Monday, December 14, 2009

Salaries of University Presidents

In a recent survey published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the median presidential pay at private American colleges and universities for fiscal year 2008 was $358,746, a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year. Presidents at major research universities, such as Carnegie Mellon University, did even better, with a median compensation package of $627,750, which is 5.5 percent higher than the previous year’s pay.
Surprising to some, particularly in these tough economic times, 26 colleges and universities reported paying their chief executives more than $1 million in total compensation. Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, topped the list with a total pay package of almost $1.6 million. Just behind Jackson were David J. Sargent, president of Suffolk University, and Steadman Upham, president of University of Tulsa, who each took home almost $1.5 million. Upham’s pay deserves particular notice in that it was more than triple the amount he had received the year before.
It may ease some students’ concerns, though, to know that Jared L. Cohon, the president of Carnegie Mellon University, is not among the 26 presidents receiving more than $1 million, and the Chronicle of Higher Education ranks Cohon as only the 51st highest-paid university top executive, just above John L. Hennessy of Stanford University and below Stuart Rabinowitz of Hofstra University. Nevertheless, the article also reports that Cohon received an estimated $733,000 in salary and benefits last year, roughly $100,000 above the median compensation for his position and a nearly 24 percent increase over his pay package the previous year.
A 24 percent increase may seem hefty, but when asked for comment, Cohon emphasized the importance of understanding the context of his raise. “The [Board of] Trustees wanted to bring my salary more in line with presidential salaries at the 31 peer universities with which they compare my salary. In that group, my salary is one of the lowest and below the 25th percentile. Thus, they gave me a 15 percent raise in my base salary to about $535,000 with the rest of the increase due to increased benefits,” explained Cohon in an e-mail message. “In all other years, my raise has been no larger than the average staff raise.”
As reported in the article’s survey, full professors at Carnegie Mellon earned on average approximately $136,000 in the 2008–09 school year, a 3 percent increase over their salaries in the previous year. Associate professors received average compensation of approximately $98,500, only a 2 percent increase over their prior salaries.
It’s no news that student tuition and costs at Carnegie Mellon have risen along with faculty and executive compensation packages. According to Carnegie Mellon’s admissions department, undergraduate tuition and fees for the 2009–10 school year are $40,910. Admissions estimates that the combined cost of tuition with room and board comes out to approximately $50,640, breaking the $50,000 milestone for the first time. Adding in the required $610 activities fee brings the total cost of attendance up to $51,250, making Carnegie Mellon the seventh most expensive school in the United States.


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why the Japanese System Isn't True Democracy?

When asked if Japan is a democratic nation, one can say--sarcasm aside--that Japan is indeed a constitutional democracy. Elections are held, and the country has a representative-style parliament.
Elections allow ordinary citizens to swap those at the pinnacle of power and are undeniably an important constituent of democracy. However, having long covered American democracy, it has become clear to me that democracy doesn't consist merely of elections and parliament. The following are six important elements Japanese democracy lacks.

1- The commission system 2- Public hearings 3- Referenda 4- Autonomous local government 5- Non-profit organizations (NPOs) 6- Civil participation in the enactment of regulations (ordinances, statutes)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Government e-petitions give power to the people

Government plans to roll out e-petitions across the UK could offer people a real say in the democratic process, a conference has heard.

The legislation to make e-petitions compulsory for all councils in the UK comes into force in April 2010.

It could result in a national e-petition scheme and force Westminster to take more notice of people power, thinks web guru Tom Steinberg.

One of the biggest problems with the Number 10 e-petition scheme is that it bypasses parliament meaning that there is little obligation to follow through on the campaigns raised.

"Whether or not it will get better is down to the government," said Mr Steinberg, who is now a digital advisor to the Conservative party.

Despite criticisms of the Downing Street system, it has proved popular, clocking over 10 million signatures to date.

Parliament is currently considering opening its own e-petition system but there has been one major stumbling block, according to Mr Steinberg.

"They just don't seem to believe that it can be done as cheaply as it can," said Mr Steinberg.

It is likely there is also resistance from MPs, unsure of whether they want a closer relationship with citizens.

Matthew Mannian is democratic services team leader for the London borough of Lambeth and helped roll out its e-petitions scheme.


Swiss court grants Polanski bail in US child sex case

A Swiss court has accepted film-maker Roman Polanski's plea to be freed on $4.5m bail from a Swiss jail where he is being held for a US child sex case.
The court said Polanski could stay at his chalet in the Swiss Alps. He would be monitored by an electronic tag.
Polanski, 76, has been wanted in the US since fleeing the country in 1978 after pleading guilty to having unlawful sex a year earlier with a 13-year-old girl.
He was held in Zurich after travelling from France in September.

On Wednesday, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court accepted Polanski's bail plea and his offer to surrender his passport.
The court said Polanski would be subjected to "constant electronic surveillance" at his chalet and an electronic tag would be activated if he attempted to leave the premises.
It also said that Polanski - who holds dual French and Polish citizenship - would stay in the prison pending a possible appeal against the ruling.
The Swiss justice ministry has 10 days to appeal against the court's decision.
But Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said she saw no reason to appeal against the decision.
It is highly unusual for extradition subjects to be granted bail in Switzerland, says the BBC's Imogen Foulkes, adding that Polanski's first application was refused.
But this time the court ruled bail conditions should be enough to prevent him fleeing back to France, our correspondent says.
The ruling is not thought to affect the Swiss government's ongoing assessment of whether it should extradite Polanski to the US.
Polanski has not set foot in the US since fleeing the country in 1978, and has settled in France.
Speaking after detention in September, US prosecutors disputed claims that his arrest came out of the blue, saying he had been on an Interpol "wanted list" for years.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Obama administration on open source

(From the information week).

Having rebuilt on the open source Drupal platform, President Obama's new media team is calling on the open source community for new ideas and technology.

The White House will challenge developers to apply some of the best ideas they are already working on "for the public good," including for use by and elsewhere in the public sector, Cole said. An event is planned, though it's not clear when it will take place.

"We can call upon the expertise of the community to say, hey, this has been our experience with this module, are there any ways to improve this? We're excited to rely on the community even more for ideas," said Lo Bue.

In developing on Drupal, the Obama team used mostly available code, but it wrote some custom code to meet scalability and security requirements. The new media team is now working with the White House legal counsel to determine how to contribute that code back to the community. "I can't promise a time line, [as] it's somewhat unprecedented for our organization to take that on, but we feel strongly about it," Cole said.

Cole and Philips provided insight into forthcoming features on, including new search and authentication capabilities. The site's search engine was built with Apache Solr, which Cole called "one of the best improvements," since it goes beyond keyword search. Moving forward, the White House plans to make it possible to subscribe to topics, so that people can receive alerts when there's a speech, document, or blog post on that topic.

The White House is also working to add user authentication, but it's not yet clear what form that will take, as the new media team continues to weigh privacy concerns. "We want a site that can work both for people who are skeptical of the government and for those who want to participate fully with government," Phillips said.

The White House is planning to make increasing use of RDFa, a way of tagging metadata to content that could make hard-to-find data more searchable. "We have a lot of primary source content and have it exposed in ways that traditionally hasn't been done by government," Cole said. "Instead of just having PDFs that are scanned, we're trying to reverse that trend."

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Berkeley protest (2)

Fri, November 20, 2009 5:00 pm
Since 3:00 p.m. today a group of senior administrators, faculty, and student leaders
have been reaching out to the protesters inside Wheeler Hall. Attempts to engage in
a conversation with the 15 to 30 protestors estimated to be in the building have
been refused. The protesters are demanding reinstatement of 38 AFSCME custodial
staff who were recently laid off and amnesty and the dropping of charges against any
of the protestors. Today's takeover of Wheeler Hall has affected 3800 students who
were not able to attend classes in Wheeler Hall, as well as many others who have
offices and work in the building. Activities in many other campus buildings were
disrupted by falsely activating fire alarms. We continue to attempt to resolve the
situation and encourage the protestors to leave the building of their own accord.

Fri, November 20, 2009 10:47 pm
The Wheeler Hall protest ended peacefully this evening when 40 protestors who had
occupied the second floor of the building were cited for trespassing by UC Berkeley
Police and released. Thanks to the efforts of ASUC student leaders and faculty who
worked with Vice-Chancellor Student Affairs Harry Le Grande, Executive
Vice-Chancellor & Provost George Breslauer, and me, our police were able to diffuse
the situation and end the protest.

