Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Rather Nifty Election Predictor

Thanks to Alex Massie at The Debatable Land for this one from the LA Times: my prediction of how the election will go. Feel free to mock this tomorrow, depending on the results.

Why the McCain-Palin Ticket Deserves to Lose

A short rant for election day:

The Republican ticket deserves to lose quite simply because it has made the promotion of ignorance and mistrust of knowledge into a central tenet of the campaign. What we've seen, in all the talk of "pro-America areas", all the scenes of election rallies a step away from angry mobs, and especially in the vacuous mantra of "small-town values", has been a simple message: We don't trust those who know 'too much'.
The cynical selection of Sarah Palin epitomises this idea that the best way to make tough decisions is on gut feeling, and that the correct reaction to anything unfamiliar is mistrust, fear and aggression. 'Small-town values' are precisely that - drawn from a small place, based on a smaller set of influences. Lack of knowledge of the urban way of life is not a virtue, it is a dangerous lack of inexperience - worse still is to dismiss out-of-hand that there may be even the possibility of values in places other than those you know.
In the Palin depiction, Obama, as a man of the city, an intellectual and, more subtly, a black man, does not fit the standards of the 'small town' of the mind, cut off from the electoral issues.
The most depressing aspect of the campaign is that John McCain quite clearly does not subscribe to this. He is an urbane man, even in some ways an intellectual. His choice of Palin was thus utterly and unforgivably cyncial - an insult to the electorate and his base by suggesting he does not consider them worthy to understand anything higher than fear-mongering and crude demonisation of an opponent. In any sensible case, as Tina Fey has shown, a vice-presidential candidate with the inability to construct a normal English sentence would be ridiculous. It takes either an ignorant, gullible or cynical presidential candidate to present this as a virtue, a 'small-town value.'

Monday, 3 November 2008

Comment Piece on the Financial Crisis

Just to finish's today's bumper round-up, here's a rather elderly (but hopefully venerable) comment leader on the financial meltdown. There's a wonderful illustration to go with this, and I'll see if I can at least get a link to it.

The long path to sobriety [ran as 'Blame the players, not the game', Student 14.10.08]

