Ephemera

Colombia has been struggling with a particularly large and unlikely interloper: the hippopotamus. The African animals are multiplying in the area around Doradal, in the northwest of the country. It’s all the fault of the cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar. During his heyday as leader of the Medellín Cartel, he imported four hippos for his personal …

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Most Math teaching is functionally useless

What’s the point of learning maths? For some it reveals the beauty of underlying patterns in the world. But for most of us the point of maths is to help deal with real-life problems – something maths teaching today signally fails to do. You bone up on trigonometry yet seldom encounter it again once you’ve …

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Britain saves the EU from falling apart!

It may sound crazy, but “Brexit has saved the EU”. Think about it. After the 2016 referendum, many sensible people thought Britain’s departure would spark a “stampede” out of the bloc. Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders schemed to duplicate the result in France and the Netherlands. Donald Trump’s promises of a “glorious” UK-US trade …

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Thought for the day

Unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old.”. (G.K. Chesterton, quoted in The Sunday Times) Was he thinking of the Constitution, liberal democracy, the rule of law, international treaties and cooperation, universities as promoters of critical thinking (not just job training), and financial services …

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Why fraudulent news travels fastest

False news travels much faster online than the truth because of our craving for novelty. In the largest-ever study of how news spreads on social media, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysed 126,000 stories on Twitter from between 2006 and 2017. They found that false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted …

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Argue with them, don’t just write them off as ignorant

Letter to The Guardian The flaw in the argument for denying far-right propagandists a platform is the failure to address how else the mass of us who oppose the unacceptable views can turn voters away from supporting them if we do not engage with their facile and untenable arguments. The strategy of ignoring them or …

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The reactionary ayatollahs should be ashamed of themselves

Liberals in Iran have recently been outraged by the arrest of a teenage gymnast who posted videos of herself dancing in her bedroom. Maedeh Hojabri, who has tens of thousands of social media followers, was seen crying on state TV last week during what some suspected was a forced confession: under Iran’s sharia law, it …

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Truly sick

Grizzly bears today occupy only about three percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states. Yet last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the Greater Yellowstone grizzly off the Endangered Species list, relinquishing management to the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, which border Yellowstone National Park. The result? The Wyoming …

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Air pollution is a killer. Tax the polluters.

A recent opinion poll suggests that 70 per cent of people in the UK are worried about air pollution and half want the state to do more. The British government does nothing. The main problem are highly polluting diesel vehicles. Air pollution will gradually fall as the oldest, most polluting vehicles are replaced. Yet the …

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A former spy-chief says social media emboldens the far Right.

I am reproducing a book review by Stephen Collins in this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine, because it needs to be emphasised and tepeated. The book is called “Principled Spying” by David Omand, a former head of GCHQ. (Georgetown University Press): “Twitter and Facebook have a darker side. I have seen them encourage the growth …

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Brexit and British agriculture (a bit long but a window into the Brexit muddle)

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy provides a total of £3bn per year – more than half of all farm income – which on average supplies 50-80% of a British farmer’s income. The EU also protects its farmers with tariffs on agricultural imports from outside the bloc of 12.2%, rising to as much as 51% on …

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Seneca on achievement and ambition

Seneca is particularly skeptical of the double-edged sword of achievement and ambition — which causes us to steep in our cesspool of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and clinging:. “It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They …

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Keeping the cost of drugs high

The Trump administration has dramatically increased the number of legitimate shipments of prescriptions it seizes at the border. The Food and Drug Administration is seizing shipments of cheaper, legal medications from legitimate pharmacies around the world. High drug prices in the U.S. have long driven Americans to look internationally for cheaper medications. Historically, the federal …

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Hitler and Stalin would be so envious!

The Guardian reports (July 20th) that the Chinese government is busy creating an individual profiling system for each and every Chinese citizen, a “social score” which will indicate who is a “desirable employee”, reliable tenant, valuable customer, their eligibility for a loan, whether they are shirkers or a “waste of time”. And, of course, who …

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The US health industry gets ever spookier

The health insurance industry has joined forces with data brokers to vacuum up personal details about hundreds of millions of Americans. The companies are tracking race, education level, TV habits, marital status, net worth, postings on social media, slowness paying bills, and what you order online. Complicated computer algorithms then produce predictions about how much …

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Hurry up – the human workers will soon be gone!

Robots modelled on the human hand could soon be deployed on British farms to pick cauliflowers and other vegetables. Harvesting cauliflowers is not straightforward: each head must be assessed, to ensure that it is suitably white and compact, and then carefully prised from its stem, with a few outer leaves still attached to protect the …

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Concentration camps for prostitutes

One dark chapter in the American story gets left out of the history books: the American Plan, which detained tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands of women from the 1910s through the 1950s. Under the plan, conceived during World War I to protect soldiers from “promiscuous” women and the diseases they possibly carried, women were …

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Thought for the day

In the 2015-2016 election cycle, the fossil fuel industry in America received over $20 billion in federal subsidies. These subsidies are not only encouraging economic behavior that is decimating our environment but they are putting the welfare of a dying industry above the future of life as we know it.

Good news

Ten years ago, Richard Thaler, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and law professor Cass Sunstein, published a book that suggested a brilliant idea: by exploiting simple quirks of human nature – our susceptibility to peer pressure; our tendency to put off coming to a decision – you can nudge people into making the right choices. Indeed …

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Late to rise, early to die

Night owls tend to die slightly earlier than early risers – possibly because they’re so often forced to defy their body clocks. Researchers from Britain and America tracked about 430,000 people who were asked whether they preferred mornings or evenings. Over a six-and-a-half-year period, those who said they were “definite” evening types were 10% more …

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