Massive IT outage spotlights major vulnerabilities in the global information ecosystem

The global information technology outage on July 19, 2024, that paralyzed organizations ranging from airlines to hospitals and even the delivery of uniforms for the Olympic Games represents a growing concern for cybersecurity professionals, businesses and governments.

The outage is emblematic of the way organizational networks, cloud computing services and the internet are interdependent, and the vulnerabilities this creates. In this case, a faulty automatic update to the widely used Falcon cybersecurity software from CrowdStrike caused PCs running Microsoft’s Windows operating system to crash. Unfortunately, many servers and PCs need to be fixed manually, and many of the affected organizations have thousands of them spread around the world.

For Microsoft, the problem was made worse because the company released an update to its Azure cloud computing platform at roughly the same time as the CrowdStrike update. Microsoft, CrowdStrike and other companies like Amazon have issued technical work-arounds for customers willing to take matters into their own hands. But for the vast majority of global users, especially companies, this isn’t going to be a quick fix.

Modern technology incidents, whether cyberattacks or technical problems, continue to paralyze the world in new and interesting ways. Massive incidents like the CrowdStrike update fault not only create chaos in the business world but disrupt global society itself. The economic losses resulting from such incidents – lost productivity, recovery, disruption to business and individual activities – are likely to be extremely high.

As a former cybersecurity professional and current security researcher, I believe that the world may finally be realizing that modern information-based society is based on a very fragile foundation.

The outage led to thousands of flight delays on July 19, 2024.
AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura

The bigger picture

Interestingly, on June 11, 2024, a post on CrowdStrike’s own blog seemed to predict this very situation – the global computing ecosystem compromised by one vendor’s faulty technology – though they probably didn’t expect that their product would be the cause.

Software supply chains have long been a serious cybersecurity concern and potential single point of failure. Companies like CrowdStrike, Microsoft, Apple and others have direct, trusted access into organizations’ and individuals’ computers. As a result, people have to trust that the companies are not only secure themselves, but that the products and updates they push out are well-tested and robust before they’re applied to customers’ systems. The SolarWinds incident of 2019, which involved hacking the software supply chain, may well be considered a preview of today’s CrowdStrike incident.

CrowdStrike CEO George Kurtz said “this is not a security incident or cyberattack” and that “the issue has been identified, isolated and a fix has been deployed.” While perhaps true from CrowdStrike’s perspective – they were not hacked – it doesn’t mean the effects of this incident won’t create security problems for customers. It’s quite possible that in the short term, organizations may disable some of their internet security devices to try and get ahead of the problem, but in doing so they may have opened themselves up to criminals penetrating their networks.

It’s also likely that people will be targeted by various scams preying on user panic or ignorance regarding the issue. Overwhelmed users might either take offers of faux assistance that lead to identity theft, or throw away money on bogus solutions to this problem.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg explains the effects of the outage on airlines and other transportation systems.

What to do

Organizations and users will need to wait until a fix is available or try to recover on their own if they have the technical ability. After that, I believe there are several things to do and consider as the world recovers from this incident.

Companies will need to ensure that the products and services they use are trustworthy. This means doing due diligence on the vendors of such products for security and resilience. Large organizations typically test any product upgrades and updates before allowing them to be released to their internal users, but for some routine products like security tools, that may not happen.

Governments and companies alike will need to emphasize resilience in designing networks and systems. This means taking steps to avoid creating single points of failure in infrastructure, software and workflows that an adversary could target or a disaster could make worse. It also means knowing whether any of the products organizations depend on are themselves dependent on certain other products or infrastructures to function.

Organizations will need to renew their commitment to best practices in cybersecurity and general IT management. For example, having a robust backup system in place can make recovery from such incidents easier and minimize data loss. Ensuring appropriate policies, procedures, staffing and technical resources is essential.

Problems in the software supply chain like this make it difficult to follow the standard IT recommendation to always keep your systems patched and current. Unfortunately, the costs of not keeping systems regularly updated now have to be weighed against the risks of a situation like this happening again. Läs mer…

Just Stop Oil’s harsh sentences are the logical outcome of Britain’s authoritarian turn against protest

Lengthy prison sentences have been imposed on five Just Stop Oil activists for coordinating direct action on the M25, the main ring road around London. For a non-violent protest, there is no equivalent in modern times.

The five years for Roger Hallam and four years for the remaining four: Daniel Shaw, Louise Lancaster, Cressida Gethin and Lucia Whittaker de Abreu, have been widely condemned as grossly disproportionate. According to one snap poll, 61% of the public consider the sentences too harsh.

But nobody should be surprised: these sentences are a logical outcome of Britain’s authoritarian turn against protest over the past five years.

Protest in England and Wales was previously dealt with by the courts according to what we call Hoffmann’s Bargain. This meant protesters should accept their guilt in court, but their conscientiousness – along with the wider importance of disruptive protest to democracy – would be rewarded with lenient sentences.

