Thursday, April 25, 2019
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If Theresa May wants to improve the quality of our universities, she must begin by addressing the disastrous effects of her immigration policy

The good news is that Britain’s finest universities remain just that – world leaders in research, teaching and developing talent from anywhere on earth. The bad news is that they have slipped a little in the latest international league tables.

Last year Britain scored a respectable 10 entrants in the global top 100, including Oxford, Cambridge, various London institutions and Durham, but Durham has dropped out of the world league, leaving Britain with nine representatives, including Warwick. University College London and Imperial College London have also dropped down.

As with any academic activity, coming first isn’t everything, and sometimes it is not even realistic, so the slippage needs to be kept in perspective. However, the performance of British universities will be especially crucial after Brexit in the new “global Britain”, and there are policies that can be put in place now to prepare the country better for its future.

The most obvious and overdue reform to help secure global success as we approach the middle of the 21st century would be to take students and academics out of the migration target. This was a reform urged on Theresa May many years ago, during the coalition government of 2010-15, when chancellor George Osborne and business secretary Vince Cable virtually begged Ms May to soften her approach as home secretary. They were met with a hostile reception, and the students stayed in the figures, along with the researchers and the dons.

For too long, then, students, teachers and researchers who want to help build the reputation of British higher education – including but not confined to the global elite of institutions – have been prevented from doing so by an arbitrary cap designed to fit very different, pre-Brexit, political circumstances. With the free movement of labour throughout the EU coming to an end for the UK within the next few years – no one can be sure of the timings on Brexit – this is the ideal point to revisit the question of foreign student visas.

The obvious point, which must have been made to Ms May personally many times by the respective governments during her visits, is that China and India will require Britain to issue many more visas of every kind, but particularly  for students, if the British are to stand any chance of reaching those coveted new trade deals. Thus far there has been little sign of flexibility from No 10. That will need to change.

More foreign students paying substantial fees would bolster the finances of British universities, which is the key to expansion and investment; boost local economies; create a potential pool of additional skilled labour to enter the British workforce post-degree or higher degree; and endow Britain with a generation of future global leaders with memories and gratitude to a country that welcomed them and helped them to help us, as with the Rhodes scholarships of the past, for example.

There is more that needs to be done, too. Despite the well-known prowess of “Silicon Fen”, Britain still lags behind other countries in linking academic research and innovation to the commercial world. Every university, ideally, should have a science park that would operate as a profit centre, ready to spin out processes or products to the benefit of the wider British economy, either from within the university sector itself or through new companies to be hived off. 

There is much excited talk of Britain becoming a leader in such fields as artificial intelligence, electric cars and financial tech; if so, then it will need to innovate much more effectively than has been the case in the past.

Once again it comes back to a question of talent, and attracting the very best of it from around the world. We need them, they would like to come to Britain to learn, but we have an immigration cap zealously guarded by its progenitor, now residing in Downing Street and growling at anyone who tries to raise the subject. (Her rival Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, by contrast, has been honest and brave enough to admit that the cap has failed.)

“Global Britain” quickly become one of Ms May’s favourite soundbites after she embraced Brexit after the referendum; what a shame that she shows such a dismally insular attitude to its application to our great universities.

History will never let Donald Trump escape the shame of separating parents and children at the border

There is so much dust and debris flying around Washington these days, a lot of it deliberately kicked up by Donald Trump and his enablers, that sometimes we miss the things that are really important. I have a for-instance: the evaporation of all compassion at America’s borders.

It has been three weeks since the president’s top law enforcer, attorney general Jeff Sessions, announced a new ‘”zero tolerance” policy for foreign nationals attempting to cross into the United States illegally. Send everyone to jail and refer them for prosecution, he cried, no exceptions.

This is already happening at the southern border with Mexico which has seen a significant recent uptick in attempted crossings by citizens fleeing lives of danger and desperation in their Central American homes like Guatemala and Honduras.

Many arrive with young children in tow. Because there is no provision for sending minors to jails, this has led to the routine separation of children from mothers and fathers. Over a two-week period this month, 638 adults were referred for prosecution under the new “zero-tolerance” effort, a Border Protection official told Congress last week. They bought 658 children with them. 

Do we mean all of them were taken from their parents and carted away? Yes. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? America, a beacon of decency that once welcomed the huddled masses, ripping little ones, including infants, from the arms of those who loved and raised them, who’d already put their lives at risk because they believed that if they made it here their futures would be better. 

