Saturday, April 15, 2006

Higher Education follies

Finally, after so much staff angst and wasted time, money and forests of paper, the Research Assessment Exercise is going to be killed off; not because it's a stupid process, but because the Treasury wants to save some money. One bit of bureaucracy in Higher Education goes - but there's enough left to strangle creative teaching.

"The RAE is dead - long live metrics"

"On Budget day, academics were stunned to discover that the deeply unpopular Research Assessment Exercise is to be killed off. Lucy Hodges reports."

Independent, 13 April 2006

"... Since the first research assessment exercise in 1989, university departments have lived and died by the RAE. Vice-chancellors have restructured their universities; for example, chemistry at Exeter was closed because it scored only a grade 4."

The obvious criticisms, which should have aborted it long ago, are now being listened to:

"... criticisms are that the RAE rewards research that was done years before because of the five-or-more-year cycle on which it operates, and that it is a ridiculous administrative burden. For the 2008 exercise, 900 academics are expected to spend hundreds of hours on the panels that review research in each subject, quite apart from the work that is carried out on the RAE in each university.

Even more obviously:

"It encourages conservative behaviour because people don't want to take risks," Driscoll says. "It discriminates against interdisciplinary research and it doesn't encourage collaboration. It's a winner-takes-all system. Frankly, the amount we get is so small that it's worth gambling on change."

Some much time was spent on very detailed research, often on esoteric subjects (I seem to recall reading that the average research paper is read by about 6 people) and then all that time on assessment of that research - when almost no critical thought was expended on the whole damn stupid system.

Lichetnberg said (roughly): "Many a man has devoted his life to something, when a few minutes serious thought would have shown it wasn't worth a tupenny damn."

What is truth? BBC 4, Any Questions

Email to BBC 4's Any Answers:

The [Any Questions] panel's responses to the question, "What is truth?" were tentative and confused and revealed how even supposedly educated, experienced people are quite clueless about basic philosophical issues. In France philosophy is studied by all pupils, clearly we ought to follow their example.

This is not to say that that the answer is easy; philosophers are still debating it. But what they have established is that the panel's answers are confused and/or mistaken. So truth is not the same as morality (Benn), it is not the same as one's belief (Norris) and it is not a matter of infinite points of view and perpetual doubt (Liddle).

Unfortunately the panel's answers in general tend to unconsciously reflect the recently fashionable ideas of postmodernism with its relativism with regard to truth. I recommend to the panel and listeners the recently published book: "Why Truth Matters", which would help them clarify their ideas about this very important concept.

(Not used but a philosophy lecturer made very similar points)

Friday, April 14, 2006

US: erosion of freedom

Comment on

Greg Says:

“Ted (204): //erosion of freedoms in the US.//

Myth. Name one thing you could do pre-9/11 that you can’t post 9/11, except bring lighters and fireworks on airplanes.”

Which planet have you been on ?

“Over the past few years, ACLU attorneys around the country have provided direct representation to many individuals and organizations targeted for exercising their First Amendment right to criticize the government, including people who participated in numerous rallies and marches to protest the war in Iraq, who were excluded from meaningful participation at public presidential speeches, and who protested at the 2004 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

“We all want police to protect us from real criminals and terrorists,” Beeson said. “But resources and funds established to fight terrorism should not be misused to target innocent Americans who have done nothing more than speak out or practice their faith. Investigations should be based on actual evidence of wrongdoing.”

In its FOIA requests, the ACLU points to many documented examples of JTTF involvement in the investigation of environmental activists, anti-war protesters, and others who are clearly not terrorists nor involved in terrorist activities, including:

tracking down parents of student peace activists
downloading anti-war action alerts from Catholic Peace Ministries
infiltrating student groups
sending undercover agents to National Lawyers Guild meetings
aggressively questioning Muslims and Arabs on the basis of religion or national origin rather than suspicion of wrongdoing.

These activities are not the only evidence that the FBI is building files on activists. A classified FBI intelligence memorandum disclosed publicly last November revealed that the FBI has actually directed police to target and monitor lawful political demonstrations under the rubric of fighting terrorism.”