Throughout the day, the large crowds that gathered around Wheeler Hall necessitated
significant police presence to maintain safety. It is truly regrettable, however,
that a few members of our campus community may have found themselves in conflict
with law enforcement officers. Overall, the officers who managed the day's events
did very well under difficult circumstances.

I understand that our students are justifiably angry over the fee increases and
reductions in staff necessitated by the egregious disinvestment by Sacramento in the
University of California. They are not alone in this. Clearly, we cannot allow
illegal occupations of our buildings and disruption of our academic programs. Today
3800 students were unable to attend class in Wheeler Hall.

We have a strong tradition of free speech on campus. Let us not forget that we are
all fighting for the same cause: to maintain the public character of our university
by sustaining Berkeley's excellence and accessibility. Taking over our classroom
buildings is not a productive way in which to advance our shared interests in
gaining support for public higher education. Let us work together, not in
opposition, to move forward our cause.

The Berkeley protest

Fri, November 20, 2009 9:01 am
The campus police are working to resolve a protest action that is occurring in
Wheeler Hall. Staff, faculty and students who would normally be working in Wheeler
Hall are asked to remain out of the building until further notice. Employees who
can contact their supervisors should talk to them if possible to determine whether
telecommuting or relocation to another work area is an option. Those in the
building right now are advised to leave until the situation has been resolved.
Employees who remain on campus may check in at Dwinelle Plaza at 10am. for further
Fri, November 20, 2009 10:42 am
Campus police continue to work to resolve the protest action at Wheeler Hall.
Campus police are striving to end the occupation of Wheeler Hall with the safety of
our campus community, including all those involved in this action, as an uppermost

Wheeler Hall will remain closed until further notice. Instructors who teach in
Wheeler Hall will be contacted shortly by e-mail.

Fri, November 20, 2009 12:07 pm
Approximately 200 protestors are continuing to demonstrate on the south side of
campus in the area around Wheeler Hall. Wheeler Hall is occupied by protestors and
the building remains locked.

All classes at Wheeler are suspended until further notice and employees who work in
Wheeler Hall are advised that they should plan on not being able to enter the
building for the remainder of the work day. Employees should confirm alternative
work arrangements with their supervisor, as possible. Instructors who teach in
Wheeler Hall are being contacted by e-mail.

Fire alarms have been intentionally set off in several buildings including Barrows,
Dwinelle, and Sproul Hall. The fire department is verifying that these are false
alarms and will allow people to reenter buildings when it is safe to do so.

The safety of our campus community, including those involved in this protest, are
an utmost priority of our police as they work to resolve the situation.

Thank you to all members of the campus community for your continued patience in this
matter. Please check for updates throughout the day on the Berkeley home page

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

FT ranking of EU finance ministers

In a year when finance ministers have had to throw away their usual scripts and improvise on policy, who has come out top of the FT’s ranking? Our interactive guide shows how each of the European finance ministers was ranked politically, on economic criteria, on credibility and overall.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Economic crisis and education

Last summer I attended a talk by Michelle Rhee, the dynamic chancellor of public schools in Washington. Just before the session began, a man came up, introduced himself as Todd Martin and whispered to me that what Rhee was about to speak about — our struggling public schools — was actually a critical, but unspoken, reason for the Great Recession.
There’s something to that. While the subprime mortgage mess involved a huge ethical breakdown on Wall Street, it coincided with an education breakdown on Main Street — precisely when technology and open borders were enabling so many more people to compete with Americans for middle-class jobs

A year ago, it all exploded. Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

“Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges,” argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor. “This loss of competitiveness has weakened the American worker’s production of wealth, precisely when technology brought global competition much closer to home. So over a decade, American workers have maintained their standard of living by borrowing and overconsuming vis-à-vis their real income. When the Great Recession wiped out all the credit and asset bubbles that made that overconsumption possible, it left too many American workers not only deeper in debt than ever, but out of a job and lacking the skills to compete globally.”

This problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

A year ago, it all exploded. Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

“Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges,” argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor. “This loss of competitiveness has weakened the American worker’s production of wealth, precisely when technology brought global competition much closer to home. So over a decade, American workers have maintained their standard of living by borrowing and overconsuming vis-à-vis their real income. When the Great Recession wiped out all the credit and asset bubbles that made that overconsumption possible, it left too many American workers not only deeper in debt than ever, but out of a job and lacking the skills to compete globally.”

This problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Save California's universities

It may seem that the thousands of people who converged on the University of California Berkeley's famous Sproul Plaza, home of the free speech movement, on 24 September were simply upset about money. Where has all the money gone? Who has taken it away?And perhaps there is no one to blame.

The University of California finds itself with a shortfall of $1.15bn for the next two years, the result of an $813m cut in state funding and another $225m increase in costs for student enrolment. Everyone knows that the state government is dysfunctional, that public funding decreased by 40% between 1990 and 2005 and that this year alone brought another 20% reduction, accelerating the abandonment of the premiere public university by a California legislature fully paralysed by minority rule (a two-thirds majority is required for sealing any budgetary deal) and Proposition 13 (the 1978 ban on increasing property taxes that strangleholds any attempt to increase revenues for public services).

It would seem like UC faces the same situation as other public services and institutions: layoffs, cutbacks, decreased services and the prospect of a seriously compromised education for undergraduates and graduates alike. So what's the problem?

Mid-summer, when no one was around, UC president Mark Yudof invoked "emergency powers" to implement furloughs on staff and faculty, and sent word to campuses that drastic cuts had to be made in operating expenses. Claiming that the UC system has no funds from which to draw in such dire moments, Yudof devised a plan, which includes a graduated salary reduction programme for all staff and faculty who make more than $40,000 a year.

One might have expected faculty and staff to understand the dire circumstances that led to these lamentable cuts. But it became clear that certain cuts actually devastated some programmes, while others absorbed the setback with ready reserves. The administration did not wait to reach a settlement with the unions. The faculty briefly canvassed were certainly not party to the decision.

As a result, the bad news that deans handed down at the beginning of the semester eliminated 2,000 positions, gutted programmes that train high school teachers in science education, closed courses in East Asian languages and advanced Arabic, overburdened classrooms, shut students out of their majors, let scores of lecturers go and closed the university library on Saturday. In addition, the administration demanded of students tuition and fee increases of nearly 40%, imperilling the very notion of an affordable public university and forcing many students to leave the university or scramble for full-time jobs.

Yudof's attempts to explain himself have only helped solidify a sense of outrage on the part of faculty, staff, students and the wider public. The result is a profound and growing scepticism about Yudof's ability to advocate for the future of the public university.

Those of us who were trying to develop a balanced critique of both the paralysis of the state economy and the questionable governance by UC administrators were incredulous when Yudof gave an interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he bragged about his own $800,000 salary, shamelessly displayed his anti-intellectualism, described his entry into the field of education as "an accident" and complained that he tries to speak to faculty and staff about the budget, but it is "speaking to the dead".

Suddenly, the problem was not only fiscal – "we don't have the money" – but a more profound loss of confidence in the mode of governance and the figure of authority entrusted with making the case for public education to the state and federal government during these hard times.

Faculty, staff and students are collectively outraged that the university has failed to make public and transparent what the cuts have been and will be, and by what criteria and set of priorities such cuts are made. Rage also centres on the devastation of "shared governance" – the policy that faculty must be part of any decision-making that affects the academic programmes and direction of the university. In its place, a "commission" was appointed by the administration with paltry representation by faculty. Emphatically missing are those in the arts and humanities.

No answers are forthcoming to a set of burning questions: Why in this age of slash and burn has the UC administration bloated by 283%, as their own public financial reports make plain? And why does the university spend $10m a year on inter-collegiate athletics and over $123m on a new athletic centre?

During a time of corrosive neo-liberalism and rising doubts about education and the arts as public goods worthy of state support, the administration ducks and hides – when it is not boasting about its own stupidity, failing to take up the task of making its decision-making process transparent, refusing to honour the mandate to bring in the faculty to share in establishing priorities and weakening the safeguards against a rampant privatisation of this public good that will undercut the university's core commitment to offer an education both excellent and affordable.

Many sceptics murmured that the call for a walk out and teach in on 24 September would come to nothing. So when over 5,000 students, staff and faculty crowded the open common of Berkeley alone (and several thousand more on the other 10 campuses), every major national and international media outlet took stock.

The vocal and theatrical demands of the demonstrators were not, as governor Arnold Schwarzenegger quipped, just noise coming from another "screaming" interest group. On the contrary, a rare solidarity among unions, students and faculty sought to "save the university", and their cry clearly struck a chord across a broad political spectrum. Robert Reich, former US secretary of labour, joined other faculty for a pointed speak-out the night before. Faculty and students clustered into an array of groups, pursuing strategies from mainstream lobbying to anarchist display. The administration was clearly shaken, and subtle hints of division among administrators could be detected. Some congratulated the demonstrators, and others hissed.