This changed with the prosecution of the Stansted 15, who were charged and found guilty of terrorist-related offences for stopping a deportation flight in 2017. The 15 were sentenced to community service, fines, and for some, short suspended prison sentences. On appeal, the Court of Appeal threw out the charges in 2021, but at the same time hardened the general approach of the courts to protest, confirming that a key defence (known as necessity) was not available to protest defendants in court.

Read more:
The Stansted 15 appeal: a hollow victory for the right to protest?

Making it harder for activists to defend themselves

Since then, three things have happened. First, other potential defences that protesters could rely on, including lawful excuse, have been systematically restricted by the Court of Appeal.

Second, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has sought where possible to bring more serious charges against protesters than used to be the case. In this they have been encouraged by new legislation brought in by the last government, notably the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (2022) and the Public Order Act (2023).

Third, judges have typically sought to control and reduce the time that defendants have in court to explain their motives to the jury, because – without a defence in law – the defendants’ arguments are, in legal terms, not relevant.

Just Stop Oil activists disrupt the M25 in November 2022, the action which saw five activists jailed.
Mark Kerrison / Alamy

We saw each of these dynamics in the Just Stop Oil “Conspiracy 5” trial. Before 2018, public nuisance itself was barely used for protest offences, but the CPS now regularly brings this charge against peaceful protesters. But the charge of a conspiracy to cause public nuisance, which these five defendants faced, is a further escalation as it treats protest movements as a criminal enterprise, and does not allow a lawful excuse defence. As a consequence, the stakes are higher and the outcomes more serious.

In court, the defendants were unable to argue that they had a lawful excuse for their action (Hallam repeatedly tried to argue this in court, and was repeatedly shut down by the trial judge). Finally, although the defendants did manage to explain their motives to the jury, the jury had no opportunity to find them not guilty in law. Although juries still have the power to find defendants not guilty by making a moral rather than a legal decision, this is much harder and rarer.

The result is that the first part of Hoffmann’s Bargain is being abandoned. With no recourse to a defence in law, protest defendants are now regularly being found guilty. But the second part of the bargain, leniency at sentencing, is increasingly being forgotten.

A new benchmark

In April 2023, Just Stop Oil activists Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker were sentenced to three years and two years seven months in prison respectively after being convicted of public nuisance for disrupting the Dartford Crossing, a large bridge over the Thames to the east of London. Upheld by the Court of Appeal, these sentences have now become a benchmark.

In the Conspiracy 5 case, the trial judge explicitly cited this benchmark as the basis for the sentences he imposed, and any appeal against them will have to reckon with the Court of Appeal’s determination that they are fair.

This case brings into sharp focus two very contrasting visions of what a trial is, and what the criminal law is for. The courts are effectively treating protest trials as a legal flowchart, with a strict distinction between what is and what is not relevant on the shortest route to a verdict.

But defendants often see the courts as a place where they can make urgent arguments about moral values and social justice. Rather than a public nuisance, they consider their actions a public service. By not allowing defendants to account for their actions properly, the courts create an artificial separation between law and politics, and diminish the democratic agency of juries.

By imposing prison sentences on non-violent protesters, they impose authoritarian responses to pressing social problems. Läs mer…

What a ‘right to disconnect’ from work could look like in the UK

The UK’s new government has promised to take action to “promote a positive work-life balance for all workers”, and to prevent homes “turning into 24/7 offices”. The risk of “always on” working has grown since the pandemic, with technology meaning that work is often within easy reach.

Legislation allowing workers to disconnect from work has been increasingly adopted around Europe, in recognition of the damaging effect that endless work demands can have on wellbeing and family life.

A review of data from 183 countries found significantly raised levels of heart disease and stroke for those working long hours. And there is a growing recognition of the negative effects of extended working on mental health. Sick workforces can also damage productivity.

Only a few years ago, most people’s working days consisted of travelling to a worksite where they remained for around eight hours, after which they returned home to relax and recuperate. Holidays, too, were times when people could take a complete break from work.

“Dead zones” and areas where the internet is weak still exist, but they are declining in number. So there are few places where people can truly escape from work. Sociologists have referred to the expectation that workers are always contactable as the “presence bleed”.

In the UK, the share of the workforce reporting that they work mainly at home rose overnight from 6% to 43% when lockdown restrictions were put in place. This figure has since fallen back to 14%, but around a quarter of workers report that they are now hybrid working.

These workers typically have more autonomy over their working time – and homeworkers frequently report being more productive when working at home rather than the office, because there are fewer distractions. Other benefits have been observed around greater staff inclusivity, where caring commitments or health restrictions had previously made it difficult to work typical hours in office-based locations.

However, these benefits can come at a cost. Those working at home are often connected to work for longer, and are more likely to be emailing or taking video calls outside of their core hours.

Inevitably, the pressures of work can spill over into non-work life, with homeworkers reporting difficulties in being able to switch off or unwind. This can be pronounced when people have to work in spaces otherwise used for domestic purposes, like the dining room table or in the corner of a bedroom. This can particularly be the case for young people.