Iraq: casualties/Fallujah/WP

Comment re J. Kampfner's article in the Guardian's Comment is Free site
reply to:


"sybarita, posting a Johann Hari article means I am wrong? Johann Hari changed he mind about two years ago - there's nothing new about that. His latest piece on it was quite a shoddy piece of work - he made up a casualty figure that has no scientific basis and repeated the propaganda myth about the US using chemical weapons on civilians. It was a cheap appeal to the Independent newspaper's fan base. Not his finest hour."

Not yours either; it's your reply which is "cheap" and "shoddy."

First it hardly matters WHEN Hari changed his mind, but he did defend it for some time, e.g. from last year

"... Hari said he never believed the official justification of the war that Saddam needed to be disarmed because of the threat posed by his alleged biological and chemical weapons. It was his crimes against humanity that justified the dictator’s overthrow. Acknowledging that there were good grounds for being skeptical about the motives of the US for invading Iraq, Hari is nevertheless certain that Iraq is an immeasurably better place without Saddam Hussein."

08/02/2005 (report of a conference a few weeks before)

But now that he disagrees with you, any old slur will do. He says: "at least 150,000 Iraqi corpses" - what "scientific basis" do you have for saying he's wrong ? Cf.:

"Estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths is based on a study published in The Lancet medical journal in October 2004. The study concluded that at least 100,000 and as many as 280,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the first 18 months of the occupation.
Oddly, US authorities have questioned the methodology used in this study, but it was the same methodology used by the US Centers for Disease Control to estimate deaths from disease outbreak in third world countries, the same methodology the US and UK have always accepted in the past when counting deaths in Congo or other nations where the American or British military are not directly involved.

We have accepted this study as a reasonable estimate, and we use the study's minimal estimate as our baseline for Iraqi civilian deaths."

And that was in 2004.

It is not a "propaganda myth" that white phosphorus was used on Fallujah; after initial denials it was admitted:

"That's right. Not from Al Jazheera, or Al Arabiya, but the US fucking Army, in their very own publication, from the (WARNING: pdf file) March edition of Field Artillery Magazine in an article entitled "The Fight for Fallujah":

"WP [i.e., white phosphorus rounds] proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE. We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out."

In other words the claim by the US Government that White Phosphorus was used only for illumination at Fallujah had been pre-emptively debunked by the Army. Indeed, the article goes on to make clear that soldiers would have liked to have saved more WP rounds to use for "lethal missions."

However, as Mark Kraft, an emailer to Eric Alterman's blog, Altercation, points out today, the Field Artillery Magazine article fails to inform its audience that

. . . there is no way you can use white phosphorus like that without forming a deadly chemical cloud that kills everything within a tenth of a mile in all directions from where it hits. Obviously, the effect of such deadly clouds weren't just psychological in nature."

So let's have less cheap and shoddy stuff from you.

Reply 2:

Mike1: "You've taken the Lancet's most likely guess, 100,000, and their maximum guess, which they say is as likely as their minimum guess, 8,000, and presented that as if it was the range. That was as dishonest as Hari making up 150,000"

The dishonesty is yours; it's quite obvious that you are going to dismiss any evidence which contradicts your view. When you are clearly shown to be wrong, e.g. about when Hari changed his mind, you just ignore it and move on, hoping that others won't notice. The difference between you and Hari is that while he stubbornly defended the war till at least the beginning of last year, he has enough sense and integrity to admit he was wrong when the evidence becomes overwhelming (like many other former prominent apologists for the war, here and in the US). You just refuse to accept the evidence and pig-headedly try to bluster on. Things like this, re Fallujah: "good work was done", are just contemptible.

Hari said "at least 150,000 corpses" that seems a reasonable estimate in 2006 given the Lancet study in 2004.

"Needless to say, I will not be trusting a survey that was conducted within a country where an intense insurgency has been going on that has a margin of error greater than an opinion poll. The same type of studies conducted on Darfur, showing 400,000 excess deaths, are not trusted by the government or the media either, due to the uncertainty of the situation on the ground. It's also misleading in that it is an *excess deaths* figure rather than a direct civilian casulty rate of war."

It wasn't "misleading" it was made quite clear in the report and the fact is war does have indirect consequences which are lethal. Here is the Economist's conclusions (not exactly a far-left journal) about the Lancet study:

"Statistically, 33 is a relatively small sample (though it is the best that could be obtained by a small number of investigators in a country at war). That is the reason for the large range around the central value of 98,000, and is one reason why that figure might be wrong. (Though if this is the case, the true value is as likely to be larger than 98,000 as it is to be smaller.) It does not, however, mean, as some commentators have argued in response to this study, that figures of 8,000 or 194,000 are as likely as one of 98,000. Quite the contrary. The farther one goes from 98,000, the less likely the figure is.