My wager is that the walls of the university will shake again – and again – until the message is received: This fiscal crisis is also a crisis in governance. The administration needs to make their books transparent, re-engage shared governance and set their priorities right so that the US can continue to claim a public institution of higher learning where a student does not require loads of money to receive a superlative education.

This is the promise that we see dying at this moment, and the very thought sends us into the streets en masse.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

UK Internet ad spend overtakes TV for first time

This is big news!

LONDON (Reuters) - Spending on Internet advertising in Britain grew 4.6 percent in the first half of 2009, outperforming the wider ad sector, which slumped 17 percent, and making it the country's biggest ad medium ahead of TV.

According to the biannual report from the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), ad spend on the Internet grew to 1.75 billion pounds, with the medium accounting for 23.5 percent of all spend, ahead of television for the first time.

Guy Phillipson, chief executive of the IAB, told Reuters the jump ahead of TV as the leading medium had come earlier than he expected and that the growth boded well for the rest of the year.

He believes there will be some growth in 2010 for online advertising, and double digit percentage growth by 2011.

"This is a significant milestone," he said. "This is the first major market where online has overtaken television to become the biggest single medium."

Online growth had slowed considerably compared with the 21 percent reported for the first half of 2008, but it still fared far better than television, print and radio, the report by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Advertising Research Center said.

"Perhaps surprisingly, a slowing economy has accelerated the migration to digital technology," Eva Berg-Winters of PWC said. "Hence the continuing shift from more traditional forms of advertising to online, which promises return on investment and measurability in a period of instability."

According to the report, the Internet accounted for 23.5 percent of all spend, compared with 18.7 percent in the first half of 2008. Television accounted for 21.9 percent, press display for 18.5 percent and direct mail for 11.5 percent.

The shake-up in market share followed a 16.1 percent fall in television spend, and a more than 20 percent fall in press display, outdoor advertising and directories. Spend on press classified fell 37 percent.

The report confirms the torrid time suffered by commercial media groups of late, such as free-to-air broadcasters, newspapers and radio, which rely on advertising and are now looking for alternative revenue streams.

ITV, Britain's biggest commercial free-to-air broadcaster, said net advertising revenue for the family of ITV channels fell 15 percent in the first half of the year.

The IAB report said the Internet had avoided this slump, due to the strong demand for paid-for search on sites such as Google and resilience shown by classified online ads.

Paid-for search grew 6.8 percent from the first half of 2008 to 2009, with marketers investing 1.05 billion pounds, equating to 60 percent of all online advertising expenditure.

Classified adverts, which are moving from print to online, grew by 10.6 percent to 385 million pounds, while online display adverts fell 5.2 percent.

Britain remains the world leader in terms of market share for online advertising, due to the use of online networks to place advertising, the availability of fast and cheap broadband and the popularity of new formats such as video adverts.

(Reporting by Kate Holton, editing by Will Waterman)

The power of Education

From Estelle Morris' (chair of the strategy board at the Institute of Effective Education, ­ University of York) article in today's Guardian:

Most of all, we mustn't lose our enthusiasm or our belief in the power of education to effect change. We've seen a significant shift in people's attitudes to education and learning. The education system has higher expectations; more parents demand higher standards; more people want to go to university; there is less tolerance of underachievement, more appreciation of a broader curriculum.

Proposals must be driven by education and not political considerations. What is politically acceptable doesn't always make for good education.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The responsibility of parents

Parents in the UK are to be handed a leaflet warning them they must take responsibility for their child's behaviour at school or face sanctions, Children's Secretary Ed Balls will announce.

And it warns parents they could be barred from school premises if they fail to treat staff courteously.

The leaflet says that every parent must respect their school's behaviour policy and the authority of staff.

"You should help ensure that your child follows school rules and be prepared to work with the school, if need be, to improve your child's behaviour."

It says: "Good behaviour and strong discipline go hand in hand with effective teaching and learning. Teachers cannot teach effectively and pupils cannot learn effectively in classes disrupted by poor behaviour.

"The most important thing you can do to support the school is to send your child to school each day on time, equipped and ready to learn."

The leaflet adds: "You should treat school staff with the same respect you would expect to receive from them. Parents can be barred from school premises if their behaviour is unreasonable, and they can be prosecuted if they break the ban.

"If parents refuse unreasonably to sign up and support the school's behaviour policy, this can be used by schools to support applications to the courts for Parenting Orders. These orders usually require parents to attend parenting classes to help them manage their child's behaviour."

The leaflet will also tell parents how they can expect their school to maintain good behaviour. It comes as Mr Balls prepares to outline steps heads and governors can take to improve behaviour.

He will tell the Labour party conference in Brighton: "Parents want their children to go to an orderly school with a strong head teacher who won't tolerate bullying or disruptive behaviour in the classroom. So we will back head teachers, and expect all parents to back teachers too, so they have the confidence to use their powers to the full so they can get on and teach and all children can learn."


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mugabe and Nestle

The Swiss food giant buys up to a million litres a year from Gushungo Dairy Estate, controlled by Mrs Mugabe since, according to other dairymen, the previous white owner was forced by a campaign of violence to sell his property to the authorities for a knock-down price.

Under the European Union and American targeted sanctions against members of Mr Mugabe's network, it is illegal to transfer money or make transactions respectively with Mrs Mugabe.

Switzerland has its own set of sanctions, similar to the EU measures, which also target Mrs Mugabe and which prohibit providing funds to her or putting them 'directly or indirectly', at her disposition. Nestlé denies that it has broken Swiss law.

A Nestlé spokesman confirmed that at the end of last year, after eight of its 16 suppliers in Zimbabwe went out of business, Nestlé Zimbabwe - its subsidiary in the country - started buying milk on the open market, some of it from Gushungo Dairy Estate.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

University ranking based on the contribution to society

The Washington Monthly's 2009 national university college rankings.

They rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).

And the ranking?

1. UC Berkeley
2. UC San Diego
4. Stanford (4), the only private institution in the top 10.
10. UC Davis
11. Harvard
12. MIT
16. UC Riverside (16)
21. Santa Barbara
Six UC schools in the top 25.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Uruguay allows same-sex adoption

Same-sex couples in Uruguay will be able to adopt children following the approval of a controversial bill by the country's senate.

The move means Uruguay becomes the first Latin American country to allow gay couples the chance to adopt.

Some 17 of 23 senators voted in favour of the new legislation, AFP reports.

The change - opposed by the Catholic Church - is the latest in a series of liberalising measures supported by left-wing President Tabare Vazquez.

The archbishop of Montevideo, Nicolas Cotugno, said before the vote that it would be a "serious error to accept the adoption of children by homosexual couples".

"It's not about religion, philosophy or sociology. It's something which is mainly about the respect of human nature itself," he said in a statement quoted by AFP.

Under the new law, the power to make decisions on adoptions shifts from judges to the national Institute of Children and Adolescents.

The country, says the BBC's correspondent in the region, Gary Duffy, has a history of adopting a more liberal stance on social questions.

In 1907, for example, it became the first country in the region to approve divorce and women were given the right to vote in 1932.

Last year, gay civil unions were legalised and earlier this year earlier this year the way was cleared for gay candidates to enter military schools.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Physical letters over the internet

Another interesting development, after the e-book. It is amazing thought that this time it is done by a public company.

The internet has revolutionised the speed at which people communicate. Now the Swiss postal service is hoping to do the same for regular snail mail.
The company offers a service called Swiss Post Box to customers wanting to receive their physical letters over the internet.
This system was first developed by the Seattle-based company Earth Class Mail, which has its own subscribers around the world.
For 14 euros (£12) a month, letters are redirected to a secret location in Zurich where the envelopes are scanned and an image is e-mailed out to customers.
They can then decide whether letters should be opened and scanned by vetted personnel sworn to secrecy, or simply shredded.


Friday, August 21, 2009

The Swiss President apologizes to Libya and UBS surrenders the names of 4450 account holders to the US

Is Switzerland loosing its power? Two incidents within just two days provide evidence to this.

After Swiss banking giant UBS AG agreed on Wednesday to turn over to the IRS the details of 4,450 accounts suspected of holding undeclared assets by American customers, piercing Switzerland's long-standing tradition of banking secrecy, another piece of news show Swiss weakness.

