Friday, March 27, 2009

Chris Knight and the Bankers

Chris Knight, of the University of East London, told BBC Radio 4 things "could get nasty" after ex-bank boss Sir Fred Goodwin's Edinburgh home was attacked.
The university confirmed in a statement the professor of anthropology had been suspended from duties on Thursday.
An investigation was being launched into his comments, it said.
The statement read: "Professor Chris Knight has been suspended from his duties at the University of East London, pending investigation.
"In order not to prejudice this process we cannot make any further comment."
Mr Knight, who was organising protests next week, said: "We are going to be hanging a lot of people like Fred the Shred [Sir Fred Goodwin] from lampposts on April Fool's Day and I can only say let's hope they are just effigies.

"To be honest, if he winds us up any more I'm afraid there will be real bankers hanging from lampposts and let's hope that that doesn't actually have to happen. "They [bankers] should realise the amount of fury and hatred there is for them and act quickly, because quite honestly if it isn't humour it is going to be anger. "I am trying to keep it humorous and let the anger come up in a creative and hopefully productive and peaceful way.
"If the other people don't join in the fun - I'm talking about the bankers and those rather pompous ministers - and come over and surrender their power obviously it's going to get us even more wound up and things could get nasty. Let's hope it doesn't."


Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Science of the Pope and HIV/AIDS

From the Lancet (March 28, 2009)

The Vatican felt the heat from an unprecedented amount of international condemnation last week after Pope Benedict XVI made an outrageous and wildly inaccurate statement about HIV/AIDS. On his first visit to Africa, the Pope told journalists that the continent's fight against the disease is a problem that “cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, they increase it”.
The Catholic Church's ethical opposition to birth control and support of marital fidelity and abstinence in HIV prevention is well known. But, by saying that condoms exacerbate the problem of HIV/AIDS, the Pope has publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue.
The international community was quick to condemn the comment. The governments of Germany, France, and Belgium released statements criticising the Pope's views. Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society, called the comment “irresponsible and dangerous”. UNAIDS, the UN Population Fund, and WHO released an updated position statement on HIV prevention and condoms, which said that “the male latex condom is the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV”. Amidst the fury, even the Vatican tried to alter the pontiff's wording. On the Holy See's website, the Vatican's head of media, Father Federico Lombari, quoted the Pope as having said that there was a “risk that condoms…might increase the problem”.
Whether the Pope's error was due to ignorance or a deliberate attempt to manipulate science to support Catholic ideology is unclear. But the comment still stands and the Vatican's attempts to tweak the Pope's words, further tampering with the truth, is not the way forward. When any influential person, be it a religious or political leader, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record. Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide.

Twitter and blogs in primary schools in the UK

(From the Guardian)

Children will no longer have to study the Victorians or the second world war under proposals to overhaul the primary school curriculum, the Guardian has learned.

However, the draft plans will require children to master Twitter and Wikipedia and give teachers far more freedom to decide what youngsters should be concentrating on in classes.

The proposed curriculum, which would mark the biggest change to primary schooling in a decade, strips away hundreds of specifications about the scientific, geographical and historical knowledge pupils must accumulate before they are 11 to allow schools greater flexibility in what they teach.

It emphasises traditional areas of learning - including phonics, the chronology of history and mental arithmetic - but includes more modern media and web-based skills as well as a greater focus on environmental education.

The plans have been drawn up by Sir Jim Rose, the former Ofsted chief who was appointed by ministers to overhaul the primary school curriculum, and are due to be published next month.

The papers seen by the Guardian are draft plans for the detailed content of each of six core "learning areas" that Rose is proposing should replace the current 13 standalone subject areas.

The proposals would require:

• Children to leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information and forms of communication. They must gain "fluency" in handwriting and keyboard skills, and learn how to use a spellchecker alongside how to spell.

• Children to be able to place historical events within a chronology. "By the end of the primary phase, children should have gained an overview which enables them to place the periods, events and changes they have studied within a chronological framework, and to understand some of the links between them." Every child would learn two key periods of British history but it would be up to the school to decide which ones. Schools would still be able to opt to teach Victorian history or the second world war, but they would not be required to. The move is designed to prevent duplication with the secondary curriculum, which covers the second world war extensively.

• Less emphasis on the use of calculators than in the current curriculum.

