Digest: 23 September 2013


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In School is a Prison – And Damaging Our Kids, Peter Gray (for AlterNet) discusses the repercussions of our approach to schooling and how the school system we maintain is a holdover from another time and that we should reform it to better take into account the need to develop self-motivation in students.  The current system is based on a top-down, teach and test, rewards and punishments method derived from the time of the Protestant Reformation and the authority-based scriptural lessons that schools then provided.  What is needed now is something different – a system that nurtures critical thought, creativity, self-initiative, and the ability of students to learn on their own. This type of school is not unknown – longstanding examples exist that focus on employing the children’s inherent curiosity, creativity, and zest for learning.

Editor’s Consideration: Considering different environments produce different results, we might ask what the respective overall effect is of the two different systems in isolation, and then take account of those in deciding which balance we would choose to emulate. Looking in reverse, considering some of the more important issues we face, which of those issues would most likely be affected by an educational shift?  Children have a shorter term perspective than adults as a result of their relatively minimal life experience, so adults play a role in considering long-term implications of a child’s activity, but what unnecessary or even misguided assumptions do we have in place that influence our decisions in how to direct children? Is there an inherent bias to what we ourselves have created, to our own expectations based on our own experience? What is a child capable of developing alone, and what direction is actually required?


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In Five Years of Financial Non-Reform, Anat Admati (for Project Syndicate) argues that banks should be made to rely more on equity markets and less on borrowing money when raising funds. Admati points out that banks routinely fund more than 90% of their investments by taking on debt. Regulations should be shifted to force banks’ shareholders to bear more of the risk of bank activities if we are to limit the collateral damage that results from bank mismanagement. But so far there has been no meaningful consensus on what the problems are in financial markets, let alone on how to fix them.


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In Water Risk on the Rise, Andrew Steer (for Project Syndicate) discusses how the world business community is beginning to wake up to water risk as a serious matter to be considered carefully.  Many companies rely on a consistent supply of water, but climate change is causing weather patterns to veer from what we are used to.  In some places this means droughts, in other places it means floods.  The results of these can be property damage, price increases, business and supply chain interruptions – all of which bear costs to the business.  Companies are beginning to respond by paying increased attention to decreasing their water risk, and in some cases their water footprint.


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In Obama’s Grotesque Hypocrisy Over Cluster Munitions, Dave Lindorff (for Nation of Change) argues that if Obama wishes to shame Syria over the use of sarin gas then he should sign the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions. The Convention has been signed by 112 nations and ratified by 83 of those. The US holds out along with China, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia.  Cluster munitions like land-mines are indiscriminate and particularly when used in urban environments they have done terrible harm to large numbers of civilians, very often children.

In The Most Depressing Discovery About the Brain, Ever, Marty Kaplan (for AlterNet) discusses recent research that shows how little influence facts can have when they argue against a pre-conceived political notion or affiliation and how damaging political investment can be to the ability to solve mathematical problems.  Kaplan describes the findings of Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan who looked into how mathematical skills are noticeably diminished in people where the considered data refers to political issues in which they are invested. This research backs up earlier research that showed facts as having little effect in changing pre-conception.

In Kerry, Kissinger and the Other Sept. 11th, Amy Goodman (for Nation of Change) discusses Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent meeting with Henry Kissinger to discuss strategy regarding Syria. Goodman argues that Kerry would do well to choose his advisors more carefully. Kissinger’s role in the Chilean coup of 1973 argues against his appropriateness as a guider of policy for the Obama Administration. Kissinger was instrumental in developing a policy to overthrown the democratically elected President Allende and in embracing Pinochet, a violent and repressive leader. Allende’s advisor Juan Garces might have been a better choice for Kerry to speak with, but Garces sees unpleasant similarities between US repression and that of Pinochet when supported by Kissinger.

In Stealth Multilateralism, David Kaye (for Foreign Affairs) discusses how the Senate’s aversion to multilateral treaties is harming US influence in the world.  While it is true that the Executive Branch has found other ways of making international agreements, a result that Kaye terms “stealth multilateralism”, it would be preferable if the US would return to the treaty table.  Other countries continue to engage in multilateral negotiations on important issues that  affect US interests.  By not meaningfully engaging, the US loses its voice in those negotiations, and instigates the process of developing a less stable, transparent, and predictable result, than can be achieved with treaties.

In Drug Agents Use Vast Phone Trove, Eclipsing N.S.A.’s, Scott Shane and Colin Moynihan discuss the Hemisphere Project, a partnership between drug officials and AT&T which involves the collection of phone records on a scale even larger than the NSA’s collection.  The Project collects all records of phone calls that pass through AT&T hubs and includes calls dating back 26 years. It has been carried out in great secrecy. It is unclear whether other phone companies have similar arrangements, but in the case of AT&T the program seats AT&T employees with the DEA so as to expedite retrieval of information from AT&T. The phone records themselves are not stored by the government, but by the company. The question is whether it is the possession that matters considering Fourth Amendment rights to privacy, or whether access alone may be enough to trigger concerns.


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Three articles on the inadequacy of retirement savings in the US:  In The 401(k): Americans ‘Just Not Prepared’ to Manage Their Own Retirement Funds, Jia Lynn Yang (for The Washington Post) discusses the failure of 401(k) plans to effectively assist many Americans in sufficiently providing for their retirement. The system requires reform, at the core of which must be a massive education of employees on planning for retirement.  In Father of Modern 401(k) Says it Fails Many Americans, Scott Tong (for Marketplace) speaks with Ted Benna about the development of the 401(k) and the fall of pension schemes, and how the complexity of the modern plans perhaps prevents people from being able to manage their plans effectively.  The result is that after the dot com bubble crisis and the more recent financial crisis the typical middle class household has saved only a tenth of what it will need, and half of Americans don’t have such plans at all.  In 401(k)s Are Replacing Pensions. That’s Making Inequality Worse, Lydia DePillis (for The Washington Post) discusses a new analysis by the Economic Policy Institute that shows a “stratification of retirement savings by education, income, and race. The fall of pensions and the rise of employer-based retirement plans means that those who don’t have such a plan and those who don’t make sufficient funds to pay into a retirement account – a large and decreasing segment of the population – likely have a tough time ahead of them.

In One Third of Americans Under 30 Have No Religion – How Will That Change the Country?, Amelia Thomson-Deveaux (for AlterNet) discusses the final work of the legal and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin that proposes a religious attitude in the absence of belief in God. High-profile atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have played a central role in instigating the pitched battles between atheists and religionists that we have seen in recent years. In the US, religiosity is relatively strong when compared with Europe. But Americans are increasing leaving religious affiliation aside.  This is not necessarily a win for atheists, as many unaffiliated still claim to believe in some higher power; but it does seem to be a loss for organized religion in the US.

In Cryptographers Have an Ethics Problem, Antonio Regalado (for MIT Technology Review) discusses the application of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Code of Ethics to the code-breaking activities of the US Government. He considers that in developing highly complex technology from which harm may potentially derive, developers face moral dilemmas and it is important how they resolve those dilemmas.  Ethical principles may conflict however – there is an ethical need to prevent terrorist acts, but there is also an ethical need to prevent violations of privacy. In the past code-breaking was focused in war and diplomacy environments and directed at foreign governments, now the code-breaking taking place has moved into the public sphere – we rely on encryption when we communicate online or over the phone and this adds a dimension of necessary consideration for those who develop the code-breaking technology.