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OpenLearn Live: 24th February 2016

Updated Wednesday 24th February 2016

The city that built a wall as a river swelled, and the nature of the new agreement between the UK and other EU nations. Then more free learning across the day.

OpenLearn Live is the place where free learning meets your life. This page will be updated across the day.

Yesterday, we caught up with the US elections and asked if children exercise enough in winter

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live


Today's posts


BBC Four, 9pm tonight: The Prosecutors

The first episode in an extraordinary new series from the OU and the BBC tonight - The Prosecutors. This series explores the work of the Crown Prosecution Service, following three cases as they work their way through the legal system. Here's a taste of what to expect:

Find out more about The Prosecutors

How would you be as a juror? Try our Whats Your Verdict game


BBC Radio 4, 4pm today: Thinking Allowed

Today's Thinking Allowed explores why many of us refuse to act our age - or at least adjust our behaviour to that which might be considered "appropriate" given the amount of time elapsed since our births. Also, the programme considers how it feels for children to grow up in low-income families.

Listen via the BBC Radio 4 website 

Download other episodes from Thinking Allowed

Read more about this week's Thinking Allowed


The EU referendum: a short reading list

A couple of articles about the forthcoming EU referendum. First, the question of whether David Cameron's agreement with the heads of the other EU states are legally binding or not. This is quite significant, because if the agreement isn't legally binding, then it's possible for the concessions the Prime Minister has won to be removed after the UK has voted in June. Michael Gove, a member of Cameron's cabinet and a prominent proponent of leaving the EU, claims that the deal isn't binding. BBC News explains his perspective:

Mr Gove said that without Treaty change all elements of the PM's renegotiation settlement were potentially subject to legal challenge.

"The facts are that the European Court of Justice is not bound by this agreement until treaties are changed and we don't know when that will be," he said.

He said Mr Cameron was "absolutely right that this is a deal between 28 nations all of whom believe it", adding: "But the whole point about the European Court of Justice is that it stands above the nation states."

Mr Cameron has "not been misleading anyone", Mr Gove went on, but he added: "I do think it's important that people also realise that the European Court of Justice stands above every nation state, and ultimately it will decide on the basis of the treaties and this deal is not yet in the treaties."

Downing Street, clearly, believe they have an agreement which is binding on all nations of the EU. So who is correct? As with so many legal questions, the answer is "it depends." Writing before the deal was finally agreed, but when its shape was fairly clear, barrister and Oxford academic Pavlos Eleftheriadis gave his view of what was on offer in a blogpost at the UK Constitutional Law Assocation:

It will create ambiguities that may end up in a constitutional crisis, especially since it opens the way for litigation concerning all types of banking regulation, which matters hugely for the United Kingdom.

In my view, the settlement will only work if it is considered by all parties to be legally binding only as an interpretive agreement under Article 31 of the Vienna Convention, and therefore does not even begin to challenge the treaty framework. This may be politically difficult for the Prime Minister, who has promised a legally binding agreement on the ground that it is a treaty. It is clear that “legally binding as a treaty” and “legally binding as an agreement relevant to interpretation” are not the same thing. But given the alternatives, this is the only reasonable way forward for the European Union. This also follows precedent, because it is the way in which European Court of Justice has spoken of a similar agreement in the past.

Of course, it is in the nature of the European Union as a creature of international law, that the masters of the treaties can decide otherwise. They do have the constitutional power to unsettle the constitutional architecture of the Union, undermine the process of Article 48 TEU and create a hopelessly confused and unstable banking union. It would be a terrible shame, though, if they did so without realising it.

John Curtice, who famously brought the shocking-but-correct exit poll to our screens on election night, explores how what we know about attitudes to Europe might mean for how the UK votes:

Much of voters’ scepticism is fed by cultural concerns about the consequences of membership – the perceived implications for Britain’s sovereignty and identity – concerns that have probably been heightened by the high level of EU immigration during the last decade or so.

Nearly half (47%) of all voters believe that Britain’s membership of the EU is undermining the country’s “distinctive identity”. And almost everyone who holds that view (86%) is a eurosceptic.

At the same time, however, many are wary of the economic consequences of actually leaving the EU. No less than 40% say that Britain’s economy would be worse off if it were to leave, while just 24% believe it would be better off – another 31% feel that perhaps it would not make much difference either way.

It is this wariness about the economic consequences of leaving that largely accounts for voters’ relative reluctance to back withdrawal from the EU. Among those who think the economy would be worse off if Britain left, just 6% actually support withdrawal. Even among those who think leaving would not make much difference, only 31% support want to head for the exit.


Wall week: Vera's Wall

This week, we're climbing up some significant walls. Yesterday, we visited Prague's Lennon Wall. Today, we're heading for the Pacific Coast of America, and exploring the story of Vera's Wall.

Portland seawall during 1996 Willamette River flood Creative commons image Icon Steve Morgan under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license Vera's Wall on top of the Portland sea wall

We're going back twenty years, to 1996, and the city of Portland, Oregon. Portland is a beautiful place, sat between the Oregon mountains and the Pacific Ocean, built on the side of the Willamette River. Unfortunately, in February 1996, that location became almost an existential threat to the city.

Throughout January, higher-than-usual rainfall had soaked the ground, while at the end of the month heavy rain in the valley moved into the mountains, and dumped an extraordinary amount of snow in the mountains.

Then the damp, warmish weather changed - as February started, a week-long freeze began. That ended suddenly as the Pineapple Express arrived. Not the awful movie of the that name - that particular misery was still some way off - but the weather condition where saturated air from Hawaii is carried north-eastwards and collides with a West Coast storm system, dumping large amounts of warm rain over the area. They're usually associated with flood events, but in 1996 it was worse than usual.

Large amounts of rain. Onto the already sodden ground. Then the warm front moved into the mountains, and flash-melted all that snow.

There wasn't a body of water in Oregon that didn't experience some sort of flood event, and down in Portland City, the Willamette River started to rise. And rise.

The mayor of Portland, Vera Katz, took action. She called for city workers and volunteers to help raise the height of the city's protective walls. And the city turned out in force, building what came to be known as Vera's Wall. The Willamette Week recalled the day:

Citizens responded as well, helping erect a plywood scaffold covered in plastic sheeting and anchored with sandbags that ran for a mile, between the Steel and Hawthorne bridges. Katz, wearing a purple raincoat, strode along the wall, thanking volunteers.

Marty Smith—later to become WW's Dr. Know—described the Waterfront Park scene as feeling like a town barn-raising. "People were actually enjoying this," he reported.

In the end, Vera's Wall used 612 pieces of plywood, 2,720 pieces of 12-inch lumber, 5,100 feet (1.5 kilometres) of plastic and 438 concrete barriers.

Was it a success? Well... sort-of. The river would rise to 28.6 feet (8.7 metres) downtown, 11 feet (3.3 metres) above the flood level, and though the city wasn't without its problems, it remained mostly un-inundated.

Other places along the river weren't so fortunate:

Vera's Wall, however, proved to be cautious rather than neccesary - the rising waters stopped a couple of inches below the foot of the ad hoc fortification.

But the wall served two further purposes - the first, it galvanised a community and made them feel they could take action in the face of nature; secondly, it inspired a permanent solution for future floods. There's now a purpose-built steel version of Vera's Wall, which can be deployed and constructed in the event of an expected flood happening.

Create some wild weather for yourself with our kitchen experiments

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