• An understanding of physical development, health and wellbeing programme, which would address what Rose calls "deep societal concerns" about children's health, diet and physical activity, as well as their relationships with family and friends. They will be taught about peer pressure, how to deal with bullying and how to negotiate in their relationships.

The six core areas are: understanding English, communication and languages, mathematical understanding, scientific and technological understanding, human, social and environmental understanding, understanding physical health and wellbeing, and understanding arts and design.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said: "It seems to jump on the latest trends such as Wikipedia and Twitter. Then it has very traditional descriptions of chronological teaching of history. It seems to be about trends on the one hand, then political pressure on the other hand - the government didn't want to look like it is scrapping traditional education. Computer skills and keyboard skills seem to be as important as handwriting in this. Traditional books and written texts are downplayed in response to web-based learning."

Teresa Cremin, president of the United Kingdom Literacy Association, said: "We are very pleased to see a higher profile given to oracy but we are concerned that there seems to be no drama in the upper primary years linked to literacy. But our main concern is that there is no emphasis on reading for pleasure or the enjoyment of literacy."

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "They are much more sensible programmes of study. We are pleased they give the profession much more flexibility to meet the needs of their pupils. Children need to be enthused by learning, so they want to learn and gain the skills which will enable them to learn in later life. The debate is not about whether the Victorians are in there or not."

The leak led to a row when it emerged unions had been excluded from the consultation about what should be included, and subject specialists were given only three days to respond. Bousted said: "It's entirely unacceptable that it hasn't come to the teaching unions. Our members have to teach this. We've responded at all other stages of consultation. I don't know why we have been missed out now."

The Department for Children, Schools and Families, which initially refused to comment on the leaked report, issued a statement last night setting out its "general position" on history in primary schools. "Of course pupils in primary school will learn about major periods including the Romans, the Tudors and the Victorians and will be taught to understand a broad chronology of major events in this country and the wider world," it said.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The US economy and China

Despite the new enthusiasm at the White House and on Wall Street, there is little solid evidence to suggest an end was in sight to the severe recession that has already cost 4 million American jobs, driven down home values and sent foreclosures soaring.
Meanwhile, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he was concerned about the safety of the stimated $1 trillion his country has invested in U.S. government debt.

(From the Huffington post)

Monday, March 16, 2009

The elections in El Salvador

Leftist Mauricio Funes of El Salvador's former Marxist rebel FMLN party has won the country's presidential election.
He defeated his conservative rival, the Arena party's Rodrigo Avila, who has admitted defeat. Arena had won every presidential election since the end of El Salvador's civil war 18 years ago.
The FMLN won 51.3% of the vote against Arena's 48.7%, Reuters news agency reported.
FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) party was founded by Marxist guerrilla fighters from the civil war.The conflict ended in a UN-sponsored peace accord in 1991, after the loss of some 70,000 lives over less than two decades.
Mr Funes is a former television journalist.
El Salvador has one of the world's highest murder rates. It has also been badly hit by the world economic downturn, with remittances from Salvadorians living abroad falling dramatically.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Echoes of Plato today

An interesting article by Harry Eyres in the Financial Times

Echoes of Plato today
By Harry Eyres
Published: March 14 2009 01:10 | Last updated: March 14 2009 01:10

I have just been giving a talk about Plato at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival – or rather engaging in a Platonic dialogue with Irene Noel-Baker, the only translator I know who has ever dared to render the great poet-banisher into verse. This has meant going back to one
of those texts that repay endless rereading; I always expect to be surprised by The Republic (despite, or because of, being the author of a small book on the subject), but this time I am amazed by its relevance to our particular dark and uncertain time, as if it had been
written not in 380BC but the day before yesterday.

The bit that grabs me is the section on democracy in the entertaining description of a downward, vicious spiral of corrupt societies. I suppose everyone knows that Plato had a low opinion of democracy. But usually this is the cue for thoughtful consideration to be replaced by
righteous indignation. How could anyone prefer the cruel, militaristic, apartheid and philistine regime of ancient Sparta to the rich democracy of Athens, celebrated in the noble words of Pericles’ funeral oration and adorned with works of art and architecture (the Parthenon, the statues, the black figure vases) that still draw the crowds?

But if you go back to the words themselves, written with a playfulness and grace that have eluded most readers and nearly all translators, you find much food for thought, or arguments that should not be dismissed out of hand.

