Should the UK codify its constitution?

For hundreds of years, the UK has been functioning without a codified constitution. For the majority of that time, that was not raised as a problem, as the first constitution was created in 1787. Recently however, the question whether the UK should have a single document titled “The constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” has been receiving more and more attention, as the UK is one of few countries that function without a codified constitution. The fact that the UK does not have a codified constitution by no means implies that it has no constitution whatsoever – it does have a complex constitution, developed over hundreds of years by Acts of Parliament, common law and constitutional conventions. And that constitution is functioning very well, so there seems to be no reason to change.

One of the arguments of the supporters of codifying the constitution is that at its current state, the constitution is confusing, and that a single document would solve this problem. Codification, they argue, will increase knowledge both about the constitutional rules and where to find those rules. However, further codification is unlikely to increase transparency about the UK’s constitution, as the language and style would be still the same – only all in one place. Moreover, in practice, that key knowledge is already accessible.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) argues for consolidating all provisions of constitutional importance from dozens of existing texts into a single document on the grounds that “the public is entitled to know the processes by which it is governed and the fundamental rules on which the constitution is based” and that such knowledge “will contribute greatly to more informed public debate”. That argument fails to realise that the British constitution is already available to the public. The Constitute website, for example, allows one to access a consolidation of the UK’s constitutionally relevant statutes and to search those statutes by topic, which means that the UK’s constitutional text already is accessible.

A major advantage of the present constitution is its flexibility – the British constitution can easily adapt to the changes in circumstances, something that is difficult to achieve with a codified constitution, as those usually can only be amended via lengthy legal processes. Higher law is more difficult to change than statute law and if the British constitution were to be codified, it is highly likely that the constitution would no longer be able to serve the society as well as it does nowadays.

Moreover, a codified constitution would likely not be able to preserve all elements that are now considered of constitutional importance for the UK. For example, Parliamentary sovereignty, one of the most important constitutional principles of the UK that states that Parliament can make and unmake any laws, would no longer be in place. Therefore, a codified constitution would undermine one of the key principles of the UK’s democracy.

In sum, the idea of a codified constitution for the UK is not only pointless but also potentially harmful. The benefits that, supporters argue, a single document would bring, are already there. More importantly however, a codified constitution will probably be unable to reflect all the beneficial subtleties that today govern the UK. 

Georgette Mosbacher – a profile

When a week ago the US ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher began a feisty discussion about the COVID-19 pandemic with the Chinese ambassador to Poland Liu Guangyuan in fluent Polish on Twitter, many media commentators and the public opinion was stunned. Indeed, it was yet another example of a very distinctive manner of diplomacy that Mosbacher adopted when she became ambassador in September 2018. She has since been known for her active participation in the Polish political life, lively commenting on the policies of the current national-conservative government led by the PiS party. But who exactly is this 73-year old business mogul-turned-diplomat?

Georgette Mosbacher was born in 1947 to a lower-middle-class family in Highland, Indiana. After the premature death of her father in the 1950s, she had actively helped her mother in raising her younger siblings but was nevertheless able to graduate from high school and pursue university education at Indiana University. She then moved to Chicago to work in advertising.

It was not until 1987 that Mosbacher became known to the wider business world. In a bold and risky move, she purchased the collapsing cosmetics company La Prairie and managed to boost its sales by attracting new investors and venture capitalists. She then swerved back and forth on the market, working in several prominent enterprises and finally becoming the CEO of the high-end cosmetics brand Borghese. During her career, she published two motivational books for women, titled Feminine Force: Release The Power Within To Create The Life You Deserve (1993) and It Takes Money, Honey: A Get-Smart Guide to Total Financial Freedom (1998).