This, I am afraid, is what this country, under Trump, has descended to. Some parent-child separation has happened in the past, but it was never systematic. Generally, when parents were apprehended at the border, they were sent to family shelters to await either deportation or processing for asylum. Their children stayed with them. Too humane for this administration. 

“I keep imagining somebody taking my kids from me. My kids are two and four years old, and that’s the age of some of the children that have been separated from their parents,” noted Joaquin Castro, a Democrat congressman from Texas. “When a lot of people hear the story, they get a similar reaction. They can’t imagine why this would be a standard government practice.”

What happens to the children you wonder, after they are put into the backs of vans – in government-purchased child seats if they are young enough – and driven away? They become wards of the government, which will first attempt to trace relatives already in the US. Otherwise they may be deported, deposited in shelters or with families willing to foster them. Parents who have cases that are resolved quickly may be reunited with their offspring with equal speed. But most will spend weeks and months never knowing when they will see their kids again.

“In many cases they may never,” Michelle Brané, executive director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told the Houston Chronicle. “We have seen children as young as 18 months deported without their parents and more commonly, parents deported without their children. Parents arrive in Central America with no idea of how to get their children back.”

Trump promised in 2016 he’d repair the country’s damaged immigration system. Damaged it is, as well as cruel and dysfunctional. But what he meant, of course, was that he would choke off avenues for immigrants to get in. But it’s a promise he’s had trouble keeping. Congress nixed his wall, though it did spend millions building prototype sections outside San Diego. I visited them and while I was there a mother clambered over the existing fence with a toddler. Lucky for her zero tolerance hadn’t started.

The logic is clear. Only by vowing to jail everyone when they get here can America send its message to those considering making the risky voyage north: don’t do it. If images of babes being wrenched from mothers adds to the terror of taking the risk, then so be it. 

But it’s ice-cold. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said at the border. “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the same to the US Senate. “Anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted. If you’re a parent, or you’re a single person, or you happen to have a family, if you cross between the ports of entry, we will refer you for prosecution. You’ve broken US law.”

But it is Trump himself who takes the gold star for cynicism. Perhaps seeing that what he has wrought will place in him uncomfortable company in history books waiting to be written he attempted at the weekend to blame Democrats for it. “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there parents once they cross the Border,” he tweeted.

The brazenness of him. There is no such law, passed by Democrats or by anyone else. There is only his new policy of zero tolerance. Trump has no shame, though hopefully the country as a whole will find its own and stop this barbarism at the border before more lives are ruined.

Starbucks is daring to invest in its employees with today’s diversity training, a rare choice that could be money well spent

If Americans have an urge to pop into a certain ubiquitous coffee chain later today for a caramel cocoa cluster frappuccino, a pumpkin spice latte, or just an espresso, they’re liable to be disappointed.

Every single one of the 8,000 Starbucks shops in the US is closed this afternoon. The Seattle-headquartered caffeine peddling phenomenon has not gone bankrupt. Nor has it been affected by some catastrophic nationwide sanitary crisis.

The shops are all shut because the entire 175,000-strong US workforce of the company is undergoing “diversity training”.

The cost of the great Starbucks shutdown in foregone profits has been estimated at around $12m (£9m).

That may sound like rather a lot of “bucks” to spend on staff training. But that figure needs to be put in the context of the chain’s $2.9bn of global profits last year. Starbucks can afford to make this expense. Arguably, it can’t afford not to.

The company’s US training day was prompted by a public relations disaster last month, when staff in a Philadelphia branch called the police to arrest two black customers, one of whom had merely asked to use the toilet.

Such a reaction would be outrageous in any country, but in America, with its shameful history of racial segregation (including “Whites Only” restrooms) and a current president who describes white supremacists as “very fine people”, one can easily see why it’s especially toxic.

The Starbucks training day, we’re told, will encourage workers to talk about their implicit biases and stereotypes when encountering ethnic minority customers.

To understand the underlying economics of this story, it’s necessary to grasp the nature of Starbucks’ business.

Starbucks doesn’t hold a patent on coffee. It doesn’t own the majority of the world’s coffee plantations, or enjoy a global monopoly on the supply of beans.

For all those inventive recipes, it doesn’t have a secret formula that cannot be emulated. Its coffee-making equipment is essentially no different from what can be found in most other coffee outlets.