Further to my earlier comment about the incident in Geneva that led to the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi, son of Muammar Gaddafi, I now read that Hans-Rudolf Merz, the Swiss president, has apologised to the Libyan people over the arrest of the son of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's leader, in Geneva a year ago.
"I express to the Libyan people my apologies for the unjust arrest of Libyan diplomats by Geneva police," Merz said at a joint news conference in Tripoli with Baghdadi Mahmudi, the Libyan prime minister.
Libya responded to the arrests by suspending oil deliveries to Switzerland, withdrawing assets worth an estimated $7bn from Swiss banks, ending bilateral co-operation programmes and placing restrictions on Swiss companies.
Two Swiss businessmen in Libya were also banned from leaving the country.
Merz said at Thursday's news conference that "the Libyans have assured me that they [the two businessmen] will be allowed to leave before September 1".
"Today I have fulfilled my mission and achieved my goals of wiping the slate clean of last year's incident and opening the Libyan market" to Swiss firms once again, the president said.
After more than a year of strained relations between the two countries, Merz said "it is a satisfying outcome for me".
Mahmudi said Libya and Switzerland would set up a joint committee to examine what he called the "tragic incident" in Geneva.
The prime minister said: "Today we have been able to take a first step towards solving this problem.
"Switzerland has presented its official and solemn apologies concerning the unjust arrest of the son [of Gaddafi].
Last month, Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister, said her country was trying to organise a meeting between Merz and the Libyan leader to defuse the crisis.
For Switzerland, the dispute is "a matter of law, while for Libya it is a matter of honour," she said.

For more information about Gaddafi's children and their activities see here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Town Hall Meeting and Deliberative Polling

From the NYT

Op-Ed Contributor
Town Halls by Invitation

Published: August 15, 2009

“CONGRESS on Your Corner” has turned into “Your Congressperson Cornered.” Around the country, lawmakers are finding their town hall meetings disrupted by hecklers, many echoing anti-health-care-reform messages from talk radio and cable television. Supporters of reform will surely countermobilize, leading to more outbursts and demonstrations. Forget, for a moment, that these impassioned voters have turned these meetings into political sideshows. Are town halls actually the best way for lawmakers to connect with their constituents?

The term “town hall” conjures up images of townsfolk gathering in some New England hamlet. But studies of New England town meetings have shown that such gatherings cease to be effective for large populations. They may work in communities of a few hundred, but when the population reaches the many thousands, attendance drops and the connection to citizens atrophies.

The Congressional town-hall-style meeting, which developed as a cost-effective way for time-pressed members to hear from constituents, also rests on an illusion: that a district of 650,000 potential voters can be represented by the unscientifically self-selected who decide to show up. Instead, these amorphous, unpredictable meetings have become open invitations for interest groups and grass roots campaigns to capture the public dialogue.

But there is a way of organizing town halls that would offer lawmakers representative and informed feedback about their constituents’ major concerns: a deliberative poll. Whereas ordinary polls represent the public’s surface impression of sound bites and headlines, deliberative polls bring together a scientifically selected microcosm of a lawmaker’s constituents under conditions conducive to thinking about issues. In effect, an entire Congressional district really can be put in one room.

These deliberative polls may, on the surface, look a lot like the current town halls — a lawmaker and constituents sharing their positions and asking each other questions. But a lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes. First, a survey identifies the range of attitudes and demographics in the district, before inviting a randomly selected, representative sample of constituents to attend. A random sample cannot be captured by people with intense interests volunteering themselves. Second, to facilitate discussion, participants are sent balanced briefing materials about the issues to be discussed ahead of time.

When they first arrive at the deliberative poll, attendees answer a confidential questionnaire assessing their positions, before being divided up for small-group discussions. This is key: in the current town hall format, shrill voices can easily silence the rest. But during a deliberative poll, trained moderators make sure that every voice is heard and that the group carefully and thoughtfully narrows in on its most pertinent and pressing policy questions. When all the participants finally assemble with the lawmaker, the result is a serious and productive conversation well beyond what we’ve seen in town halls lately.

At the end of the day, participants are polled again. Our research at the Center for Deliberative Democracy shows that participants always become better informed and that, about two-thirds of the time, they change their opinions significantly. Plus, the confidential questionnaires show what the real majorities in the room are — instead of assuming that the angriest and most theatrical speakers represent anyone other than themselves.

At the center, we have collaborated on more than 50 deliberative polls around the world. The process has certainly been shown to help overcome sharp divisions. In a 2007 deliberative poll in Northern Ireland on education reform, the percentage willing to agree that “most Catholics” or “most Protestants” were “open to reason” rose 16 points. Those agreeing that most Protestants or Catholics were “trustworthy” also increased considerably.

One we held in Bulgaria, about policies toward the Roma, or Gypsies, produced strongly reconciliatory policies at a time when loud fringe groups wanted to build walls around the Roma communities. And in a deliberative poll in Brussels just before the recent European Union elections, people from 27 countries, partaking in discussions in 21 languages, moved to support more tolerant policies toward immigrants.

If deliberative polls can produce mutual understanding in such cases of sharp ethnic and political conflict and across such linguistic divisions, surely this process can help members of Congress have civil, constructive conversations with their own constituents about health care.

James Fishkin, the author of “When the People Speak,” is the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford.

About Headaches...

Interesting reading for those suffering from headaches

We all know what it's like to have a headache. They can turn the best of occasions into a form of torture. Four out of five people get tension headaches. One in seven experience migraines. Headaches cost the economy around £1.5bn a year through lost work days. Trouble is, while some causes of headaches are obvious – such as when you've had too many glasses of wine the night before – others are more tricky to call. And how can you tell what's serious and what isn't? A good starting point is knowing what type of headache you have.

Tension headache

Tension headaches tend to feel like a pressure or tightness around the head. They can last for only half an hour or up to a week. This is the most common type of headache and most people will have had one. Tension headaches can be stress-related or due to problems with the muscles in the neck and face, but there is often no obvious cause. Most people who get tension headaches don't get them very often but around 3% of the population get them regularly, on average every other day. Ibuprofen or paracetamol are usually effective, and exercise helps too. For regular headaches preventative treatment with amitriptyline is available. Although better known as an antidepressant, amitriptyline doesn't prevent headaches by making you happier, although why exactly it does work is still not known.


Migraine causes recurrent headaches on one side of the head that last for more than four hours. It is common to feel sick and sitting in a dark room often helps. A quarter to a third of migraine sufferers get an "aura" before the headache begins. This is not a supernatural glow around the body, but unusual sensations such as pins and needles, seeing bright lights, or feeling distant from people around you.

A recent survey found that a third of people who work with a migraine sufferer are suspicious that migraine is used as an excuse for days off work. Perhaps we should be more sympathetic: the World Health Organisation has ranked a day with severe migraine as disabling as a day with quadriplegia, psychosis or dementia. It is not a psychological illness: "Migraine is very clearly a brain disorder," says Dr Paul Shanahan, consultant neurologist at the Headache Group, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. "There are changes in activity of certain brain regions which occur during an acute migraine attack that give rise not just to pain, but a wide variety of symptoms. It's not 'just a headache', and it's certainly not psychological."

The mechanism underlying a migraine has been the subject of much debate over the years. Researchers used to think that the aura was caused by blood vessels in the brain narrowing. Then the vessels widen, which was thought to cause the headache. However, more recent research shows that blood flow changes may be a consequence of unusual brain activity rather than the initial cause of the migraine. During an aura, a wave of electrical activity travels slowly (at only a few millimetres per minute) across the surface of the brain. This can trigger a variety of symptoms including visual disturbance, pins and needles, speech difficulties and limb weakness. The way the brain processes sensations becomes disordered so that movement, lights, sounds and even smells become harder to tolerate.

Avoiding triggers can be useful so keeping a headache diary can help. However, only 20% of migraine sufferers have a dietary trigger. The British Association for the Study of Headache (Bash) guidelines warn that "too much effort in seeking triggers causes introspection and may be counter-productive." If migraine can't be relieved by over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, triptans can help. Triptans can abort migraine attacks by mimicking the effect of the neurotransmitter serotonin at nerve receptors.

Cluster headache

Cluster headaches cause severe throbbing pain on one side of the face around the eye. Each headache lasts for up to four hours and is often accompanied by a red eye, tears and a runny nose.

The pain can be unbearable. "Cluster headaches have been described as the most severe form of pain a human can experience," says Shanahan. "Occasionally patients can be driven to suicide by the severity and relentlessness of the pain, hence their description as 'suicide headaches'."