So the discrepancy between the Lancet estimate and the aggregated press reports is not as large as it seems at first. The Lancet figure implies that 60,000 people have been killed by violence, including insurgents, while the aggregated press reports give a figure of 15,000, counting only civilians. Nonetheless, Dr Roberts points out that press reports are a passive-surveillance system. Reporters do not actively go out to many random areas and see if anyone has been killed in a violent attack, but wait for reports to come in. And, Dr Roberts says, passive-surveillance systems tend to undercount mortality. For instance, when he was head of health policy for the International Rescue Committee in the Congo, in 2001, he found that only 7% of meningitis deaths in an outbreak were recorded by the IRC's passive system.

The study is not perfect. But then it does not claim to be. The way forward is to duplicate the Lancet study independently, and at a larger scale. Josef Stalin once claimed that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths a mere statistic. Such cynicism should not be allowed to prevail, especially in a conflict in which many more lives are at stake. Iraq seems to be a case where more statistics are sorely needed.

"WP was not used on civilians - it was to shake and bake insurgents in deserted Falluja. It is classed as an incendiary weapon. Falluja had the lowest casualty rate for an urban combat zone of that size in the history of warfare - great work was done."

What a marked contrast; any counter evidence is treated with the utmost scepticism and any excuse is found to reject it, but you readily accept any US propaganda. Firstly it was used knowing that some civilians were likely to be still in Falajuh, and secondly, it is illegal to use it on combatants anyway:

"This denial has been accepted by most of the mainstream media. UN conventions, the Times said, "ban its use on civilian but not military targets". But the word "civilian" does not occur in the chemical weapons convention. The use of the toxic properties of a chemical as a weapon is illegal, whoever the target is.

The Pentagon argues that white phosphorus burns people, rather than poisoning them, and is covered only by the protocol on incendiary weapons, which the US has not signed. But white phosphorus is both incendiary and toxic. The gas it produces attacks the mucous membranes, the eyes and the lungs. As Peter Kaiser of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told the BBC last week: "If ... the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because ... any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons."

The US army knows that its use as a weapon is illegal. In the Battle Book, published by the US Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, my correspondent David Traynier found the following sentence: "It is against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets.

"...But buried in this hogwash is a grave revelation. An assault weapon the marines were using had been armed with warheads containing "about 35% thermobaric novel explosive (NE) and 65% standard high explosive". They deployed it "to cause the roof to collapse and crush the insurgents fortified inside interior rooms". It was used repeatedly: "The expenditure of explosives clearing houses was enormous."

...a fuel-air explosive can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon without residual radiation ... Those personnel caught directly under the aerosol cloud will die from the flame or overpressure. For those on the periphery of the strike, the injuries can be severe. Burns, broken bones, contusions from flying debris and blindness may result. Further, the crushing injuries from the overpressure can create air embolism within blood vessels, concussions, multiple internal haemorrhages in the liver and spleen, collapsed lungs, rupture of the eardrums and displacement of the eyes from their sockets." It is hard to see how you could use these weapons in Falluja without killing civilians."

George Monbiot,3604,1647716,00.html

Please spare us more of your "cheap" and "shoddy" excuses and your contemptible gloating over the deaths in Fallujah.

Reply to Logos

Logos: "Just, what I hope will be the final word on Iraqi civilian casualties which have loomed so large in this debate."

What an arrogant clown.

"1.The numbers, (although any civilian death is a tragedy) were the lowest of any modern war."

What were the numbers ? It was a very short "war" - so hardly comparable with WWII, Vietnam, etc. The question is were the "numbers" at all avoidable or in any way justified?

"2 In a war against terrorists it's almost impossible to distinguish civilians from fighters."

Oh, so that's OK then, kill them all - women, children, old people...

"3 Part of the strategy of terrorists is to embed themselves in civilian areas, in effect using women and children as human shields and using their deaths as propoganda for their cause (ably assisted by their apologists in the West!)."

Oh yes, it's all the fault of these evil "terrorists" who actually fight from where they live - how disgraceful. You really are an idiot.