Nor does Starbucks own the freehold of those tens of thousands of shops in prominent locations in cities and towns around the world.

Nor do its staff have any kind of unique training that enables them only to work in Starbucks; they could just as easily ply their trade for one of its many rivals.

Add up all the cash, property and sacks of coffee on Starbucks’ balance sheet and one comes to $14bn. Yet the company’s stock market valuation is closer to $80bn. What explains the difference? The value of its brand.

If the Starbucks brand is harmed, all those revenues, all those profits, risk melting away like foam on a cappuccino. Of all the associations that the multinational Starbucks brand wants to avoid, racial bigotry must rank pretty highly.

Protecting that brand is paramount. And $12m is, in this context, a pretty small price to pay.

However, that’s not the end of the financial considerations. Research suggests that top-down, mandatory, one-off diversity training exercises often fail to deliver results, with any lessons learnt rapidly fading.

Voluntary programmes, and training designed to build a genuine sense of engagement, and to directly expose workers to different social groups, seem to do much better.

The greater financial risk for Starbucks lies not in the size of the outlay, but in the danger that this training is ineffective; if it represents a cosmetic public relations exercise rather than a serious operation to educate its workers and managers in how to treat customers.

It’s not enough for a company to wake up and smell the coffee when a brand is in jeopardy. It needs drinking too.

Thousands died in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria, new Harvard study says

More than 4,600 people are believed to have died in Puerto Rico from the catastrophic Hurricane Maria according to a new study – far in excess of the official government death toll which stands at 64.

The latest estimate of the number of dead from Harvard’s public health school says that many of the deaths were likely from delayed medical care. The island US territory was largely without electricity and access to basic services for several months after the 2017 hurricane season.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, called the official death toll of 64 “a substantial underestimate”. The researchers concluded that there were 4,665 “excess deaths” – meaning those people would not likely have died had Puerto Rico not been in such a disastrous state due to the hurricane – between 20 September and 31 December 2017.

Maria, a major hurricane with winds close to 150 miles (241 km) per hour, caused an estimated $90bn in damage to an island already struggling economically, and many residents have subsequently left.

The study noted that its figure is not precise, and that more definite studies are still to be released. But the new estimate, reached using methods that have not previously been applied to the disaster, comes amid widespread concerns that the official death toll was not accurate.

Researchers estimated a 95 per cent likelihood the death toll was in the range of between 800 and 8,500 people. They say about 5,000 is a “likely figure”.

The study did not just count bodies for the death toll. Researchers surveyed nearly 3,300 random households on the island and took into account each of their experiences over a three week period in January 2018.

Respondents were not paid and were asked if a household member had died directly or indirectly as a result of the storm. Missing people were not counted as deaths. Respondents were also asked about deaths within a five minute walking distance of their homes.

The people in those households reported 38 deaths, which was then extrapolated across Puerto Rico’s population of 3.4 million. 

Researchers calculated that the island’s mortality rate jumped a whopping 62 per cent in the months following the hurricane.

The official government death toll has long been a matter of controversy, particularly following what critics labelled a slow response to the disaster by the US federal government and President Donald Trump.

The tally of 4,645 dead is more than four times higher than a December estimate by The New York Times, which said the actual death toll was probably about 1,052. A Pennsylvania State University study put the number at 1,085.

The official count is based on how many deaths the medical examiner attributed directly to the category four hurricane, but the study argues that the impact of the aftermath – including the lack of electricity, closed roads due to fallen trees and damaged infrastructure – should be taken into account. There is also the issue that many residents faced in getting access to basic food, water and medical supplies.

“Hurricane Maria caused massive infrastructural damage to Puerto Rico… In our survey, interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months following the hurricane,” the study noted. The survey also found that approximately one-third of the total deaths in the months following Maria  were caused by delayed or interrupted health care.

Caroline Buckee, a lead author of the new study and epidemiologist at Harvard, told NPR: “Our approach… provides a different kind of estimate and a different kind of insight into the impact of the hurricane.” She added that the government could take on the same methods to do an even larger survey and get more accurate results.

Researchers said that one of the reasons the number of those killed given in the study is an estimate is because deaths may have continued well into 2018. However, getting closer to a likely death toll is important in that it may help dictate future disaster relief operations, and affect disaster funding and aid infrastructure planning in the recovery process. It also helps survivors with closure.