The name derives from their tendency to occur in clusters, often occurring at the same times every day. "These cycles can run for weeks, months or even years, and point to the brain's 'body clock' as having a role in the condition," says Shanahan.

Oxygen therapy (breathing pure oxygen through a mask for 20 minutes or more) is one of the best treatments for cluster headache and is available on prescription. However, not enough people are getting this, or other effective treatments such as sumatriptan injections, according to Shanahan. "These treatments for cluster headache are under-utilised, and, frustratingly, we see patients who are undertreated while having excruciating daily pain."


The exact cause of a hangover headache isn't known but there are plenty of likely culprits: alcohol causes blood vessels in the brain to widen and can alter the effects of serotonin on nerve endings – both of which occur in migraine. Alcohol also causes dehydration, a common trigger of migraine attacks. Fortunately the pain usually goes after some paracetamol and a good night's sleep but some may have migraine without realising it, according to Shanahan. "People who get headaches when thirsty may well have migraine, as do many people who get bad hangovers after fairly modest amounts of alcohol. Alcohol is often a very potent trigger for cluster headache, as well."

Medication overuse headache

Paradoxically, all painkillers can cause a headache if taken regularly over a long period of time. Medication overuse headache is difficult to tell apart from the original headache so it can be very difficult to diagnose. Anyone who takes codeine or triptan-based drugs for more than 10 days a month or other over-the-counter remedies such as paracetamol or ibuprofen for 15 days a month is at risk.

The only treatment is to stop taking the painkillers. The headache often gets worse initially, and improvement may only be seen between a week and a month later.

Brain tumour

Fewer than 4% of brain tumours present with a headache. Tumours cause the pressure within the skull to rise, which causes a morning headache and vomiting that gradually gets worse. Brain scans are only necessary when these or other features of a tumour such as weight loss, seizures or personality change are present.

Subarachnoid haemorrhage

A sudden severe headache, usually at the back of the head, may be caused by a bleed inside the brain called a subarachnoid haemorrhage. Many people with this say it's like being hit with a baseball bat. It is commonly caused by the rupture of an aneurysm at the base of the brain and needs urgent investigation and treatment.

Temporal arteritis

Headaches in people over 50 can be due to temporal arteritis. It often feels different to previous headaches and can be accompanied by a tender scalp or pain when chewing.

Temporal arteritis is caused by inflammation of the artery in the temple (hence "temporal") and can be treated with steroids. It is important to diagnose early as it can lead to blindness if untreated.


A headache with a high temperature, neck stiffness and/or a new rash may be due to meningitis. This needs hospital treatment as soon as possible.

Migraine Action: Ouch (the Organisation for the Understanding of Cluster Headaches):

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Princeton Review 'Green Ratings'

The Princeton Review's second annual "Green Ratings" includes scores for 697 colleges and universities that are based upon whether students have a healthy and sustainable campus quality of life, how well the school is preparing its students for employment and citizenship in a world defined by environmental challenges, and the school's overall commitment to environmental issues.
The evaluation was released on Monday, July 27.

NEW YORK, July 27, 2009 — The Princeton Review – known for its education services helping students choose and get in to colleges – today reported its second annual Green Ratings of colleges: a measure of how environmentally friendly the institutions are on a scale of 60 to 99. The company tallied its Green Ratings for 697 institutions based on data it collected from the colleges in 2008-09 concerning their environmentally related policies, practices, and academic offerings.

The Princeton Review also named 15 colleges to its "2010 Green Rating Honor Roll" – a list that salutes the institutions that received the highest possible score – 99 – in this year's rating tallies. (List follows.)

The Green Rating scores appear in the profiles of the 697 schools that The Princeton Review posted today on its site, The ratings are also in profiles of those schools in the 2010 editions of three Princeton Review books: "The Best 371 Colleges" (on sale July 28, $22.99), "The Best Northeastern Colleges" (on sale August 4, $16.99), and "Complete Book of Colleges" (on sale August 4, $26.99), all published by Random House.


The Princeton Review developed its Green Rating criteria and institutional survey in 2007 with ecoAmerica (, a non-profit environmental organization that continues to participate in this project. The criteria for the rating cover three broad areas: 1/ whether the school’s students have a campus quality of life that is healthy and sustainable, 2/ how well the school is preparing its students for employment and citizenship in a world defined by environmental challenges, and 3/ the school's overall commitment to environmental issues. The institutional survey for the rating included ten questions on everything from energy use, recycling, food, buildings, and transportation to academic offerings (availability of environmental studies degrees and courses) and action plans and goals concerning greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The Princeton Review’s "2010 Green Rating Honor Roll"

This list, published in "The Best 371 Colleges," salutes 15 institutions (eight private and seven public colleges) that received the highest possible rating score of 99. It includes:

(in alphabetical order)
Arizona State University at the Tempe campus
Bates College (Lewiston ME)
Binghamton University (State Univ. of New York at Binghamton)
College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor ME)
Colorado College (Colorado Springs CO)
Dickinson College (Carlisle PA)
Evergreen State College (Olympia WA)
Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta)
Harvard College (Cambridge MA)
Middlebury College (Middlebury VT)
Northeastern University (Boston MA)
University of California - Berkeley
University of New Hampshire (Durham)
University of Washington (Seattle)
Yale University (New Haven CT)

Said Robert Franek, V.P. / Publisher, The Princeton Review, "The 'green' movement on college campuses is far more than an Earth Day recycling project. It is growing tremendously among students and administrators alike. This year we saw a 30% increase in the number of colleges participating in our Green Rating survey. We thank the nearly 700 institutions (697 vs. 534 last year) that supplied us with the data we requested to tally their scores. Many have shown extraordinary commitments to environmental issues and to the environment in their practices and programs. We are pleased to play a role in helping students who care deeply about these issues identify, get into, and study at these schools."

Franek noted the rising interest among students in attending colleges that practice, teach and support environmentally responsible choices. Among almost 16,000 college applicants and parents of applicants The Princeton Review surveyed this year for its annual "College Hopes & Worries Survey," 66% of respondents overall (and 68% of students vs. 59% of parents) said they would value having information about a college's commitment to the environment – a 4% increase from last year's respondents. Among that cohort, 24% of respondents overall (26% of students vs. 18% of parents) said such information would "very much" impact their (their child's) decision to apply to or attend the school.

The Princeton Review has dedicated a resource area on its website for students and others interested in learning more about the rating and the benefits of attending a green college. The area ( has information on colleges with exemplary environmental programs, questions to ask on school visits, and links to organizations that promote higher education and campus sustainability programs.

About The Princeton Review College Ratings and College Rankings

The Princeton Review college ratings are scores on a scale of 60 to 99 in eight categories that it reports in some college profiles on its website and in its college guides. The ratings are based primarily on institutional data. In addition to the Green Rating, other rating categories include: Financial Aid, and Fire Safety (for which The Princeton Review also reports Honor Rolls of schools receiving its highest possible score of 99), and Admissions Selectivity. Schools from which The Princeton Review does not receive sufficient data in a category to tally a rating receive a score of 60* (sixty with an asterisk).

The Princeton Review college rankings are lists of schools in 62 categories (in rank order 1 to 20) based entirely on the Company's surveys of 122,000 students attending the schools in its book, "The Best 371 Colleges." The survey asks students to rate their own schools on dozens of topics and report on their campus experiences at them.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

NYT: For Today’s Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics

From today's NYT:

Published: August 5, 2009

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — At Harvard, Carrie Grimes majored in anthropology and archaeology and ventured to places like Honduras, where she studied Mayan settlement patterns by mapping where artifacts were found. But she was drawn to what she calls “all the computer and math stuff” that was part of the job.

Skip to next paragraph
Thor Swift for The New York Times

Carrie Grimes, senior staff engineer at Google, uses statistical analysis of data to help improve the company's search engine.

Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times

T-shirts for sale at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Washington this week.

“People think of field archaeology as Indiana Jones, but much of what you really do is data analysis,” she said.

Now Ms. Grimes does a different kind of digging. She works at Google, where she uses statistical analysis of mounds of data to come up with ways to improve its search engine.

Ms. Grimes is an Internet-age statistician, one of many who are changing the image of the profession as a place for dronish number nerds. They are finding themselves increasingly in demand — and even cool.

“I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. “And I’m not kidding.”

The rising stature of statisticians, who can earn $125,000 at top companies in their first year after getting a doctorate, is a byproduct of the recent explosion of digital data. In field after field, computing and the Web are creating new realms of data to explore — sensor signals, surveillance tapes, social network chatter, public records and more. And the digital data surge only promises to accelerate, rising fivefold by 2012, according to a projection by IDC, a research firm.

