What other countries can learn from Singapore’s schools

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WHEN the island of Singapore became an independent country in 1965, it had few friends and even fewer natural resources. How did it become one of the world’s great trading and financial centres? The strategy, explained Lee Kuan Yew, its first prime minister, was “to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource: its people”.

Today Singapore’s education system is considered the best in the world. The country consistently ranks at the top of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries, in the main three categories of maths, reading and science. Singaporean pupils are roughly three years ahead of their American peers in maths. Singapore does similarly well in exams of younger children, and the graduates of its best schools can be found scattered around the world’s finest universities.

The island-state has much to teach the world. But other countries are reluctant pupils. One reason is that Singapore favours traditional pedagogy, with teachers leading the class. That contrasts with many reformers’ preference for looser, more “progressive” teaching intended to encourage children to learn for themselves. Although international studies suggest that direct instruction is indeed a good way of conveying knowledge, critics contend that Singapore has a “drill and kill” model that produces uncreative, miserable maths whizzes. Parents worry about the stress the system puts on their children (and on them, even as they ferry kids to extra classes).

Yet Singapore shows that academic brilliance need not come at the expense of personal skills. In 2015 Singaporean students also came first in a new PISA ranking designed to look at collaborative problem-solving, scoring even better than they did in reading and science. They also reported themselves to be happy—more so than children in Finland, for instance, a country that educationalists regard as an example of how to achieve exceptional results with cuddlier methods of teaching. Not content with its achievements, Singapore is now introducing reforms to improve creativity and reduce stress (see article). This is not a sign of failure, but rather of a gradual, evidence-led approach to education reform—the first of three lessons that Singapore offers the rest of the world.

Where other countries often enact piecemeal and uncoordinated reforms, Singapore tries to look at the system as a whole. It invests heavily in education research. All reforms are tested, with the outcomes diligently monitored, before being rolled out. Close attention is paid to how new ideas and results should be applied in schools. Carefully developed textbooks, worksheets and worked examples—practices often seen as outdated in the West—are used to inject expertise into the classroom. The result is good alignment between assessments, accountability and teaching styles.

The second lesson is to embrace Singapore’s distinctive approach to teaching, notably of mathematics—as America and England are already doing to some extent. It emphasises a narrower but deeper curriculum, and seeks to ensure that a whole class progresses through the syllabus. Struggling pupils get compulsory extra sessions to help them keep up; even the less-able do comparatively well. An analysis in 2016 in England found that the Singaporean approach boosted results, though it was somewhat watered down in transition.

The third and most important lesson is to focus on developing excellent teachers. In Singapore, they get 100 hours of training a year to keep up to date with the latest techniques. The government pays them well, too. It accepts the need for larger classes (the average is 36 pupils, compared with 24 across the OECD). Better, so the thinking goes, to have big classes taught by excellent teachers than smaller ones taught by mediocre ones. Teachers who want more kudos but not the bureaucratic burden of running schools can become “master teachers”, with responsibility for training their peers. The best teachers get postings to the ministry of education and hefty bonuses: overall, teachers are paid about the same as their peers in private-sector professions. Teachers are also subject to rigorous annual performance assessments.

Class dismissed

The system is hardly faultless. Other countries might wish to avoid Singapore’s dividing of high- and low-achievers into separate schools from the age of 12. The benefits of doing so are unproven, and it contributes to stress about exams. Singapore’s size, moreover, allows for an unusual degree of centralisation. The director-general of the ministry of education says he knows more than 80% of head teachers by name, which makes it easier to keep tabs on what is going on. Other trade-offs would be unpalatable elsewhere. In most countries, teachers’ unions and parents are resistant to big classes, for instance. That is a shame. Education would be much better if more countries copied Singapore’s homework.

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Silicon Valley is changing, and its lead over other tech hubs narrowing

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THE garage in which Hewlett-Packard was started in 1939 is now a private museum—a modest monument to the cut-price creativity and bare-knuckle entrepreneurship that made Silicon Valley famous. Drive south from Palo Alto through 20 minutes of inevitable traffic to Sunnyvale and you will find a landmark of a different kind. Nothing of technological note has taken place there. But in February this small two-bedroom house, which boasts just the sort of garage a startup would once have felt at home in, sold for $2m, 40% more than its asking price, within two days of listing—a new record for the area. That translates into a price of $25,386 per square metre ($2,358 per square foot).