The researchers said that in the aftermath of Maria households went, on average, 68 days without water, 84 days without electricity and 41 days without mobile phone coverage. In the most remote areas, 83 per cent of households were still without power by 31 December.

The government of Puerto Rico has also commissioned a similar study from George Washington University’s school of public health, and the results are due later this year.

Puerto Rico’s government released a statement on Tuesday welcoming the study and saying it would analyse it further.

“As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities. We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported,” Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration said in the government statement.

Trump accuses Mueller’s team of ‘meddling’ in US elections

President Donald Trump has accused the federal investigators probing his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia of “meddling” in the US midterm elections.

“The 13 Angry Democrats (plus people who worked 8 years for Obama) working on the rigged Russia Witch Hunt, will be MEDDLING with the mid-term elections, especially now that Republicans (stay tough!) are taking the lead in Polls,” Mr Trump tweeted. “There was no Collusion, except by the Democrats!”

The tweet was a reference to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and probing allegations that Moscow worked in concert with the Trump team.

Thirteen of the 17 members of Mr Mueller’s team have previously registered as Democrats, according to the Washington Post. Mr Mueller himself is a Republican, who was appointed to his role by a fellow Republican – Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Mr Trump has repeatedly called the investigation a “witch hunt,” and called allegations of collusion “fake news”. But Tuesday was the first time he turned the word “meddling” – a term often used to describe Russia’s alleged actions during the US election – against the investigators.

He provided no evidence that the team was “meddling” in the midterm elections, which will determine the balance of power in the US Congress in November.

It was not the first time the president had made unfounded allegations about the Mueller investigation in recent days. Last week, he claimed the FBI had planted a “spy” in his campaign to aid his Hillary Clinton, his election opponent.

Several outlets have reported that the FBI had sent an informant to speak with members of the Trump campaign during the election, after the bureau found evidence of suspicious contacts with Russia. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the informant was placed to gather information about the Russians, not to spy on the Trump campaign.

Even after receiving a classified intelligence briefing on the subject, top Democrats in Congress said they had seen no evidence to support Mr Trump’s claims.

Mr Trump has stepped up his attacks on the Mueller team in recent weeks, as the midterms approach and the investigation drags on far past what the White House predicted. 

“Why aren’t the 13 Angry and heavily conflicted Democrats investigating the totally Crooked Campaign of totally Crooked Hillary Clinton,” Mr Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “It’s a Rigged Witch Hunt, that’s why! Ask them if they enjoyed her after election celebration!”

He also accused the media of running “the most highly sophisticated & dishonest Disinformation Campaign in the history of politics”.

Four members of Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign team have been charged in connection with the Mueller probe thus far, including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The president’s long-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is also under criminal investigation in New York following a tip from Mr Mueller’s team.

Battle for Hodeidah: How the destruction of one Yemen port could send millions into famine

Ramadan is particularly punishing in Hodeidah on Yemen’s west coast, where the temperature is currently 36C. Many of the Houthi rebels who have held the city since 2015 are used to the cooler highlands and struggle in the heat. 

Tensions are running high in the port city. Arab coalition forces that back Yemen’s exiled government are now less than 12 miles away from Hodeidah’s edges; everyone inside knows the battle is imminent. 

As Yemen’s key commercial centre, through which more than 70 per cent of the country’s imports, food and aid shipments flow, an offensive to retake the city has always been inevitable.  

In the last few days, however, Yemeni, Saudi and UAE troops have covered such huge amounts of territory the imminent fighting has arrived much faster than most were expecting – and fears for the country’s embattled civilians are growing. 

“What happens to Hodeidah is going to have huge consequences for Yemen’s war,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow with the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR).

“The key question is: how is the battle going to be fought? The port is vital for Yemenis across the country. There could potentially be massive destruction of the city’s facilities. People are worried about how long the port might be out of action and how long it could take to rebuild.”

Hodeidah is Yemen’s lifeline. Even before the war, it handled most imports in a country where a staggering 90 per cent of food had to be imported.

Seized by the Iran-backed Houthis early in the now three-year-old war, the city has been subject to a Saudi-led coalition blockade since 2015, which humanitarian organisations say is largely responsible for the fact eight million Yemenis are now living on the brink of famine.