Yet data is merely the raw material of knowledge. “We’re rapidly entering a world where everything can be monitored and measured,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Digital Business. “But the big problem is going to be the ability of humans to use, analyze and make sense of the data.”

The new breed of statisticians tackle that problem. They use powerful computers and sophisticated mathematical models to hunt for meaningful patterns and insights in vast troves of data. The applications are as diverse as improving Internet search and online advertising, culling gene sequencing information for cancer research and analyzing sensor and location data to optimize the handling of food shipments.

Even the recently ended Netflix contest, which offered $1 million to anyone who could significantly improve the company’s movie recommendation system, was a battle waged with the weapons of modern statistics.

Though at the fore, statisticians are only a small part of an army of experts using modern statistical techniques for data analysis. Computing and numerical skills, experts say, matter far more than degrees. So the new data sleuths come from backgrounds like economics, computer science and mathematics.

They are certainly welcomed in the White House these days. “Robust, unbiased data are the first step toward addressing our long-term economic needs and key policy priorities,” Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, declared in a speech in May. Later that day, Mr. Orszag confessed in a blog entry that his talk on the importance of statistics was a subject “near to my (admittedly wonkish) heart.”

I.B.M., seeing an opportunity in data-hunting services, created a Business Analytics and Optimization Services group in April. The unit will tap the expertise of the more than 200 mathematicians, statisticians and other data analysts in its research labs — but that number is not enough. I.B.M. plans to retrain or hire 4,000 more analysts across the company.

In another sign of the growing interest in the field, an estimated 6,400 people are attending the statistics profession’s annual conference in Washington this week, up from around 5,400 in recent years, according to the American Statistical Association. The attendees, men and women, young and graying, looked much like any other crowd of tourists in the nation’s capital. But their rapt exchanges were filled with talk of randomization, parameters, regressions and data clusters. The data surge is elevating a profession that traditionally tackled less visible and less lucrative work, like figuring out life expectancy rates for insurance companies.

Ms. Grimes, 32, got her doctorate in statistics from Stanford in 2003 and joined Google later that year. She is now one of many statisticians in a group of 250 data analysts. She uses statistical modeling to help improve the company’s search technology.

For example, Ms. Grimes worked on an algorithm to fine-tune Google’s crawler software, which roams the Web to constantly update its search index. The model increased the chances that the crawler would scan frequently updated Web pages and make fewer trips to more static ones.

The goal, Ms. Grimes explained, is to make tiny gains in the efficiency of computer and network use. “Even an improvement of a percent or two can be huge, when you do things over the millions and billions of times we do things at Google,” she said.

It is the size of the data sets on the Web that opens new worlds of discovery. Traditionally, social sciences tracked people’s behavior by interviewing or surveying them. “But the Web provides this amazing resource for observing how millions of people interact,” said Jon Kleinberg, a computer scientist and social networking researcher at Cornell.

For example, in research just published, Mr. Kleinberg and two colleagues followed the flow of ideas across cyberspace. They tracked 1.6 million news sites and blogs during the 2008 presidential campaign, using algorithms that scanned for phrases associated with news topics like “lipstick on a pig.”

The Cornell researchers found that, generally, the traditional media leads and the blogs follow, typically by 2.5 hours. But a handful of blogs were quickest to quotes that later gained wide attention.

The rich lode of Web data, experts warn, has its perils. Its sheer volume can easily overwhelm statistical models. Statisticians also caution that strong correlations of data do not necessarily prove a cause-and-effect link.

For example, in the late 1940s, before there was a polio vaccine, public health experts in America noted that polio cases increased in step with the consumption of ice cream and soft drinks, according to David Alan Grier, a historian and statistician at George Washington University. Eliminating such treats was even recommended as part of an anti-polio diet. It turned out that polio outbreaks were most common in the hot months of summer, when people naturally ate more ice cream, showing only an association, Mr. Grier said.

If the data explosion magnifies longstanding issues in statistics, it also opens up new frontiers.

“The key is to let computers do what they are good at, which is trawling these massive data sets for something that is mathematically odd,” said Daniel Gruhl, an I.B.M. researcher whose recent work includes mining medical data to improve treatment. “And that makes it easier for humans to do what they are good at — explain those anomalies.”

Andrea Fuller contributed reporting.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Political corruption in Israel

I never understood that part of Israeli politics

Israeli police have recommended charging the country's hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, with several counts of corruption as part of a bribery investigation, in a move that could lead to his resignation and a significant government reshuffle.

Lieberman, head of a popular far-right party, is suspected of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and obstruction of justice in a case dating back over nine years. If charged and convicted on all counts he faces up to 31 years in jail.

According to the Ha'aretz newspaper, Lieberman and his aides are accused of using front companies, some in Cyprus, to launder money and of obstructing the police inquiry by changing the company names during the investigation. He continued the business operation after he became a minister, the newspaper said.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Swiss knife

The Swiss army knife had humble beginnings, and, at the start, it wasn't even red.

In the late 19th Century, the Swiss army issued its soldiers with a gun which required a special screwdriver to dismantle and clean it.


Communal Webcasting platform at UC Berkeley

An interesting piece of news

As a growing number of worldwide learners log on, free of charge, to video and podcast lectures and events at the University of California, Berkeley, the campus is leading an international effort to build a communal Webcasting platform to more easily record and distribute its popular educational content.

With grants from the Andrew W. Mellon and William and Flora Hewlett foundations totaling $1.5 million, the project will bring together programmers and educational technology experts from an international consortium of higher education institutions, including ETH Zürich in Switzerland, University of Osnabrück in Germany, Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and Canada's University of Saskatchewan.

Through the Web, Matterhorn members from around the world will develop "open source" software designed to automate their recording and posting of academic content, making the process less costly and labor intensive. The $1.5 million in funding for the project includes $220,000 for planning and design activities that have taken place over the past year.

"Right now, colleges and universities want to provide their academic resources to students and global learners but are stymied by high technical barriers and costs. Opencast Matterhorn holds the promise of significantly lowering these barriers by developing open source software that meets the specific needs of academic institutions," said Mara Hancock, UC Berkeley's director of educational technologies and director of the Opencast Matterhorn project.

The software will support the scheduling, capture, encoding and delivery of educational content to video-and-audio sharing sites such as YouTube and iTunes, so that learners can access lectures when and where they need it. With additional funding, expertise and labor from other members of the consortium, the Opencast Matterhorn platform is scheduled to be up and running by summer 2010.

"Opencast Matterhorn entails more than just video capture and processing. It's also about tools and features that allow all of us to shape the media into something that's more meaningful for the learner to engage with," said Adam Hochman, UC Berkeley project manager for Opencast Matterhorn. For example, students and lifelong learners will have access to a suite of "engage" tools, including bookmarking and annotations.

Coursecasting is a growing trend in educational technology, enabling students and the general public to download audio and video recordings of class lectures to their computers and portable media devices. This latest innovation will solidify UC Berkeley's position as a leader in knowledge-sharing through open access Internet channels, campus officials said.

UC Berkeley has been making its academic content available to the public since 2001 and maintains a growing inventory of video content supplied by taped events and lecture rooms that are wired for automated webcasting. In 2007, UC Berkeley became the first university to make videos of full courses available through YouTube. Course topics include bioengineering, peace and conflict studies, "Physics for Future Presidents," "Environmental Law & Policy," and "General Psychology."

"Students and lifelong learners are becoming increasingly aware of the value of audio and video content that supports their learning, and universities are becoming more committed to providing that service to students," said Christina Maslach, UC Berkeley vice provost for teaching and learning and principal investigator for the Hewlett and Mellon grants.

The project is very much in step with the campus's open source tradition. In the 1970s, UC Berkeley's Computer Systems Research Group laid the foundation for today's open source community. The group developed Berkeley Software Distribution, also known as Berkeley Unix, whose popularity among academics led to the widespread adoption of the Unix operating system. Since then, UC Berkeley has played a leadership role in other worldwide open source projects such as Sakai, Fluid, CollectionSpace and Kuali.

As opposed to proprietary software, open source software makes its program source code available to the public, giving users access to core design functionalities and allowing them to tweak and add features. The software is licensed so that individuals are free to adopt and change it for their own needs.

Other institutions partnering in Opencast Matterhorn are the University of Vigo in Spain, University of Toronto, University of Copenhagen, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Northwestern University in Ilinois, Open University of Catalonia in Spain, Indiana University and the Jožef Stefan Institute in Slovenia.