When Ajay Royan of Mithril Capital, an investment fund, asks rhetorically “How are you supposed to have a startup in a garage if the garage costs millions of dollars?”, he is barely exaggerating the problem. The immense success of its tech industry means that the San Francisco Bay Area in which Silicon Valley sits has the highest cost of living in America. A median-priced home costs $940,000, four-and-a-half times the American average. The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers a family earning less than $120,000 in San Francisco “low income”.

As a result, a region that has long drawn people in is beginning to cast them out. More Americans are leaving the Valley than moving to it. In 2017 several counties in the area saw their largest combined domestic outward migrations in around a decade (see chart 1). In a recent survey by the Bay Area Council, a think-tank, 46% of Bay Area residents said they planned to leave in “the next few years”, up from 34% in 2016.

This is not just a case of people of more modest means being pushed out by carpet-bagging techies. At this year’s “FOO camp”, a freewheeling annual gathering of hackers and others, a session called “Should I/you leave the Bay Area?” saw a strong turnout. Participants shared their gripes about the high cost of living, bad traffic and a “toxic” culture obsessed with money.

“We’re seeing a lot of the talent moving or saying they won’t come here,” says Dan Rosensweig, who runs Chegg, an education-tech company in Santa Clara. “It’s hard to imagine doing another startup in Silicon Valley. I don’t think I would,” says Jeremy Stoppelman, the boss of Yelp, a review site. “I will probably never scale another company in the Bay Area,” says one of the founders of a public internet company. He says that for his next venture he will keep a small team in the Bay Area but will hire most of the software developers and executives in other cities, where the cost of talent and the risk of them being poached are both lower.

Silicon Valley is still a place where new ideas can flourish, fortunes can be made and products that change millions of lives will get dreamed up and brought to market. But thanks to its past success it is no longer the ferment it once was, and it is unlikely it will ever again dominate the technology world in quite the way it has over the past decades. The cost of living and operating a firm will drive more people away. The dominance of the companies that have generated its current wealth will change the paths to success for those who stay. And unfavourable governmental policies will further harm the Valley’s dynamism.

A whole generation

On top of all that, Silicon Valley’s own products and services make it ever easier to start out elsewhere, or everywhere, and be connected to Silicon Valley’s culture through messaging, video-conferencing and collaborating online. By changing the way companies work, this technology is making it ever more feasible to have a presence in the Valley while keeping most or almost all of your employees elsewhere. No other tech hub in this more spread-out world will grow as powerful as Silicon Valley has been. But its lead over a growing pack of competitors will narrow.

With its strong networks of experts, stellar universities, culture of risk-taking, deep-pocketed investors and history of helping startups grow into giants, Silicon Valley—now taken, for the purposes of discussions like this, to include San Francisco proper—has over decades become the tech hub that all others measure themselves against. The centre of semiconductor innovation from the 1960s on—hence the name—in the 1990s it made big bets on the internet, which by the 2000s it dominated. Since then its firms have created the operating systems on which more than 95% of the world’s smartphones run.

From 2010 to this year venture capitalists invested $168bn in firms in the Bay Area, a third of the total they invested in America. No other area comes close (see chart 2). In the second quarter of 2018 the Valley was home to three of the world’s five most valuable companies: Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent) and Facebook, valued between them at almost $2.5 trillion. Apple and Alphabet, true natives, were born in garages in Los Altos and Menlo Park, respectively. Facebook moved into somewhat plusher digs while still an infant. It hosts 57 unicorns—private startups valued at more than $1bn—including household names like Airbnb and Uber.

At a number of points in the past it has looked as though the Valley’s ascent was over. In the early 1980s its semiconductor-memory-makers lost out to Japanese competitors; in 2000 the dotcom bubble burst. But the Valley has always kept climbing, and there are plenty who believe that, unequalled in its wealth and its claim on the world’s attention, it can go on doing so. Things may currently be unhelpfully overheated; some think a recession might clear out some badly run companies and lower costs for the fitter survivors. But the long-term outlook is cheery. “Florence was in its position for more than 200 years,” says Mike Volpi of Index Ventures, which invests in startups. “Silicon Valley still has many years to go.”

Others, though, think things have really changed. AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, says she has spent her whole career “defending the Valley’s vitality whenever people have said it’s over”. Now, she thinks there has been an important cultural shift.

