Monthly Archives: March 2012

We will always have the poor with us?

The poor are just people without enough money. But a ‘culture of poverty’ gives the affluent a reason to blame them for it

Barbara Enrenreich, Guardian Comment Network, 15 Mar 2012

It’s been exactly 50 years since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, “discovered” poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington’s engaging book The Other America. If this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus’s “discovery” of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so “hidden” and “invisible” that it took a crusading leftwing journalist to ferret them out.

Harrington’s book jolted a nation that then prided itself on its classlessness and even fretted about the spirit-sapping effects of “too much affluence”. He estimated that one quarter of the population lived in poverty – inner-city blacks, Appalachian whites, farm workers, and elderly Americans among them. We could no longer boast, as President Nixon had done in his “kitchen debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow just three years earlier, about the splendors of American capitalism.

At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed, or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently, and pursued lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote:

“There is … a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.”

Harrington did such a good job of making the poor seem “other” that when I read his book in 1963, I did not recognize my own forbears and extended family in it. All right, some of them did lead disorderly lives by middle-class standards, involving drinking, brawling, and out-of-wedlock babies. But they were also hardworking and, in some cases, fiercely ambitious – qualities that Harrington seemed to reserve for the economically privileged. Continue reading

The doomsday clock: Countdown to the man-made apocalypse?

Should the “Doomsday Clock” be moved ahead because of threats from biotechnology?

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist's 'Doomsday Clock' reads seven minutes to midnight.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist's 'Doomsday Clock' reads seven minutes to midnight after being adjusted two minutes closer 27 February, 2002 in Chicago, IL.
SCOTT OLSON/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly after the end of World War II, Albert Einstein, referring to the new global danger of nuclear weapons, uttered his now famous warning: “Everything has changed, save the way we think.” Accordingly, he and Robert Oppenheimer established the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to help warn the public about the dangers of nuclear war.

Perhaps the most visible face of the bulletin—for which I am currently co-chair of the board of sponsors—is the “Doomsday Clock.”  Created in 1947, the clock graphically reflects how close humanity might be to human-induced apocalypse, in terms of the “number of minutes to midnight”—at which time, presumably, time itself will no longer matter.

In total, the clock has been adjusted 20 times, moving as close to two minutes to midnight in 1953, after the United States and Soviet Union each first tested thermonuclear devices, and as far as 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, after the United States and Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Currently, it is set at five minutes to midnight.

Nuclear weapons continue to be the most urgent global threat to humanity: Recent developments in Iran, the continued tension between Pakistan and India, and the United States’ consideration of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons are all cause for great concern. But in the 60-odd years since the creation of the Doomsday Clock, the world has changed, in no small part to technological and scientific advance, making it even more dangerous. Unfortunately, there is no great evidence that our way of thinking about global catastrophes has evolved for the 21st century. That’s why the bulletin decided, in 2007, to factor other threats to humanity into the Doomsday Clock.

Since then, we have run three “Doomsday Symposia,” during which key scientists and policymakers assess ongoing global threats to humanity in three areas: nuclear proliferation and nuclear weapons, climate change, and biotechnology and bioterrorism. The last issue has raised a lot of heat in the media in recent years, and the specter of new lethal viruses that might wipe out populations suggested to us that there might be compelling new reasons to move the clock forward again.

Indeed, as biotechnology has undergone in the past 35 years the same explosive growth that physics technology underwent in the previous period, the emerging possibility of biologically induced weapons has increased. We now have the ability to artificially recreate genetic sequences, including viruses. DNA “hacking” has become a pastime at institutions such as MIT, among the same kind of people who used to be so enamored with computer hacking. Finally, the holy grail of genetic manipulation now involves the frontiers of synthetic biology, wherein researchers are attempting not merely to build up genetic sequences base-pair by base-pair, but also to explore the possibility of building novel life forms from scratch.

These developments are thrilling for scientists and technologists who love to take things apart and put them back together. But there remains the terrifying prospect that smart pranksters, DIYers, a laboratory, or more sinister groups could, either by accident or intentionally, accidentally create a new supervirus with the potential to wipe out all other life on Earth.  (Hence the furious debate that has surrounded experiments into artificially developing forms of the avian flu virus H5N1 that is transmittable between mammals.) Indeed, just this week, a host of external watchdog organizations have called this week for a moratorium on synthetic biology.

We should encourage the vigilance and rigorous discussion that has accompanied these developments. Happily, however, the bulletin’s experts, including Harvard biologistMatthew Meselson and human genome pioneer and synthetic biologist Craig Venter, suggest the above scenarios are in the near term unlikely at best, pure fiction at worst.

In the first place, the synthetic-biology industry is well-aware of the dangers of unmonitored genetic hacking and is responding on its own. Appeased by the group’s self-policing thus far, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issuesdetermined in 2010 that “there is no reason to endorse additional federal regulations or a moratorium on work in this field at this time.”

In the second place, while manufacturing dangerous biological compounds may be possible, weaponizing them is not so easy. While it might be possible to inflict significant terror locally, dispersing biological agents over broad regions to create global crises is far more challenging.