That great intellectual of our times, President George W. Bush, described the current financial crisis in the following enlightening terms: “Wall Street got drunk, and now it’s got a hangover.”
The usual Bushism, you might think. However, while Bush may be a man guilty of regularly using misguided ideology to fill the gap where competence should be, perhaps this contribution bears further inspection.
Admittedly, it does conjure up some rather interesting images: the pasty-faced chief executive of HBOS, waking and opening his bleary and bloodshot eyes to discover he somehow got into bed with badger-haired chancellor Alistair Darling. Meanwhile, a scowling Gordon Brown mutters to himself as he cleans up the mess littering the hallway from someone else’s party.
But take Bush’s point seriously, and there really is no other way to describe an industry in which many of the major players go bust as a result of a heady cocktail of vast pay packets focused solely on incentivising ever greater risk-taking, and where bankers trade packages of debt so complex that none of them understand what they’re buying and selling, nor even how much of it they own.
The result was a toxic game of pass-the-parcel. As the ‘Masters of the universe’ unravelled their respective investments, confidence dropped ever further until the current panic set in, leaving nothing and no-one safe.
In the modern world every aspect of finance is interconnected, and the credit crunch’s victims have come in unexpected places. Only last week, it was revealed that councils across the UK had been investing their money in Icelandic banks – fine, until these went bust, leaving Kent County Council, to take just one example, with an embarrassing £50m shortfall.So you might imagine this to be a strange time for me to argue the case for the defence: that the bankers, the fat cats, can and do benefit society. But I’ll try.
Firstly, what we’re seeing isn’t the great collapse of capitalism, as various prophets of doom have suggested. The simple reason is that almost nobody wants that. People all over the world prefer the system they know and grew up with, governments too (even nominally communist China), as opposed to taking a wild gamble on an unknown, and quite possibly impossible, alternative.
The simple truth is that the whole banking system is based on mutual benefit – that’s what trade is. At least that’s the case when the deals involved are transparent. That is what a good financial system is supposed to allow to flourish.
The problem here isn’t the idea, it’s the implementation. A transparent financial system allows companies to compete on an equal footing, which encourages businesses to be efficient, transparent in their turn, and to satisfy customers. This is quite clearly a good thing.In this case, however, the banks thought they could find a short cut to fulfilling their own interests in the way they incentivised their employees, the much-maligned traders. They paid out big bonuses, obscenely large bonuses, for traders who made big bucks in the short term, and for a while the gamble paid off.
In the hunt for quick profit, which for them meant a better kitchen, in a grander house, with a faster car parked outside, traders explored and invented new ways of trading debts, in packages so complex that they didn’t have a clue what they were trading, just that it made a profit. The system became murkier, more confusing, and thus riskier. This suited the individual traders, but not their employers, and by extension, not wider society.
All it took was the gradual realisation that most of these deals were based around mortgages given to people who should never have been offered deals in the first place, for the simple reason that they couldn’t pay. Suddenly, these financial emperors had no clothes, and the system was in crisis.
However, the fault here lies not with the financial system, but with the bosses, individuals who got their sums wrong, the chosen few, hand-picked for their expertise. They implemented structures that benefited their employees in the short-term, not their companies.
The system will take time to recover. Injured banks mean that companies are unable to work as efficiently, that they have to set their sights lower. But the financiers will rebuild, and they’ll learn their lessons about how employees can be better handled, and banks better run. Government too has its part to play. Too loose a rein for the banks hurts everyone. Greater controls on recklessly high pay and bonuses for traders should be introduced, as should measures to prevent the same sorts of panicked stampedes occurring again.
The path to sobriety is long, and painful. Just ask America’s most famous recovered alcoholic, President George Walker Bush.

Feature on Corruption in Russian Universities

A little feature co-written with Zhanna Titova. Sadly not yet up on the web edition.

Grease me up Vlad [Student, 28.10.08]

James Ellingworth and Zhanna Titova shed light on Russia's corrupt education system

If you thought the university was ripping you off, would you go to the police? One student at Tyumen State Agricultural Institute in Russia did, and made national news. The reason? He'd bribed his lecturer, but the pass mark he'd expected in return hadn't materialised.
The above story was only newsworthy because of the student's idiocy in reporting the matter to the police, not because of the corruption involved. Sadly, that's all too common in many, if not most, of the country's universities.
As the row over tuition fees looks set to ignite once again, perhaps it's time for a step back and a look at the privileged position our money buys us, and how our degrees, comparatively at least, offer one thing more prized than any other in global education – they can be trusted.
We've all received those junk emails that promise a 'college degree' online with no work involved. And we all know that they're scams and that any certificate they might send you would be worthless. But with a simple search for 'buy a degree' on Yandex – the Russian-speaking world's answer to Google – you can find what is effectively a shopping list for corrupt degrees, detailing the bribes required to get in, get extra tuition, and pass exams.
Places at the most prestigious institutions, such as the elite Moscow State International Relations Institute, start at about $30,000 worth of 'favours'. $10,000 buys you a place at Moscow State Law Academy, although medics must feel left out – their course requires just $2,000. One principal at a top Russian university was recently arrested for selling law degrees – despite the fact that her university doesn't teach the subject.
Lera, a friend, describes her university experience: “A lot of my classmates from school paid $5-6,000 to get into university. And they keep paying to get good marks. But they just don't want to study, to go to the university day by day, they just go at the end of the semester...and pay a teacher or a dean and have good results.”
Russia is a country that I feel passionately about, and it's hard talking to friends worried that the degree they are working for will be worthless because of bribery. Russia, like a lot of countries with corruption problems, has a lot of potential and aims to compete with the EU, India and China. But corruption there is destroying the value of Russian degrees, for those who pay just as much as those who deserve their grades. Talented students who can afford to choose to study abroad, leaving the vast majority of ordinary Russians with no way to get a plausible qualification – there are now only two Russian universities in the world top 400, hardly indicating future prosperity.
The situation has got so bad that a lot of companies in Russia (and in other countries where the problem is just as bad, such as Ukraine) often list universities they will not accept students from when they advertise for graduate trainees. Their degrees are simply so doubtful as to be worthless.
Having a good degree that you worked hard for is valuable. But if everyone who has one had to work hard for theirs too, it's priceless. As soon as even one person is able to buy their way to a degree, every student's degree is cast into doubt. The British system's greatest asset is respectability – something that cannot be bought for the simple reason that it only exists when people don't buy their way in, but instead deserve the product.
For this reason, news of the various recent controversies over international students in Britain and the increased fees they bring is so worrying. Allegations of universities bending the rules for students paying several times the fees of a British student, true or not, put the reputation of everyone's degrees under just a little bit more suspicion.
While I'm not suggesting that a few dodgy favours for high-rolling foreign students – as some reports have alleged – will put the British system into the state Russian education is in, any hint that UK universities are motivated more by the money a student brings than the potential for learning, can only be damaging. Given the risks involved at a time when British universities are trying to challenge on the world stage, corruption is something we simply can't afford.

