Hergé's work. Tintin first appeared in the Belgian Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, where Hergé worked for the children’s supplement until the paper was closed down by the Nazis in 1940. He then went to work for the newspaper Le Soir, at the time was run by Nazis. His comics typically appeared alongside sports, stock market numbers, and cultural news, though sometimes they would also run beside reports of Germany's victories. "It was not ideal," Tintinologist Michael Farr, who help set up the show, tells the BBC., "but he was locked into [the job] and he thought it was for the good. He thought that Tintin was important for cheering Brussels up." In his early newspaper strips, Hergé's drawings were simpler than in his more graphic work later on, but because of his love of architecture and design, the settings were always rendered in meticulous detail. "We have some facsimiles of early drawings alongside original cover pages of journals and magazines that the cartoon first appeared in, and you really get a sense of how good of a draftsman Hergé was," says Stephen Doherty, director of visitor communications at Somerset House. "You could view his drawings as mini masterpieces in their own right—with just a couple of strokes, for example, he could give an impression of a slippery floor." Doherty credits Hergé's penchant for architecture and design as one of the reasons windows play such a big role in the comics. Hergé uses windows as a plot device—Tintin first meets his companion Captain Haddock through a porthole, for example—and also as a way to highlight the news of the day as Tintin peered out into the world. "These stories weren't just for children, they were very much meant for adults as well," Doherty says. "Tintin landed on the moon when no one else did, and that was very much a reflection of the Space Race. It was drawn from the context of the time." After the war, Tintin became more popular than ever when Hergé penned the 23 now canonical graphic novels chronicling his adventures. This was also the period that solidified Hergé's genre-defining graphic style of clean lines and bold colors used by many graphic novelists since. "He had a great fascination for film and was a patron for art in general," Doherty says. Besides his pop-artist contemporaries like Warhol and Lichtenstein, Hergé's "clear line" style was also influenced by eastern art, like the wood-block prints of Utagawa Hiroshige and other Japanese "ukiyo-e" artists. Tintin: Hergé’s Masterpiece is now on view at the Somerset House in London.
Morgan E.R.,Somerset House
Animal health research reviews / Conference of Research Workers in Animal Diseases | Year: 2013
Levels and seasonal patterns of parasite challenge to livestock are likely to be affected by climate change, through direct effects on life cycle stages outside the definitive host and through alterations in management that affect exposure and susceptibility. Net effects and options for adapting to them will depend very strongly on details of the system under consideration. This short paper is not a comprehensive review of climate change effects on parasites, but rather seeks to identify key areas in which detail is important and arguably under-recognized in supporting farmer adaptation. I argue that useful predictions should take fuller account of system-specific properties that influence disease emergence, and not just the effects of climatic variables on parasite biology. At the same time, excessive complexity is ill-suited to useful farm-level decision support. Dealing effectively with the 'devil of detail' in this area will depend on finding the right balance, and will determine our success in applying science to climate change adaptation by farmers.
Cripps S.C.,Somerset House
IEEE Microwave Magazine | Year: 2010
It is always good to get feedback. I ran into an old colleague recently whom I had not seen for some years. He said he liked my column but wondered whether I had ever considered writing one on a subject that I actually knew something about. Wow, thanks pal, I get your drift. But why not; for the first time in living memory I will write about RF power amplifiers (RFPAs), rather than sliding into the subject towards the end, which seems to happen more often than not. © 2006 IEEE.
Cripps S.C.,Somerset House
IEEE Microwave Magazine | Year: 2010
One of the major decisions facing any long-time IEEE Member has finally come my way recently, whether to keep ones voluminous collections of journals. Its a call made even tougher by the general state of mind when packing up to move house, two dozen more boxes to find and fill, each weighing enough to challenge the rigidity of the available containers. Well, I actually managed to suppress the voices (both internal and external) who were screaming dump, but only in the case of the MTT transactions, which in my collection stretch back to 1981. Personally, I still like looking up MTT references in my own library, mainly because so often as I fl ick through the musty pages I find one or two other papers of interest; sometimes even greater interest than the one I was originally seeking. © 2006 IEEE.