A total sealing off of the port in November 2017 – retaliation for a Houthi ballistic missile that landed near the Saudi capital of Riyadh – is estimated to have pushed an additional 3.2 million people into hunger, the World Food Programme says. 

The new UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has warned that the new offensive to retake Hodeidah will result in mass displacement and “in a single stroke, take peace off the table”.  

But the fracturing of rebel allegiances after the Houthis killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in December has seemingly galvanised the Arab coalition. 

Saleh’s nephew, Brigadier-General Tareq Mohammed Saleh, has formed a new brigade that has so far fought ferociously against the Houthis who killed his uncle. 

The Houthis are expected to withdraw to the mountains surrounding Hodeidah when fighting in the city proper gets under way, but have promised to give the coalition “hell on hell” before they do.

“Further military pressure on the Houthis may have the reverse effect of making them less amenable to enter proposed peace negotiations, since they will be in a weaker position,” Elisabeth Kendall of Oxford University said.  

Retaking Hodeidah could potentially open a pathway to finally retaking the Yemeni capital of Sanaa from the rebels – but that does not mean Houthi capitulation, Dr Kendall added.

“The Houthis’ heartlands in Yemen’s north have been pulverised after well over a decade of [guerrilla] war. They have every reason to defy military logic and keep fighting. Military gains may be of short term use.” 

The human cost of winning the city of 600,000 people back could be catastrophic, several aid organisations have warned. The Houthis are known to heavily mine territory as they exit it. 

Irin News reported earlier this month that UN operational plans to evacuate 5,000 civilians to safer areas ahead of the fighting “flopped”. 

“An additional 340,000 people could be displaced should Hodeidah come under attack,” said Bhanu Bhatnagar, a Save the Children spokesperson.

“The fighting is also likely to be protracted and the possible use of explosive weapons in densely populated urban areas will have a disproportionate impact on the civilian population.”

The Arab coalition, which has been criticised over the unnecessary loss of civilian life in bombing campaigns in other Houthi areas, is well aware the international community is watching the Hodeidah offensive. 

“It is in the coalition’s interests to make sure Hodeidah isn’t destroyed,” said Baron of the ECFR. 

“They used to be able to blame the Houthis in control of the city for aid flow problems. If they’re in charge, it will be on them.” 

The port must remain open at all costs, Bhatnagar said. 

“The complete closure of [Hodeidah] port would lead to a devastating cut in the humanitarian and commercial supply chain just when it’s needed most. Food imports have already reached the lowest levels since the conflict started and the price of basic commodities has risen by a third,” 

When the sound of bullets and bombs does die down, a different type of battle will begin. 

There are growing tensions in the Arab coalition over the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s growing influence in parts of Yemen in which their troops are in control.

The Yemeni government’s anger led to a diplomatic standoff over the Arabian Sea island of Socotra between the UAE and the exiled Aden government earlier this month.

Whether Tareeq Saleh’s forces call the shots on the ground when the battle ends is also a headache for Yemen’s embattled president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. 

All parties will be keen to take credit for any successes – and avoid blame for any failures – in the fight for the city.

“That battle will be as active as the fighting itself,” said Mr Baron.

Yemeni Nobel peace prize laureate and activist, Tawakkol Karman, is worried about the battle to come. 

“Hodeidah’s operation will leave behind an unprecedented human disaster,” she said.

“This will only add to Yemenis’ agony. Saudi Arabia and the UAE will ban the legitimate government from entering Hodeidah, like they did in Aden. 

“This will not bring peace. It will just replace one militia with another.”

What I’ve learnt as a performer is that even the politically ‘woke’ still get embarrassed by the idea of disability

I recently read an article about an actor whose non-verbal and severely physically disabled son was forced to leave the theatre where his father was performing, because the audience couldn’t cope with the boy’s “noises”.

As a human being, I felt incensed on behalf of both the child and his dad, but as a performer and audience member – if I’m totally honest – I also felt a teeny bit of sympathy for the old biddy who did the “shushing”, resulting in the boy having to leave the theatre.

Not much, I grant you, but a tad.

Morally, the biddy was in the wrong: we are all chasing a fairer, more inclusive future, and if that means sharing an auditorium with people who have been dealt a pretty tough hand in life, then I think we should all suck it up. I sympathise because she presumably had no idea that the boy in question was disabled, and assumed instead that he was a teenage troublemaker. If you’ve paid 90 quid for a West End seat, someone making “funny noises” behind you, seemingly deliberately, is irritating. Few take the time to consider in their day-to-day lives that that person might be suffering from a disability rather than an urge to disturb people around them. 