It can also be difficult for younger workers at the start of their careers, and other lower-status staff, to challenge demands to be responsive beyond their contracted hours. As such, they can end up being more easily exploited.

Read more:
How to deal with being the youngest in the office

The right to disconnect

A legal right to disconnect might include not being allowed to email or otherwise contact staff after a certain time or during their holidays, except in exceptional circumstances. Or it could mean not scheduling meetings outside of core hours – something that might particularly benefit parents of young children.

The list of countries taking a proactive approach here is growing at pace. While legislation has sometimes been hastened by the growth of hybrid working, it can apply to people wherever they work. Belgium, Ireland and Italy were acting in this area before the pandemic began, when work was largely site-based. Other countries such as Spain, Portugal and Australia are following.

However, the legislative models being used are not comprehensive – there are weaknesses and gaps. In Belgium, the law only requires that employers adhere to a general framework for the right to disconnect (known as a “soft approach”). This allows companies leeway in how the right is implemented. In the UK, employers have already voiced their desire for some employees – such as senior staff – to have the right to opt out of any new law.

In fact, 58% of business leaders surveyed by the Institute of Directors objected to a right to disconnect. Its report included a claim that legislation could create a culture of “ambulance chasers” taking legal action against their employers. However, this has not yet been reported in countries operating some form of the right to disconnect.

Countries with these laws generally specify exceptions in certain sectors, such as aviation and medicine. It has also been common for smaller employers to be excluded: the French legislation applies to companies with more than 50 employees. Yet small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make up more than 61% of UK employment, so a large part of the workforce could be excluded unless protection is designed more inclusively.

Another concern is that if the sanctions for non-compliance are weak, legislation or (as may be more likely) a code of practice could be a toothless tiger. While employers who have invested in the business case for flexible working have often developed innovative good practices, for more reluctant converts, legislation provides important employee protection in spurring organisations into action.

Any new law to disconnect should be drafted to protect staff who work onsite too.
CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

It’s also important to consider why extended working hours are couched in terms of digital connectivity: “disconnecting” or “switching off”. There is scope for policy language to be framed more inclusively to cover the pressures on a broader range of workers faced with longer hours – perhaps including those working in the gig economy.

Recent evidence suggests that unpaid overtime is widespread and is not restricted to those working at home: 3.8 million people did unpaid overtime in 2023.

To make a right to disconnect effective and meaningful, these issues need to be picked over carefully as the government translates its pre-election promises into action. As always, the devil will be in the detail. Läs mer…

UK Border Force returns migrants in the Channel to France – expert Q&A

The UK Border Force has returned a group of migrants to France after their small boat got into trouble in the English Channel. This appears to be a departure from past policy, at a crucial time. Channel crossings are rising again as the weather gets warmer, and remain a controversial part of migration discussions.

The Conversation’s Avery Anapol asked Alex Balch, who researches migration and human rights at the University of Liverpool, what this episode means for the future of collaboration between the two countries on crossings.

What happened in the Channel on Thursday?

On the afternoon of July 17, a small boat in French waters near Calais with over 70 people on board was reported as being in difficulty. Tragically, one person lost their life.

British ships (a Border Force vessel and RNLI lifeboat) joined the French coastguard in rescuing some of the people in the water, who were then returned to France. It has been reported this was “at the request of local authorities” (the French coastguard), and it is likely that emergency medical services were required.

UK reports have suggested this is significant because France normally refuses to allow the return of rescued migrants once they are on board UK vessels.

The Home Office has officially denied there has been a change in policy. But they appear to be briefing journalists that this signals a more cooperative approach from the French authorities.

Who is responsible for rescuing migrants in the Channel?

Because the Channel is between the UK and France, both countries have jurisdiction over their own borders and water. But when people need to be rescued, it can be confusing to determine which country is responsible.

Typically, vessels getting into difficulty in French territorial waters would be attended to by French authorities. It is less usual for British ships to be involved in such operations, but it can happen.

In 2021, it was reported that a Border Force vessel entered French waters to pick up migrants in distress. In that case, the rescued migrants were brought to Dover.

There is a long history of cooperation between France and the UK on search and rescue operations in the Channel. This is backed up by various agreements between the two countries, and the duty to rescue if people are in danger of being lost at sea, which is enshrined in several international laws.

Under these agreements, those who rescue assume primary responsibility. So, if a UK vessel picks up people in the Channel, they would normally bring them to the UK’s shores, not to France.

There is still some uncertainty about what happened in this situation, but in my view there may be some opportunism here on the part of the new government, which is keen to indicate there is already improved cooperation with France on migrant returns.

The UK and France have pledged to cooperate on migration and small boat crossings.
Tolga Akmen/EPA-EFE

Is this the UK’s new policy for small boat crossings?

