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The web holds up a mirror to our cruelty

When the shaggy libertarians of the love generation first pioneered the idea of the internet, they believed it would be an instrument for free expression, democracy and anarchy. Taking hippie values into the cybernetic age, it would bring the kind of freely shared, co-operative knowledge to be found in The Whole Earth Catalogue to anyone with a computer. The stranglehold on information and power previously held by a small élite would be broken for ever by this great new, democratising medium. How differently things have turned out. The élite may be tamed, with politicians eagerly launching their weblogs and limbering up for appearances on YouTube, but, down among the common folk, the internet has not been the joyful free-for-all of information and contact that had once been hoped. Far from being an expression of freedom, cyberspace is rapidly becoming synonymous with power and its abuse. It allows various and significant...

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What a prim and prurient nation we’ve become

How is your mindset today? At the start of a long weekend, with spring in the air, it will probably be in an acceptable state. If for some unhappy reason it is not, you will be reassured to know that there is an ever-increasing number of sincere people, concerned for the welfare of you and your community, who will able to offer assistance. Because, once we all have appropriate mindsets in place, the world will be a less spiky, difficult and unpredictable place. Lamp-posts in our cities are soon to be equipped with cameras and loudspeakers so that people can be reminded that antisocial behaviour - dropping litter, being aggressive, smoking in the wrong places, becoming over-amorous in public - is unacceptable in modern Britain. Normally a word from the lamp-post, uttered by a caring copper watching CCTV screens at the local police station, will be enough to head off...

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Dubai, where they play for high stakes

On the track, a horse is on fire. A snow-white Lippizaner on a long rein, it makes its way slowly, trembling and wide-eyed, past the grandstand at Nad Al Sheba racecourse in Dubai. It is almost nine at night and, in the dark, the horse, with its entire hind-quarters aflame, makes an astonishing sight. Beyond the winning-post, to the relief of the queasier Europeans who are watching, the flame-retardant blanket is taken off and doused. In this city, nothing is done in moderation. The Dubai World Cup race meeting, which took place last Saturday, was the most valuable in the sport's history, with more than $21m (£10m) of stake money to be won. At the height of proceedings, there was a spectacular display, of which the horse-fireball was part, while on a gigantic screen a film celebrating the wildness of the horse was shown. Elsewhere on the racetrack, other kinds...

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Trust teenagers to make their choices

We live in a careless age. Only this week, a survey - yet another survey - has revealed that childhood has been lost. David Cameron has made a speech arguing that adults have lost authority over the young. In his new book Tokens of Trust, the Archbishop of Canterbury had identified a loss of trust in public institutions and the political system. We have also apparently mislaid the ability to be decent parents, according to a report from an Education Select Committee. But there is one area of private life, at least, where there is no sign of decline. The teenage years are growing fast and awkwardly. They tend to start well before 13 and often are only beginning to peter out at 25, or beyond. Just as childhood (playing conkers, climbing trees, riding bikes) is disappearing, so adolescence (snogging, fighting, sulking, getting drunk) is expanding. For beleaguered adults, it...

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This sanctimonious whiff of disapproval

On balance, it was probably not a very good idea for Lady Black, in the early days of the trial of her husband Conrad, to call a Canadian TV producer a "slut". Nor was her subsequent characterisation of the entire journalistic profession as "vermin" particularly sensible or well-timed. As Barbara Amiel, Lady Black was once a columnist herself and her husband was a newspaper proprietor. Since he now faces the possibility of spending many years in jail if found guilty, it was, one might think, a moment to cultivate friends in the press rather than trashing them. Admittedly, the Blacks had been on the receiving end of a comprehensive duffing-up in the press. He has been portrayed as a monstrous, overbearing robber-baron while she is presented as the unholy conflation of Lady Macbeth, Mata Hari and Imelda Marcos. But, in a sense, Lady Black was right. There has indeed been...

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Truly daring remarks from a voice of sanity

In the relatively unlikely event of Britain becoming a republic and there being a vacancy for a wise, sensitive, public-spirited person to become head of state, there can surely be only one candidate. He is the man with whom Tony Blair shared a thoughtful podcast last month and to whom, a few days later, Robbie Williams turned for advice on the question of addiction. Prince Charles is said to consult him. He has been in prison, has shared his personal experience of depression in a television documentary and has written a book about how to write poetry. Not only a successful novelist, actor and comedian, he is thought by a startling number of people to have an unusually brilliant brain. Stephen Fry has had two public thoughts this week. First, in unnecessarily lavatorial terms, he proclaimed his disgust at the celebrity skating programme Dancing on Ice. Then he wondered out...

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What is so thrilling about killing a deer?

An exciting new sport is becoming popular in America. Enterprising safari owners have realised that there is good money to be made from the internet and are bringing the joys of hunting animals into the home. A variety of mammals - antelope, wild pig, deer and others - roam in an enclosed safari park where there are a number of rigs with webcams and remote-control .22 rifles. Online hunters can, at a click of the mouse, shoot an animal and, for a fee, be sent its mounted head. It is now possible to be a successful sportsman, with a wall covered in trophies, without actually leaving the house. There are social benefits to the new sport, according to its supporters. By keeping a distance from his prey, man is becoming more evolved and civilised as a hunter, moving from bare hands, to a blade, to a gun and to a...

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If academics can’t think freely, who can?

There is more than a hint of Lucky Jim to Professor David Coleman, as he poses for a photograph, tweed-jacketed, in his book-lined room at Oxford. He looks like a man who would rather enjoy stirring things up and goosing the pieties of the moment. Somehow it is no great surprise to learn he acts as an adviser to the controversial think-tank MigrationWatch UK and has argued that "the net contribution by immigrants to average national income per head was equivalent to about a Mars bar a week." All of which has, unsurprisingly, enraged the Oxford branch of a charitable organisation called Student Action for Refugees, or Star, which exists to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and campaign on their behalf. The raising of awareness in this case would be best served, the Star activists think, by trying to get Coleman, a professor of demography, sacked. They have...

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The sorry state of these latter-day icons

An alarming insight into the minds of the people of Warwick has been provided by the psychology department of the town's university. A study into British attitudes to character, published in the magazine Personality and Individual Differences, interviewed 17,056 adults, 40 per cent of whom were graduates, and a third of whom were managers or professionals. Given a list of 24 virtues and asked which one they most aspired to, the majority of men chose open-mindedness, followed by fairness, curiosity and a love of learning. Women were rather keener on kindness and love. But it was when participants were asked which public figures best represented each quality that the survey became distinctly odd. As symbols of open-mindedness, the men chose Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir Winston Churchill. For women, kindness was best embodied by another unlikely couple, Florence Nightingale and Esther Rantzen. A love of learning? Obviously that would be...

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Enough of this defeatism about the Olympics

So, the great carnival of celebration that will climax in five and a half years' time with the London Olympics is now under way. This week the former rower Sir Steve Redgrave is launching a campaign to find some quite tall schoolchildren who might be interested in playing for Britain's beach volleyball team in 2012. Former 400m world champion Roger Black has been encouraging sport at primary schools in a Radio 4 series. In the background, beyond these initiatives, is the suave, neat figure of Lord Coe. Somehow, as a lead-up to the first global sporting event to take place in Britain for more than 40 years, these pre-Olympic campaigns fail to set the pulse racing. Even if the worthy figures of Sir Steve, Lord Seb and Roger were joined by other sporting stars - Dame Kelly Holmes to encourage girl athletes, perhaps, Zara Phillips to tour pony clubs -...

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