Schott’s Almanac 2008–2009 · Extracts

A Few Words of the Year

Unmentionables: Cherie Blair’s euphemism for the items (including ‘contraceptive equipment’) she was too embarrassed to take to Balmoral, which led to the conception of her son, Leo. | Travolta Micawber Strategy: Gordon Brown’s political plan: i.e., staying alive whilst hoping that something will turn up. | Angel Flights: US military flights repatriating dead soldiers. | Great Haul of China: GB’s Olympic medal tally. | Deskwich: Sandwich eaten al desko. | Tanorexia: Addiction to (fake) tans. | Carla Effect: The boost in Nicolas Sarkozy’s ratings after he married Carla Bruni. | Leanover: A mild hangover. | Non Dom[iciled]: Those who pay no tax on earnings made outside the UK. | Flopsy Bunny Issues: policies to which few object (e.g., alleviating poverty). | The N.I.C.E. Decade: In May 2008, the Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King said: ‘for the time being at least, the N.I.C.E. decade is behind us.’ In this context, N.I.C.E. meant ‘Non-Inflationary Consistent Expansion’. | Wall Street Got Drunk: George W. Bush’s ‘off the record’ analysis of the crash. | Karoshi: Japanese term for ‘sudden death from overwork’. | 3Gs: Households that, out of necessity, contain 3 generations of the same family. | Taxodus: the relocation of firms or individuals to lower-tax jurisdictions. | Dumblegate: Brouhaha following J.K. Rowling’s suggestion that Albus Dumbledore was gay. | Marmite Politician: Like Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone, that voters either ‘love’ or ‘hate’.

Schott’s Annual Astrometer

Schematic of Notable World Events

Person of the Year

Before his elevation in 2003, profiles of China’s new president were often prefaced, ‘Not much is known about Hu Jintao’. Five years on, we know only a little more about the man who leads the most populous nation on Earth.

Two events intensified the world’s gaze on China in 2008: the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake and the triumph of the Beijing Olympics. Yet neither of these was clear-cut. For while the quake catalysed an unusually open (though not perfect) state response, it also exposed China’s structural corruption and rural poverty. And while the Games were spectacular, their scale and security were premised on a firmly authoritarian grip. These tensions characterise both modern China and Hu himself.

Hu Jintao was born in 1942 to a family of tea merchants. He grew up in Taizhou, Jiangsu, and in 1959 entered Beijing’s Qinghua University, where he excelled in hydroelectric engineering. It was here he met his wife, with whom he has a son and daughter. In 1964, Hu joined the Communist Party and worked as a political instructor, before the Cultural Revolution banished him to the countryside for ‘re-education’. In 1968, he was sent to the desolate Gansu province, where he laboured for a year before he was promoted to technician. Hu worked assiduously, travelled extensively in the region, and formed powerful Party allies.

In 1982, he was transferred to Beijing, and in 1984 he headed the Communist Youth League. A year later, political intrigue forced him back to the provinces as Party Secretary in Guizhou. Yet he shone in this role too, and in 1988 became the first civilian Party Secretary in Tibet. Interpretations differ as to Hu’s role in the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tibetan unrest, but he proved himself no squeamish moderate, and after Tiananmen Square he did not hesitate to voice his support for the Party.

In 1990, Hu returned to Beijing, where he was propelled by Deng Xiaoping, the author of China’s reform era, to the top ranks of the political hierarchy. After a decade’s tutelage, Hu succeeded Jiang Zemin as China’s top party, government, and military leader between 2002 and 2005.

Some were warily optimistic of Hu as China’s paramount leader, considering him technocratic, pragmatic, and even reforming. His response to the 2003 SARS outbreak was initially secretive, but he responded to international criticism with greater transparency. Similarly, he reacted to protests in Hong Kong by shelving an anti-subversion law. Hu’s ideological innovation is ‘scientific development’, whereby economic growth is tempered by social and ecological considerations for a ‘harmonious society’.

Yet while this ‘people first’ approach has ameliorated corruption, pollution, inequality, and incivility, Hu is unwavering over Tibet and Taiwan, and severe in his treatment of political dissidents, religious activists, and media critics. Hu is working to focus China’s awesome potential so that the environment and the poor are not crushed in the stampede.

But he is far from ushering in Western capitalist democracy. As he said in 2007, ‘only socialism can save China and only reform and opening up can develop China, socialism, and Marxism’.

Hu is expected to retire in 2012, the year London’s Olympics will be compared to Beijing’s. Expect profiles to begin: ‘Not much is known about Hu’s successor…’

Object of the Year

One of the year’s most iconic images was of the ink-stained fingers of voters in Zimbabwe. Indelible ink has prevented voter fraud in undeveloped areas since at least the 1920s, and George W. Bush boasted of the ink-stain of freedom in Iraq’s 2005 elections. But under Robert Mugabe’s vicious regime, those who could not show ink-stained proof of voting risked assault by Zanu-PF thugs, since the only candidate in the presidential runoff was Mugabe himself.