It seems unlikely this represents a new policy or was anything more than an example of cooperation in response to an emergency. Keir Starmer’s statements on small boat crossings during the election clearly signalled a continuation of policies focused on border security.

There has certainly been a change of rhetoric around cooperation with the EU over returns and respect for international human rights. But it is not clear yet what this will yield in terms of policy.

One of the first things the new government did was set up a new border security command, with “counter terror-style powers” to crack down on smuggling gangs.

The main difference is the decision to scale down the deterrence method favoured by the previous government, by dropping the Rwanda plan and the blanket ban on asylum applications in the UK for irregular migrants. Starmer has indicated an openness to offshore processing, although this has yet to be announced.

What is the current state of UK-France relations on asylum?

Recent years have seen a series of deals between the two countries, with the UK paying hundreds of millions of pounds to bolster border security in France. French president Emmanuel Macron has tried to put a positive spin on these recent agreements, claiming “we did our best”, but tensions remain.

The French government has repeatedly made clear its position that the UK should open a legal route for asylum seekers in France who wish to seek sanctuary in the UK, to avoid the build up of people on the French coast.

Macron and Starmer agreed to strengthen their cooperation on migration.
Number 10/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

France processes considerably more asylum seekers than the UK (in 2023 167,230 compared to 93,296 in the UK). Due to its geography as a transit country, France’s government argues that it ends up shouldering the consequences of the UK’s unwillingness to take its fair share of refugees who want to cross the Channel.

Meeting at Blenheim Palace in the UK on Thursday for the European Political Community summit, Macron and Starmer agreed to “strengthen their cooperation on irregular migration”.

Read more:
We polled EU citizens on what they want asylum policy to look like – their answers may surprise you

How many people have crossed the Channel in small boats this year?

Roughly 46,000 people were recorded crossing the English Channel in small boats in 2022. This dropped to 29,000 in 2023. The numbers so far this year have been slightly higher than the same period in 2022, coming in at just under 15,000. Small boat arrivals make up a fraction of all immigration to the UK. Läs mer…

Open golf 2024: neuroscience reveals the secrets of better putting – new study

Professional golfers make playing look so effortless, it’s hard to imagine what’s going on inside their minds. But modern neuroscience allows us to do exactly that. My team’s new study shows how different parts of an expert golfer’s brains are activated when they putt their ball into the hole.

Putting is a crucial part of golf. Using their specialist club, the putter, when the ball is on the green (where the grass is shortest), golfers gently roll their ball towards the hole.

Good putting distinguishes the most successful players in any tournament, as it can make up 40-50% of the total number of strokes on each round (on average, around 1.8 putts per hole). And winning a tournament can often come down to holing a single, final putt.

Our team focused on what makes golfers good at putting, particularly the mental processes required to do it consistently well. Putting’s structured routine makes it easy to study and analyse. Before each putt, golfers enter a preparation phase where they stand still with the putter just behind the ball (a position called the “address”). This period can provide insights into the mental and physical processes involved in preparing to putt.

To explore these mental processes, we measured brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain. This offers an accurate way to measure the timing of brainwaves as they happen, making it ideal for sports research.

Scientists categorise brainwaves based on their frequency ranges (measured in Hertz), which are associated with different functions. The brainwaves researchers mainly explore in putting are the theta band (4 -7 Hz: associated with concentration and error detection in motor tasks), the alpha band (8-12 Hz: attention and arousal control), and the beta band (12-30 Hz: associated with motor preparation).

In our study, published in the Journal of Frontiers in Psychology, myself and colleagues tried to see if there were differences in brain activity between successful (when the ball goes into the hole) and unsuccessful putts.

Successful putts show distinct brain patterns

We recruited 28 expert-but-amateur golfers (20 of whom were men) with an average age of 24.2 years to participate in a testing session. These participants each made 140 putts while wearing an EEG head system to record their brain activity.

We used two methods to analyse their brain activity. The first was “time-frequency analysis”, which examines how signal frequencies change over time. This allowed us to measure what was happening in the brain in the final three seconds before the player made contact with the ball for each putt.

The second was “movement-related cortical potentials”, which helps us understand how the brain plans, prepares and executes movements. In our case, the movement was the golfer beginning their the putting action.

Our study reveals that successful golf putts show distinct patterns of brain activity.

A good putt can win a tournament.
vchal/Shutterstock

From the time-frequency analysis, we found successful putts were associated with changes in beta and theta brainwaves in the final three seconds before putting. Successful putts showed a more pronounced decrease in beta activity during preparation than unsuccessful ones. This suggests these golfers had better preparation when they went on to putt the ball into the hole.

Based on this finding, we would advise players to commit to their stroke and have a clear plan in mind, so they can experience the earlier onset of beta suppression. Crucially, they should not alter their plans just before putting the ball.

If they are not sure of what strategy to use – in other words, what direction they should aim the ball and how hard to hit it – we would recommend stepping away, then re-starting the process of hitting the putt with a clearer plan.