Sadly, the profoundly disabled continue to sometimes leave even those who consider themselves politically woke feeling “embarrassed”. I really wish it wasn’t the case, but it is. And we need to talk about this uncomfortable truth.

We are all pretty intolerant of noise where we don’t want or expect it: we rail against the kid with the garage music leaking from his headphones in the quiet carriage of a train, or the party in the nextdoor hotel room kicking off after midnight when you’re trying to sleep – but do we have a right to complain in very different cases like these, when the result could be that a disabled person is denied access to culture?

I remember going to see a play in the West End and the woman next to me was wearing what I believe was a hearing loop, which seemed to amplify the sound of the performance via her hearing aid. I’m not sure what the situation was, but unfortunately, the thing seemed go in and out of frequency and at times it was like sitting next to a badly tuned transistor.

But you know what? I’m pretty hard of hearing myself – and who knows, in 20 years’ time I could well be in the same situation. I shut my trap and put my scarf over the ear that was closest to her.

I’m bringing this story up now because during a recent Grumpy Old Women gig, a member of our Reading audience began making “noises”. Instantly I knew they weren’t drunk women shrieks – this was either Tourette’s or a similar disability.

It actually didn’t bother me. I know the show well enough not to be put off my stride, but I could sense a tension in the crowd; a palpable feeling of: “Oh no, oh God, what’s going to happen next?”

Not much, as it happens. The person made a few more noises, but I like to think they were sounds of enjoyment. The next thing I knew, it was the interval.

Of our cast of three, one admitted to being slightly thrown; the other two, having come up through the ranks of the Eighties and Nineties stand-up and cabaret circuit, had experienced much more difficult interruptions.

In my twenties, I was unceremoniously “hummed” off stage at the Tunnel Club, when the infamous compere Malcolm Hardy enforced a heckling ban. The Tunnel Club was notorious for heckling, but that night Malcolm only had five performers booked and within 20 minutes, three had already been booed off. I was next up. 

I tell you, the sound of 300 people humming me off stage and back to the dressing room, tail between my legs, is something that haunts me to this day.

But that’s beside the point. The answer to true theatre accessibility (apart from lowering ticket prices, which is the biggest barrier that we all face) is to hold “relaxed” performances where all people can enjoy performances without fear of disapproval. 

Many smaller theatre spaces around the country do offer these special nights. I remember going to see a show my daughter had written a couple of years ago – it was a monologue, and the actor had invited a friend with Tourette’s.

This turned out to be the performer Jess Thom, who was diagnosed with the neurological condition in her early twenties. Throughout the 60-minute show, Jess shouted the words “biscuit” and “hedgehog” at frequent intervals. 

I have to admit, I tensed up a bit. The young hipster audience, on the other hand, barely batted an eyelid; they knew what was going on and they could cope.

We are getting better, people are more educated, but it’s not all plain sailing. When we got back onstage in Reading after the interval, our “noisy” audience member had gone.

In some respects, I hope they left because they hated it, rather than because they were made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted.

How Venezuela has resorted to importing oil as its core industry faces collapse

Despite having the greatest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela’s government is being forced to spend millions of dollars a day importing crude to prop up its ailing industry.

Petrol remains the only cheap commodity left in Venezuela amid the collapse of most of its economy, but the oil industry is now also struggling to meet basic domestic demands.

Experts say the industry is operating below 40 per cent of its potential output. Last month, the International Energy Agency reported that Venezuela is and will probably remain “the biggest risk factor” in a global supply crisis that may soon tip the market into deficit.

The speed of decline in production has been vertiginous, with output falling by 100,000 barrels a day in February, according to Bloomberg. The Central University of Venezuela says production is reaching its lowest point in 70 years.

Most of the enormous oil reserves Venezuela has access to – almost 25 per cent of all the oil controlled by the world’s biggest producers – is heavy crude, and needs to be diluted with lighter oil to become a commercially viable product.

In 2016, with its own industry failing to deliver, Venezuela imported diluents for the first time in its history. In the two years since, those imports have grown to as many as 200,000 barrels a day, mostly from the US, according to Francisco Monaldi, fellow in Latin American energy policy at Rice University in Texas.