Superficially, few things could be less modern than the hand or its component fingers. In 1888, the anthropologist Frank Baker wrote, ‘The hand is so intimately connected with the brain as the executor of its behests that the savage mind naturally ascribes to it a separate and distinct force independent of the rest of the body – makes it, in fact, a fetish’. The ancient Greeks, for example, ‘cut from the body of a suicide the hand which had committed the deed and buried it in a separate place’.

In 2008, hands and fingers linked the most fragile societies and the most modern technologies. As Zimbabweans struggled with democracy, so millions were getting to grips with Apple’s iPhone which, for the first time, put multi-touch technology into the hands of the masses. Apple, Microsoft, and many others are now pioneering (and attempting to patent) a vocabulary of touch-screen ‘tactile events’ (tap, swipe, drag, flick, pinch), in the most significant innovation in gestural communication since the invention of sign language in 1775.

Palmistry has long held that hands can foretell the future, and fingers have tracked the past since the clay fingerprint seals of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). Now security systems are bridging this divide by using biometric finger and palm scans, as well as techniques of gesture recognition and authentication by ‘typing pattern’.

In an increasingly mediated society, where computers ‘handshake’ across networks and Facebookers ‘poke’ one another, human touch remains resolutely significant. In 2008, the ‘Harare handshake’ between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai proved almost as newsworthy as the ‘fist bump’ between Barack and Michelle Obama – sneered at by Fox News as a ‘terrorist fist jab’. In Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy engineered a curious three-way handshake with Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas, while in N Ireland, Gordon Brown was baffled by Bush’s ‘homeboy’ handshake.

Brown also drew a clumsy distinction between receiving the Olympic torch and refusing to touch it, and before the Games, the Chinese were told it was rude to shake hands for longer than 3 seconds. (The buttock-obscured hand signals of bikini-clad Olympic beach volleyballers proved irresistible to the media.)

The hand also lingers as a tool in the communication of news, and as a culprit in the transmission of disease. And, as ever, individual fingers hold their own significance: a photograph of Madonna’s ringless fourth finger catalysed a wave of speculation about her marriage, while Conrad Black was snapped presenting a different digit to reporters outside his trial.

But we could be forgiven for letting much of this pass us by. As the anatomist Charles Bell wrote in his 1833 monograph on the hand, ‘Is it not the very perfection of the instrument which makes us insensible to its use?’

Substance of the Year

In November 2007, Farming Minister Lord Rooker predicted that the English honeybee might be extinct within a decade if more is not done to protect it. In July 2008, the Honey Association warned that stocks of English honey would run dry by Christmas, after which no more would be available until summer 2009. Shortly thereafter, the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) reported that c.30% of the UK’s 240,000 honeybee hives had not survived the winter – a loss BBKA president Tim Lovett called ‘deeply worrying’.

The causes of this decline in the bee population (and therefore the honey supply) are unclear. The BBKA has urged the government to increase funding into bee diseases such as the Varroa mite, which entered Britain in 1992 and has ravaged the wild bee population. Honey stocks in other countries have also suffered recently. The vast Argentinian honeybee population has been damaged both by droughts and the conversion of land to the growth of soya beans for biofuel. And, the mysterious ‘colony collapse disorder’ has been blamed for the death of c.36% of American honeybees.

One of the earliest depictions of honey harvesting comes from 15,000-year-old cave paintings found near Valencia, Spain, in which a stick figure climbs a ladder to collect the sweet treat. The ancient Egyptians revered honey as the food of kings – Tutankhamun was found buried with a pot of honey said still to be edible. Many have surmised that the ambrosia offered to the gods of Ancient Greece was honey, and there are numerous biblical references to honey, most famously the ‘land of milk and honey’ for which the Israelites searched.

Honey is predominately made up of carbohydrates – fructose (c.38%) and glucose (c.31%), as well as small quantities of sucrose, maltose, isomaltose, maltulose, turanose, and kojibiose, and traces of various enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. Since fructose tastes slightly sweeter than sucrose, honey tastes, on average, 1·5× sweeter than sugar. Honey also contains traces of hydrogen peroxide, which research suggests might give it some medicinal benefits. Scientists at Aintree Hospital, Liverpool, and the University of Wales have suggested that manuka honey can help prevent MRSA when applied to wounds.

Consumers of honey are not the only ones affected by the honeybee crisis. According to DEFRA, honeybees contribute £165m a year to the British economy by pollinating fruits and vegetables. And a global shortage of honeybees could be devastating. As Albert Einstein apparently prognosticated: ‘If the bee disappears off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.’