Commit to your stroke

In our study, successful putts also tended to show lower theta activity in the frontal region of the brain, especially just before contact between putter and ball. The higher theta activity during unsuccessful putts may indicate hesitation or the need to adjust the motor plan before execution.

Our findings emphasise the importance of committing to your stroke when putting. It’s common coaching advice, but now we have data to back up why it’s so crucial.

Our analysis of the movement-related cortical potentials also found differences in brain activity. Successful putts were associated with more efficient processing and less energy expenditure, compared with unsuccessful ones. So, successful putts cost the players less brainpower.

Many golfers report knowing what it “feels like” to putt well. It’s hard to replicate this feeling consistently, though. If you want to putt better, practise your skills so you can dependably perform the motor action and handle the pressure of competition.

This finding supports the “neural efficiency” theory in sports research, which says that experts have less neural activity when they complete a task related to their profession.

Across different sports, from archery to tennis, researchers have found experts are simply more efficient in their mental processing, which allows them to activate different parts of their brains when they play. In other words, practising a sport doesn’t just change your body – it can literally alter your mind. Läs mer…

Why does plague keep plaguing humans?

Throughout human history, different infectious diseases have taken the mantle of “most deadly disease” infecting humans. In the past century alone, the human population has experienced many pandemics: COVID, HIV and various influenza outbreaks – to name a few. Some have lasted for centuries and persist today, such as tuberculosis. Others are often thought of as being consigned to the history books.

Before the 20th century, the most-deadly-disease mantle was held in Europe and surrounding areas by the bubonic plague. Three major pandemics of this disease have occurred in the past 1,500 years. The first occurred from the fifth to the seventh century, killing about 15 million people in the Mediterranean basin, and heavily affecting the Byzantine, Sasanian and Roman empires.

A much larger second outbreak, called the Black Death, then occurred in 14th-century Europe, where over 50 million people, around 50% of the entire European population, died from this disease.

The third wave of this pandemic then occurred globally in the 19th and 20th centuries, killing a further 30 million people worldwide, many of these in China and India.

However, from the 1960s onwards, cases dropped dramatically, and the bubonic plague is not often considered a modern disease. Despite this, a new case was recently reported in the US, renewing interest in this disease.

Although no longer common in many parts of the world, the bubonic plague still exists in geographic pockets and can spread in communities if the right mix of conditions are present.

An engraving showing a passerby offering water to a man dying of plague during the Great Plague of London.
Classic Image/Alamy Stock Photo

The bubonic plague, or plague for short, is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. There are three types of plague caused by this pathogen, each with a different part of the body as the main site of infection: pneumonic is mainly lung-based, septicemic is mainly blood-based, and bubonic is mostly in the lymph nodes.

Although one form can turn into another during an infection, generally which form a person has is driven by how they were infected.

Bubonic plague is the form of Y pestis infection that is spread by fleas that live on small animals, mostly rodents such as the house and field rat. These rodents serve as reservoirs for the bacteria: they show little-to-no symptoms but can pass the bacteria to others, including humans.

This transmission from rodents to humans takes place via fleas. These insects bite the rats and afterwards may jump and bite a human, injecting the plague bacterium into the lymphatic system of the human. The bacteria then travel through this system to the lymph nodes and infection begins.

The main symptom of bubonic plague is swollen lymph nodes, usually in the neck, groin, thighs and armpits. These swollen nodes, called buboes, can cause the tissue around them to turn black and die. They may also burst open, releasing the pus inside.

A plague patient showing their buboes.
Gado Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Other symptoms include fever, headaches and vomiting, and the pathogen may spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and blood, causing other forms of the plague. Bubonic plague kills 30-60% of people, whereas pneumonic and septicaemic are always fatal if left untreated.

So why was this so prominent hundreds of years ago but barely heard of today? It is all about having that crucial combination of vector (flea), reservoir (rodent) and bacteria (Y pestis) all occurring together and in close contact with humans.

Before the 19th century, people primarily thought that disease was spread by miasmas: noxious forms of air. It was only after the 1880s that people realised that microscopic organisms transmitted between humans, animals and the environment can cause diseases.

Under control

From this, sanitation improved in many parts of the world, separating rodents from humans and breaking the cycle of plague transmission. The invention of antibiotics, especially fluoroquinolones from the 1960s onwards, further drove down the cases of plague as proper treatment could now be given for all forms.

Today, we still see cases of plague in specific hotspots, mainly in Asia, Africa and South America. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru and Madagascar are the countries with the most cases.

Madagascar alone has dozens of cases a year, with more major outbreaks occurring in 2014 and 2017 (the latter had over 2,000 cases). The dense forest areas are home to many rodents, and contact between people and these ecosystems is the cause of these modern outbreaks.