In “Regional Advantage”, a seminal study published in 1994, Ms Saxenian compared Silicon Valley’s culture to that of the rival tech cluster around Boston, Massachusetts, known as Route 128. The Valley started to outstrip its competitor in the late 1980s, she argued, because Route 128 was dominated by large, hierarchical companies that were inward-looking and secretive. They valued corporate loyalty and strongly discouraged employees from leaving for a competitor or starting their own venture. In the Valley, in contrast, information was shared much more freely both within companies and between them. Leaving to start something of your own was not frowned upon. Indeed it was encouraged; established firms helped support or spin off younger ones.

“Regional Advantage” has become a classic study of what works and goes wrong for innovation ecosystems, but it may need a new afterword. Ms Saxenian says that the tech titans have developed an increasingly “autarkic” culture that goes against the way that the Valley used to work, “shutting off the flow of talent.” “The problems of Boston,” she says, “are reappearing here”.

There have always been big companies in the Valley. Today’s are bigger—but they are also able to use their size differently. A giant internet company can move into new areas a lot faster than a big incumbent semiconductor company could in the days when the Valley’s original cultural norms were set. The big firms can seize on novelty almost as quickly as startups do—and with a lot more oomph.

That has made it harder for young startups to prosper and grow into big companies themselves. They are imitated, stamped out or acquired while they are still young. Some talk of a “kill zone” around the big companies, where it is impossible for startups to operate. Innovation continues, but without the near-nutty breadth of approaches that used to be one of the area’s strengths.

A new explanation

The giants have other chilling effects. It used to be that working for an incumbent firm was safe but not lucrative, unless you were a top executive. Those who made real money had sweated it out as early employees at startups that made it big. Now profitable business models, piles of cash and soaring share prices mean giants can afford to pay employees handsomely. “The payoff of a higher-risk startup is not so different from what you would get over the same number of years at Google or Facebook earning top dollar,” explains Yelp’s Mr Stoppelman.

In 2017 Alphabet, Apple and Facebook issued $16.2bn in stock-based compensation. Even those in middle-management positions are paid handsomely; the median compensation is $240,000 at Facebook and around $200,000 at Alphabet.

Where Ms Saxenian sees the ghost of Route 128, Tim O’Reilly, a publisher and Valley-watcher of long standing sees a flickering echo of Hollywood, with successful entrepreneurs acting the part of high-maintenance movie stars. Those with graduate degrees in artificial intelligence can fetch $5m-10m a year. People complain that such pampering has eroded tech’s work ethic, with employees focusing on free lunches and other perks. In the Financial Times earlier this year Michael Moritz, chairman of the venture-capital firm Sequoia, suggested that American techies could learn from the hard-driving culture of Chinese entrepreneurs.

Others draw a comparison with Wall Street, seeing greed taking on ever greater importance. This has been amplified not just by the Bay Area’s high costs but also by the amount of capital flooding in. For example, SoftBank, a Japanese conglomerate, has raised a $100bn technology fund, which is more than the entire American venture-capital industry invested last year. And like both Hollywood and Wall Street, the Valley has its share of toxic masculinity and entrenched sexism. A mere 2% of venture-capital funding went to female founders’ startups last year.

Companies like Airbnb and Uber, which have raised lots of cash, can compete in this monied-up world. Young startups increasingly cannot. Launching a startup rarely makes actuarial sense, since the odds of success are so slim. But when office space, homes and top talent were within the reach of young, unproven companies there was a constant spate of dreamers willing to try it. At today’s prices, the spate has slowed. Claire Haidar of WNDYR, a productivity startup that relocated to America from Ireland in 2017, reckons it costs at least four times as much to base a startup in the Bay Area as it would in most other cities in America.

Many Silicon Valley startups are currently as much as 15% behind their hiring goals for the year, says Mr Volpi. This hurts their prospects of survival. Things don’t necessarily get easier as growth kicks in. According to CBRE, a real-estate firm, it costs $62.4m a year to run a 500-person startup with 7,000 square metres of office in San Francisco, more than anywhere else in America or Canada (see chart 3). That is 47% and 49% more than it costs to run a startup in Portland and Atlanta, respectively, and more than double what it costs in Vancouver and Toronto.

It is still possible for a Valley startup to grow large. Slack, which launched its workplace-messaging app in 2013, claims a private-market valuation of $7.1bn. However, its boss, Stewart Butterfield, is an experienced entrepreneur who had already had a well-known hit (Flickr, which was sold to Yahoo in 2005). Fewer first-time entrepreneurs are breaking through.