Next, there is the difficulty of reproducing appropriate technology. The field is as much an art as a science, and it is difficult to reliably reproduce results in a field where the financial benefits are likely to be so great that proprietary technology is not readily shared.

We can all (at least those of us who, unlike some of the dominant presidential candidates, accept the reality of both evolution and an old earth) take solace in the robustness of life itself, evolved over 4.5 billion years in the presence of remarkably ingenious viruses, which have also competed for survival. It is unlikely that a new organism, without the benefit of all of this “learned experience,” could outmaneuver all the mechanisms that life has developed to outwit constant biological invaders.

All of this suggested to those of us who have the unenviable task of regularly revisiting the possibility of Doomsday in order to help humanity adjust its thinking appropriately, that the current revolution in biotechnology is, for the moment, more likely to benefit humankind than destroy it.

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Did France ignore the Islamic radical threat?

Mohammed Merah

Police surround a property during an operation to arrest 24-year-old Mohammed Merah, the man suspected of killing seven victims including three children in separate gun attacks in Toulouse, France. Photograph: Getty Images

Hugh Scohfield, BBC News, 22 Mar 2012

According to Marine Le Pen, feisty head of the National Front, the Toulouse killings are evidence that France has “dangerously underestimated the threat of Islamic fundamentalism”.

Is that fair?

As a criticism, it cannot be dismissed out-of-hand just because she is on the far right. Seven people have been murdered in horrific circumstances, and the killer found his justification in Islam.

While the identity of the killer was unknown, the preferred theory of the chattering classes was quite clearly that he should be a neo-Nazi. Some even blamed President Sarkozy for inflaming anti-minority passions and creating the conditions where the attacks were possible.

Such insinuations seem utterly tasteless today, and will quite possibly set off a backlash against those who made them. Continue reading

DROP 2 or 1 COMMENT and POST UP: Elaborating contexts and interpreting evidence [Youth]

still waiting for non-posters to complete their comments on others posts/ANY of my posts and post up their originals.

In a forum conducted last July by the Institute of Policy Studies on “What Youth Want” representatives from various political parties discussed some of the beliefs, desires, traits and concerns that Singaporean youth possessed.

Briefly, these observations were made: 

  • Political activism centered on quality of life issues – concerns resolve around civil rights of being treated fairly or justly, freedoms in society
  • Youth today place a premium on higher order needs
  • Sceptical about institutions and more trusting of their own social networks
  • They do not show automatic deference to hierarchy, nor feel the pressing need to. 
  • Independent and innovative
  • (but also) disillusioned and disenfranchised
  • Great push for personal satisfaction and happiness 

Read the full summary is here.

Other more specific surveys that have emerged post-GE2011 paint a more complex picture of the youth and their level of political engagement. According to the IPS’s survey on political traits and media usage in the wake of the  2011 elections, some surprising, and not-so-surprising trends emerged:

SLIGHTLY more liberal political attitudes than older people 

  • About 70% agree or strongly agree that Singapore should be run by a powerful leader who runs the country as he/she sees fit
  • About 70% agree that economic growth is more important than freedom of speech
  • Yet, about 62% believe that there are too many rules concerning participation in political activities 

Participate in politics more actively

  • Consume more political content than older people
  • Alternative news websites like The Online Citizen, Temasek Review, Yawning Bread or foreign news media were also utilised as a process of shaping opinion outside of the mainstream media. 
  • Trusting of the Internet news to provide a range of viable perspectives

More likely to see government control of media and bias in media

  • About 6 in 10 youth believe that there is too much control of the media 
  • Biased reporting occurs when political issues are presented

Less likely to say that they voted for the ruling party/more open about their views

  • Only 1 in 10 refused to answer the question compared to 4 in 10 for other age groups. 

Task 1: In your designated groups, or individually you are to –

Craft 3 paragraphs describing how socio-economic/cultural/political factors, trends, changes or themes in Singapore have created  specific characteristic or characteristics of youth

POINT: Which societal factor/change/theme/ has created this characteristic of youth?

ELABORATION:  HOW has it led to this characteristic? How and why is this SIMILAR or DIFFERENT to youth in other nations? [if applicable]

(EG) Point: The rapid rise in affluence and disposable income in the country has unsurprisingly resulted in youth becoming increasingly…. [characteristic]

This due to/is a result of… When…Also…Further… 

 It may seem surprising, yet… and this trend is also seen among youth in Indonesia where…  OR

TIME: 25 minutes – Drop a comment at the bottom of the post. Save your work somewhere on a word.doc on the desktop lest it gets swallowed by technology!

ROUND 2: Comment on each other’s postings – critique the elaboration or add a new POINT.

Task 2 Homework: In your notes on Singapore Youth (Set B, YOUTH PACKAGE), you need to do a more detailed scan of youth, looking for data, trends or pertinent examples related to:

  1. Youth activism and volunteerism?
  2. Outlook on life? Upbeat? Positive? Social issues -youth related crime?
  3. Political apathy or engagement? Political attitudes? Affinity to political parties?
  4. Attitude towards foreigners, migration? Sense of belonging or rootedness?
  5. Media usage or exposure to technology/new media

and fill in the column to collate the facts.