"So much for the moral high ground of the anti-war brigade on this issue!"

I'm sure you're really glowing with pride over your CBBC level analysis.


It seems i was beaten to all of my points by Paul Lambert and Sybarita! Jinx!

Good call, you two - Sybarita, good responses earlier up the thread as well [those above].

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Fake lefties' manifesto

Comment on Norman Geras' article on the "Euston Manifesto" on the Guardian site:

The attitude of Geras and co. is that once the invasion of Iraq took place we should just accept it and move on. How cynical and how convenient that would be for Bush and Blair.

Geras and those of his gang who supported the Iraq War should be admitting they were wrong and apologising, as Johann Hari eventually had the decency to do in the Independent.

Geras and co. oppose those who are "anti-American" - and who might they be ? Of course he's referring to those who are critical of Bush and his gang, and of previous US adminstrations and the major corporations they are linked with. Such critics include Noam Chomsky, is he supposed to be "anti-American" ?

Later comment in reply to CoeurDeLion (TeteDeBoeuf), who said:

"sybarita (and Mickhall): Norm is a Professor of Politics, and his views on the Iraq war are sincere."

I'm sure they are sincere, more's the pity. When I did philosophy we were not expected to be in awe of titles or reputations, but to think for ourselves. Having worked in academia I am even less inclined to be in awe of professors.

"He also topped the poll for most popular blog..."

So there are a lot of people who share his views and are impressed by academic titles, again, more's the pity

"... and while he owns to being a Marxist, I deeply respect his principles. There are also some serious heavyweights in his "gang"."

Is that why they have turned out to be so wrong about Iraq ? This is not just my opinion, but, by implication, that of Johann Hari and various other former supporters of the war who've had the sense and guts to admit that they were wrong, some of them "heavyweights".

Hari's mea culpa is here.

"History has yet to judge whether the Iraq war was a mistake - whether it was right or wrong is a matter of personal conscience."

See above, and if you still haven't understood what a predictable disaster Iraq now is I'm sorry for you.

"You should have the grace to accept that the hard Left and pacifists do not have a monopoly on sincerity and conscientiousness."

Try reading carefully; I referrred specifically to the cynicism of the line about once the invasion had happened we should just accept it and move on.

"Chomsky is indeed "anti-American" in the same sense that you are." I.e. in NO sense and you're talking nonsense.

Chomsky has tirelessly pointed out the ways in which US governments have failed to live up to the the principles they claim to espouse. He regularly tours the US (as well as abroad) giving talks to packed halls - are all those Americans "anti-American"? A large proportion of the American population voted against Bush and were opposed to the attack on Iraq and today many more think that it was wrong and are critical of Bush and co. Are THEY all "anti-American" too? The "anti-American" label is an absurdity even though it's adopted by - gosh - a professor of history and some "heavyweights".

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Italy: Politics of the middle ground

Response to article by J. Freedland in the Guardian:

As I said in response to Bastion's article, it's also the result of the professionalisation of politics, the spin-doctors, image manipulators and campaign managers using focus groups, etc. The adopt what they think most voters will vote for, they don't try to persuade them to adopt policies they believe in. This results in parties moving to the middle ground, as Blair did and as Cameron is trying to do here. This leads to the close results we saw in US elections and now in Italy. And when both main parties are aiming at the middle ground and so playing down their differences, it's no surprise that the personalities of the leaders become at least one thing that distinguishes the parties from each other.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

FT contradicts itself about France

Letter to the Financial Times:

Sir, today (11.4) you give figures for French youth unemployment of 22.2% on page 1, 23% on page 6 and 22% in an editorial on page 16. However, in your edition of 18.3, you had a short piece by Simon Briscoe, your Statistics Editor, saying:

"FT research suggests that 7.8 per cent of under-25s are out of work in France. This is only slightly above 7.4 per cent in the UK and 6.5 per cent in Germany.

The discrepancy reflects the fact that France has a much smaller youth labour force than other countries because a greater proportion go on to higher education after the age of 16, delaying their entry to the labour market."

Has your Statistics Editor changed his mind ? If not, why is he being ignored in your paper today ?