The long queues for food and medicine in Venezuela are now well documented, but lines of cars waiting outside petrol stations – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when petrol cost $0.01 (0.7p) per litre – are becoming more common.

Filling your tank is still cheaper than drinking water in Venezuela, but the industry can no longer meet domestic demands – and is having to put exports first. Monaldi says that if production continues to fall to below a million barrels, the consequences could be catastrophic.

“The domestic consumption of oil is around 450,000 barrels and Venezuela needs the exports to repay its debt with Russia and China,” he says.

“They have to import for two reasons. One is the collapse of the refining infrastructure and the other is that its oil is naturally heavy so they need to import diluents to blend with their oil to re-export it.

“One of the craziest things is that a part of Venezuela’s imports is for the domestic market, but given its price, they practically give gasoline away for free. They are importing barrels that cost $80 to $90 and selling them at $0.”

Monaldi says the only hope is for a major change in politics. He estimates it would take a decade for Venezuela to go back to what it was, and maybe much longer than that.

Venezuelan polling group IVAD suggests that elections next month are not looking good for President Nicolas Maduro. Of those polled, 77 per cent believe that the country needs a change of government, the main reasons stated being lack of food and medicine, insecurity and the high cost of living.

The IMF expects the Venezuelan economy to shrink by 15 per cent in 2018, and the country is facing the worst decline of GDP in recorded history in Latin America. It estimates that by the end of 2018, the accumulated decline will be almost 50 per cent from its peak in 2013.

Oil makes up more than 90 per cent of the nation’s exports, but a combination of government corruption, lack of investment and the migration of qualified staff have left the industry in ruins. It’s a crisis that has directly hit the country’s ability to import resources like food or medicine for the Venezuelan population.

It is a vicious spiral. It is estimated that 10 per cent of the population has emigrated. Almost two thirds of all households have at least one family member living abroad. And among those 3 million migrants are young and competent workers who have escaped from a country that sinks deeper into crisis.

Fortnite developers to give $100,000,000 to the game’s best players

The world’s best Fortnite players will be given $100,000,000, developers have announced.

Epic, who make the hugely popular battle royale game, have announced they will throw themselves behind Fortnite competitions. And they will do so with a huge prize fund that would make the game easily one of the most high-paying esports titles in the world.

The official Fortnite competitions are expected to launch this year. But other than that – and the giant prize fund – Epic revealed few details.

It is not even clear whether Epic will run one big Fortnite competition, or would concentrate on smaller matches.

It did however stress that its approach to the competitive matches would ensure that the games stayed fun and that they would be “inclusive”.

“Grab your gear, drop in and start training. Since the launch of Fortnite Battle Royale we’ve watched the passion for community competition grow and can’t wait to empower you to battle with the best,” Epic wrote in a blog post.

“In the 2018 – 2019 season, Epic Games will provide $100,000,000 to fund prize pools for Fortnite competitions. We’re getting behind competitive play in a big way, but our approach will be different – we plan to be more inclusive, and focused on the joy of playing and watching the game.

“Stay tuned for more details about competitive structures and eligible platforms in the weeks ahead!”

While the huge prize fund will make Fortnite players better rewarded than any other  – $100,000,000 is approaching the total prize money given out for DOTA 2 over the last five years – the money is unlikely to trouble developers Epic. Rumours suggest that the company is making more than $1 million per day from its mobile version of the game alone, and it is available for a whole range of platforms on top of that.

Fortnite is ostensibly free but encourages players to buy cosmetic add-ons and other paid-for upgrades. 

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Madden 19: Release date, features and details of latest NFL game revealed

EA has finally revealed the release date and more details of Madden 19.

The new NFL game will arrive on 10 August, EA Sports has announced. And it will come with a whole host of new features and updates.

“Unless you’re a Philadelphia Eagles fan, you ended the last NFL season saying, ‘There’s always next year’,” EA Sports wrote in their announcement.

“That next year is fast approaching, as the next season of Madden now has a launch date – Madden NFL 19 is set to hit markets August 10, 2018. Let’s go!”

Madden 19 will bring new features including updated player animations, and advances to game modes including Connected Franchise and Madden Ultimate Team.

As ever, it will also bring updated teams and players, ready for the new season.

Both the normal and Hall of Fame editions of the game – which includes Ultimate Team packs but is a little more expensive – will arrive on the August launch date. They can be pre-ordered now.

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