Saturday, 23 May 2015

Black academic claims he was denied university job over his plans to 'put white hegemony under the microscope'

Adam Lusher in The Independent

A black academic has claimed he was denied a permanent job at a British university because his plans to “put white hegemony under the microscope” were considered too much of a challenge to white-dominated academia.

Dr Nathaniel Coleman,  who crosses out his surname to “highlight the stigmatising expressive meaning” of the “badge” given to his forebears by slave owners, said his proposals for a new black studies MA were opposed by University College London  colleagues seeking something less critical of the white Establishment. UCL has postponed plans for the new MA and with no course to teach, he will be out of a job when his fixed-term contract at the philosophy department expires in October.

The academic, who has a double first in greats from Oxford University, said that he became just one of five black philosophy academics in UK universities when he joined UCL as Britain’s first research associate in the philosophy of “race” in October 2013.
His new MA, he claimed, would have upset some in white-dominated academia.

“White hegemony was … to be put under the microscope,” he told Times Higher Education. “Turning the spotlight on to the ivory tower, putting the fear of God into many of its scholars – predominantly racialised as white – who had contented themselves hitherto to research and teach in an ‘aracial’ – aka white-dominated – way.”

His claims, which are disputed by UCL, come weeks after the university submitted its application for a Race Equality Charter Mark as part of a pilot scheme running in 30 higher education institutions.

He was initially hired for a year, but had his contract extended for a further 12 months with a view to developing a new MA course.

On the website, he called for UCL to face up to “its invention and institutionalisation of national eugenics” under the influence of Sir Francis Galton, the “father” of the discredited pseudoscience of racial purity. In March last year he organised an event at UCL entitled “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?” telling the audience there was a continuing failure to recognise black scholars as philosophers.

The event, which also highlighted the fact that just 85 of the UK’s 18,500 professors were black, was attended by UCL’s provost, Professor Michael Arthur, who wrote: “We cannot suppose unequal treatment stops at our door.”

Friday, 22 May 2015

Seven common myths about meditation

Julia Roberts learns how to meditate in the film Eat, Pray, Love. Photograph: Allstar/COLUMBIA PICTURES/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Catherine Wikholm in The Guardian

Meditation is becoming increasingly popular, and in recent years there have been calls for mindfulness (a meditative practice with Buddhist roots) to be more widely available on the NHS. Often promoted as a sure-fire way to reduce stress, it’s also being increasingly offered in schools, universities and businesses.

For the secularised mind, meditation fills a spiritual vacuum; it brings the hope of becoming a better, happier individual in a more peaceful world. However, the fact that meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier, but to destroy our sense of individual self – who we feel and think we are most of the time – is often overlooked in the science and media stories about it, which focus almost exclusively on the benefits practitioners can expect.

If you’re considering it, here are seven common beliefs about meditation that are not supported by scientific evidence.

Myth 1: Meditation never has adverse or negative effects. It will change you for the better (and only the better)

Fact 1: It’s easy to see why this myth might spring up. After all, sitting in silence and focusing on your breathing would seem like a fairly innocuous activity with little potential for harm. But when you consider how many of us, when worried or facing difficult circumstances, cope by keeping ourselves very busy and with little time to think, it isn’t that much of a surprise to find that sitting without distractions, with only ourselves, might lead to disturbing emotions rising to the surface.

However, many scientists have turned a blind eye to the potential unexpected or harmful consequences of meditation. With Transcendental Meditation, this is probably because many of those who have researched it have also been personally involved in the movement; with mindfulness, the reasons are less clear, because it is presented as a secular technique. Nevertheless, there is emerging scientific evidence from case studies, surveys of meditators’ experience and historical studies to show that meditation can be associated with stress, negative effectsand mental health problems. For example, one study found that mindfulness meditation led to increased cortisol, a biological marker of stress, despite the fact that participants subjectively reported feeling less stressed.

Myth 2: Meditation can benefit everyone

FacebookTwitterPinterest Photograph: Alamy

Fact 2: The idea that meditation is a cure-all for all lacks scientific basis. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” the psychologist Arnold Lazarus reminded us in his writings about meditation. Although there has been relatively little research into how individual circumstances – such as age, gender, or personality type – might play a role in the value of meditation, there is a growing awareness that meditation works differently for each individual.

For example, it may provide an effective stress-relief technique for individuals facing serious problems (such as being unemployed), but have little value for low-stressed individuals. Or it may benefit depressed individuals who suffered trauma and abuse in their childhood, but not other depressed people. There is also some evidence that – along with yoga – it can be of particular use to prisoners, for whom it improves psychological wellbeing and, perhaps more importantly, encourages better control over impulsivity. We shouldn’t be surprised about meditation having variable benefits from person to person. After all, the practice wasn’t intended to make us happier or less stressed, but to assist us in diving deep within and challenging who we believe we are.

