John Harris

Journalist & Author

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The national calamity we don’t hear about – the death of local democracy | John Harris

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

Cuts and closures underline the flaws of a system dominated by Westminster’s power. From health to schools to housing, we need an urgent rethink

‘We cannot survive as we are beyond this next financial year. There is no money. I am not crying wolf. I never cry wolf.” So says the Conservative leader of Torbay council, in Devon: a local authority that delivers the full range of services but can no longer function at even the most basic level.

After years of bone-crunching austerity, by 2020 it will be faced with another £12m of cuts – so the most obvious option is to downgrade itself to a district council, hand over its most essential work to the bigger Devon county council, and hope for the best. Whether this will improve anything is an interesting question: since 2010, in real terms, Devon’s funding from government has been cut by 76%.

Related: How can we protect our libraries from closure when the council ignores us?

Related: Council cuts are putting the vulnerable at risk, Tory peer says

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Robots could solve the social care crisis – but at what price? | John Harris

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

It’s the next wave of automation beyond retail and financial services. Yet can artificial intelligence ever replicate altruism and empathy?

Pepper is a 4ft tall approximation of a human being developed in France, and now manufactured and marketed by the Japanese-owned corporate giant SoftBank Robotics. If you went to the recent Robots exhibitions at London’s Science Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, you will be aware of what he (Pepper has been given a male pronoun, for some reason) can do.

Using a screen on his chest, he tells interactive stories, approximates the basics of conversation, and performs everyday gestures – all the while, according to his creators, “recognising the principal human emotions and adapting his behaviour to the mood of his interlocutor”. I have met Pepper on three occasions: the fact that my two children were so entranced spoke volumes not just about his capabilities, but the easy charm his inventors have wired into him.

Related: Carers don’t need to be paid compliments – they just need to be paid | Frances Ryan

Artificial Intelligence has various definitions, but in general it means a program that uses data to build a model of some aspect of the world. This model is then used to make informed decisions and predictions about future events. The technology is used widely, to provide speech and face recognition, language translation, and personal recommendations on music, film and shopping sites. In the future, it could deliver driverless cars, smart personal assistants, and intelligent energy grids. AI has the potential to make organisations more effective and efficient, but the technology raises serious issues of ethics, governance, privacy and law.

Related: In a world of digital nomads, we will all be made homeless | John Harris

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All Abba’s UK singles – ranked!

Friday, June 29th, 2018

To mark the release of new film Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, we rate the Swedish pop band’s greatest hits

Last place for the band’s last single, taken from recording sessions for a ninth album that never came to fruition. And maybe that’s for the best: the dissonance between the robotic verses and a bizarrely jaunty chorus about being at one’s wit’s end over a stalker is too jarring to work. LS

Related: Sign up for the Sleeve Notes email: music news, bold reviews and unexpected extras

Related: Abba’s return will be either genius or disaster – but nothing in between | Alexis Petridis

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Where’s Jeremy Corbyn? Lost in a rose-tinted vision of Labour’s past | John Harris

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

Labour must stop talking in terms of 1945 and all that, and engage with today’s big issues – Brexit foremost among them

The best politicians inspire, but part of their job is also to orientate: to survey an often confounding set of national circumstances, and tell us not just where we all are, but also what our position means and where we need to go next. A year on from that remarkable general election result, this is the challenge facing Jeremy Corbyn and the people at the top of the Labour party – a difficult but urgent task in increasingly trying times.

Just over a week ago, I was among the 3,000 or so people who spent an overcast Saturday in north London, at the celebration of politics and music branded  Labour Live. Whatever its detractors claimed, it was a well-intentioned, creative event – but the sparse crowd and rather wearied atmosphere highlighted issues far beyond the organisers’ control.

It should stop framing policies as a return to the pre-Thatcher past. Tory free-marketry ought to be yesterday’s thing

Related: Labour must shout louder about the benefits of immigration | Stella Creasy

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In a world of digital nomads, we will all be made homeless | John Harris

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Whose utopia is this, when people have to sever emotional links and leave where they grew up to find dependable work?

The office-space empire WeWork was founded eight years ago in New York. It currently leases 240,000 sq metres of real estate in London alone, which reportedly makes it the city’s largest user of offices after the British government. The basic deal is simple enough: you can either pay to put your laptop wherever there is space, or stump up a little more for a more dependable desk or entire office – and, in either case, take advantage of the fact that, with operations in 20 countries, WeWork offers the chance to traverse the planet and temporarily set up shop in no end of locations.

Part of the WeWork idea, moreover, is that a place to toil is only part of what is on offer. As well as your workspace, there will be free beer on tap, regular yoga and pilates sessions, and more. As the working day winds on and such distractions – along with the necessity of meeting other footloose hotshots, and comparing “projects” – take up more of your time, a couple of questions might spring to mind: what is work, and what is leisure? And does the distinction even count for much any more?

Related: Tech leaders say visa cap removal may not solve UK skills shortage

Related: Wandering stars: are Tallinn’s digital nomads building the city of the future?

Related: What’s fuelling Athens’ burgeoning startup scene?

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