Thursday 23 August 2012

REACHING FOR MY GNU: coming soon

Aaaargh! Press will be publishing Reaching for my Gnu, Anna Chen's collection of poetry, for kindle and in good old-fashioned analogue hard copy very soon.


"THE POEMS IN THIS COLLECTION are graceful, muscular, playful, rich in both emotional depth and intellectual rigour; brimful of righteous anger and piercing wit; intent on revitalising both the truism that 'the political is personal' and its obverse - that the personal is political - by gleefully annihilating any notional barriers remaining between the two, or between the general and the particular.

"If you're reading this and you've never seen Anna Chen perform, you're in for a treat now and and an even bigger one when you see her live. If, on the other hand, you bought this because you've just seen her read ... you'll be picking out some new favourites and hoping she does 'em next time you see her. Enjoy. I already have."
Charles Shaar Murray

Funny, often hilarious.

"Brilliant and dangerous"
Mick Farren

Greg Palast

"Cutting edge"
Stewart Lee


Chimp makes tools and outsmarts our current political stars

Smarter than a lot of people I could mention, Kanzi the Bonobo chimp makes tools and considers a witty riposte to George Galloway at the same time.

Able to work out how to get to the banana in the box, he can also tell the difference between bad sex etiquette and rape — he just chooses not to put it into practise. He is, after all, a few million years behind us on the evolutionary scale, but what's GG's excuse?

This video is like going back in time and seeing how our ape forefathers started to use tools that would end up giving us Shakespeare and the nuclear bomb.

Miserabilist that I am!

Friday 17 August 2012

How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps: Britain next

How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps
Posted on August 12, 2012
Reblogged from THE HOMELESS ADJUNCT and Junct Rebellion. This is what Britain has to look forward to — we're already halfway there.

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, “In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in our graduates, the out-of-control tuitions and crippling student loan debt. Attention is finally being paid to the enormous salaries for presidents and sports coaches, and the migrant worker status of the low-wage majority faculty. There are now movements to control tuition, to forgive student debt, to create more powerful “assessment” tools, to offer “free” university materials online, to combat adjunct faculty exploitation. But each of these movements focuses on a narrow aspect of a much wider problem, and no amount of “fix” for these aspects individually will address the real reason that universities in America are dying.

To explain my perspective here, I need to go back in time. Let’s go back to post World War II, 1950s when the GI bill, and the affordability – and sometimes free access – to universities created an upsurge of college students across the country. This surge continued through the ’60s, when universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late fifties into the sixties — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses. Who didn’t like the outcome of the 60s? The corporations, the war-mongers, those in our society who would keep us divided based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation.

I suspect that, given the opportunity, those groups would have liked nothing more than to shut down the universities. Destroy them outright. But a country claiming to have democratic values can’t just shut down its universities. That would reveal something about that country which would not support the image they are determined to portray – that of a country of freedom, justice, opportunity for all. So, how do you kill the universities of the country without showing your hand? As a child growing up during the Cold War, I was taught that the communist countries in the first half of the 20th Century put their scholars, intellectuals and artists into prison camps, called “re-education camps”. What I’ve come to realize as an adult is that American corporatism despises those same individuals as much as we were told communism did. But instead of doing anything so obvious as throwing them into prison, here those same people are thrown into dire poverty. The outcome is the same. Desperate poverty controls and ultimately breaks people as effectively as prison…..and some research says that it works even MORE powerfully.

So: here is the recipe for killing universities, and you tell ME if what I’m describing isn’t exactly what is at the root of all the problems of our country’s system of higher education. (Because what I’m saying has more recently been applied to K-12 public education as well.)

First, you defund public higher education.

