The bicycle theory of social change

Something odd is happening on the streets of London. Cyclists are obeying the law in droves. On my daily cycle from home to work, it’s rare now to see anyone jumping a red light, or cycling the wrong way up a one way street, or cutting across a busy pavement.  Not unheard of, of course (so please don’t bother telling me about the exceptions), but rare.

The laws haven’t changed, but the behaviour has. So being a little bored with cycling the same route every day for 3 years, I started wondering why this might be. Two possible reasons. It might just be volume. When there are more people on bikes, they all seem to become more law-abiding. One cyclist on their own at a relatively empty junction will often still jump a red light. But once there are three or four, the power of peer pressure seems to keep those feet off the pedals and encourage almost everyone to stay put until the lights change.

Secondly, I wonder if people are starting to see the laws a bit differently. As cyclist deaths received more publicity, it seemed to me that riding got better. I don’t think it’s just because people are scared – any cyclist knows that crossing a busy junction during the pedestrian wave is much safer than waiting until the lights change and all the cars and lorries are thundering off as well. Instead, I wonder if it’s because cyclists feel that there’s more in it for them to obey the law. They want to be protected from bad and illegal and careless drivers – well, they have to do their bit too. And there seems more point in obeying a law that has something in it for you, rather than one that’s just an irritating inconvenience.

So that’s my theory of social change as demonstrated by London cyclists. Peer pressure and a bit of a tweak to the social contract underpinning a legal system can actually make people obey the law. Any lessons there for tax evaders?

The meanest goddamn debate about the UN ever

Academics and policy wonks are mainly mild-mannered folk.  I know that I am.  But occasionally it’s fun to cut loose and have a really nasty debate with an intellectual opponent.  The New Internationalist gave Phil Leech of Liverpool University and me a chance to do just that by asking us to conduct a debate on abolishing the Security Council for their latest issue.  Our debate quickly and entertainingly turned into the IR academic equivalent of professional wresting.

Phil started off by stating the case for the Council’s abolition:

The UN Security Council (UNSC), in its current form, represents an antiquated approach to international politics.

The original intention behind its creation was for it to be an executive arm of the UN, enforcing the will of the international community against rogue states, ensuring compliance with international norms and promoting world peace. However, in reality the Security Council has proven to be Western-centric, overly concerned with the rights and interests of states – rather than that of individual human beings or human societies – and incompatible with the very urgent need to address many of the key issues and challenges of the contemporary world.

I actually agree with a lot of that, but I wasn’t going to admit defeat so easily..

You are right: the Security Council, like life, is not fair. But it was never meant to be.

Time for me to ramp up the battle!

Let’s pursue your proposal: scrap the Council. What, if anything, would you replace it with? A forum for NGOs? Oxfam and Amnesty International would have more humane and edifying debates than China and the US, but what could they deliver? Perhaps we should select 15 entirely random individuals from around the world to debate war and peace in place of the Council’s current members.

Phil strikes back:

You seem to accept both the inherent unfairness of the system and its inefficacies –which, you concede, constitute the politicization of international norms, sometimes at great human cost – merely because of a poverty of creative thought. I am unconvinced.

Ouch!  Me again:

I may not be thinking very creatively, but your alternative adds up to a couple of slogans.

If you want to find out what Phil had to say to that, read through the full multilateral wrestling-match here.  Rest assured that we made up afterwards!

A UN translator’s tale

The London Review of Books has a nice piece by Lynn Visson, a former UN translator, on the secrets of her trade:

The most important language in most international organisations has no name: it is the institution’s own bureaucratese, its linguistic Esperanto. We never do something, we implement. We don’t repeat, we reiterate and underscore. We are never happy, we are gratified or satisfied. You are never doing a great job: you are performing your duties in the outstanding manner in which you have always discharged them. There is not heft or embezzlement, but rather failure to ensure compliance with proper accounting and auditing procedures in the handling of financial resources. This is a language the interpreter must master very early on.

But sometimes there are surprises…

Some colleagues play tic-tac-toe with each other out of sheer boredom. Delegates too sometimes get bored. Instead of beginning his speech with the usual ‘Thank you, Mr Chairman,’ a Russian delegate for whom I was interpreting launched in with ‘O my lost youth, my lost youth,’ and proceeded to reminisce about the mosaics in the main cathedral in Sofia, including one figure in the cupola that reminded him, as he put it, of ‘Christ in a space suit’. Several delegates turned towards the English booth with puzzled looks, undoubtedly wondering if I had gone mad.

…and sometimes things go horribly wrong:

One unfortunate freelancer announced to an entire room that a Spanish speech he had just finished translating was ‘the stupidest and most boring speech I have ever interpreted in my entire life’. I doubt that he was ever hired again.

Going postal

Dear reader, there is nothing make fun of here.  Nothing.

9 October

World Post Day is celebrated each year on 9 October, the anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874 in the Swiss capital, Berne. It was declared World Post Day by the UPU Congress held in Tokyo, Japan, in 1969.

Awareness

The purpose of World Post Day is to create awareness of the role of the postal sector in people’s and businesses’ everyday lives and its contribution to the social and economic development of countries. The celebration encourages member countries to undertake programme activities aimed at generating a broader awareness of their Post’s role and activities among the public and media on a national scale.

 

OK, a small smile may be permissible…

Why diplomats enjoy the UN General Assembly (hint: it’s not the post-2015 development agenda)

Thank you, New York Post, for finally bursting the UN General Assembly bubble:

Midtown jiggle joint Flashdancers has seen a lot of action thanks to the United Nations General Assembly.

“The place has been so packed with diplomats, they’ve had to turn away people at the door,” says a source.

But when we asked for the names of diplos dining out — and perhaps getting private lap dances on their countries’ cash — we were ­refused.

The source added, “None of the diplomats have been super wild, they’re all enjoying themselves but remaining very low-key.”

Ban Ki-moon: Zen master of twitter (updated)

UPDATE: see end of this post for an important and intriguing correction.

Yesterday, Australian historian and UN-watcher Michael Fullilove took a pot-shot at Ban Ki-moon’s twittering style…

Now it’s very easy for an independent thinker like Michael to mock an official like Ban about writing dull tweets. It’s hard for the Secretary-General to be informal or snappy online, because he always risks offending people. But I think that Michael is also missing something deeper and more fundamental here. A close reading of Ban’s tweets suggests that he isn’t just trying to tell us who he is meeting or where he is. He also sees Twitter as an art form, offering moments of minimalist surrealism that verge on the poetic. Here are some examples that, to me, represent the high-points of Ban’s art-form:

 

 

 

 

Truly, this man is a Zen master of the twittered word.

UPDATE: 2 well-placed sources have pointed out that the “@secgen” account is entirely unofficial.  Despite having nearly 250,000 followers, it is in fact the work of someone (reportedly in the UK) who simply tweets Ban’s official schedule hour-by-hour.  Which must be quite dull.  So, I am pleased to (1) say sorry to the SG; and (2) pose the question that will now surely shake global diplomacy: who is the (un)real Ban Ki-moon?   [Technically, the answer is that the best accounts to follow are @UN_Spokesperson and @UN.]