The corralling of talent in big companies is not just bad for startups. It is bad for future technological diversity. Talented people can still launch wild new projects from inside the giants—but probably not as new, or as wild, as they would in a startup culture where the pool of other innovators with whom to team up would be larger and more diverse. The problem which dogged Route 128 has come to the Valley in a big way. “People join the big firms, and especially Apple, and they fall off the face of the earth. It’s a genuine problem for the ecosystem,” says John Lilly, a venture capitalist with Greylock.

Route 128 did not just lose out because of culture. It also lost out because it was pursuing a technology, the minicomputer, from which the market was turning away. With smartphones ubiquitous and social networking more than a decade old, people in tech are increasingly worried about what is next. Even if the Silicon Valley giants can spot it, they may not be best placed to capitalise on it; flexible as the giants are, they cannot do everything. If the new new thing takes off elsewhere, Silicon Valley’s advantages will be lessened.

Take the continued spread of cloud computing, an increasingly lucrative business for both Amazon and Microsoft. If either could make its cloud-computing platform as dominant as Windows was in the PC era, it could cause yet more activity to move closer to Seattle, where both firms reside and which is already a buzzing tech hub much cheaper to live and work in than the Valley. Other technologies which could conceivably pull power away from the Valley might include blockchains (see Technology Quarterly) or quantum computing. Blockchains are by their nature decentralised; quantum computing could reorient the tech world toward China.

It is entirely possible that the next disruptor will be none of these things. But it is all but certain that something will supersede devices with the Valley’s namesake semiconductor at their heart as the key to success in tech, and that that will matter.

Having giants around can provide benefits as well as kill zones; in looking after their own interests through political lobbying and the like they often look after their neighbours’, too. But the biggest political problem for American tech firms, in the Bay Area and elsewhere, is one that has proved beyond even the best-paid lobbyists. A lot of Americans are worried about immigration, and President Donald Trump is determined to act on their behalf.

More than half of the top American tech companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Despite lobbying from the tech giants, the Trump administration has brought in rules that severely restrict the number of foreigners who can receive work visas. Some tech firms have experienced delays of up to 18 months for foreign hires whom they might otherwise have been able to bring over swiftly. Students who come to America for degrees increasingly end up going home afterwards, willingly or not. “If you ask me ten years from now why Silicon Valley failed, it will be because we screwed up immigration,” predicts Randy Komisar of Kleiner Perkins, a venture-capital firm.

Nor have the tech giants as yet managed to improve things by using their muscle with local officials to ease some of Silicon Valley’s specific problems. Instead of building more affordable housing in a timely manner, which the Bay Area desperately needs, San Franciscan politicians are in the midst of discussing legislating the abolition of corporate cafeterias in order to force techies to eat lunch out. Big new infrastructure projects to ease congestion and make it easier to get to work from further away are nowhere to be seen. Instead there are private luxury buses to the tech campuses—which became, a few years ago, the centre of the first big popular protests against the new elite.

People in motion

Faced with high costs and the chilling effect of the neighbourhood giants, entrepreneurs who would once have planned to build their businesses entirely in the Valley are increasingly pursuing three other courses: launching their startups somewhere else; moving their headquarters somewhere else once they reach a certain size; or keeping their headquarters in the Valley but scaling their operations elsewhere—“Off Silicon Valleying”, as some call it. Mark Pincus, the founder of Zynga, a games developer, predicts companies “will have to think about multiple locations much earlier in their trajectory.”

Take Indinero, which sells accounting software. Jessica Mah, the startup’s 28-year-old boss, was born and raised in New York City. She started her first company in middle school and moved to the University of California, Berkeley, to study computer science. After graduating she went to Y Combinator, the prominent boot camp for startups in Mountain View. In 2009 she started Indinero in San Francisco. What could be more Silicon Valley?

But by 2014 Ms Mah had realised that “there was no way for me to build a profitable business in the Bay Area. I had to expand elsewhere.” She asked her employees to relocate, both to other American cities and to the Philippines. Today the firm employs 200 people, but only around 30 of them are in the Bay Area. Portland is its official headquarters. Ms Mah’s life is a ceaseless round of virtual meetings and real travel, but she reckons that building her startup in more affordable cities has enabled her to save millions of dollars.