Myth 3: If everyone meditated the world would be a much better place

Fact 3: All global religions share the belief that following their particular practices and ideals will make us better individuals. So far, there is no clear scientific evidence that meditation is more effective at making us, for example, more compassionate than other spiritual or psychological practices. Research on this topic has serious methodological and theoretical limitations and biases. Most of the studies have no adequate control groups and generally fail to assess the expectations of participants (ie, if we expect to benefit from something, we may be more likely to report benefits).

Myth 4: If you’re seeking personal change and growth, meditating is as efficient – or more – than having therapy

Fact 4: There is very little evidence that an eight-week mindfulness-based group programme has the same benefits as of being in conventional psychological therapy – most studies compare mindfulness to “treatment as usual” (such as seeing your GP), rather than one-to-one therapy. Although mindfulness interventions are group-based and most psychological therapy is conducted on a one-to-one basis, both approaches involve developing an increased awareness of our thoughts, emotions and way of relating to others. But the levels of awareness probably differ. A therapist can encourage us to examine conscious or unconscious patterns within ourselves, whereas these might be difficult to access in a one-size-fits-all group course, or if we were meditating on our own.

Myth 5: Meditation produces a unique state of consciousness that we can measure scientifically

FacebookTwitterPinterest Teachers and pupils practise meditation techniques at Bethnal Green Academy Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Fact 5: Meditation produces states of consciousness that we can indeed measure using various scientific instruments. However, the overall evidence is that these states are not physiologically unique. Furthermore, although different kinds of meditation may have diverse effects on consciousness (and on the brain), there is no scientific consensus about what these effects are.

Myth 6: We can practise meditation as a purely scientific technique with no religious or spiritual leanings

Fact 6: In principle, it’s perfectly possible to meditate and be uninterested in the spiritual background to the practice. However, research shows that meditation leads us to become more spiritual, and that this increase in spirituality is partly responsible for the practice’s positive effects. So, even if we set out to ignore meditation’s spiritual roots, those roots may nonetheless envelop us, to a greater or lesser degree. Overall, it is unclear whether secular models of mindfulness meditation are fully secular.

Myth 7: Science has unequivocally shown how meditation can change us and why

Fact 7: Meta-analyses show there is moderate evidence that meditation affects us in various ways, such as increasing positive emotions and reducing anxiety. However, it is less clear how powerful and long-lasting these changes are.

Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding. We need better studies but, perhaps as important, we also need models that explain how meditation works. For example, with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), we still can’t be sure of the “active” ingredient. Is it the meditation itself that causes positive effects, or is it the fact that the participant learns to step back and become aware of his or her thoughts and feelings in a supportive group environment?

There simply is no cohesive, overarching attempt to describe the various psychobiological processes that meditation sets in motion. Unless we can clearly map the effects of meditation – both the positive and the negative – and identify the processes underpinning the practice, our scientific understanding of meditation is precarious and can easily lead to exaggeration and misinterpretation.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Record fines for currency market fix

Canary Wharf
Five of the world's largest banks are to pay fines totalling $5.7bn (£3.6bn) for manipulating the foreign exchange market, US officials say.
Four of the banks - JPMorgan, Citigroup, Barclays, RBS - have agreed to plead guilty to US criminal charges.
The fifth, UBS, will plead guilty to rigging benchmark interest rates.
Barclays was fined the most, $2.4bn, as it did not join other banks in November to settle investigations by UK, US and Swiss regulators.
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that "almost every day" for five years from 2007, currency traders used a private electronic chat room to manipulate exchange rates.
Their actions harmed "countless consumers, investors and institutions around the world", she said.

Cartel threat

Regulators said that between 2008 and 2012, several traders formed a cartel and used chat rooms to manipulate prices in their favour.
One Barclays trader who was invited to join the cartel was told: "Mess up and sleep with one eye open at night."
Several strategies were used to manipulate prices and a common scheme was to influence prices around the daily fixing of currency levels.
A daily exchange rate fix is held to help businesses and investors value their multi-currency assets and liabilities.

'Building ammo'

Until February, this happened every day in the 30 seconds before and after 16:00 in London and the result is known as the 4pm fix, or just the fix.
In a scheme known as "building ammo", a single trader would amass a large position in a currency and, just before or during the fix, would exit that position.
Other members of the cartel would be aware of the plan and would be able to profit.
"They engaged in a brazen 'heads I win, tails you lose' scheme to rip off their clients," said New York State superintendent of financial services Benjamin Lawsky.