Anna Victoria, writing in Pluck Magazine, discusses this issue in a review of Christopher Newfield’s book, Unmaking the Public University: “In 1971, Lewis Powell (before assuming his post as a Supreme Court Justice) authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memorandum, and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The title of the memo was “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” and in it he called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.” How would they do that? One, by increased lobbying and pressure on legislators to change their priorities. “Funding for public universities comes from, as the term suggests, the state and federal government. Yet starting in the early 1980s, shifting state priorities forced public universities to increasingly rely on other sources of revenue. For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011.” That’s a loss of more than 1/3 of its public funding. But why this shift in priorities? U.C. Berkeley English professor, Christopher Newfield, in his new book Unmaking the Public University posits that conservative elites have worked to de-fund higher education explicitly because of its function in creating a more empowered, democratic, and multiracial middle class. His theory is one that blames explicit cultural concern, not financial woes, for the current decreases in funding. He cites the fact that California public universities were forced to reject 300,000 applicants because of lack of funding. Newfield explains that much of the motive behind conservative advocacy for de-funding of public education is racial, pro-corporate, and anti-protest in nature.

Again, from Victoria: “(The) ultimate objective, as outlined in the (Lewis Powell) memo, was to purge respectable institutions such as the media, arts, sciences, as well as college campus themselves of left-wing thoughts. At the time, college campuses were seen as “springboards for dissent,” as Newfield terms it, and were therefore viewed as publicly funded sources of opposition to the interests of the establishment. While it is impossible to know the extent to which this memo influenced the conservative political strategy over the coming decades, it is extraordinary to see how far the principles outlined in his memo have been adopted.”

Under the guise of many “conflicts”, such as budget struggles, or quotas, de-funding was consistently the result. This funding argument also was used to re-shape the kind of course offerings and curriculum focus found on campuses. Victoria writes, “Attacks on humanities curriculums, political correctness, and affirmative action shifted the conversation on public universities to the right, creating a climate of skepticism around state funded schools. State budget debates became platforms for conservatives to argue why certain disciplines such as sociology, history, anthropology, minority studies, language, and gender studies should be de-funded…” on one hand, through the argument that they were not offering students the “practical” skills needed for the job market — which was a powerful way to increase emphasis on what now is seen as vocational focus rather than actual higher education, and to de-value those very courses that trained and expanded the mind, developed a more complete human being, a more actively intelligent person and involved citizen. Another argument used to attack the humanities was “…their so-called promotion of anti-establishment sentiment. Gradually, these arguments translated into real- and often deep- cuts into the budgets of state university systems,” especially in those most undesirable areas that the establishment found to run counter to their ability to control the population’s thoughts and behavior. The idea of “manufactured consent” should be talked about here – because if you remove the classes and the disciplines that are the strongest in their ability to develop higher level intellectual rigor, the result is a more easily manipulated citizenry, less capable of deep interrogation and investigation of the establishment “message”.

Second, you deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s)

V.P. Joe Biden, a few months back, said that the reason tuitions are out of control is because of the high price of college faculty. He has NO IDEA what he is talking about. At latest count, we have 1.5 million university professors in this country, 1 million of whom are adjuncts. One million professors in America are hired on short-term contracts, most often for one semester at a time, with no job security whatsoever – which means that they have no idea how much work they will have in any given semester, and that they are often completely unemployed over summer months when work is nearly impossible to find (and many of the unemployed adjuncts do not qualify for unemployment payments). So, one million American university professors are earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work. Keep in mind, too, that many of the more recent Ph.Ds have entered this field often with the burden of six figure student loan debt on their backs.

There was recently an article talking about the long-term mental and physical destruction caused when people are faced with poverty and “job insecurity” — precarious employment, or “under-employment”. The article says that, in just the few short years since our 2008 economic collapse, the medical problems of this group have increased exponentially. This has been the horrible state of insecurity that America’s college professors have experienced now for thirty years. It can destroy you — breaking down your physical and emotional health. As an example: the average yearly starting salary of a university professor at Temple University in 1975 was just under $10,000 a year, with full benefits – health, retirement, and educational benefits (their family’s could attend college for free.) And guess what? Average pay for Temple’s faculty is STILL about the same — because adjuncts now make up the majority of faculty, and earn between $8,000 to $14,000 a year (depending on how many courses they are assigned each semester – there is NO guarantee of continued employment) — but unlike the full-time professors of 1975, these adjunct jobs come with NO benefits, no health care, no retirement, no educational benefits, no offices. How many other professions report salaries that have remained at 1975 levels?