Such a decision does not just cut costs. Hiring in other cities reduces the odds of talented employees being poached by the tech giants and other startups—especially engineers, who are in high demand. Indeed a startup in a place with cheaper housing and less crowded freeways (even on a comfortable corporate bus with Wi-Fi, a two-hour commute is a pain) can become the poacher. San Francisco has many charms, but it is not particularly salubrious. People regularly encountering used drug needles, human excrement and sidewalks full of homeless people when they arrive home late at night at their $4,000-a-month one-bedroom flat in San Francisco sometimes think they might just prefer it elsewhere.

This dispersion of startups embodies a deep irony. The technology industry, which has disrupted nearly all other sectors, is disrupting itself. The communications tools and virtual workplaces that Valley firms have pioneered let teams work productively across cities and time zones without ever meeting one another in person. The headquarters in Dallas to which Ms Haidar relocated WNDYR, the productivity startup, contains only four of its 33 employees. The far-flung crew communicates through Telegram, an instant-messaging app, talks with clients through Slack, uses Zoom for meetings and collaborates on goal-setting with software from Lucid and Google.

This does not mean that all places have become equal. Startups thrive on “network effects”: entrepreneurs, like internet users, tend to cluster where their peers are. Having a world-class university or two nearby can be very important for such hubs, especially if they actively encourage commercial activity, as Stanford has. It also helps to have an “anchor tenant” that validates the place and draws employees there; they can then leave to start their own companies or work elsewhere. This is one reason that Seattle, home to the two of the world’s biggest five companies not based in the Valley, is doing so well.

A strange vibration

Being a place where people want to live helps a lot, too. Putting together such a package does not in itself create a Silicon Valley simulacrum: history, culture and a lot of established venture capitalists are not easily replicated. But it does well enough. “There are probably a dozen cities that are just as promising [as San Francisco in which] to start a tech company today,” says Peter Thiel, a feisty venture capitalist who will soon move from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a city which has welcomed many Valley refugees before him. It has its own growing tech scene—one that gained more attention when the online-media company Snap chose to set up shop there.

Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; Vancouver (close to the United States, but easier for foreign immigrants to come and work in); London; Berlin: they all fit the bill, and then some. After considering 23 factors, such as employee compensation, retention, taxes, available funding, ease of access to other cities and the weather, the cities that Ms Haidar saw as runners up to first-choice Dallas were Phoenix, Arizona and Boulder, Colorado. The Kauffman Foundation, a think-tank, now ranks the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area as number one in America for startup activity. As each grows, each offers more opportunities for people who decide to move on from their current job. Internationally, Beijing and Shenzhen are hugely important. Admittedly, they mainly appeal to Chinese entrepreneurs who can speak the language and navigate the local business environment; but that is a big pool. And some foreigners are giving it a go, too.

“Silicon Valley will continue to be the strongest innovation ecosystem in the world, but on a relative basis it will become less important,” predicts Steve Case, the former boss of America Online. He now runs Revolution, a venture-capital firm based in Washington, DC, which is looking hard for investments outside the Bay Area. According to CB Insights, a research firm, in 2013 Silicon Valley-based investors put about half their money into startups outside the Bay Area; in the year to date, that share has risen to 62%. This has mirrored the geography of “unicorns”: in 2013 some 41% were based in Silicon Valley; today only 16% are, with 35% headquartered in China (see chart 4).

Even Silicon Valley’s most conventional venture capitalists are preparing for geographical diversification. One storied firm with headquarters on Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto was recently considering signing a new ten-year lease for a larger office space in nearby San Francisco. It decided not to. “A decade from now we’re going to be spending less time, not more time, in this area,” explains one of the partners.

Coming to Silicon Valley to network and fundraise will continue to provide advantages; nowhere else will match it for apprenticeship or pilgrimage. “There’s no place that’s replacing Silicon Valley,” says Mr Thiel. But it will be less critical to stay and set up shop here. “The Valley is going to become an idea instead of a place,” predicts Glenn Kelman, the boss of Redfin, a property company. “Wall Street went through a similar transformation,” he says, its name becoming shorthand for a whole industry. As tech firms set their sights on disrupting old-fashioned industries, like health care and logistics, they may find that it helps to be based in cities that claim deep expertise in these areas—and where garages housing startups are not just the stuff of museums and memory.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard reaches The End of his struggle

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My Struggle: Book Six. By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken.Archipelago; 1,160 pages; $33. Published in Britain as “The End” by Harvill Secker; £25.

THE title of the British edition of the sixth and final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” seems self-explanatory. But what exactly is it that is coming to an end in “The End”? A novel? A diary? A memoir? An autobiography posing as a novel or a novel posing as an autobiography? Or the biggest act of self-indulgence in modern literature?