First of all, Socrates, the main speaker in The Republic, does not deny the attractions of democracy. If constitutions were goods on sale in a shop, everyone would choose democracy – it is like a coat of many colours compared to a suit of sombre grey. “There is liberty, and lots
of freedom of speech, and the individual is free to do as she or he likes.”

This sounds pretty good. But might excessive liberty end up enslaving us, both our minds and our societies, rather than setting us free?

To explain how this could happen, Socrates starts with finance.
Democracy evolves from oligarchy, the system in which wealth is what counts. “The [oligarchic] Rulers, who are in power because they have amassed so much wealth, do not want to prohibit by law the extravagance of the young, and stop them from wasting their money and ruining themselves. Their intention is to make loans to such imprudent people or by buying up their property to hope to increase their own wealth and influence ... The moneymakers continue to inject the toxic sting of their loans wherever they can, and to ask for high rates of interest, with the result that the city becomes full of lazy drones and paupers.” Has any better diagnosis of the origins of the credit crunch been written recently?

Democracy fosters all sorts of unnecessary desires and appetites. We end up getting addicted to these desires and appetites, and so, as Plato says, “the likely outcome of excessive freedom is only slavery in the individual and in the society”.

Then, even more ominously: “Probably then tyranny develops out of no other constitution than democracy – from the very heights of liberty, I take it, to extreme and savage servitude.” Words that could have been inscribed on the grave of the Weimar Republic. Democracy is “a
wonderfully pleasant way of carrying on in the short term”, as Socrates puts it. But chronic short-termism could be its fatal flaw.
Politicians have to pander to electors; weak government is the result, in which tough decisions are endlessly put off. Plato would have been darkly amused by our attempts to deal with climate change, as short-term decisions to build runways trump long-term attempts to curb emissions, or carbon trading schemes turn into perverse incentives to pollute.

But it is not only as a stern critic of democracy that we want to celebrate Plato. Somehow, The Republic is always turned into a gloomy tract or something like a government white paper. One aspect that gets left out is love. No doubt Plato speaks about love with still greater freedom, playfulness and humour in The Symposium and in Phaedrus. But there is still a lot of love in The Republic.

Socrates famously concluded that there will only be justice in the city when philosophers rule, or “when those now called kings and potentates be imbued with a sufficient measure of hilosophy”. But what does he mean by a philosopher? A philosopher is first of all a kind of lover, someone who loves wisdom, that is to say a joyful, insatiable polymath, not a dry and dusty specialist.

Love is what sets the whole thing going – the passionate and excited love of inquiry that prolongs a short walk down to Piraeus into one of the great thought-adventures in human history. I happen to disagree with Plato on democracy – not that his criticisms are without weight, but that they are outweighed by the criticisms to be levelled against the other systems he apparently preferred.

But returning to this most thought-provoking of all books written in the West is always a tonic and refreshment to the mind – like going back to the music of JS Bach. As Emerson said: “He points and quibbles; and by and by comes a sentence that moves the sea and land.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Travel Alert for Mexico

an email sent to Berkeley faculty and students.

The U.S. Department of State has issued a travel alert for Mexico due to a sharp increase in violence and crime along the northern Mexican border. The Berkeley International Office strongly encourages all students and scholars who plan to visit Mexico during spring break to read the travel alert and consider revising travel plans. The increase in violence and crime, primarily associated with the drug trade, has involved innocent bystanders and tourists. Please see the Department of State Travel Alert for details and travel safety information.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Federal funding for stem cell research

At last!

US President Barack Obama is expected to lift restrictions on federal funding for research on new stem cell lines.
Officials say Mr Obama will authorise the move by executive order on Monday, a major reversal of US policy.
Ex-President George W Bush blocked the use of any government money to fund research on human embryonic stem cell lines created after 9 August 2001.
Scientists say stem cell research will lead to medical breakthroughs, but many religious groups oppose the research.
Correspondents say the policy change is part of President Obama's pledge to make clear that his administration wants scientific research to be free from political interference.
It expected that his announcement about federal money will be accompanied by a promise that what he calls "sound science" will be respected by his administration.
It is also thought that the announcement is timed to allow an adequate period for health officials to draw up research guidelines before a deadline for government stimulus money runs out.
Stem cells are cells with the capacity to turn into any other type of human cell, be it bone, muscle or nerve cell.
One embryo can provide a limitless supply because the cell lines can be grown indefinitely.
But the use of human embryonic stem cells in research is controversial with some campaigners saying it is unethical.