Cranks: Part 2

The second group of cranks who've invaded our website is altogether more disturbing. Those who believe the world to be only a few thousand years old can at least be laughed off (it would certainly have been news to the ancient Egyptians).

An influx of racists is slightly less funny. A couple of Student's articles on the BNP recruiting via Facebook and withdrawing from a council by-election seem to have been picked up on some rather unsavoury forums. I won't repeat the comments here.

While I don't necessarily agree with the tone of the Facebook article - any reasonable belief in free speech extends to precisely those views you find repulsive, and no direct incitement to hatred seems to have been found - I detest the clear BNP attempt to create a simulated gorundswell of support by deluging the site with comments.

A friend who did an internship at Parliament over the summer tells me that BNP central office is rumoured to have a 'rapid response' cadre of computer specialists who spend their days in a darkened room surfing for any mention of their organisation, and then cover it in propaganda.

Cranks: Part 1

Following the recent relaunch of the excellent Student website, it's become apparent how various groups will cluster around critical articles like moths to a flame.

Firstly, my recent comment piece on the stupidity of teaching creationism or its artfully nuanced subsidiary, intelligent design, in schools (apologies for the appallingly misspelt header).

Within 24 hours of the piece going up on the site it attracted three different creationists, keen to show me the error of my ways. Pride of place goes to this effort:

"Evolution is a false conclusion of the fossil record of death (not of “life”), and words can not describe the idiocy of the scientific community that continues to support such a theory, and advocating the teaching of such in public schools. There is no such evidence to support the conclusion. It is supported because it is the most convenient avenue the atheists can use to advance their agenda."

Nice combination of conspiracy theory with the assertion that anything that is dead cannot count as evidence, which rules out all archaeology, as well as anyone ever conducting an autopsy.

An apology, some cranks and some new material

Firstly, sorry for the lack of posts recently. I've been having a relatively hectic time over the last few weeks. There's been some upheaval at Student - we now have two new editors, and I've moved up to News Editor, which will make all my free time magically vanish.

I've also been trying to sort out where I'll be working on my year abroad. Strangely enough, getting an internship in Moscow has proved to be the easier end of the bargain (although accommodation is still in the balance), and I'm now struggling to find something in Germany.

Rest assured, I'll soon be back to form. For today I'll give you a quick discussion of how easy it is for a student newspaper to bring all sorts of assorted nutters from out of the woodwork, as well as a feature on university corruption in Russia that ran recently.