"Our partners have created their own version of an academic webcasting system, and so bring a wealth of expertise and lessons learned to the project," said Hancock. "Through this collaboration, Matterhorn will gain the benefit of that collective knowledge."


Friday, July 24, 2009

Politicians, officials and rabbis in a corruption scandal

More than 40 people, including politicians, officials and several rabbis have been arrested in a major FBI operation in the US.

Three hundred agents raided dozens of locations in New Jersey and New York as part of a 10-year probe into corruption and money laundering.

Three mayors from the state of New Jersey and two members of the state legislature were among those held.

One man is accused of kidney trafficking involving Israeli donors.

Prosecutors say the arrests were part of a "dual-tracked" investigation.

Acting US Attorney Ralph Marra told reporters there were 29 suspects on what he termed the "public corruption" side of the investigation, including the politicians.

On the other side, he said, there were 15 suspects in connection with alleged international money-laundering, including the rabbis and their "associates".

Prosecutors accuse one man of dealing in human kidneys from Israeli donors for transplant for a decade.

It is alleged that "vulnerable people" would give up a kidney for $10,000 (£6,000) and these would then be sold on for $160,000 (£97,000).


Monday, July 13, 2009

Obesity 'link to same-sex parent'

There is a strong link in obesity between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons, but not across the gender divide, research suggests.

A study of 226 families by Plymouth's Peninsula Medical School found obese mothers were 10 times more likely to have obese daughters.

For fathers and sons, there was a six-fold rise. But in both cases children of the opposite sex were not affected.

The researchers believe the link is behavioural rather than genetic.

They say the findings mean policy on obesity should be re-thought.

Researchers said it was "highly unlikely" that genetics was playing a role in the findings as it would be unusual for them to influence children along gender lines.

Instead, they said it was probably because of some form of "behavioural sympathy" where daughters copied the lifestyles of their mothers and sons their fathers.

It is because of this conclusion that experts believe government policy on tackling obesity should be re-thought.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ethnicity segregation in UK schools

Schools in parts of England are becoming increasingly segregated, deserted by white parents if they find their children becoming outnumbered by pupils from ethnic minorities, a report by a thinktank set up to promote community cohesion has warned.

Councils should consider allocating school places using lotteries in some inner-city areas to tackle a growing phenomenon of "white flight" in the education system, the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo) said.

Researchers also found evidence of pupils of different ethnicities not mixing even when they were sharing classes and playgrounds.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Cutting Calories prolongs life?

Over 20 years, monkeys whose diets were not restricted were nearly three times more likely to have died than those whose calories were counted.

Writing in Science, the US researchers hailed the "major effect" of the diet.

It involved reducing calorie intake by 30% while maintaining nutrition and appeared to impact upon many forms of age-related disease seen in monkeys, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and brain atrophy.

Whether the same effects would be seen in humans is unclear, although anecdotal evidence so far suggests people on a long-term calorie-restricted diet have better cardiovascular health.


"People would have to weigh up whether they are prepared to compromise their enjoyment of food for the uncertain promise of a longer life, and a life which could be dogged by all sorts of problems - including osteoporosis."


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Coffee against Alzheimer's'

Drinking five cups of coffee a day could reverse memory problems seen in Alzheimer's disease, US scientists say.

The 55 mice used in the University of Florida study had been bred to develop symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

First the researchers used behavioural tests to confirm the mice were exhibiting signs of memory impairment when they were aged 18 to 19 months, the equivalent to humans being about 70.

Then they gave half the mice caffeine in their drinking water. The rest were given plain water.

The mice were given the equivalent of five 8 oz (227 grams) cups of coffee a day - about 500 milligrams of caffeine.

The researchers say this is the same as is found in two cups of "specialty" coffees such as lattes or cappuccinos from coffee shops, 14 cups of tea, or 20 soft drinks.

When the mice were tested again after two months, those who were given the caffeine performed much better on tests measuring their memory and thinking skills and performed as well as mice of the same age without dementia.

Those drinking plain water continued to do poorly on the tests. In addition, the brains of the mice given caffeine showed nearly a 50% reduction in levels of the beta amyloid protein, which forms destructive clumps in the brains of dementia patients.
Further tests suggested caffeine affects the production of both the enzymes needed to produce beta amyloid. The researchers also suggest that caffeine suppresses inflammatory changes in the brain that lead to an overabundance of the protein.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Swedish pirates capture EU seat

Sweden's Pirate Party has won a seat in the European Parliament.
The group - which campaigned on reformation of copyright and patent law - secured 7.1% of the Swedish vote.
The result puts the Pirate Party in fifth place, behind the Social Democrats, Greens, Liberals and the Moderate Party. Rickard Falkvinge, the party leader, told the BBC the win was "gigantic" and that they were now negotiating with four different EU Parliamentary groups. "Last night, we gained political credibility," said Mr Falkvinge.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Google's Wave

Google is uniting instant messaging, e-mail and document collaboration into a new service with the audacious goal of changing how people communicate online.
The service, called Wave, will erode the distinction between the various ways people keep in touch on the Web and eliminate the need to use multiple tools to do so, the company said.
Wave's users invite others to join their "wave" about a particular topic so they can follow the thread of messages, much like a bulletin board. Everyone on the list can see individual messages as they're being typed, letter by letter, like instant messaging taken to the extreme, to speed up the conversation.
There's an option to turn off the real-time feature, which will no doubt be handy for people who often revise what they write before hitting send.
Users can drag and drop photos and maps onto the waves to make them immediately visible to others. They can also edit documents together, potentially appealing to workers who are collaborating on a project and who would otherwise use wikis.
Wave is designed for use by both consumers, for communicating with family and friends, and businesses

Sunday, May 03, 2009

YouTube helps man deliver baby

An engineer in Cornwall delivered his baby son after watching an instructional video on YouTube.
Marc Stephens watched the videos as a precaution when his wife Jo started to feel some discomfort.
Four hours later, his wife went into labour and started giving birth before an ambulance could arrive at their home in Redruth.
"I Googled how to deliver a baby, watched a few videos and basically swotted up," Mr Stephens told the BBC.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nude hiking in Alps

Voters in the heart of the Swiss Alps on Sunday passed legislation banning naked hiking after dozens of mostly German nudists started rambling through their picturesque region.
By a show of hands citizens of the tiny canton (state) of Appenzell Inner Rhodes voted overwhelmingly at their traditional open-air annual assembly to impose a 200 Swiss franc ($176) fine on violators.
The cantonal government recommended the ban after citizens objected to encountering walkers wearing nothing but hiking boots and socks.
A similar legal move is expected in neighboring Appenzell Outer Rhodes. The nationalist Swiss People's Party has advised the cantonal parliament it is preparing legislation against "this shameless behavior."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Peter Zumthor wins the Pritzker Prize

The prize, worth $100,000, is given for a body of work across a career, and is mainly valued for the prestige and commissions it can bring.

Zumthor's works are found mainly in his native Switzerland, as well as elsewhere in Europe and the US.

His most famous commission is the thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland.

Peter Zumthor is about as far as its possible to be from the star names who have recently dominated architecture.

He has worked in his native Switzerland for the past 30 years and has become known for quietly elegant museums, housing complexes and hotels with a fondness for using natural materials and a great interest in the the interior spaces he creates.

He trained as a cabinet maker and there's a strong feel of craft and care to his work.

He says he doesn't ally himself to an ideology or school of architecture, but aims above all at creating an interior suited to place and use, simple principles aimed at producing human architecture.

One extraordinary recent building is a chapel built by wrapping concrete round a wigwam structure of tree trunks.

Zumthor then burnt away the trunks, leaving the imprint of the wood as the texture of the interior, which retains the smell of charred wood.

Zumthor is said to turn down most requests to design, embarking only on projects he feels a passion for and which he then oversees from start to finish.


Friday, April 03, 2009

Iowa Supreme Court ruling on Gay Marriage

It was not just the California Supreme Court... And it is a unanimous decision!

(From the Des Moines Register)

The Iowa Supreme Court this morning upheld a Polk County judge’s 2007 ruling that marriage should not be limited to one man and one woman.

The ruling, viewed nationally and at home as a victory for the gay rights movement and a setback for social conservatives, means gay couples can legally marry in Iowa beginning March 24.

Shelly Wolfe and Melisa Keeton, who waited for word of the ruling outside the Polk County Recorder’s Office, immediately called their pastor anyway to make plans.

“We’re going to make it legal,” Keeton, 31, of Des Moines said.

Wolfe, 38, and Keeton, who is 21 weeks pregnant, went through a commitment ceremony two years ago. Their marriage certificate was among the 26 that were put on hold when Polk County Judge Robert Hanson’s decision to open the door for gay marriage was delayed until the high court could weigh in.

