Friday, December 28, 2007

The chocolate merry-go-round

Good for you, bad for you, good for you ....

For those of you tucking into dark chocolate this Christmas using the excuse it is good for you, think again. A top medical journal said any health claims about plain chocolate may be misleading. Plain chocolate is naturally rich in flavanols, plant chemicals that are believed to protect the heart. But an editorial in the Lancet points out that many manufacturers remove flavanols because of their bitter taste. Instead, many products may just be abundant in fat and sugar - both of which are harmful to the heart and arteries, the journal reported.

Previous studies have suggested that plain chocolate can help protect the heart, lower blood pressure and aid tiredness. But the Lancet said: "Dark chocolate can be deceptive. "When chocolate manufacturers make confectionery, the natural cocoa solids can be darkened and the flavanols, which are bitter, removed, so even a dark-looking chocolate can have no flavanol. "Consumers are also kept in the dark about the flavanol content of chocolate because manufacturers rarely label their products with this information."

And the journal also pointed out that even with flavanols present, chocolate-lovers should be mindful of the other contents. "The devil in the dark chocolate is the fat, sugar and calories it also contains. "To gain any health benefit, those who eat a moderate amount of flavanol-rich dark chocolate will have to balance the calories by reducing their intake of other foods - a tricky job for even the most ardent calorie counter.

"So, with the holiday season upon us, it might be worth getting familiar with the calories in a bar of dark chocolate versus a mince pie and having a calculator at hand."


Mainstreaming of backward and disabled children not working

Teachers' leaders and opposition MPs have raised the alarm over increasing numbers of special needs children being excluded from schools. Figures unearthed by the Liberal Democrats show that for the first time in years more than half the children being excluded from school have some special need. They place a question mark over the success of the policy of integrating children with disabilities into mainstream schools.

The figures show 55 per cent of all exclusions involved pupils with special needs - up from 45 per cent four years ago. This amounts to 23,300 pupils with a statement outlining their special needs and 164,450 children considered to have special needs but without a statement.

The figures, included in an answer by the Children's minister Kevin Brennan to a parliamentary question by David Laws, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on children, schools and families, has prompted demands for a review of government policy towards "inclusion" - which aims to provide places for children with special needs in mainstream schools.

"Despite only making up a fifth of the school population, more than half of those children excluded have special educational needs," said Mr Laws. He said they risked falling behind in their education as a result of exclusion, adding: "Despite recent warnings from Ofsted and the Parliamentary Select Committee, government policy is continuing to fail children who require extra individual support - not exclusion from school. "I am concerned that ministers are not providing schools with the necessary support to integrate pupils with special needs into mainstream schools. This is likely to create behavioural problems which many headteachers simply don't have the resources to tackle."

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which has campaigned against disruptive behaviour in school, said it was "concerned" that the drive for inclusion "can lead to these pupils and their teachers being deprived of the specialist support and advice to which they are entitled".

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that the figures for permanent exclusions of special needs youngsters with statements had fallen since 1997 from 2,250 to 880. The parliamentary figures cover both fixed-term and permanent exclusion and include all children who need special help - regardless of whether they have a statement or not.


Anger over plan to broadcast Muslim call to prayer on loudspeaker in Oxford

Muslim plans to broadcast a loudspeaker call to prayer from a city centre mosque have been attacked by local residents who say it would turn the area into a "Muslim ghetto". Dozens of people packed out a council meeting to express their concerns over the plans for a two-minute long call to prayer to be issued three times a day, saying that it could drown out the traditional sound of church bells. But a spokesman for the Central Mosque said that Muslim's also have the right to summon worshippers.

Dr Mark Huckster, who lives in Stanton Road and works at East Oxford hospice Helen House, told the Oxford Mail: "The proposal to issue a prayer call is very un-neighbourly, especially in a crowded urban space such as Oxford. "I have lived in the Middle East and a prayer call has a very different feel to church bells and I personally found the noise extremely unpleasant, rather disturbing and very alien to the western mindset." He added: "If an evangelical Christian preacher proposed issuing sermons three times a day at full volume there would be an outcry. "There could be a sense of ghettoisation of East Oxford. Cowley Road would have a Muslim flavour and could become a Muslim ghetto which is contrary to what we want in a multicultural society."


