Sunday, November 30, 2008

Heroin and Cannabis in Switzerland

Swiss voters have backed a change in health policy that would provide prescription heroin to addicts. Final results from the national referendum showed 68% of voters supported the plan. The scheme, where addicts inject the drug under medical supervision at a clinic, began in Zurich 14 years ago before spreading across the country.

In another referendum, the Swiss appear to have rejected the decriminalisation of cannabis. The heroin vote was one of a series of referendums held to decide policy on illegal drugs. Switzerland would be the first country to include it in government policy. Supporters say it has had positive results - getting long-term addicts out of Switzerland's once notorious "needle parks" and reducing drug-related crime. Under the scheme, addicts visit clinics up to twice a day, where they inject the drug under medical supervision. They can also be treated for other medical issues or mental health problems.

On cannabis things were less clear - Swiss police regularly turn a blind eye to moderate cannabis use. But recent studies suggesting that long-term use of the drug may be more harmful than previously thought looked likely to encourage a "No" to decriminalisation. Early results showed only 36.8% of those voting supported decriminalising cannabis, the Associated Press (AP) news agency said.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Martine Aubry is the new leader of the French Socialist Party

Lille Mayor Martine Aubry won the Socialist Party's leadership vote with 50.02%, beating rival Ségolène Royal by 42 votes, the party leadership announced. Royal won 49.98% of the votes in Friday's second round of voting. Valid votes were cast by only 134,784 of the party's 233,000 members. more

Friday, November 21, 2008

Proposition 8 in the Supreme Court of California

The SC of Cal will rule on a motion filed on November 19, 2008 to declare proposition 8 unconstitutional because it is a revision of the constitution and not an amendment and because it violates the separation of powers doctrine of the California Constitution .
My earlier post on the court's decision on gay marriages can be found here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

e-mails and Obama

The first president "addicted" to the BlackBerry Barack Obama, who gave up smoking before running for office, now faces a break with another habit - e-mail.

The US president-elect is likely to give it up, aides told the New York Times, because transparency laws would open his correspondence to public view. 
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush both gave up e-mail in office, but Mr Obama will be the first BlackBerry user to occupy the White House. He took mobile e-mail everywhere with him on the campaign trail. In the summer, cameras filmed him checking his BlackBerry while watching one of his daughters playing football. His wife Michelle slapped at his hands, obliging him to put it away."I think Obama is the first president who is addicted to the BlackBerry like the rest of us, and there's a lot of presidential records and archive rules on what gets stored and what doesn't," former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart told the Associated Press. 
A final decision on whether Mr Obama will become the first e-mailing president has yet to be made. He is expected to be the first to have a laptop on his desk in the Oval Office. 
One possibility reported to be under consideration is that he could continue to receive e-mails, but not send them. During the campaign, the New York Times reports, his advisers rarely printed out memos but simply e-mailed them to his BlackBerry. The paper quoted aides saying that his emails, sometimes sent as late as 0100 or 0300, were "generally crisp, properly spelled and free of symbols or emoticons". As well as the problem of the Presidential Records Act, which could open all presidential emails to public scrutiny, there are also security concerns. 
Experts say there is always a risk of digital communication being hacked into.There is also the possibility that the location of a presidential mobile telephone could be tracked. Benjamin Nugent, author of the book American Nerd, says the president-elect is a techie, who will have difficulty parting with his BlackBerry. 

the full story

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A referendum on the autonomy of the University of Geneva

Geneva - 12 November 2008

A referendum at the end of the month will determine the future of legislation designed to give the University of Geneva more autonomy. Administrators say the new law is needed to modernize the institution, which turns 450 next year, while they allay fears from employee and student groups that it will lead to a loss of independence, privatization of operations and tuition fee increases.

The fate of a new law to give the state-owned University of Geneva more autonomy will be determined by cantonal voters at the end of the month. The proposed legislation – to replace the oldest law of its kind in Switzerland, dating from 1974 – has been challenged by student and staff groups. They fear it will lead to a hike in tuition fees and privatization of operations, while worsening conditions for employees and threatening the university’s independence. But the Geneva government and the university administration say these concerns are unfounded.
Jean-Dominique Vassalli, the university’s rector, has led a media campaign for the past several weeks to explain why the new law is needed to modernize the institution and help if function more efficiently as its heads into its 450th anniversary next year. Founded by celebrated protestant theologian Jean Calvin in the 16th century, the university needs to be able to respond more flexibly to global conditions, by attracting the best possible academics and offering appropriate courses on a timely basis, Vassalli argues. The impetus for the legislation followed a scandal in 2006, involving the misappropriation of expenses by a professor, which led to the resignation of the previous rector. The new law calls for a clearer delineation of responsibilities while also providing university administrators more freedom to make decisions without having to seek parliamentary backing for such decisions as new curricula.