“My Struggle” is a phenomenon. In Mr Knausgaard’s native Norway one in ten people owns a copy of one of the volumes, but its popularity is global. “It’s completely blown my mind,” said Zadie Smith, likening her yearning for the next book to the crack-addict’s hunger for another hit. Rachel Cusk—who like Mr Knausgaard is a practitioner of “autofiction”, in which writers take their own lives as subject matter—dubbed it “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times”.

It is also one of the strangest: ridiculously long (3,770 pages overall in Don Bartlett’s and Martin Aitken’s admirable translation), devoid of plot, hopelessly meandering. “My Struggle” just keeps coming at you, much as life does. One moment Mr Knausgaard is meditating on whether it’s possible to find meaning in a world without God; the next he is describing the mundane details of feeding a child or lighting a cigarette (the series would have been considerably shorter if he wasn’t such an avid smoker). The reader is spared nothing. “I hadn’t masturbated, not a single time, until I was nineteen,” he writes. He laments “the ignominy and the constant humiliation of premature ejaculation”.

“The End” is the strangest of the six volumes as well as the most self-indulgent: a book about self-obsession that opines at length about what it is like to write a book about self-obsession. It starts with an impending disaster. Mr Knausgaard’s uncle is so furious about his depiction of his father’s death from alcoholism—“verbal rape”, the uncle calls it—that he threatens to sue him to high heaven. The Norwegian media relish the fight. The harassed author struggles to meet his next deadline, getting up at four every morning while bringing up his three small children and looking after his manic-depressive wife.

Mr Knausgaard repeatedly returns to the question of whether his project—to turn his life into art—is worth it. Is it reasonable to impose such suffering on his family for the sake of his craft? He doesn’t really do it for the fame; though he gets a certain thrill from discovering that he’s “big”, he lives as far away from the literary limelight as he can get. He does it because, like Martin Luther, “I can do no other.” A bizarre inner compulsion drives him to bare his soul to the world in the name of “truth”.

His second great obsession, after himself, is with that other author of a book called “My Struggle”, Adolf Hitler. About half-way through, “The End” shifts abruptly in tone and focus—from a reflection on the life of a writer in rich and stable Scandinavia to a 400-page essay on Hitler’s early years. Mr Knausgaard follows Hitler’s progress from aspiring artist to down-and-out. He undertakes a close reading of “Mein Kampf” to see how the trainee dictator’s mind works, and reconstructs the intellectual world of pre-war Europe—with its exuberant high culture on the one hand, and its obsession with race and biology on the other. He insists on treating Hitler as “one of us”, an ordinary human being who was abused by his father and disappointed in his life, rather than as a monster.

My only friend, The End

Why has such a quixotic and demanding work achieved such success? The title no doubt played an important part. So did Mr Knausgaard’s craggy good looks; had he been pimply and puny, he might have found a much smaller audience for his thoughts on masturbation and Hitler. But there are also more substantial reasons.

The most obvious is Mr Knausgaard’s unflinching honesty. In an age of spin he dwells on the imperfections of human life—his father’s drinking, his wife’s neediness, his children’s tantrums. In an age of political correctness, he confesses that he feels emasculated by child care. Such transgressive blurring of the borders between the public and private, sayable and unsayable, can be both life-affirming and riveting. Readers see that they are not alone in at once loving their families and resenting them for impinging on their time.

Just as important, though Mr Knausgaard wrote them fast, his books take their time. “My Struggle” is the equivalent of slow food in a drive-thru age. The internet serves up instant gratification: buzzy stories that command attention for a few minutes or even a few seconds. The medium renders everything equally accessible and equally disposable. Mr Knausgaard provides the internet in reverse: a slow-moving contemplation of everything from the trivial to the profound.

The trickier question is whether the series actually deserves its success. Is it a masterpiece, as its many fans maintain? Or is Mr Knausgaard a literary circus freak? Ostensibly he ignores most of the rules of great literature. His sentences are deliberately under-wrought; he writes in the same flat tone about lighting a cigarette and the essence of beauty. The structure can feel slapdash. A discussion of Anders Breivik’s slaughter of 77 Norwegians in 2011 is disappointingly brief; rather than using the episode to drive home his point that the foundations of civilisation are dangerously fragile, Mr Knausgaard moves on.