A good starting point is to google for survey results from Straits Times, Institute of Policy Studies, MCYS and youth.

Task 3 (NEXT LESSON): As a team, you will write a youth manifesto of approximately 500  words describing the hopes, beliefs, desires, propositions that fairly and rightly capture the spirit of the Singapore youth [or youth in your country] given all of the above findings/evidence

We the youth –

  • Are…
  • Declare that…
  • Believe that..
  • Desire for…
  • Propose that…
  • Have experienced…
  • Are aware that…
  • Are mindful of…
  • Insist upon…

You can also use the comments in this post as reference.

Make it meaningful,

/Ms Toh

Talent matters.

David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, New York Times, 2011

HOW do people acquire high levels of skill in science, business, music, the arts and sports? This has long been a topic of intense debate in psychology.

Research in recent decades has shown that a big part of the answer is simply practice — and a lot of it. In a pioneering study, the Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues asked violin students at a music academy to estimate the amount of time they had devoted to practice since they started playing. By age 20, the students whom the faculty nominated as the “best” players had accumulated an average of over 10,000 hours, compared with just under 8,000 hours for the “good” players and not even 5,000 hours for the least skilled.

Those findings have been enthusiastically championed, perhaps because of their meritocratic appeal: what seems to separate the great from the merely good is hard work, not intellectual ability. Summing up Mr. Ericsson’s research in his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell observes that practice isn’t “the thing you do once you’re good” but “the thing you do that makes you good.” He adds that intellectual ability — the trait that an I.Q. score reflects — turns out not to be that important. “Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120,” he writes, “having additional I.Q. points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.”

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, restates this idea in his book “The Social Animal,” while Geoff Colvin, in his book “Talent Is Overrated,” adds that “I.Q. is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, I.Q. predicts little or nothing about performance.”

But this isn’t quite the story that science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields — and not just up to a point.  Continue reading

A new way of reading

Dwight Garner, Time

THE case against electronic books has been made, and elegantly, by many people, including Nicholson Baker in The New Yorker a few years ago. Mr. Baker called Amazon’s Kindle, in a memorable put-down, “the Bowflex of bookishness: something expensive that, when you commit to it, forces you to do more of whatever it is you think you should be doing more of.”

The best case I’ve seen for electronic books, however, arrived just last month, on the Web site of The New York Review of Books. The novelist Tim Parks proposed that e-books offered “a more austere, direct engagement” with words. What’s more, no dictator can burn one. His persuasive bottom line: “This is a medium for grown-ups.”

I’ve been trying to become more of a grown-up, in terms of my commitment to reading across what media geeks call “platforms” (a word that’s much sexier when applied to heels), from smartphones to e-readers to tablets to laptops.

It’s a battle I may lose. I still prefer to consume sentences the old-fashioned and nongreen way, on the pulped carcasses of trees that have had their throats slit. I can imagine my tweener kids, in a few years, beginning to picket me for my murderous habits: “No (tree) blood for (narrative) oil.”

It’s time to start thinking, however, about the best literary uses for these devices. Are some reading materials better suited to one platform than another? Does Philip Larkin feel at home on an iPad, and Lorrie Moore on a Kindle? Can I make a Kay Ryan poem my ringtone? Will any gizmo make “The Fountainhead” palatable?

Books used to pile up by my bedside; sometimes it now seems that gadgets do, the standby power of their LED lights staring at me like unfed dogs. Let’s talk about these machines, and their literary uses, in order of size, from small to large. Continue reading

The last word? Why KONY2012 is flawed.

Most Americans began this week not knowing who Joseph Kony was. That’s not surprising: most Americans begin every week not knowing a lot of things, especially about a part of the world as obscured from their vision as Uganda, the country where Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commenced a brutal insurgency in the 1980s that lingers to this day.

A viral video that took social media by storm over the past two days has seemingly changed all that. Produced by Invisible Children, a San Diego-based NGO, “Kony2012″ is a half-hour plea for Americans and global netizens to pay attention to Kony’s crimes — which include abducting over 60,000 children over two decades of conflict, brutalizing them and transforming many into child soldiers — and to pressure the Obama Administration to find and capture him. Within hours of the slick production surfacing on social media, it led to #StopKony trending on Twitter, populated Facebook timelines, was publicized by Hollywood celebrities and has been viewed some 10 million times on YouTube. Suddenly, a man on virtually no Westerner’s radar became the international bogeyman of the moment.

(VIDEO: The Lord’s Resistance Army Hunts Children in Sudan)

It’s an incredible public relations coup for the NGO, which congratulates itself in the film for spurring U.S. Congress last October to send 100 military “advisers” to aid Ugandan forces in their war against Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA is without a doubt a nasty outfit, responsible for massacres of civilian populations, mass rapes, contemptible acts of mutilation and, most notoriously, the creation of an army of child soldiers, forced to perform gruesome deeds. In 2005, the International Criminal Court in the Hague put Kony at the top of its most wanted list, indicted on 33 counts including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sure, the U.S. remains in the minority of nations yet to officially recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction, but that, Invisible Children’s members would likely argue, ought not change the need for a moral clarion call: Kony must be brought to justice. Continue reading