Cripps S.C.,Somerset House
IEEE Microwave Magazine | Year: 2010
There have always been a few technical terms that make me quietly shudder, sending my brain into the cerebral equivalent of latch-up, my brain internally screaming "Oh no!" This effect can have a variety of causes, but the most common one is that someone is bringing up a subject that I know I ought to know more about than I actually do, and the fear of such exposure does the trick. The only way I manage to unlock the blocked neuron paths is to somehow convince myself that no one else really understands the subject in question either and they are all just bluffing (to use the more polite version of the actual word that comes to mind). © 2010 IEEE.
Banks C.J.,University of Southampton |
Zotova E.A.,Somerset House |
Heaven S.,University of Southampton
Journal of Cleaner Production | Year: 2010
The biphasic production of the energy gases hydrogen and methane was possible in a fed batch culture resulting in a volumetric mix of approximately 20% H2 and 80% CH4 and an energy conversion efficiency of 95%, based on the measured Chemical Oxygen Demand and theoretical calculations assuming that the substrate (a dairy waste permeate) was lactose. Gas production showed a rapid initial phase over 0-20 h in which the composition was up to 50% hydrogen with the balance mainly carbon dioxide. This was accompanied by the accumulation of volatile fatty acids (VFA) in which butyric was predominant. A slower second phase of gas production produced a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide with a reduction in the accumulated acids. The duration of this second phase depended on the initial load applied to the reactor, and in the experiments carried out lasted between 6 and 12 days. Where the applied initial load led to an acid accumulation such that the pH fell below 5.5, the second phase of gas production was inhibited. Where pH control was exerted to prevent the pH dropping below 6.5, ethanol accumulated alongside VFA as a first phase product, with the gas comprised entirely of carbon dioxide. Despite the excellent energy conversion and the production of biogas fuel elements matching those for hythane (a mixture of hydrogen and methane, with improved combustion characteristics), the overall process loading was considered too low for efficient volumetric conversion of the feedstock to energy. The concept could be further developed based on high rate reactor systems with granular or immobilised biomass either as a single tank biphasic system or in a split tank two phase production process © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
News Article | August 9, 2015
Since it opened in March, the Russian Museum in Malaga, the southern Spanish coastal resort, has been thronged by visitors who line up to see centuries-old icons and works by 20th century avant-garde artists Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall. The St. Petersburg landmark’s only foreign branch is part of an effort along with the former imperial capital’s State Hermitage Museum to stake their places on the map alongside international peers like the Guggenheim and Louvre. The drive, which has endured even amid the worst tensions between Moscow and Europe since the Cold War, was initially out of step with the Kremlin’s isolationist course. Now it could help President Vladimir Putin as he cautiously seeks to rebuild ties. “At a time of extremely difficult ties with Europe, it’s great to break through the isolation,” Vladimir Gusev, the director of the Russian Museum, said in an interview in St. Petersburg. “Sometimes culture and art can achieve things that politicians can’t.” The Hermitage, which was founded by Empress Catherine II in 1764 and boasts one of the world’s largest collections of Western art, is to open a branch in Barcelona in 2017, its second satellite outside of Russia after Amsterdam. The Russian Museum, whose collection from the 11th to 21st centuries represent the world’s biggest store of Russian art, says it is considering branches in Abu Dhabi and Brazil. The museums say international audiences are eager. A Kandinsky exhibit staged mainly with works from the Russian Museum has attracted almost 2 million visitors since January in four Brazilian cities, said Gusev. Still, touting Russia’s role in European culture hasn’t been easy with the Kremlin’s official line going the opposite way. The Russian government has provided no funding for the museums’ expansion plans, officials said. “Now it’s not very fashionable to say it, but we are not just a Russian museum, we are a museum for the world,” Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky said in an interview in his office in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. On his desk, he keeps a framed photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, who visited the museum on a royal tour of Russia in 1994. Piotrovsky started the international push a decade and a half ago by opening temporary branches in London and Las Vegas that have since closed. He said the expansion is entirely funded by foreign hosts and private fundraising. “Everything we are doing is to show that culture is above politics and cultural relations go on even if the political situation is bad because culture is forever and political situations change when politicians want them to,” said Piotrovsky. Piotrovsky says any plans to loan art internationally must now get special legal exemptions from host countries to ensure no artworks are at risk of seizure by courts seeking to enforce rulings against Russia. The latest threat: a $50 billion international-arbitration verdict in favor of some of the