But at his best he is wonderful. The study of his relationship with his dysfunctional father—which forms the centrepiece of “A Death in the Family”, the first volume, and ripples through the other five—is unforgettable. Mr Knausgaard captures the torture of a child’s interactions with a difficult and self-obsessed parent: the longing for approval from someone who is incapable of giving it, at least with any consistency; the highs and lows as this object of awe praises him one moment and scorns him the next; and the emotional turmoil as a complicated man slowly becomes deranged, moving in with his mother (the author’s grandmother), persuading her to join him in his drinking binges, and finally drinking himself to death, surrounded by filth, from discarded bottles to unwashed clothes and human excrement.

And, flat though it may be, Mr Knausgaard’s style can be compelling. “It wasn’t hard to write well,” he reflects in one passage, “but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement.” Paradoxically, by not bothering with conventional fine writing, Mr Knausgaard succeeds in producing prose that is “alive”, partly because of his eye for detail and partly because of the quality of his intellect. His lengthy section on Hitler, for example, contains one of the best discussions anywhere of the Führer’s skill as a public speaker:

his enormous ability to establish community, in which the entire register of his inner being, his reservoir of pent-up emotions and suppressed desire, could find an outlet and pervade his words with such intensity and conviction that people wanted to be there, in the hatred on the one side, the hope and utopia on the other, the gleaming, almost divine future that was theirs for the taking if only they would follow him and obey his words.

This reviewer finished “The End” with mixed emotions: gratitude that Mr Knausgaard had broken all the rules to admit readers into his life, but also relief that the whole thing was over, and a conviction that he and his acolytes should now find new experiments to pursue. In his “Confessions”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau promised to tell his story with such brutal honesty that his project, “which has no precedent”, would also, once complete, “have no imitator”. Let us hope that this is also the case with “My Struggle”—and that “The End” really is the end.

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Battling Ebola in a war zone in Congo

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A ROW of health workers in blue gowns and face masks sit at tables outside the tin-roofed bungalow that was home to Kambale Vincent, one of 75 people who have died from Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo this month. His widow, a hunched, 60-year-old in a black cardigan, pulls her arm out of her sleeve and winces as a needle pierces her skin. She is receiving an experimental Ebola vaccine, fresh from trials in west Africa, that is being offered to anyone who may have touched her late husband.

Getting vaccines to the centre of this outbreak, the scrubby village of Mangina in the North Kivu province of Eastern Congo, is no easy task. The area is in infested with about 40 armed militias, most of which have been hiding in the forests since the end of a war in 2003 that claimed the lives of between 1m and 5m people.

Just a day after the outbreak was declared on August 1st, machete-toting militiamen sprang out of the bush and abducted 16 people in a field around 30 kilometres from Mangina. In broad daylight they dragged ten men, four women and two teenage boys—who were walking back from a day’s farming—into their forest hideout. Fourteen of the villagers’ hacked-up bodies were found in shallow scrubland graves five day later. The two boys were probably taken as recruits.

The attacks have been blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group of Islamist ideologues originally from Uganda. In recent years the anti-government rebels have gone from attacks on the Congolese army and UN peacekeeping troops, to indiscriminately abducting citizens. Each time they strike, frightened families rush through the porous border into Uganda nearby—exactly the kind of hurried, untraceable movement that makes it harder to contain the Ebola virus.

“We have a toxic mix of factors,” says Mike Ryan, of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is trying to get 9,300 vaccinations to those who need them. “We are dealing with security problems, a weak health system and disease. We have to balance access with security all the time.”

Health workers risk more than exposure to a virus. Médecins Sans Frontières, an international charity running the Ebola treatment centre in Mangina, had four of its staff abducted by the ADF in 2013. Though one escaped after 13 months, the rest have not been seen since.

Other factors may also have contributed to the spread of the disease, including a strike by local nurses who were not paid for three months. The virus may have reached Mangina as early as May 11th when a man with Ebola-like symptoms died in the local clinic. But the first deaths were reported only in late July. Josephine Kahambu, a nurse, alerted the officials in the capital, Kinshasa, after two men with bloodshot eyes, diarrhoea and fevers came to her clinic. Although she was on strike she decided to see to them and recognised signs of the deadly virus.

This particularly deadly strain of the disease, known as “Zaire Ebola”, has killed 78% of those it has touched. It is transmitted through bodily fluids and can be passed on with as little as a sweaty handshake. Thankfully some lessons learned in the west African outbreak, which killed 11,310 people between 2014 and 2016, seem to be helping. Instead of barking at frightened villagers through a megaphone about how they should protect themselves from infection, workers from the WHO talked to the village chief. “The chief is more listened-to than we are,” says Frizzia Safari, a Congolese doctor. “We talk to him and then he talks to the people.”

