Wednesday, 27 August 2014

El Niño development remains possible and other news and views for Wednesday 27 August

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  • Little change in the tropical Pacific Ocean – “Despite tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures remaining at neutral levels, models suggest El Niño development remains possible during the coming months.”
  • Regulation gets real for virtual currencies – “Both the EU and New York are looking to bring digital currencies under a full regulatory regime, but their approaches are rather different.” (The Banker – registration required)
  • France and the shadow of the euro – “The fear stalking the eurozone is of a jobless recovery; years of stagnation which will test social cohesion. What the French crisis has underlined is that the eurozone, despite all the claims of recovery, still has the potential to trouble governments, banks and the wider European economy.”
  • A New Reason to Question the Official Unemployment Rate - “Americans are less willing to respond to surveys than they used to be. A new academic paper suggests that the unemployment rate appears to have become less accurate over the last two decades, in part because of this rise in nonresponse.”
  • Could The U.S. Fix Taxation of Multinational Corporations With A Sales-Based Formula?
  • News on social media suffers a ‘spiral of silence’: Pew study – “If social media users think their followers don’t share their opinion on the news, they are less likely to post those views on Facebook and Twitter, according to a new Pew Research Center report. … The authors connect these findings to the ‘spiral of silence,’ a phenomenon where people who think they hold a minority opinion don’t speak up for fear of social exclusion. “One of the possible theories [for this study] is that when people see diversity in opinion, they don’t want to challenge other people, or upset them, or risk losing a friendship,” said Keith Hampton of Rutgers University, one of the study’s authors, in a telephone interview. For the authors, the study implies that the long-documented suppression of minority opinion exists online just as in real life.”
  • We’re Living in a Golden Age of Investigative Journalism – “Newspapers in America may be closing up shop, but muckrakers around the world are holding corrupt officials and corporate cronies accountable like never before.”
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  • Couples who smoke marijuana are less likely to engage in domestic violence – “A new study by researchers at the University of Buffalo finds a significantly lower incidence of domestic violence among married couples who smoke pot. “Couples in which both spouses used marijuana frequently reported the least frequent IPV [intimate partner violence] perpetration,” the study concludes.”

Superannuation ticket clippers

Instead of all that boring stuff about will the Senate or won’t it, this is the story that should be on page one this morning:
Australian Super chief executive Ian Silk raises an issue of importance to all Australians forced to contribute to compulsory superannuation schemes. Too many people working in financial services, Mr Silk points out, are using the compulsory retirement savings system to enrich themselves rather than look after members’ money.
This is an issue that Labor should be making central to its re-election policies.
NOTE: Find an assortment of other ticket clipping stories about the finance industry HERE.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Rave on to get a vote

Well, when you are lagging along with less thsn 3% in the opinion polls I suppose you have to try something different. So why not a a rave party to disguise a policy speech? That’s the campaign technique of the Manu Internet Party in New Zealand as the 30 September election day approaches.
Now under the New Zealand electoral system the Internet Mana have to get to 5% of the national vote to gain seats unless they can win one of the single member electorates so there is some way to go from the 2.5% that the latest Morgan Poll gave them. But the Mana part of their organisation currently has a seat that could be retained which would put them in the race for a few more and, who knows, even the kingmaker position.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports this morning (behind a paywall) that the Internet Party’s flagship policy is to deliver ultrafast, cheaper web connections with greater freedom and privacy.
The combination has the potential to mobilise young people who wouldn’t normally vote, said former Labour Party president Mike Williams. ‘‘ It could change the outcome of the election.’’
Mr Dotcom* has named Laila Harre, a cabinet minister in a former Labour- led government, to head the Internet Party and is holding dance raves across the nation to capture the youth vote.
Internet Mana doubled its support to 4 per cent in a recent poll. Labour was on 26 per cent, the Greens 11 per cent and Mr Key’s National had 50 per cent. No party has won an outright majority since New Zealand introduced proportional representation in 1996.
Mr Dotcom is exploiting a quirk in the system to better his chances. Parties need 5 per cent of the vote to get into Parliament unless they win an electorate. In that scenario, their slice of the national vote determines how many seats they get.
*Wikipedia describes Mr Dotcom thus:
Kim Dotcom (born Kim Schmitz; 21 January 1974), also known as Kimble and Kim Tim Jim Vestor, is a German-Finnish Internet entrepreneur, businessman, singer, and political party founder currently residing in New Zealand. He is the founder of file hosting service Mega as well as its now defunct predecessor Megaupload. In politics he is the founder, main funder, and “party visionary” of New Zealand’s Internet Party.
He rose to fame in Germany in the 1990s as an alleged hacker and internet entrepreneur. He was convicted of several crimes, and received a suspended prison sentence in 1994 for computer fraud and data espionage, and another suspended prison sentence in 2003 for insider trading and embezzlement.
In January 2012, the New Zealand Police placed him in custody in response to US charges of criminal copyright infringement in relation to his Megaupload website. Dotcom was accused of costing the entertainment industry $500 million through pirated content uploaded to his file-sharing site, which had 150 million registered users. Dotcom has vigorously denied the charges, and is fighting the attempt to extradite him to the United States. Despite legal action still pending over Megaupload, Mega launched in January 2013, opening to the public exactly one year after Megaupload was shut down. It is a cloud storageservice that uses encryption to prevent government or third-party “spies” from invading users’ privacy.