However, Mosbacher’s activity has not been limited to business. She has been a well-established supporter and fundraiser of the Republican Party, engaging in numerous presidential and Congressional campaigns, including the 2008 John McCain’s bid in the US presidential election. Surely, it was both her entrepreneurial wit and extensive business contacts that paved her way to diplomatic career. In 2015, she was appointed a member of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy by President Barack Obama, and in August 2018, Donald Trump recommended her for the post of the new ambassador to Poland.

From the very first days in office, she had consistently been proving that her tenure won’t be like anyone else’s before her. She actively criticized the Polish government’s plans to nationalize the biggest private TV company TVN, citing the importance of media freedom and pluralism in modern democratic societies. She also took a firm stance on the proposed legislation that aimed at criminalizing any attempt to blame the Polish nation for committing anti-Semitic acts of violence during the Second World War. Mosbacher dubbed the law as an act of ‘whitewashing’ the dark chapters of Polish history and has been criticized by multiple officials of the Polish administration.

Despite friction with the national-conservative PiS party, she is still deeply respected by the Polish government as a representative of Poland’s most crucial military ally. And indeed, love her or hate her, she undoubtedly is the most unique ambassador of the US to Poland in history, and more is yet to come!

How can mathematics help to predict the spread of COVID-19?

The current coronavirus pandemic is a huge disturbance to the normal functioning and yet we don’t even know when it’s going to be all over. Or do we?

The SIR model is one of the most famous mathematical models which are used to predict features of a contagious disease. The letters stand for Susceptible, Infected and Recovered. It basically divides a certain population which is exposed to an infectious disease into three compartments: the susceptible – the people who can theoretically be infected and aren’t immune to the disease yet, which is very often the case when it comes to newly evolved diseases, the infected and the recovered. At the beginning of each epidemic, the number of susceptible can be even equal to the whole populations, so it is very big. The number of the infected is, on the other hand, very small, it might be 1 when there is only one primary case, or a bit more. The number of recovered is, not surprisingly, 0. All of these three variables, S, I and R are functions of time which means that they depend on time – because with changing time, the number of susceptible people changes as more people are getting infected and thus transitioning from the susceptible group to the infected group (assuming that you can’t be infected more than once) and, eventually, the number of recovered people increases, as people fight the disease and move from the infected group into the recovered group. Mathematicians use then the system of differential equations to determine the behaviour of those variables, more specifically their rate of change. The model is quite simplified and uses many assumptions, such as that the number of susceptible people doesn’t change throughout the duration of the epidemic (e.g. there are no new births). In general, there are some rules which are unchanged, such as that the rate of change of the susceptible population is always negative because it is always huge at the beginning and decreases as more people become infected and are no longer susceptible. However, there are many constants used which are specific for a given disease. Thanks to this model, mathematicians can determine many features of a certain disease, such as the total number of infected, the duration of the epidemic and the epidemiological parameters such as the basic reproduction number, denoted R0 (pronounced R nought). 

R0 gives the number of people that can be infected with a certain disease by 1 infected person. The value of R0 can determine how fast the disease will spread in a population. If R0 equals 1, then the number of infected people will stay constant. If R0 is smaller than 1, the number of infected people will be decreasing and the disease will die out naturally. However, if R0 is greater than 1, the number of infected people will increase very rapidly, exponentially, and cannot die out naturally. There are certain factors which have an influence on the value of R0. These include the route of transmission of the disease, epidemiological system in which the pathogen is transmitted which includes the behavioural and cultural differences between countries. R0 depends on the number of susceptible people, the average duration of infectiousness of the disease and the probability that a person will infect another person, basically the ability of a certain pathogen to cause disease. The R0 for COVID-19 has been estimated to be somewhere between 2 and 3. This compares to a value of around 1.6-1.8 for various flu epidemics, which makes COVID-19 a bit more threatening. However, the rate of transmission of disease, besides R0, depends also on the serial interval (SI), which is the measure of how fast a disease spreads from one person to another (the time between the onset of symptoms in person A and the onset of symptoms in person B who was infected by person A). The lower the serial interval is, the faster the disease spreads from an infected person to a susceptible person. The serial interval for COVID-19 is estimated to be around 7.5 days. In comparison, the SI for flu has been estimated at around 2.5 days. 