Fables of Modi’s first year in power

Jawed Naqvi in The Dawn

Some left-wing activists these days are worriedly discussing post-16th May India. According to them Narendra Modi’s consummate victory on this day last year marked a paradigm shift in the nation’s politics — for the worse, they assert. Others who shared the traumatic perspective changed their view earlier this year after Arvind Kejriwal emerged as Modi’s unlikely foil and bĂȘte noir.
Before we continue with Kejriwal’s near mythological role in stalling the rightist juggernaut led by Modi, let us briefly look at the prime minister’s Achilles heel, which, ironically, happens to be the clear majority he won exactly a year ago. In other words, a majority in parliament in the Indian system is no assurance of stability, a weakness that was best illustrated by Rajiv Gandhi’s turbulent tenure.
Gandhi’s four-fifths majority in the Lok Sabha remains unmatched to this day. Ideally, it should have given him five years of solid, stable government between 1985 and 1990. Instead, what he got was a crippling defence procurement scandal that haunted him till his death. His own party acolytes deserted him and some even conspired to topple the young prime minister.
Amitabh Bachchan, Arun Singh, Arun Nehru were among the younger lot who had come close to the prime minister after his mother’s assassination. They left him before his term was over. Others from the Gandhi Camelot moved over to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His trusted aide Vishwanath Pratap Singh subsequently became prime minister in 1990. The BJP and the communists supported him.
Look at the contrast. Indira Gandhi who split her party to be able to become prime minister at the head of a minority government in 1966, ruled with far greater confidence with support from communists and other assorted liberals.

Worried leftists should unequivocally thank Kejriwal for relieving them of their trauma over the Indian PM.

Her legacy still energises Indian politics, its economy and culture too. The banks that were nationalised by her remain state-owned. The two words she added to the preamble of the constitution — secular and socialist — have resisted periodic assaults from the right. The liberal arts and the scientific spirit she gave the academia with no impressive majority in parliament is planted as firmly as a sturdy molar that can only be uprooted by a painful surgery.
Easily the best example of someone without a majority who completed three full terms, first as finance minister and two as prime minister, is Manmohan Singh. He introduced sweeping economic reforms though his government had to bribe a few tribal MPs to stay in majority. He got support from the communists in his first tenure as prime minister and earned enough brownie points to win a second term. He faltered after he evicted the left, not because he did not have a majority in parliament.
Atal Behari Vajpayee was invited to form a bizarre minority government in 1996. It lasted all of 13 days. How could the president invite anyone who did not have the remotest proximity to finding a majority? Indian presidents have not always been transparent. Anyway it was a two-week government that signed the damaging Enron electricity deal, majority or no majority.
My worried leftist friends should unequivocally thank Kejriwal for relieving them of their trauma over Modi. The Aam Aadmi Party he heads has single-handedly changed the contours of possibilities for India’s political cobblers. When I see former BJP minister Arun Shourie laying into Modi on the eve of his completing his first year in office, the criticism reminds me of Rajiv Gandhi’s disloyal friends. However, Shourie could only speak because of Kejriwal’s amazing victory, which took the wind out of the prime minister’s sails.
If Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in Indian Jammu and Kashmir got the BJP MLAs to swear by the Kashmiri constitution they were loath to, he had his way because AAP’s victory in Delhi had emboldened him. Sonia Gandhi, ever so reclusive since the drubbing of her party by Modi, suddenly found spring in her walk. She led the entire opposition, including communist leader Sitaram Yechury, to the presidential palace to protest Modi’s land acquisition bill. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and the backward caste satraps in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have benefited from Kejriwal’s humbling of Modi. Even Modi’s ally the Shiv Sena is now growling thanks to AAP.
Modi’s choreographers, which include the bulk of the media, are projecting his foreign policy in glowing terms not the least to mask his reneging on most domestic promises — rural, urban, rich, poor. With his claims of head transplants in ancient India, the prime minister has also become a caricature of the tough cookie he was thought to be. His gag measures against certain NGOs have boomeranged, inviting an earful from foreign governments.
He might have felt close enough to President Obama to call him by his first name, but it was more gracious for India that Obama called Manmohan Singh his learned guru.
Examples are galore of leaders being spurred by domestic difficulties to make foreign policy choices, and visits. Rajiv Gandhi was laying into Pakistan with Operation Brass Tacks before the Bofors scandal broke. When the scam raged he found himself signing a major agreement with Benazir Bhutto for nuclear safety with Pakistan.
Modi can wear any headgear in China, but he can’t approach the simple handshake between Deng Xiaoping and Rajiv Gandhi nor Narasimha Rao’s game-changing 1993 agreement with premier Li Peng for “peace and tranquillity on the borders”. In Mongolia, as I write, Modi is having a great time. Who showed him the way?
Indira Gandhi got Mongolia to second the resolution for the recognition of Bangladesh at the UN in 1972. The job done, she invited the Mongolian prime minister to Delhi, took him out for a quiet chat under a tree at Teen Murti House. When she offered him a cigarette, the guest hesitated. She lit one herself, helping her friend to pick one from the pack.