This is how you break the evil, wicked, leftist academic class in America — you turn them into low-wage members of the precariat – that growing number of American workers whose employment is consistently precarious. All around the country, our undergraduates are being taught by faculty living at or near the poverty line, who have little to no say in the way classes are being taught, the number of students in a class, or how curriculum is being designed. They often have no offices in which to meet their students, no professional staff support, no professional development support. One million of our college professors are struggling to continue offering the best they can in the face of this wasteland of deteriorated professional support, while living the very worst kind of economic insecurity. Unlike those communist countries, which sometimes executed their intellectuals, here we are being killed off by lack of healthcare, by stress-related illness like heart-attacks or strokes. While we’re at it, let’s add suicide to that list of killers — and readers of this blog will remember that I have written at length about adjunct faculty suicide in the past.

Step #3: You move in a managerial/administrative class who take over governance of the university.

This new class takes control of much of the university’s functioning, including funding allocation, curriculum design, course offerings. If you are old enough to remember when medicine was forever changed by the appearance of the ‘HMO’ model of managed medicine, you will have an idea of what has happened to academia. If you are not old enough – let me tell you that Once Upon a Time, doctors ran hospitals, doctors made decisions on what treatment their patients needed. In the 1970s, during the infamous Nixon Administration, HMOs were an idea sold to the American public, said to help reign in medical costs. But once Nixon secured passage of the HMO Act in 1973, the organizations went quickly from operating on a non-profit organization model, focused on high quality health care for controlled costs, to being for-profit organizations, with lots of corporate money funding them – and suddenly the idea of high-quality health care was sacrificed in favor of profits – which meant taking in higher and higher premiums and offering less and less service, more denied claims, more limitations placed on doctors, who became a “managed profession”. You see the state of healthcare in this country, and how disastrous it is. Well, during this same time, there was a similar kind of development — something akin to the HMO — let’s call it an “EMO”, Educational Management Organization, began to take hold in American academia. From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country. And just as disastrous as the HMO was to the practice of medicine in America, so is the EMO model disastrous to the practice of academia in America, and to the quality of our students’ education. Benjamin Ginsburg writes about this in great detail in his book The Fall of the Faculty.

I’d like to mention here, too, that universities often defend their use of adjuncts – which are now 75% of all professors in the country — claiming that they have no choice but to hire adjuncts, as a “cost saving measure” in an increasingly defunded university. What they don’t say, and without demand of transparency will NEVER say, is that they have not saved money by hiring adjuncts — they have reduced faculty salaries, security and power. The money wasn’t saved, because it was simply re-allocated to administrative salaries, coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries. There has been a redistribution of funds away from those who actually teach, the scholars – and therefore away from the students’ education itself — and into these administrative and executive salaries, sports costs — and the expanded use of “consultants”, PR and marketing firms, law firms. We have to add here, too, that president salaries went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars – salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes, or generous housing allowances, cars and drivers, memberships to expensive country clubs.

Step Four: You move in corporate culture and corporate money

To further control and dominate how the university is ‘used” -a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative – university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”. Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history.

Anna Victoria writes, on Corporate Culture: “Many universities have relied on private sector methods of revenue generation such as the formation of private corporations, patents, increased marketing strategies, corporate partnerships, campus rentals, and for-profit e-learning enterprises. To cut costs, public universities have employed non-state employee service contractors and have streamlined their financial operations.”

So what is the problem with corporate money, you might ask? A lot. When corporate money floods the universities, corporate values replace academic values. As we said before, humanities get defunded and the business school gets tons of money. Serious issues of ethics begin to develop when corporate money begins to make donations and form partnerships with science departments – where that money buys influence regarding not only the kinds of research being done but the outcomes of that research. Corporations donate to departments, and get the use of university researchers in the bargain — AND the ability to deduct the money as donation while using the labor, controlling and owning the research. Suddenly, the university laboratory is not a place of objective research anymore. As one example, corporations who don’t like “climate change” warnings will donate money and control research at universities, which then publish refutations of global warning proofs. OR, universities labs will be corporate-controlled in cases of FDA-approval research. This is especially dangerous when pharmaceutical companies take control of university labs to test efficacy or safety and then push approval through the governmental agencies. Another example is in economics departments — and movies like “The Inside Job” have done a great job of showing how Wall Street has bought off high-profile economists from Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or MIT, to talk about the state of the stock market and the country’s financial stability. Papers were being presented and published that were blatantly false, by well-respected economists who were on the payroll of Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.