A debate ends and the voting in Scotland begins

The media consensus and the instant finding of the pollsters was that the Yes case for Scottish independence had the best of the debate last night which preceded the beginning of pre-poll voting for the referendum. But will it actually mean anything?
26-08-2014 scottishpapersondebateNot if the Owl’s election indicator is any guide. The No vote is a firmer favourite today than it was a week ago.
Voting day proper for the referendum is Thursday 18 September.
Note: The Owl backed the No vote at $1.23 and then again at $1.30. You will find details of all his political bets at the political speculator’s diary.

Mixed messages to welcome the August budget

Everything old is new again. It has taken 20 years but federal Parliament is back for an August budget session. It’s as if Ralph Willis had never started that funny May business. And this time we don’t need one of those ridiculous budget lockups to keep us in suspense about what’s in-store. This time the negotiations about what’s in and what’s out are being played out in public and we are still none the wiser about the economic outcome.
What fun it is to have a proper minority government. Not like that last one where Labor, the Greens and a couple of independents stitched things up in private before hand. This Liberal-National coalition is letting us see the legislative sausage machine at work with all the crude ingredients that a Palmer United Party can throw in. Parliament, or at least the Senate half of it, is really relevant again.
The government is doing its best to spice things up as well. We go from a looming budget crisis to being relaxed and comfortable about the inevitable outcome. The Education Minister Christopher Pyne threatens one day to cut research funding for universities so the Prime Minister can assure us the next about the vital importance of university based research to the nation’s future.
And as if that mixed message was  not enough for the start of  a budget session, the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann this morning was still preaching his fears of having to raise taxes while Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed that his government would be reducing taxes not putting them up.
You wouldn’t miss this budget for quids.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The political disappearance of the garden gnomes and other news and views for Monday 25 August

  • Soon, Europe Might Not Need Any Power Plants –  “Within a few decades, large-scale, centralized electricity generation from fossil fuels could be a thing of the past in Europe. That’s the word from investment bank UBS, which just released a new report anticipating a three pronged assault from solar power, battery technology, and electric vehicles that will render obsolete traditional power generation by large utilities that rely on coal or natural gas.”
  • TV Habits? Medical History? Tests for Jury Duty Get Personal – “Jury questionnaires have become a familiar presence in courtrooms across the United States, with some lawyers routinely requesting them in major cases — transforming the standard voir dire procedure into a written test.”
  • Inside Clive Palmer’s inner circle – “Palmer does have a string of close associates who he uses as sounding boards for his ­political and business strategies. Of course, whether he takes their advice on board is an entirely ­different matter.”
  • The Irish Redhead Convention takes place in County Cork
  • Austrian party rues disappearance of 400 garden gnomes – “Four hundred garden gnomes have gone missing in Vorarlberg in west Austria. The gnomes, known as “Coolmen”, are the property of the left wing Social Democrat Party. They were being used as political campaign advertisements in the run up to provincial elections in Vorarlberg on 21 September.”
  • Andrew Forrest, the founder of Fortescue Metals Group - The Financial Times’ Monday interview – “No one can accuse Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest of lacking big ideas or being slow to bring them to fruition.”

Would you like your rat roasted or stewed?

BBC News - Cambodian rat meat: A growing export market:
"A unique harvest is under way in the rice fields of Cambodia where tens of thousands of wild rats are being trapped alive each day to feed a growing export market for the meat of rural rodents.
 Popularly considered a disease-carrying nuisance in many societies, the rice field rats, Rattus argentiventer, of this small South-East Asian nation are considered a healthy delicacy due to their free-range lifestyle and largely organic diet.
 Rat-catching season reaches its height after the rice harvest in June and July when rats have little to eat in this part of rural Kompong Cham province, some 60km from the capital Phnom Penh. "
'via Blog this'