Monday, April 10, 2006

French youth unemployment - only 8%

Yet again we got a false impression of the real level of unemployment of French youth, this time from Channel 4 news, one of the better sources usually, but it said that it was much higher in France than in most European countries. The NYT, discussing the demise of the CPE today, yet again trotted out the old 23% figure.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that most journalists are lazy and follow the herd. Chomsky points out that you can often find the truth in serious business papers, where business people want the facts, and propaganda can be left to the Daily Mail, etc. In the UK it was the Financial Times which pointed out on March 18th that the rate of unemployment amongst French youth, usually quoted as 22%, was actually 7.8%, similar to the UK.

"YOUTH AT WORK By Simon Briscoe Published: March 18 2006

"The proportion of French youths without work is more in line with other countries than suggested by official figures that put French youth unemployment at more than 22 per cent, compared with 11, 12 and 13 per cent in the UK, US and Germany, writes Simon Briscoe, Statistics Editor.

FT research suggests that 7.8 per cent of under-25s are out of work in France. This is only slightly above 7.4 per cent in the UK and 6.5 per cent in Germany.

The discrepancy reflects the fact that France has a much smaller youth labour force than other countries because a greater proportion go on to higher education after the age of 16, delaying their entry to the labour market."

This was pointed out earlier in Le Monde - but seems to have been widely ignored/missed by UK/US journalists and commentators:

"Less than 8% of French youth unemployed!" by Jerome a Paris Tue Mar 7th,

"I have finally found a graph (courtesy of Le Monde, behind sub. wall) which shows clearly what "youth unemployment" represents.

The above are French statistics for the year 2003-2004, and they go as follows:
60% - at school or university
27% - working (breakdown below)
08% - unemployed
05% - other, not active


CPE is history and was bunk

Good news about the junking of the CPE - Villepin desperately trying to pretend it was just a misunderstanding. The problem was he failed to understand the importance of consultation. These enarques (grads of prestigious admin higher education institution) are not very bright. They are in charge of the education system and what a mess the French higher education system is - we have problems but how about this ?

"Oui, l'université émarge à l'excellence, mais à quel prix ! A la faculté de droit de Nantes, pour 3 400 étudiants inscrits, il n'y a que 150 étudiants en master 2 (bac + 5). Le taux de réussite l'année dernière était le suivant en première année : 68 % pour les titulaires d'un bac scientifique, 52 % pour les bacs littéraires, et seulement 15 % pour les bacs techniques.

La sélection est encore plus impitoyable dans les facultés de lettres, où les étudiants à bac + 4 ou bac + 5 ayant manqué le capes ou l'agrégation se trouvent sans emploi ou dans des emplois ne nécessitant pas un tel niveau d'études. Et on s'étonne que ces étudiants se rebellent les premiers, qu'il y ait mutinerie ; et on feint l'indignation lorsqu'aux sondeurs ils répondent qu'ils aspirent à la fonction publique, au statut protecteur. Les études qu'ils suivent n'ont plus aucun sens. Demain ils mépriseront le savoir qu'on leur dispense, faute pour eux de pouvoir le convertir en un épanouissement dans le travail. Alors nihilisme, alors : "Feu sur la culture !" ; c'est le sentiment qu'on éprouve à les voir bloquer nos universités...",1-0@2-3232,36-758905,0.html

I got this from a blog by a young woman who is at the Sorbonne, doing philosophy but interested in journalism.

She's worked with John Lichfield of the UK Independent and had an article in it the other day; she seems to share his rather pessimistic, rather right-wing view of France:

There's more support for the French and their very active approach to democracy in the comments which are critical of an article in the Guardian by J. Fenby - who makes the usual criticisms of the French.

This one is funny:

DanielDavies April 10, 2006 02:19 PM

"Sadly the Constitution of the Vth Republic of France is unclear on the provisions for what might happen in the event of the French people losing the confidence of Jonathan Fenby. Clearly the French people cannot continue in their current role, but opinions differ as to whether Mr Fenby should rule by diktat until such time as a new French electorate can be assembled, or whether the Constitution obliges an immediate dissolution of the French population pending new elections."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

House sold - off to Paris

My house is sold ! Contracts exchanged last Weds. - but, while it's now legally binding, it still doesn't seem real without the money in my account, so I haven't splashed out on anything yet.

I'm still taking books etc. to the charity shops, but need to speed up, there is still a lot to go.

It will be great to finally move away from this limbo, Sudbury Town, too far from the centre of London, and to move to central Paris, especially if I have as good a time as I did there over Xmas.