Today’s decision makes Iowa the first Midwestern state, and the fourth in the country, to allow same-sex marriages. Lambda Legal, a gay rights group, financed the court battle and represented six couples who challenged Iowa’s 10-year-old ban on gay marriage.

Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady, who wrote the unanimous decision, at one point invoked the court’s first-ever decision, in 1839, which struck down slavery laws 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of a slave owner to treat a person as property.

Iowa’s gay marriage ban “is unconstitutional, because the county has been unable to identify a constitutionally adequate justification for excluding plaintiffs from the institution of civil marriage,” Cady wrote in the 69-page opinion that seemed to dismiss the concept of civil unions as an option for gay couples.

“A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution,” Cady wrote.

The ruling, however, also addressed what it called the “religious undercurrent propelling the same-sex marriage debate,” and said judges must remain outside the fray.

Some Iowa religions are strongly opposed to same-sex marriages, the justices noted, while some support the notion.

“Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring that government avoids them,” the opinion says.

The ruling explicitly does not affect “the freedom of a religious organization to define marriage it solemnizes as unions between a man and a woman,” the justices stressed.

The case, Varnum vs. Brien, involved couples who sued Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien in 2005 after his office denied them marriage licenses. Hanson sided with the couples last year but then suspended his decision pending a high court ruling.

“We won! It is unanimous!” Camilla Taylor of Lambda Legal exclaimed when the ruling was announced. “Today the dream becomes reality … and Iowa constitution’s promise equality is fulfilled. Iowans have never waited for others to do the right thing. Iowa took its place in the vanguard of the civil rights struggle, and we couldn’t be more proud to be part of this.”

Gov. Chet Culver e-mailed a response to reporters that said: “The decision released this morning by Supreme Court addresses a complicated and emotional issue, one on which Iowans have strong views and opinions on both sides. The next responsible step is to thoroughly review this decision, which I am doing with my legal counsel and the attorney general, before reacting to what it means for Iowa.”

Richard Socarides, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay civil rights, said today’s decision could mean as much to gay couples outside Iowa.

“I think it’s significant because Iowa is considered a Midwest sate in the mainstream of American thought,” Socarides, a senior political assistant for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin in the early 1990s, said Thursday. “Unlike states on the coasts, there’s nothing more American than Iowa. As they say during the presidential caucuses, ‘As Iowa goes, so goes the nation.’”

Opponents have long argued that allowing gay marriage would erode the institution. Some Iowa lawmakers, mostly Republicans, attempted last year to launch a constitutional amendment to specifically prohibit same-sex marriage.

Such a change would require approval in consecutive legislative sessions and a public vote, which means a ban could not be imposed until at least 2012, unless lawmakers take up the issue in the next few weeks. Leaders this week said they had no plans to do so.

Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, nonetheless called for an immediate move to amend the constitution.

“The decision made by the Iowa Supreme Court today to allow gay marriage in Iowa is disappointing on many levels,” he said. I believe marriage should only be between one man and one woman, and I am confident the majority of Iowans want traditional marriage to be legally recognized in this state.

“Though the court has made their decision, I believe every Iowan should have a voice on this matter and that is why the Iowa Legislature should immediately act to pass a Constitutional Amendment that protects traditional marriage, keeps it as a sacred bond only between one man and one woman and gives every Iowan a chance to have their say through a vote of the people.”

State Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, said he would support a constitutional amendment. However, he also believes lawmakers would have to work on parallel legislation that would grant civil unions or some sort of way to grant legal rights to same-sex couples.

“I firmly believe marriage should be between a man and a women but I at the same time, I believe we should address these issues,” Heaton said. I would rather recognize a civil union than to have same-sex marriage.”

Diane Thacker’s eyes filled with tears as the ruling were read to an crowd opposed to gay marriage that had gathered on the north side of the judicial building.

“Sadness,” she whispered.. “But I’m prayerful and hopeful that God’s word will stand.”

Thacker said she joined to group “because I believe in the marriage vow. I can’t see it any other way.”

Democratic State Sen. Matt McCoy of Des Moines, saw the decision a different way.

“I’m off the wall. I’m very pleased to be an Iowan,” said McCoy, who is openly gay.

Voices from outside the state quickly took sides. The Iowa Supreme Court’s Web site was deluged with more than 1.5 million visitors as of 11 a.m., court spokesman Steve Davis said..

Doug Napier, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund in Arizona, said the Iowa Supreme Court “stepped out of its proper role in interpreting the law.”

Napier said the legislature should place a constitutional amendment on a statewide ballot to let Iowans decide.

The Defense of Marriage Act “was simple, it was settled, and overwhelming supported by Iowans,” Napier said. “There was simply no legitimate reason for the court to redefine marriage.”

Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey group, said “once again, the most undemocratic branch of government is being used to advance an agenda the majority of Americans reject.”

“Marriage means a husband and wife. That’s not discrimination, that’s common sense,” she said in a press release. “Even in states like Vermont, where they are pushing this issue through legislatures, gay marriage advocates are totally unwilling to let the people decide these issues directly.”

Mark Kende, a constitutional law professor at Drake University, described the ruling as narrowly written and “very well reasoned,” and predicted it will have national, possibly international, influence. But it also could create new, inter-state legal battles, he said. Couples who flock to Iowa to marry may not have their marriage recognized in other states that prohibit same-sex marriage, he said.

The decision also is limited to civil marriages performed in county buildings, he said.

Meanwhile, Kate and Trish Varnum, whose surname will forever be attached to the historic decision, called it “a great day for Iowa.”

At a press conference this morning, Kate Varnum said: “Good morning… and I’d like to introduce you to my fiancé. Today I am proud to be a lifelong Iowan.”

Trish Varnum added: “It’s been a wonderful adventure, and we’re looking forward to the next wonderful adventure — as a married couple in Iowa.”

A Des Moines Register poll in 2008 of Iowa lawmakers showed that a majority of Iowa’s lawmakers —123 of 150 — said they believed marriage should only be between a man and a woman. It was unclear whether those lawmakers had enough votes to pass a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

An Iowa Poll in February 2008 showed that most Iowans believed marriage should be only between one man and one woman. However, the poll also showed that a majority of Iowa adults supported the creation of civil unions that would grant benefits to gay couples similar to those offered to heterosexuals in marriage.

In the poll, 62 percent of Iowans said they believed marriage should be only between a man and a woman. Thirty-two percent said they believed same-sex marriages should be allowed, while 6 percent were unsure.

Iowans were split, however, on whether the state constitution should be changed to ban gay marriages. More than half of Iowans who responded to the poll supported civil unions for same-sex couples. About four in 10 Iowans opposed civil unions, and 4 percent were unsure.

Harkin, a Democrat, issued a written statement today that said: “my personal view has been that marriage is between a man and a woman, and I have voted in support of that concept. But I also fundamentally believe that same sex couples in a civil union should be entitled to all the basic legal protections and benefits of marriage.”
“I know that this decision will be very hard for many to accept,” he added. “But I also know that it will provide many committed same sex couples and families important rights, as well as an important sense of recognition and belonging.”

Religious leaders who support gay-marriage rights praised the ruling as an affirmation of equal rights for all Iowans.

“The court’s ruling shows Iowa is a place that celebrates fairness and equality for all Iowans,” said Connie Ryan Terrell, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. “It upholds the spirit of Iowa’s constitution, which clearly states each of us has the right to equal protection and recognition under the law.”

The Rev. Mark Stringer said he cried when he heard of the decision. Stringer performed the only legal same-sex marriage in Iowa when he officiated a ceremony for Sean Fritz and Tim McQuillan in 2007.

“It was such a sense of relief to me as someone who has cared about marriage equality,” Stringer said, adding that he is happy gay couple will have the same rights as he and his wife.

“It’s really an astounding moment under our history,” he said. “What really excites me is that Iowa is the first in our area of the country. We are being a leader in civil rights, which will be part of our state’s history.”

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, whose office represented Brien, said has no plan to seek a new hearing on the case or appeal to the federal courts. Sarcone said the case involved “a substantial time and monetary commitment” for the county, although he did not know the dollar amount. Assistant County Attorney Roger Kuhle, who argued the case to the high court, traveled to England and Canada at county expense to take depositions, he said.
“This was never anything personal,” he said. “We have a responsibility to defend the recorder. We defended the statute, and we had a fair and full hearing in the district court and the supreme court. Everything was done with dignity.”

The full decision of the court is here.