Many of the values and features of COVID-19 are yet under research and aren’t exactly defined, however, they are definitely currently one of the main jobs of many mathematicians working in public health around the world. Thanks to their job on the epidemiological models, they will be able to predict when the pandemic finishes and how many infections there will be in total.

No landmark over imprisonment

On 12 February 2020, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom delivered its judgement in R (on the application of Jalloh (formerly Jollah)) v Secretary of State for the Home Department, a case that could have become a landmark, but did not. The Justices dealt with the definition of imprisonment at common law. Deciding the case, the Supreme Court considered two issues: the meaning of imprisonment at common law and whether that should be aligned with the concept of deprivation of liberty under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Claimant was an immigrant to the UK, who, after being convicted of several offences, had curfew imposed on him by the Secretary of State under paragraph 2(5) of Schedule 3 to the Immigration Act 1971. He had to stay at home from 11PM to 7AM every day, which was to be enforced by means of electronic tracking. The Claimant argued that, as he was forced by the Secretary of State to remain within a defined area and this obligation was enforced by his fear of consequences, he was a victim of false imprisonment. The Appellant argued that for a person to be imprisoned there must be a physical or a human barrier making it impossible for the person to flee the area, and that it is not enough for the act of leaving to trigger an adverse response for imprisonment to exist.

The first issue had before been ruled on by the High Court and the Court of Appeal; they had both found that by imposing a curfew on the Claimant, the Secretary of State committed the offence of false imprisonment. The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the Secretary of State’s appeal on the first issue. Lady Hale, delivering judgment, held that the central point of imprisonment is being made to stay in a particular place by another person, and therefore that the Claimant’s case was a classic example of imprisonment, since his compliance with the curfew was enforced by fear of prosecution by the institution making him stay at home. 

In the Supreme Court, the Secretary of State raised an issue not previously raised – that the definition of imprisonment at common law should be aligned with that of deprivation of liberty in the European Convention of Human Rights, and that the action of the Appellant did not constitute a deprivation of liberty in the meaning given to this phrase by Article 5 of the Convention. Therefore, after deciding on the first issue, the question that remained was whether the definition of imprisonment in common law should be aligned with that of deprivation of liberty as outlined by Article 5 of the ECHR. The Convention distinguishes between deprivation of liberty and restriction of it, but this distinction is not present in common law. Article 5 sets out that it is a breach of a person’s human rights to deprive them of liberty except in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law, which the Appellant fulfilled, as they were acting within the powers granted to them by the 1971 Immigration Act. The Appellant argued that sufficient time has passed for the concept of imprisonment at common law and that of deprivation of liberty in the meaning of the ECHR to be aligned (the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the rights contained in the ECHR into UK law was passed in 1998) and that, as their actions did not constitute a breach of the Claimant’s right to liberty in the meaning of the ECHR, the appeal should be granted. Deciding this question, the Court quoted Lord Toulson saying that “it was not the purpose of the Human Rights Act that the common law should become an ossuary.” The judgement said that common law should keep protecting people from false imprisonment, and that purpose can be best fulfilled if the original definition of imprisonment is retained.

As such, the Court upheld what other courts had previously decided: that it is possible for there to be imprisonment at common law without a deprivation of liberty under Article 5 of the ECHR. It was decided that the curfew that was imposed by the Appellant on the Claimant did amount to imprisonment and thus the appeal was dismissed.

Postal voting: everyone talks about it, but what it really is?

When in late March 2020 the ruling Law and Justice party proposed to hold the May presidential election by mail, many commentators labelled the move as experimental and highly unlikely to be carried out during the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. However, the party pushed forward, storming necessary legislation through the lower house of the Polish Parliament. Despite heavy criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, the postal vote bill was approved by a majority of MPs, now awaiting discussion in the opposition-controlled Senate. Regardless of the final decision on the proposal, it is nevertheless important to examine the concept and history of the postal vote in detail to fully grasp its significance.