Academia should not be the whore of corporatism, but that’s what it has become. Academia once celebrated itself as an independent institution. Academia is a culture, one that offers a long-standing worldview which values on-going, rigorous intellectual, emotional, psychological, creative development of the individual citizen. It respects and values the contributions of the scholar, the intellectual, to society. It treasures the promise of each student, and strives to offer the fullest possible support to the development of that promise. It does this not only for the good of the scholar and the student, but for the social good. Like medicine, academia existed for the social good. Neither should be a purely for-profit endeavor. And yet, in both the case of the HMO and the EMO, we have been taken over by an alien for-profit culture, our sovereignty over our own profession, our own institutions, stripped from us.

A corporate model, where profit depends on 1) maintaining a low-wage work force and 2) charging continually higher pricers for their “services” is what now controls our colleges . Faculty is being squeezed from one end and our students are being squeezed from the other.

Step Five – Destroy the Students

While claiming to offer them hope of a better life, our corporatized universities are ruining the lives of our students. This is accomplished through a two-prong tactic: you dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, to question, to reason. Instead, they are learning to obey, to withstand “tests” and “exams”, to follow rules, to endure absurdity and abuse. Our students have been denied full-time available faculty, the ability to develop mentors and advisors, faculty-designed syllabi which changes each semester, a wide variety of courses and options. Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.

The Second Prong: You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt free. Younger people may not know that for much of the 20th Century many universities in the U.S. were free – including the CA state system – you could establish residency in six months and go to Berkeley for free, or at very low cost. When I was an undergraduate student in the mid to late 1970s, tuition at Temple University was around $700 a year. Today, tuition is nearly $15,000 a year. Tuitions have increased, using CA as an example again, over 2000% since the 1970s. 2000%! This is the most directly dangerous situation for our students: pulling them into crippling debt that will follow them to the grave.

Another dangerous aspect of what is happening can be found in the shady partnership that has formed between the lending institutions and the Financial Aid Departments of universities. This is an unholy alliance. I have had students in my classes who work for Financial Aid. They tell me that they are trained to say NOT “This is what you need to borrow,” but to say “This is what you can get,” and to always entice the student with the highest possible number. There have been plenty of kick-back scandals between colleges and lenders — and I’m sure there is plenty undiscovered shady business going on. So, tuition costs are out of control because of administrative, executive and coach salaries, and the loan numbers keep growing, risking a life of indebtedness for most of our students. Further, there is absolutely no incentive on the part of this corporatized university to care.

The propaganda machine here has been powerful. Students, through the belief of their parents, their K-12 teachers, their high school counselors, are convinced by constant repetition that they HAVE to go to college to have a promising, middle class life, they are convinced that this tuition debt is “worth it” — and learn too late that it will indenture them. Let’s be clear: this is not the fault of the parents, or K-12 teachers or counselors. This is an intentional message that has been repeated year in and year out that aims to convince us all about the essential quality of a college education.

So, there you have it.

Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will ALL be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. The only people immediately benefitting inside this system are the administrative class – whores to the corporatized colonizers, earning money in this system in order to oversee this travesty. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The real winners, the only people truly benefitting from the big-picture meltdown of the American university are those people who, in the 1960s, saw those vibrant college campuses as a threat to their established power. They are the same people now working feverishly to dismantle other social structures, everything from Medicare and Social Security to the Post Office.

Looking at this wreckage of American academia, we have to acknowledge: They have won.

BUT these are victors who will never declare victory — because the carefully-maintained capitalist illusion of the “university education” still benefits them. Never, ever, admit that the university is dead. No, no. Quite the opposite. Instead, continue to insist that the university is the ONLY way to gain a successful, middle class life. Say that the university is mandatory for happiness in adulthood. All the while, maintain this low-wage precariate class of edu-migrants, continually mis-educate and indebt in the students to ensure their docility, pimp the institution out to corporate interests. It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

So now what?