If nurses can prick enough arms quickly then it may be possible to halt this outbreak before it spreads much further. But they are finding it difficult to outrun the virus because of poor roads and the threat of attack from armed rebels. So new cases keep cropping up each day.

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Loneliness is pervasive and rising, particularly among the young

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DOCTORS and policymakers in the rich world are increasingly worried about loneliness. Researchers define loneliness as perceived social isolation, a feeling of not having the social contacts one would like. To find out how many people feel this way, The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), an American non-profit group focused on health, surveyed nationally representative samples of people in three rich countries. The study found that over 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in America and 23% in Britain always or often feel lonely, or lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated.

One villain in the contemporary debate is technology. Smartphones and social media are blamed for a rise in loneliness in young people. This is plausible. Data from the OECD club of mostly rich countries suggest that in nearly every member country the share of 15-year-olds saying that they feel lonely at school rose between 2003 and 2015.

The smartphone makes an easy scapegoat. A sharp drop in how often American teenagers go out without their parents began in 2009, around when mobile phones became ubiquitous. Rather than meet up as often in person, so the story goes, young people are connecting online.

But this need not make them lonelier. Snapchat and Instagram may help them feel more connected with friends. Of those who said they felt lonely in the KFF/Economist survey, roughly as many found social media helpful as thought it made them feel worse. Yet some psychologists say that scrolling through others’ carefully curated photos can make people feel they are missing out, and lonely.

It is not clear whether it is heavy social-media use leading to loneliness, or vice versa. The most rigorous recent study of British adolescents’ social-media use, published by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein in 2017, found no link between “moderate” use and measures of well-being. They found evidence to support their “digital Goldilocks hypothesis”: neither too little nor too much screen time is probably best.

Read more in the International section

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Religious competition was to blame for Europe’s witch hunts

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IN EUROPE, a belief in witchcraft is widely associated with medieval superstition. But this is not quite accurate. Before the 15th century popes denied the existence of witchcraft and forbade the prosecution of anyone accused of practising it. It was only after 1500 that churches reversed their position. Over the following three centuries 80,000 people were tried for witchcraft, half of whom were executed, mostly by hanging or burning. But in the 18th century the practice of putting people on trial for witchcraft died out. The Economist’s first issue in 1843 (published 175 years ago this month) hoped that support for tariffs would go the way of belief in witches: to extinction.

In recent decades economists have tussled over why this happened. In 2004 Emily Oster of Brown University found a correlation between the frequency of witch trials and poor weather during the “Little Ice Age”. Old women were made scapegoats for the poor harvests that colder winters caused. A more recent paper by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama of George Mason University argued that weak central governments, unable to enforce the rule of law, allowed witch-hunts to take place. They found the ability to raise more in taxes, a proxy for growing state power, to be correlated to a decline in witch trials in French regions.

A paper published in the August edition of the Economic Journal casts doubt on both theories. Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ, also of George Mason University, collected data for witch trials from 21 countries between 1300 and 1850, in which 43,240 people were prosecuted. They found that the weather had a statistically insignificant impact on the occurrence of witch trials. The impact of negative income shocks or governmental capacity was also very weak.

When Mr Leeson and Mr Russ compared their witch-trial data to the timing and location of over 400 battles between Christian denominations, they found a much closer link. Where there was more conflict between Catholics and Protestants (in Britain, between Anglicans and Presbyterians), witch trials were widespread; in places where one creed dominated there were fewer. The authors conclude that churches engaged in a sort of “non-price competition”, gaining converts in confessional battlegrounds by advertising their commitment to fighting evil by trying witches.

The persecution of vulnerable folk on trumped-up allegations of witchcraft may sound like a horror story from a history book, but the practice is on the rise in modern-day Africa. The prime victims are now children, with orphans, the disabled and albinos particularly at risk. In 2010 Unicef, a charity, estimated that 20,000 children accused of witchcraft lived on the streets of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. Areas of intense religious competition between Christians and Muslims are hot spots. In Nigeria, for instance, Pentecostal Christian preachers fight for converts by offering protection from child witches. Development experts hope that higher incomes and stronger states will end these witch hunts. But the evidence from Europe is that once religious leaders start to use witch trials as a selling point, stopping them is hard. Europe’s witch trials only ceased a century after the end of its religious wars.

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