The idea behind postal voting is that ballot papers are distributed directly to the voters and then returned by post, or dropped at a designated ballot box. It was originally meant to collect votes from those who were not capable of visiting a local polling station, thus being used as an absentee ballot. As a method of voting, it was first implemented in Western Australia in 1877, followed by several countries in Europe and the Americas.

However, the concept of postal voting has evolved ever since. Nowadays, it is not only used to collect votes from those ill or old but also to enable the electorate to vote before the actual election date (also known as early voting). It is particularly prevalent in the United States, where 28 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting via mail without excuse between four and fifty days before the election day. This method has gained popularity in recent decades, with an estimated 36% of all ballots being cast early in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (according to data from the ‘United States Election Project’).

In some countries and regions, postal voting is the only voting method used to collect ballots from the electorate (also known as all-postal voting). It is the case in Switzerland, where all voters receive their voting card by mail before the election and can either send it back or vote later on the election day. Similarly, three U.S. states conduct all their elections via postal voting: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. This approach has its benefits, as costs of organizing a postal vote are much lower than those of a traditional election with the aid of polling stations.

Nevertheless, postal voting has always raised concerns over possible vote-rigging. Critics argue that ballots distributed to individual households are subject to theft and that there is a risk of tampering at the designated ballot boxes, as they usually not secured by any election officials. Furthermore, when voting by mail, the secrecy of the vote is not ensured – individuals cast their ballots outside of the polling station and could be coerced to vote in a particular way.

Adding to these risks, the possibility of a mail vote during the COVID-19 pandemic may contribute to spreading the virus. After all, millions of voters, postmen, and election officials would have contact with the ballot papers. Given these concerns, the Law and Justice’s efforts to go forward with the all-postal voting seem very hazardous. What is at stake is not only the fairness of an electoral process – in this case, the health of millions of citizens is under threat.

Neural Implants

As technology advances, people hope for more and more discoveries and inventions. In a nutshell, we always want more. We wish to create fancier phones, faster cars, and many more orthodox goods. Yet, there is also a never-ending list of items which are not talked about frequently enough, even though they contribute to resolving many most detrimental issues which contemporary societies are facing. This list includes brain implants- one of the ‘jokers’ from the list of early XXI c. inventions.

Brain implants

For many people “neural implants” still sounds like a name taken out of a science-fiction movie. But here are these technological devices, creating previously unthinkable results, such as giving a blind person a semblance of sight. Right now, neurobiologists and biomedical engineers are researching the area of creating implants which would be capable of replacing damaged parts of the brain, e.g. after a stroke or brain trauma. Signals sent from biological neural networks – either single neurons or groups of neurons – are recorded, blocked and stimulated by brain implants- such a state of affairs is possible only when the functional associations of the neurons are to some extent recognized. Due to the complexity of some of the neural processes as well as lack of access to action potential signals, the utilization of brain implants has been severely limited until the latest advances in the areas of computer processing power and neurophysiology. Things are, however, changing. And, like usually, they’re changing rapidly.

Historical background

Since 1870, when two German neurologists presented how electrical stimulation of dog’s brain is able to produce movements, a lot has changed areas of neuroscience and neurophysiology. At beginning of the 20th century, scientists started to take interest in mapping the human brain. Due to that, in 1950 a crucial breakthrough has taken place. American psychiatrist, Robert Heath, who experimented with patients to influence their actions through electrical stimulations, made many important discoveries in the branch. Moreover, during the 1950s, the CIA funded research into mind control. In the same time period, Yale psychologist, Jose Delgado, was accused to receive backing from the CIA. He denied these accusations, stating that his investigation was of a solely academic purpose. Not much time have passed, when ethical questions were raised within the issue. Who is a good candidate to receive beneficial neural implants? What exactly are bad and good neural implants?