This ruination has taken about a generation. Will we be able to undo this damage? Can we force refunding of our public educational system? Can we professionalize faculty, drive out the administrative glut and corporate hijackers? Can we provide free or low-cost tuition and high-quality education to our students in a way that does NOT focus only on job training, but on high-level personal and intellectual development? I believe we can. But only if we understand this as a big picture issue, and refuse to allow those in government, or those corporate-owned media mouthpieces to divide and conquer us further. This ruinous rampage is part of the much larger attack on progressive values, on the institutions of social good. The battle isn’t only to reclaim the professoriate, to wipe out student debt, to raise educational outcomes — although each of those goals deserve to be fought for. But we will win a Pyrrhic victory at best unless we understand the nature of the larger war, and fight back in a much, much bigger way to reclaim the country’s values for the betterment of our citizens.

I am eager to hear from those of you who have been involved in this battle, or are about to enter it. We have a big job ahead of us, and are facing a very powerful foe in a kind of David and Goliath battle. I’m open to hearing ideas about how to build a much, much better slingshot.

The above article was reposted from The Homeless Adjunct.

Thanks to Paul Anderson at Gauche.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Britain's Top 1000 Rich List could pay off deficit just from last 3 years profit: Michael Meacher letter

I've banged on about this before, but here's another reminder of how much wealth there is sloshing about in Great Britain.

MP Michael Meacher's letter to the press has been doing the rounds and points out that the richest 1,000 people make up only 0.003% of the population and yet they have made £155bn extra in the past three years, in the depths of the recession. If they paid off the entire deficit they'd still have £30bn with which to console themselves.

Their combined wealth is the highest in history: 1,000 individuals own £413bn, more than a third of Britain's GDP.

Their increase in wealth has been £315bn over the past 15 years. capital gains tax on this at the current 28% rate would yield £88bn, that's 70% of the entire deficit. And yet it's the poorest and weakest who are paying: 77% of the budget deficit is being recouped by public spending and benefit cuts. Only 23% comes from tax increases, and half of that is from VAT which we all pay and hits the poorest hardest. None of the tax increases are specifically aimed at the super-rich.

Meanwhile. the bankers and feral mega-elite who powered the crash and are still trashing the economy have "not been made subject to any tax pay-back whatever commensurate to their gains".

The decision to target the poor, stop paying benefits to the sick and needy, to starve our NHS into sickness and submission, to pay rail owners huge subsidies and allow utilities to carry on charging what they want, is political. It has nothing to do with national debt. This is the mega-rich moving in and swallowing up everything.

Sunday 5 August 2012

The monstering of Ye Shiwen: my article in the Guardian

There's something about the principle of fair play that's taking a knock during these Olympics. What happened to the presumption of innocence until found guilty?

An unpleasant wave of hostility has picked on one group of athletes while others in the Western camps are rightly praised for their stunning performances. Teenage swimmers Ruta Meilutyte (Lithuania) and Katie Ledecky were allowed their outstanding wins while Ye Shiwen has undergone a pitched psychological battle in front of the world.

People keep arguing that China has the fastest, highest, longest record of sports doping despite only rejoining the Olympics in 1984 after the Cold War hiatus. Yet, after an unfortunate period when China did what everyone else had been doing for years, they changed their policy in the late 1990s and now come down hard on anyone they find breaking the rules. For those who keep insisting that China's the Big Bad in this, while the nation of Ye's accuser US swimming coach John Leonard is squeaky clean, I recommend you read these articles: here, Dr Wade Exum's report here, and here and here and here.

When British Olympic Association chair Lord Moynihan and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) exonerated Ye, BBC's Newsnight was one of several news outlets that changed tack and brought in experts to prove that China could possibly be using genetic science to cheat. If China is creating an army of genetically modified super-freaks, then why aren't they smashing their way to golds in every sports discipline? Where are China's champion runners?

If evidence arises proving that an athlete has been doped, then do throw the book at them. But let's not go down the Minority Report road of sportsmanship. That way madness and prejudice lie.

The Guardian published my article on Saturday — 2nd August 2012

The monstering of swimmer Ye Shiwen says much about declining superpowers

Chinese Olympic athletes are people, not comic book villains. Something's going on when one nation is so singled out

It's not cricket, you know. There's something fiendishly cruel about the monstering of 16-year-old Ye Shiwen, who won a swimming gold in Saturday's 400m individual medley. First she was labelled a cheat in front of a global audience and then refused an apology when repeated drugs tests show up clean as a whistle.