The plague will probably never be eradicated. Because of its complex transmission network of fleas, rodents and humans, it is nearly impossible to find, control and treat all these aspects. However, through proper handling of animals, separation of natural reservoirs and humans, and quick and effective treatment, the number of plague cases is decreasing every year, with hopes of negligible case numbers in sight. Läs mer…

You don’t need a doctor to get more physically active – here are 10 simple steps you can take by yourself

We all know physical activity has many health benefits, including for mental health. It helps manage stress, ease joint or back pain, and boost energy levels.

Exercise can also improve brain function and sleep, and lift mood. In contrast, inactivity or spending too much time sedentary is a leading factor in developing a range of diseases.

The World Health Organization recommends we should do a weekly minimum of 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, such as swimming, jogging or an exercise class – as well as regular strength training.

However, many people fail to meet these guidelines. So what to do about this health crisis?

There is already evidence that when GPs give patients guidance and continued support to increase physical activity, this encourages them to be more physically active – at least in the short term. However, we don’t yet know the best way for doctors to communicate with patients to help them sustain these increased activity levels so the current guidance and support on offer to patients isn’t as effective as it could be.

For example, my latest research examines the “motivational interviewing” (MI) method GPs currently use to encourage patients to change their lifestyle. MI is a patient-centred, non-confrontational communication style that helps patients address any problem behaviour by exploring their ambivalence towards changing it. MI has been shown to help patients with a host of health problems, including addiction issues, eating disorders, smokers and those with diabetes to change their behaviour.

However, I found that while MI programmes can help patients increase their total amount of physical activity – the benefits are only short term.

Ten simple ways to be more physically active

If you want more physical activity in your life, then, there are many self-directed things you can do to help yourself, without joining a programme or seeing your GP.

Here are ten simple and effective ways to help you become – and stay – more physically active:

1) Don’t sit, stand

We sit a lot. In fact, it’s likely you’re sitting right now – and you needn’t be. Sitting for long periods has been linked with many adverse health outcomes, so try to stand more.

2) Take the stairs

Being physically active needn’t mean expensive gym memberships. Try building physical activity into your daily routine. One easy way to do this is by swapping the lift or escalator for the stairs.

3) Make it fun

If you like doing something, you’re more likely to continue doing it. Why not try an activity you liked doing as a child, or even something new? Who knows, you might enjoy it.

4) Phone a friend

Exercising with a friend or loved one is a great way to stay motivated, and it can make physical activity more fun too.

5) Do less, more often

“Snacktivity” – a term for breaking up your activity into shorter activity “snacks” – can help you increase activity in convenient, manageable bursts while reaping the health benefits.

6) Track your progress

Activity trackers aren’t a fad. There is evidence that just using an activity tracker such as a pedometer to count steps or a smart watch that logs activity can help increase your activity levels, reduce body fat and increase muscle mass – and increase your overall physical fitness.

7) Get into a habit

We know it takes about ten weeks to form a habit. Repetition is key – so stick with it and keep going. Once you’ve formed a physical activity habit, it will be hard to shake it off.).

8) Hold still

Try to incorporate isometric exercises like the plank or wall squats into your routine. These exercises, which need no equipment, require you to tighten muscles and hold still – and have been shown to lower your blood pressure.

9) Set a goal

Give yourself an achievable target to work towards – it will motivate you to reach your goal.

10) Reward yourself

And don’t forget to reward yourself when you meet that goal. You can also build in rewards to mark your progress along the way. After all, who doesn’t like to treat themselves when they’ve done well? Läs mer…

The Boys end of season 4 review: the gory superhero-hating show gets political as it sets up for its final season

As this season of The Boys, Amazon’s superhero-hating blood fest, comes to a close, its storylines have grown closer to our own reality as the show gears up for its fifth and final series.

Notably in this US election year, Homelander (Antony Starr), the super villain we love to hate, has unquestionably become an analogue for Donald Trump. Throughout the entire series, Homelander finds that not only does his increasingly bad behaviour go unchallenged, but in the divided political landscape of The Boys, the worse he behaves the more his approval goes up among his followers.

With the assistance of his new colleague, the super intelligent “Sister” Sage (Susan Heyward), he manipulates the media and effectively discredits his opposition, with the planting of agents provocateurs and unproved accusations of paedophilia.

Season four of Eric Kripke’s adaption continues the tale of the brutish Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and his eponymous anti-superhero group’s conflict with the vicious Homelander, along with the corrupt Vought corporation that created him. The latest storyline doubles down on the satirical content and manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining.

There has been some discussion that the current season is more political than previous entries, but given the ongoing hints that Homelander is building up to a run for office, it’s not really much of a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. After all, over the four seasons to date, he has gone from celebrity superhero to the de facto CEO of Vought International.

The supposed backlash from some viewers is a topic that both Kripke and Ennis have addressed in recent interviews, with both making the point that The Boys was always designed as a criticism of the political right. In a discussion with The Hollywood Reporter, Kripke expressed his frustration:

Some people who watch it think Homelander is the hero. What do you say to that? The show’s many things. Subtle isn’t one of them. So if that’s the message you’re getting from it, I just throw up my hands.