Speak for yourself

For decades, scientists have looked for ways to give the voice back to the deaf, but haven’t been able to do so just yet- modern devices are only capable of producing 10 words per minute whereas the average human’s speaking speed is 150 words per minute. Why do this type of problems with communication happen? The pathways – neurons through which  brain sends signals to arms and legs – are broken and despite the fact that the affected people have normal abilities to communicate, they simply cannot carry out any of their basic tasks. Being able to repair sight and speech is only one possible implication of brain implants. With the growing potential of technology as well as the willingness of  people to volunteer in the branch, we are bound to see more utilizations of brain implants. We just have to wait. One of our motivations could be the fact that an investigation on how the human speech is produced may also be considered as an exploration into one of the most fundamental human abilities. That prospect may, indeed, turn out to be really exciting for the scientists and/or researchers.

Jan Bartkowiak

How can shrubs be a solution to climate change in South Africa?

South African climate varies a lot, especially considering the fact that it’s not such a big country – it ranges from the Mediterranean in the southwestern corner to temperate in the interior plateau, subtropical in the northeast and desert in the northwest. However, same as in many other countries, due to global climate change, the climate in South Africa is becoming hotter, arider with less frequent rain. It is said that the last proper rain was in 2014, because of that many both wild plants and crops are dying and here’s what the farmers want to do in order to solve this problem.

Basically, the plan is to plant one million cuttings of Portulacaria afra – a succulent shrub, commonly known as spekboom – over the next five years. Spekboom is indigenous to the area and used to be dominant in the subtropical thicket biome that used to cover over a million hectares of South Africa. Over the past 150 years, this has drastically shrunk because of persistent overgrazing by sheep and goats. Spekboom has small, round leaves with tiny pores, called stomata, in them. When it reaches maturity, it can be even 5m high. Because of that, one of the benefits it would bring to South Africans is the creation of large areas of cooling shadow. This, alongside with the release of water from the plant’s stomata, a process known as evapotranspiration, would provide a cooler micro-climate which could allow other species of animals, such as rhinos and elephants, and plants to return to the area. But there is definitely more to it. Spekboom is very successful in absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. Due to its high growth rate, its rate of carbon capture can beat even that of tropical rainforests.

Moreover, the plant doesn’t require any special cultivation before planting which normally takes time and money. As a result, one tonne of CO2 can be captured for less than a 1/10 of the cost of sinking the equivalent carbon by planting trees in temperate or tropical forests. What is so special about the plant is its changeable physiology. During wet periods, plants are active during the day, collecting CO2 through tiny pores called stomata in their leaves in a process known as C3 photosynthesis – the most efficient way to absorb carbon, used by 85% of the world’s plants. But during dry periods, spekboom is able to flip its daily rhythm. The stomata in the leaves are closed during the day which reduces the water loss during the hottest hours. Instead, it opens the stomata at night to collect the necessary CO2 when it’s cooler, so it loses less water. This process is called Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM photosynthesis) and because of that spekboom can survive through a drought when other plants would die.

Another major benefit to the planting of spekboom on degraded land is the drastic increase in the amount of carbon in the soil that comes from its roots, leaf litter and smaller plants that are able to grow around it. The higher carbon content, in turn, improves water retention. Recent research has estimated that one hectare of restored spekboom results in 255,000 litres of retained water. 

Right now a lot of private farmers are planting spekboom in order to enhance the conditions on their own farms. But for the project to have a real impact, the scale of planting needs to be greater – the South African government’s Working for Ecosystems programme proposes restoring a million hectares of spekboom thicket – an area roughly equivalent in size to Cyprus. Countries around the world will be eagerly watching to see if South Africa’s experiment is a success. With degraded thicket in dry areas widespread in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Madagascar, there is the potential for similar kinds of indigenous plant restoration to be used elsewhere