former shareholders of bankrupt Russian oil giant Yukos Oil Co. Moscow denounces the judgment as politicized and illegitimate. A separate legal tangle between the U.S. and Russia over the ownership of an archive of Jewish books effectively blocks the Russian collections from going to the U.S. The Hermitage in 2007 had to close its subsidiary in London’s Somerset House after local sponsorship dried up because of the murder of dissident Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko in the British capital. Still, the Hermitage and Russian Museum have successfully pushed to keep alive ties with the outside world. At the Amsterdam Hermitage, inaugurated in 2009 by then President Dmitry Medvedev, Piotrovsky in September attended the opening of the exhibition “Dining with the Tsars,” only a few weeks after a Malaysian passenger aircraft was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The crash, blamed by the U.S. and its allies on a Russian missile fired by pro-Moscow rebels, killed 193 Dutch citizens among the 298 people on board who lost their lives. Malaga’s top museum official, Jose Maria Luna Aguilar, says business drove the decision to bring in the Russian Museum, which opened its doors in a former tobacco factory just days before Paris’s Centre Pompidou inaugurated its first foreign outpost in the Spanish city. “I’m not going to enter into politics, but I can tell you this is a very profitable investment for Malaga,” he said in a phone interview. In Barcelona, the Hermitage has taken care to secure support from the central authorities in Madrid as well as the Catalan regional government. The Hermitage’s planned branch has every chance to be a success because it’s in a city that is “really oriented to tourism and has a really deep interest in high culture,” says the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s director, Richard Armstrong. The Guggenheim’s branch in the Spanish city of Bilbao has attracted a million visitors a year since it was founded in 1997, he said by phone from New York. For its next international move, the Russian Museum is relying on decades-old Soviet ties to open a branch in Havana -- where the tourist industry is set to benefit from a thawing of U.S.-Cuban ties.
News Article | December 3, 2015
The show helps visitors get to grips with the reality and implications of so-called Big Data, tracing the system from the smartphones in our pockets to undersea cables to whirring data-storage warehouses. "Big data is the defining feature of our times," said Claire Catterall, director of exhibitions at Somerset House where the Big Bang Data show is held from Thursday until February 2016. "It affects each and every one of us and will define our future." The exhibition begins with a room in which images of a data centre are projected, showing the bare concrete walls, wires and metalwork that contain "The Cloud" of information normally invisible to most. Posters underscore the scale of recent change, explaining that 90 percent of data now existing was created in the last two years, most created by people's everyday activities rather than by science, industry and administration as in the past. In the London Situation Room, real-time social media posts are analysed live, giving an instant measure of the British capital's mood depending on their tone. "Data can seem abstract but we wanted to show that it is us," said Amanda Taylor of data visualisation studio Tekja, which created the display. "It can tell us something as intimate as our likes and dislikes. It can tell the story of a city." Viewers can find their own social media posts unexpectedly on the walls of the exhibition, which features photographs stolen from hacked computers as well as taken unknowingly from social networks, probing issues of privacy and surveillance. Another unsettling aspect is demonstrated in "Stranger Visions" by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a series of realistic faces based on genetic information from DNA samples taken from discarded chewing gum and cigarette butts. One artist Nicholas Felton has created glossy corporate-style "Annual Reports" of his own life, with details such as his meals, emails sent and names of who he communicated with shown in precise graphs. While the exhibition sets out the dark side of Big Data and the revelations of mass surveillance by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, it also explores the long history of how information has been used for the greater good. Featured in the exhibition is the 1785 diagram "Description of a Slave Ship", a poster showing the small spaces slaves were packed into as they were taken across the sea—perhaps one of the first data visualisations created for a political cause. The print "seemed to make an instantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it" according to a 1808 account by abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, and was credited with helping change opinion against slavery. Other pioneers are featured such as John Snow, who plotted cholera outbreaks in London identifying how it was transmitted, and Florence Nightingale who used statistics to reduce soldiers' deaths, working out that many were dying because of poor sanitation. Visitors can sit on beanbags and gaze up into a planetarium of stars—in fact a visual representation of live stock market prices in which every traded company is a star. Jonathan Reekie, the director of Somerset House, said: "It's rare that you can visit an exhibition and say that this is a topic that touches the lives of everybody who visits it". Explore further: New exhibition, website guide visitors through the evolving universe