The recently launched master’s degree programme in international trading, for example, took 18 months to set up because of the cumbersome approval process involving the Geneva parliament. The English-language programme, sought by companies in Geneva’s booming trading sector needing highly trained staff, could have been more quickly established under the new law, university administrators say. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Geneva chamber of commerce and right-wing political parties have lined up in support of the legislation.

Vassalli stresses that the bulk of the university’s budget – 627 million francs this year – will continue to be provided by the cantonal and federal governments. It currently receives grants of about 75 million francs from private and public research foundations, but it has far less private funding than, for example, American universities, where corporate funding is rampant and fees are considerably higher.

The Geneva parliament will continue to establish the university’s budget under the new law, and it will remain responsible for setting tuition fees, although the legislation would allow for increases in line with the Swiss average. At 1,000 francs a year, students at the University of Geneva currently benefit from the lowest tuition in the country.

Among other things, the law calls for the establishment of a 45-member university assembly, representing academic staff, charged with setting strategic goals and an ethical charter for the university. This would replace a smaller 21-member council that includes seven representatives from outside the university. Another aspect of the law would see the university become the direct employer of its staff, rather than the canton. Paolo Gilardi, leader of the public service employees’ union, believes this would lead to worse conditions for employees, while favoring the hiring of temporary employees.

Gilardi says a proposed lifting of the cap on professors’ salaries – currently held at around 200,000 francs a year – would increase the disparities between select “mandarins” and poorly paid teaching assistants. The law would allow for wages up to 300,000 francs, an amount Vassalli says is necessary to attract the top talent. Three weeks ago “two professors of medicine, including one who works in Basel, refused posts in Geneva for pay reasons,” he told the Tribune de Genève. “Compared to other Swiss universities we are not competitive,” Vassalli added.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Opinion Polls in the US elections

An interesting article on US opinion polls in today's Times of London.
Bottom line (literally) is that all polls indicate an Obama win.

An old newspaper photograph haunts the dreams of every US pollster. A grinning Harry Truman, having won the 1948 presidential election despite every prediction, is holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune. It reads: “Dewey defeats Truman”.

Could it happen again? Every pollster is predicting a victory for Barack Obama. Might a grinning John McCain be pictured on Wednesday triumphantly holding a pile of incorrect polling data?

There are two things that say that he might.

The first is that American pollsters have not yet experienced what happened here in 1992 – when the polls pointed to a Labour victory but John Major won. The conventional wisdom is that 1992 was great for the Tories but terrible for the pollsters. In the long run, the opposite turned out to be true. Victory in 1992 turned to ashes for the Conservatives, whereas the pollsters used the debacle to get themselves sorted out.

Now British polls are properly and carefully weighted, taking account of what is known as the spiral of silence – the tendency of voters for the less fashionable party to keep their intentions to themselves. British pollsters weight their results to allow for these shy voters. US pollsters do not.

It isn’t unreasonable to believe that there could be a Republican spiral of silence. And that US pollsters are all missing it.

There is some evidence of mistakes among US pollsters. Every poll has a margin of error, to take into account the fact that a limited sample has been consulted. But the website has shown that during the primaries there was on average a 2.3 per cent pollster-introduced error, caused by poor methodology. This is not the case in Britain.

The second, widely canvassed, reason why the polls could be wrong is known as the Bradley Effect. In 1982 exit polls showed the African American Tom Bradley to be on course for victory as Governor of California. He lost. It is argued that voters had refused to support him because of his race but didn’t want to tell a pollster. Could this happen to Obama?

The Bradley Effect is talked about as if it were incontrovertible but it is only a theory. One of Bradley’s campaign team pointed out recently that the same exit polls that predicted victory for Bradley also projected that the white Democrat Jerry Brown would be elected US Senator.

And he lost too. These two question marks over the polls are ones that McCain can cling to as the campaign comes to a conclusion. They are not, however, the only reason to doubt the pollsters.

The other ones suggest that the pollsters may be underestimating, not overestimating, Obama.

In an election where only 60 per cent may vote, all pollsters have to weigh their findings to reflect how likely respondents are to cast their ballot. The difficulty is deciding how. Usually pollsters use previous elections to help them to decide who is going to vote. But what if, in this election, different sorts of voters are going to turn out?

There is reason to believe that young people and African Americans will turn out for Obama as never before. Some pollsters are adjusting for this, others are not (hence some of the variability in the polls). The result will depend to an extent upon who is right about this.

A second unknown is the use of mobile phones. A segment of the electorate – on the whole younger, poorer people – no longer have land lines. Yet pollsters use random digit dialling of landlines to build their samples.

Some say that this undercounts Obama support by 2 or 3 per cent.

Lost in all this detail? Then cling on to this. The polls may vary, the methods differ, the lead goes up and down. But every poll by every pollster still agrees that Obama will win.