Animal welfare groups making political progress

The cause of animal welfare is certainly making political progress. Around the world governments are moving to restrict testing of cosmetics on animals and now the major food producer Nestlé is promising to enforce new animal welfare standards on its suppliers which could affect “hundreds of thousands of farms around the world”.
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The Swiss headquartered company has entered into an agreement with the NGO World Animal Protection (previously known as WSPA – World Society for the Protection of Animals) to ensure that supply Nestlé of its dairy, meat, poultry and eggs complies with tighter animal welfare standards.
Nestlé says it has some 7,300 suppliers from whom it buys animal-derived products directly – everything from milk for its range of yoghurts and ice-creams, to meat for its chilled foods and eggs for its fresh pastry and pasta. Each of these suppliers, in turn, buys from others, meaning that Nestlé’s Responsible Sourcing Guidelines apply to literally hundreds of thousands of farms around the world.The company has nine factories in Australia, including Tongala, Broadford and Wahgunyah in regional Victoria.
Under its new standards, Nestlé will not buy products derived from pigs raised in gestation stalls, chickens in barren battery cages, cattle that have been dehorned or had their tails docked without anesthesia and animals whose health has been damaged by drugs that promote growth.
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In a statement announcing the new policy the company said it has commissioned an independent auditor, SGS, to carry out checks to ensure the new standards of animal welfare are met on its supplying farms. In 2014, several hundred farm assessments have already been carried out worldwide. Some of these checks are also attended, unannounced, by World Animal Protection representatives whose role is to verify the auditors.
When a violation is identified, Nestlé will work with the supplier to improve the treatment of farm animals to ensure they meet the required standards. If, despite engagement and guidance from Nestlé, the company is unable or unwilling to show improvement, it will no longer supply Nestlé.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

How Murdoch News Corp could shift 11% of the votes and other news and views for Sunday 24 August

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  • How can we measure media power? – “The potential for political influence is what most people think of when they talk about the power of the media. A new media power index, proposed in this column, aggregates power across all platforms and focuses not on markets but on voters. It measures not actual media influence but rather its potential. Using the index, the author finds that the four most powerful media companies in the US are television-based and the absolute value of the index is high. This indicates that most American voters receive their news from a small number of news sources, which creates the potential for large political influence.”
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(Click to enlarge)
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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Sri Lanka’s intransigence and other news and views for Saturday 23 August

From the front page of Tuesday's Sri Lankan Daily Mirror
From the front page of Tuesday’s Sri Lankan Daily Mirror
  • Sri Lanka’s Intransigence –  New York Times editorial: “Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, said Tuesday that his government would not cooperate with the United Nations investigation begun last month into suspected human rights abuses, including possible war crimes, committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Mr. Rajapaksa’s intransigence puts Sri Lanka in the company of North Korea and Syria, two countries that also barred access to United Nations human rights investigators. Mr. Rajapaksa claims Sri Lanka can handle the inquiry on its own. This is doubtful. … The safety of witnesses is a major concern. People demanding accountability for those who disappeared have faced threats and arrest. Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act is being used to detain people without trial.”
  • Nestle Nudges Its Suppliers To Improve Animal Welfare – “On Thursday, Nestle, the world’s largest food company, announced that it’s requiring all of its suppliers to eliminate tail docking as part of a new commitment to improving the welfare of the farm animals in its supply chain. It will also mandate that its 7,300 suppliers of dairy, meat, poultry and egg products end all kinds of other common farming practices — like cage systems for chickens, gestation crates for pigs and dehorning cows.”
  • Theresa May pledges new measures to tackle British jihadis – “New powers to tackle extremist groups are being looked at by the government, the home secretary has said. … ‘I am looking again at the case for new banning orders for extremist groups that fall short of the legal threshold for terrorist proscription, as well as for new civil powers to target extremists who seek to radicalise others.’
  • Solomons town first in Pacific to relocate due to climate change – “Under threat from rising sea levels and tsunamis, the authorities of a provincial capital in the Solomon Islands have decided to relocate from a small island in the first such case in the Pacific islands. Choiseul, a township of around 1,000 people on Taro Island, a coral atoll in Choiseul Bay, is less than two meters (6.6 feet) above sea level. Its vulnerability to storm surges and tsunamis caused by earthquakes is expected to be compounded in the future by rising seas. Aware of these risks, communities in Choiseul Bay consulted a team of engineers, scientists and planners, funded by the Australian government, on how best to adapt to the impact of climate change.”
  • Oceans and the climate - Davy Jones’s heat locker – “The mystery of the pause in global warming may have been solved. The answer seems to lie at the bottom of the sea.”
  • Bank Of America Settles With Feds And States For Record Amount