First off the block was the host nation's BBC commentator Clare Balding, who sprinted to the worst conclusion on zero evidence within seconds of Ye's record-breaking win with her loaded comment: "How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she has ever swum before?"

With the starter pistol thus fired for the media witchhunt to find Ye guilty of winning while Chinese, in they all piled. ...

More HERE.

Another interesting incident you may have missed: in fencing, South Korea's Shin A Lam lost her gold opportunity due to us putting a 15 yr-old volunteer in charge of timekeeping. The kid allowed more than the one second left on the clock, a sudden extension that allowed Shin's German opponent to strike the hit and knock her out of the contest. And then the judges allowed it to stand!

Brendan O'Neill In the Telegraph on Chinese as freaks and robots.

Musa Okwonga in the Independent: If they're Brits we call it tactics.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Poetry, songs and chat at China In Britain, Westminster University

Here's a video of me at the China In Britain series of events at Westminster University in London this year.

Charles Shaar Murray played guitar and I sang Anna May Wong Must Die!, Yellowface and The Camellia and the Poppy (from The Steampunk Opium Wars).

Organised by Dr Anne Witchard and Dr Diana Yeh. Recorded 18th July 2012.

Thanks to Paul Anderson for camera duties.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

British sportsmanship bites the dust: Ye Shiwen swimming gold-medal smear

Sour grapes or what? Where's that famous British sporting sense of fair play? Having failed to make the doping charge stick, the liberal media are now insinuating that there must be genetic engineering behind Ye Shiwen's stunning 400-metre gold-medal win on Saturday in the individual medley.

If so, the Chinese can't be very good at it as they'd have had a squad of super-athletes smashing all the records rather than one solitary outstanding sportswoman. Selective breeding, perhaps. China could learn a thing or two from our royal family, they being so very good at It's A Knockout and playing with their ponies. And it wasn't Chinese scientists who tried to copyright the human genome for private profit.

There's something cruel about labelling this 16-year old as a cheat in front of the whole world as the BBC's Clare Balding and US swimming coach John Leonard did despite having no evidence. Poor kid comes good and now she's forever linked with an Olympics scandal. The home country's media tactic seems to be, "we'll make them choke on their victory".

The international athletes, however, have supported Ye and pointed out that it's not uncommon for swimmers to put on a spurt in their teens, as the 15-year old Lithuanian swimmer did. And it's not true that Ye outswam "a man" (shock, horror) although that would have been nice. In fact she was 23 seconds slower than Ryan Rochte but, as he slowed down in his final length when he sensed victory in the bag and she swam for all she was worth, she ended up being faster for the last 50 metres.

Meanwhile, Michael Phelps' astonishing run of 19 medals over his career — including eight in Beijing — is rightly accepted for what it is: an astonishing feat. But it's only valid when it's the US that's doing it. Dave Renton writes:
Of all the various arguments behind the suggestion that Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old winner of the women’s 400 metre individual medley, is a drugs cheat, the most compelling is that she has reduced her time for the 100m freestyle in a year by 7 seconds. US coach John Leonard says this is an impossible rate of improvement and compares Ye Shiwen to Michael Phelps, Leonard rejected comparisons to Michael Phelps, who broke the 200m butterfly world record when he was just 15, saying the American got “consistently faster every year on a normal improvement curve”.

These are Shiwen’s best times for the 100 metre freestyle at ages 14, 15, and 16: 2010 4:33.79 / 2011 4:35.15 / 2012 4:28.43

You will notice that Shiwen’s 2012 time is quite a bit faster than her 2011 time, but barely faster than her 2010 time, i.e. like quite a lot of professional sports people her progress has not been continuous, but punctuated, with (presumably) a growth spurt coming at just the right time.

These are Phelp’s best times for the 200 metres butterfly at ages 14, 15, and 16: 1999 1:55.42 / 2000 1:56.50 / 2001 1:54.58

You’ll see exactly the same pattern of a fast time, followed by a year’s regress, followed by a world best performance.

You’ll also see that in 2011 when he broke the world record, Phelps was about 1.6% faster than he had raced as a 15 year old, and about 0.9% faster than he had been 2 years before. In Shiwen’s case the improvements were 2.5% and 0.5% – i.e. her progress is a little bit faster than Phelps’ if you compare them over 1 year but slower than him if you compare them over two.