I mentioned in my review of the season’s first episodes that part of the enjoyment of watching The Boys comes from the grinding tonal gear shifts – from over-the-top violent gore to tender character interactions and back again. This time around it is the narrative gear shifts that are a little more obvious.

With Kripke recently announcing that season five will be the last, it is noticeable that characters are being strategically manoeuvred into position to set up the inevitable big finish. The broader picture is clearly being prioritised and the current season’s structure suffers a little.

Nonetheless, over the course of the season, there are some entertaining twists and turns involving shape-shifting supers and multiple invisible imaginary characters. The middle episodes sag a little as the various plot strands are carefully arranged, but there is an attempt to keep the excitement bubbling along with on-brand extreme fight scenes and kinky sex exploits.

It does feel a little try-hard at times, with deliberately silly devices including flying sheep and killer chickens, but only the most solemn would fail to be amused by a gross-out Spider-Man parody who most definitely does not shoot web out of his wrists…

The show is at its funniest when it mocks the superhero genre and the corporations behind the big-money franchises – ironic given that The Boys is bankrolled and distributed by Amazon Prime. Part of episode five takes place at Vought International’s V52 Expo, a clear spoof of Disney’s D23 marketing event.

It sends up the hypocritical brand activism of corporations with campaigns that deceitfully support movements such as Black Lives Matter only as a means to profit. “Go woke, get yoked!” yells an on-stage character, promoting an insincere Vought Juneteenth campaign (an American holiday on June 19 to commemorate the ending of slavery in the US) campaign. Meanwhile, parody Vought social media accounts promote an app that can be used to review-bomb “woke” TV shows.

Amid the irreverence and political point scoring, there are some genuinely touching moments, primarily dealing with the theme of redemption. Multiple characters face their past sins and confront their guilt. For example, although it may jar a little, a subplot featuring Boys’ team member, Frenchie (Tomer Capone), falling in love with the surviving victim of a prior assassination mission fits well with the overall theme of forgiveness.

Is atonement possible? Which characters will be destroyed by their guilt and inability to let go? Even Homelander confronts his past, although predictably in a disturbing manner that involves far less forgiveness and much more bloody mayhem.

Doubtless, the bloody mayhem will continue in season five final conflict, with the culmination of several plot strands. Will Ryan, Butcher’s adopted son, turn to the dark side and fully commit to his biological father, Homelander? Or perhaps even find his own path? Will the nefarious Vought International ever be brought to justice? Will the increasingly unhinged Butcher find that the end justifies the means? It should certainly be fun finding out.

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Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech to parliament listed South Africa’s old problems – but no new solutions

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s opening of parliament speech successfully captured the spirit of a diverse and cohesive multi-party government ready to get down to work. But it failed to tell South Africans how the new dispensation will do things differently, and better.

In the May 2024 national and provincial elections, Ramaphosa’s African National Congress party received just over 40% of the national vote, triggering a multi-party coalition government for the first time in 30 years. The results signalled frustration with the ANC’s inability to promote job-creating growth, achieve significant reductions in poverty and inequality, and demonstrate clean governance.

Ramaphosa’s speech should have been cast as a delivery re-set. It should have signalled to the country how the new government of national unity will do things differently and better than previous ANC administrations. Instead, Ramaphosa set out the problems that are already well known to most South Africans.

Ramaphosa laid out three strategic policy areas the unity government will prioritise over the next five years:

inclusive economic growth and job creation
reduction of poverty and the high cost of living
building a capable, ethical and developmental state.

Based on my research on the government’s policy and governance track record, his speech was remarkably unfocused, unbalanced and at times inconsistent and unrealistic. It outlined a wishlist of familiar sounding policy themes.

A speech for unity

The speech was delivered with poignant symbolism on the birthday of South Africa’s reconciliation icon, Nelson Mandela. The president reminded South Africans of the historical significance of their electoral choice. It’s this choice that forced political opponents into a collective project and abandoning the politics of “recrimination”.

Unity anchored Ramaphosa’s speech. If this was the sole metric to evaluate its success, one would say the president succeeded. He drew on a mix of both uplifting and distressing imagery to reinforce his message of political unity. This included countless acts of service being performed across the country and around the world in honour of Mandela Day. This was set against the backdrop of devastating floods, storms and wildfires ravaging the country under a global climate emergency.

Ramaphosa laid out the unity government’s priority areas for the next five years.

Inclusive growth

The first, “inclusive growth”, justifiably attracted the most attention, given its emphasis on attracting desperately needed job-creating investments.

He didn’t acknowledge the historically problematic relationship between growth and the equitable distribution of its benefits (inclusion). Historically, economic growth hasn’t been inclusive. He didn’t say anything about how the country’s low growth rate has jeopardised even the most modest prospect for inclusive investments.

Ramaphosa also didn’t explain how after years of international investment conferences, concerns about over-regulation, high government consumption and debt-servicing costs, and poor governance, South Africa will finance the unity government’s ambitious infrastructure spending plans.