Rote learning gets an educational tick

School days, school days
Dear old Golden Rule days
Taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick
The argument among educationalists about the best way to teach children mathematics will be enlivened by a recent paper by American and South Korean scientists in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Hippocampal-neocortical functional reorganization underlies children’s cognitive development looks at the transition from procedure-based to memory-based problem-solving strategies.
In their scientific language the researchers write that “longitudinal functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 7–9-year-old children revealed that the transition from use of counting to memory-based retrieval parallels increased hippocampal and decreased prefrontal-parietal engagement during arithmetic problem solving.” This is being interpreted by some educators as showing the crucial role played by rote memorization in the growing brains of young math students.
Reports Canada’s National Post (behind a paywall):
The progression from counting on fingers to simply remembering that, for example, six plus three equals nine, parallels physical changes in a child’s brain, in which the hippocampus, a key brain structure for memory, gradually takes over from the pre-frontal parietal cortex, an area of higher order reasoning.
In effect, as young math students memorize the basics, their brains reorganize to accommodate the greater demands of more complex math. It is a gradual process, like “overlapping waves,” the researchers write, but it clearly shows that, for the growing child’s brain, rote memorization is a key step along the way to efficient mathematical reasoning.
By tracking a group of young students over the course of a year, the authors show “that children learn to associate individual problems with the correct answers. Repeated problem solving during the early stages of arithmetic skill development also contributes to memory re-encoding and consolidation, thus resulting in enhanced hippocampal activity and ability to recall basic arithmetic facts… The maturation of problem-solving skills is characterized by a gradual decrease in the use of inefficient procedures such as counting and an increase in the use of memory-based strategies.”
As a scientific justification of rote learning, the study seems likely to further polarize the controversy over math teaching styles, in which arithmetical fundamentalists are squared off against the popular and progressive forces of “discovery-based” learning, in which students are encouraged to find their own ways to the right answer.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Understanding Julian Assange – does Sweden’s forthcoming election hold the key?

Perhaps the Swedish opinion polls hold the key to the rather cryptic prediction by Julian Assange that he will soon be leaving the protection of the Embassy of Ecuador in London. The centre-right Alliance for Sweden coalition government (comprising the Moderate Party, Liberal People’s Party, Centre Party, and Christian Democrats) is trailing well behind the probable left of centre left coalition led by the Social Democrats. An Ipsos poll this week had the three parties of the left holding a comfortable lead over the four party governing coalition by 50 per cent to 36 per cent. That surely raises the prospect that the Wikileaks founder is banking on a leftist Sweden being far less likely than the current administration of extraditing him to the United States after his criminal investigation is dealt with.
The trend of the Swedish opinion polls - from Wikileaks
The trend of the Swedish opinion polls – from Wikileaks

Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream and other news and views for Friday 22 August

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  • Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream – “Lack of upward mobility is souring the national mood. As horizons shrink, anger rises. The political right has done a better job, so far, of converting frustration into political gain, by successfully—if implausibly—laying the blame for many of America’s woes at the door of ‘Big Government’.”
The idea of equal opportunity is central to the idea of America. From the very founding of the nation, the promise that talent and hard work will count for more than the lottery of birth has underpinned American self-identity.  In the latest Brookings Essay, Richard Reeves examines an issue so threatening to the American ethos—economic mobility—that President Obama has called it “the defining issue of our time.”
The idea of equal opportunity is central to the idea of America. From the very founding of the nation, the promise that talent and hard work will count for more than the lottery of birth has underpinned American self-identity. In the latest Brookings Essay, Richard Reeves examines an issue so threatening to the American ethos—economic mobility—that President Obama has called it “the defining issue of our time.”
  •  Caught out - Markets have defied expectations in 2014, leaving investors with few options – “Like a snake swallowing its own tail, the corporate sector is absorbing its own equity. How long this can continue is anyone’s guess. The peak year for share buy-backs was 2007, just before the debt crisis. That is not a great omen.”
  • China’s Fire Next Time – “Earlier this year, rumors of China’s impending financial doom – triggered by either a housing-market crash or local-government debt defaults – were rampant. But, in recent months, the economy has stabilized, leaving few doubts about China’s ability to grow by more than 7% this year. Given that the Chinese government had ample scope for policy intervention, this turnaround should come as no surprise. But the moment of financial reckoning has merely been postponed, not averted.”
  • Rescuing Brecht – A review by Michael Hofmann of Stephen Parker’s ‘BERTOLT BRECHT - A literary life’
A bottle goes in and the food comes out: A special Turkish box allows people to nourish stray dogs by donating their recyclable bottles.
A bottle goes in and the food comes out: A special Turkish box allows people to nourish stray dogs by donating their recyclable bottles.