I don’t see any significant difference between their improvement rates at all.

One comment at the Guardian (where 98% of the poll says Ye deserves an apology) reads:
Ian Thorpe: "I took five seconds off my time in the 400m freestyle from the age of 15 to 16."
Adrian Moorhouse: "At 17, I took four seconds off my best time in the 200m breaststroke"

There was a spate of doping scandals in Chinese swimming in the 1990s but the tail-end of cold war competition meant that several countries were at it, not just China. And don't forget golden boy Linford Christie's substance escapades. As Renton observes:
Nor is US elite sport exactly drug free – at the climax of the athletics, in the men’s 100 metres, American eyes are expected to turn to Justin Gatlin, winner of the US Olympic trials, and banned in 2006 for 8 years (reduced to 4 on appeal) after a positive drugs test.

Chinese improvements are in part down to the fact they that they "have no comfort zone": Chinese athletes train harder, as one British coach working with the Chinese swimmers points out.
Although not head coach, I am in the Olympic Village with the Chinese team. I must say, taking aside the performances for a moment, the vast majority of comments on this (and many other sites I am sure) are riddled with inaccuracies and speculation.

I am certainly not aware of any talent ID programme – I am coaching five swimmers on this Olympic team and three of them I selected myself when they were 13 years old. No one "advised" or told me who to select – I just used my experience and "trained eye" to spot the guys I thought would be good.

Chinese athletes train incredibly hard, harder than I can explain in words and as a coach who has placed swimmers on five different Olympic Games teams, I have never seen athletes train like this anywhere in the world.

They have an unrelenting appetite for hard work, can (and will) endure more pain for longer than their western counterparts, will guarantee to turn up for practice every single time and give their all. They are very proud of their country, they are proud to represent China and have a very team focused mentality.

Let's also not forget that this is their only avenue for income; most do not study and sport offers them a way out or a way up from where they and their families currently live in society. If their swimming fails, they fail and the family loses face.

Newsnight, which pushed the boat out last night with the genetic engineering smear, is acquiring a habit of denigrating young women in the public eye. Working single mother Shanene Thorpe had to vigorously defend herself after they depicted her as a benefit scrounger.

The drugs body, which tests all the winners, may have cleared Ye. Lord Moynihan, chair of the British Olympic Association may have said: ""She's been through Wada's programme and she's clean. That's the end of the story. Ye Shiwen deserves recognition for her talent." But the media is still at it with the Guardian sourly headlining Ye's second gold-medal swim yesterday: "Ye Shiwen calmly takes another gold amid drug claims."

Today there's another uproar concerning the Chinese, with South Korean and Indonesian badminton teams also supposedly under-playing in order to compete with the weaker teams. The Chinese team is said to have thrown their game in order not to play their compatriots in the semi-final. Unlike with the Ye Shiwen case, there may be a case to answer, as reported in the Chinese press, with claim, counter-claim, and a knee-injury.
A source with the Chinese team told Xinhua that Yu injured her right knee while doing warmup before the game. The source accused the South Korean duo of trying to lose the game in order to avoid an early meeting with the other Chinese pair, saying "the South Koreans didn't take the game seriosuly and they didn't do warmup at all before the game." "It was the South Koreans who missed their serves first," the source said.

If this proves to be true then it is appalling and needs to be knocked on the head tout suite. Whichever way this one pans out, at least we've all forgotten the scandal of the acres of empty seats at the fantabulous London Olympics.

My article in the Guardian.

The unfair smear campaign in The Slate.

David Hughes in the Telegraph on the witch-hunt started by Clare Balding.

In the Guardian, 98% of readers who voted in a poll said Ye deserves an apology. So why are respected publications and outlets keeping this up?

Here's a proper Olympics scandal. Workers living in flooded squalour and paying £18 per day for the privilege whether they're given work shifts or not.

NOTE: The People's Republic of China only competed in the Olympic Games in Helsinki 1952 and did not rejoin the summer Olympics until 1984, missing the bulk of the notorious doping rivalry between the US and Soviet bloc that was a hallmark of the Cold War.