More remarkably, Ramaphosa said that municipalities would now be enlisted in the project of inclusive growth. Yet, municipalities are neither constitutionally mandated nor adequately equipped for this task. They are struggling to deliver on their core mandate: the provision of basic services.

Poverty and the cost of living

The second priority area – poverty and the high cost of living – is one that resonates with millions of South Africans. The persistence of poverty and inequality and the disproportionately high cost of living borne by the poor is a chronic problem with deep historical roots. Previous ANC administrations have struggled to address this issue. They used poverty reduction strategies, indigent policies, better quality education from reception to vocational training, improving public transport, and more accessible healthcare.

The president did cite potentially effective measures such as a review of prices of goods and services that are set through administrative decisions by government, a public entity or a regulator. There’s also the conversion of the current Social Relief of Distress grant into a broader and “sustainable” income support vehicle. But he seemed to fall short of promising a universal basic income grant.

Capable state

The third strategic policy area is one that is close to my own work, and for which I had particularly high hopes. That is improvements in the capacity, integrity and developmental potential of state institutions. It’s this area that will equip the government with the ability to deliver on the other strategic areas. Yet, Ramaphosa spent the least amount of time on this most crucial of areas.

In fact, it felt like an afterthought. In the main, the president affirmed earlier commitments. These include the professionalisation of the public service, rooting out corruption and combating gender-based violence. And also, improving the performance of state-owned enterprises through a new centralised public ownership model.

A speech that meets the moment, but is it up to the task?

Ramaphosa’s speech did meet the symbolism of a new political dispensation. But it failed to offer detail on how this new dispensation will address familiar issues in new and better ways.

Its policy content was no different from before. Except for the extended references to unity, it could have been a speech delivered after another ANC electoral majority win.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect the president and his multiparty cabinet to have worked out the details so soon. The coming weeks and months will tell whether the unity government can live up to the task South Africans have set for it. Läs mer…

How Britain’s new gen Z MPs could shake up the House of Commons

There are now ten MPs in the House of Commons who were born after 1995, up from just two before the election. Among them is Sam Carling, MP for North West Cambridgeshire, who at 22 is the youngest MP: the baby of the house. He is joined by others including 24-year-old Josh Dean, MP for Hertford and Stortford, and Euan Stainbank, MP for Falkirk, also 24.

The presence of these young MPs in the House of Commons has important implications because young people tend to be poorly represented in political institutions.

It has long been the norm that politics, both in the UK and across developed democracies, is dominated by older generations. And while the lack of representation of other demographics, such as women and ethnic minorities, has received a lot of justified attention, the under-representation of youth has not received as much notice.

A possible reason for this is that, until fairly recently, age has not been associated with distinct political behaviour. For example, politics in the UK has long been dominated by class, with voters young and old mostly supporting the parties that advocated for their class interest. But these tendencies have gradually fallen away in the past few decades.

To some extent, they have been superseded by a model in which age has become a more influential contributing factor in how people vote in elections. At the same time, there is no longer a clear pattern between voting intention and class status.

This pattern can be seen in polls taken before the recent general election and since: younger voters overwhelmingly support left-of-centre parties, such as Labour and the Greens, while the older voters were, the more likely they were to prefer right-of-centre parties like the Conservatives and Reform. On the other hand, voters from different social classes are supporting the major parties at roughly similar level.

Policy priorities

Not only is age associated with voting behaviour, but research has also shown that young people across developed democracies have distinctive policy preferences, too. Young people are more likely to express greater concern with climate change and support actions to reduce carbon emissions. Survey data has also shown that younger voters in the UK were much less supportive of Brexit.

People aged between 18 and 29 make up nearly 15% of the population. Given these distinctive interests, the absence of young representatives could lead to the under-representation of their views. As it is, gen Z MPs (born between the mid-1990s and early-2010s) make up only 1.5% of the House of Commons.

MPs in the House of Commons during the debate on the king’s speech.
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Young people could be further alienated from participating in the democratic process if they don’t see their contemporaries in positions of political power. Young voters are already less likely to vote in elections. If our political system is unable to reflect the interests and aspirations of young people, this could lead to a vicious cycle of apathy among future generations.

The election of these young MPs is an important step in bringing the views of young people to Westminster. Not only can their presence be seen as symbolic inclusion of young people, but young representatives across the world do pay special attention to reflecting the concerns of young people.

Research on the German Bundestag has found that young members are more likely to raise parliamentary questions that are associated with the interests of young people. These include issues such as childcare, child benefits and juvenile crime.

But unlike other demographic groups, youth is transient. As David Cameron said of Tony Blair: “He was the future once”. In years to come, more young people will need to be encouraged to consider political involvement.

Political parties may need to think about how to better engage with young people and perhaps how to make the selection process more favourable to young people, who may have less political experience. The increasing success of young candidate in this election could encourage others to throw their hat into the ring. Läs mer…