Deaf demand right to designer deaf children

This is the logical outcome of "All cultures are equal"

DEAF parents should be allowed to screen their embryos so they can pick a deaf child over one that has all its senses intact, according to the chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (RNID). Jackie Ballard, a former Liberal Democrat MP, says that although the vast majority of deaf parents would want a child who has normal hearing, a small minority of couples would prefer to create a child who is effectively disabled, to fit in better with the family lifestyle. Ballard's stance is likely to be welcomed by other deaf organisations, including the British Deaf Association (BDA), which is campaigning to amend government legislation to allow the creation of babies with disabilities.

A clause in the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which is passing through the House of Lords, would make it illegal for parents undergoing embryo screening to choose an embryo with an abnormality if healthy embryos exist. In America a deaf couple deliberately created a baby with hearing difficulties by choosing a sperm donor with generations of deafness in his family. This would be impossible under the bill in its present form in the UK. Disability charities say this makes the proposed legislation discriminatory, because it gives parents the right to create "designer babies" free from genetic conditions while banning couples from deliberately creating a baby with a disability.

The prospect of selecting "deaf embryos" is likely to be seized on by campaigners against genetic screening who will argue that this is an inevitable outcome of allowing "designer babies". Doctors are opposed to creating deaf babies. Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the Bridge Centre, a clinic in London that screens embyros, said: "This would be an abuse of medical technology. Deafness is not the normal state, it is a disability. To deliberately create a deaf embryo would be contrary to the ethos of our society."

Ballard, who previously ran into controversy as director-general of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) where she pushed through extensive job cuts, said in an interview with The Sunday Times: "Most parents would choose to have a hearing embryo, but for those few parents who do not, we think they should be allowed to exercise that choice and we would support them in that decision. "There are a number of deaf forums where there are discussions about this. There are a small minority of activists who say that there is a cultural identity in being born deaf and that we should not destroy that cultural identity by preventing children from being born deaf." Ballard added: "We would like to retain, as far as possible, parental choice, but it has to be in conjunction with a clinician so that people know exactly what they are choosing."

Next month a coalition of disability organisations will launch a campaign to amend the bill to make it possible for parents to choose the embryos that carry a genetic abnormality. Francis Murphy, chairman of the BDA, said: "If choice of embryos for implantation is to be given to citizens in general, and if hearing and other people are allowed to choose embryos that will be `like them', sharing the same characteristics, language and culture, then we believe that deaf people should have the same right." Murphy added that the BDA believes it is very unlikely that it would become common for deaf parents to deliberately create deaf children.

To create a "designer baby" using preimplantation genetic diagnosis, couples need to go through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) even if they could conceive naturally. The embryos created are then genetically screened and normally only the healthy ones are implanted in the mother's womb. This weekend the RNID played down Ballard's comments by pointing out that the charity does not advocate deliberately creating deaf babies. A spokesman said: "While the RNID believes in the individual's right to choose, we would not actively encourage the selection of deaf embryos over hearing ones for implantation when both are available."


A freedom to shout about

YOU get a better class of political protester at Oxford University. Last week, when students broke into an Oxford Union debate to protest at the presence of the British National Party leader and a notorious Holocaust denier, one of the intruders commandeered a piano and shouted a question to the packed hall: "Wagner, perhaps?"

Free speech. A noble idea. But the debate about it in Britain today isn't really about free speech at all. It has become a Trojan Horse for a different debate entirely - one about religion and race. By deciding what's permissible to say in public, we are defining how tolerant a society we are prepared to be. In practical terms, this means how tolerant we are of religious and racial intolerance.

For the majority of us, liberal by instinct and live-and-let-live by inclination, this throws up some uncomfortable conflicts. On one hand we have to decide what leeway to allow extremists to spout race hate. On the other we have to judge when to curb the hateful preachings of religious fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim.

Last week in Oxford, Nick Griffin of the BNP and the disgraced historian David Irving were faced with protesters who seemed to be split into three camps, each with its own distinctive take on the right of free speech.

The first, echoed by a number of eminent commentators in the past week, goes something like this: Yes, these men have the right to free speech; but they are not entitled to make their loathsome case on such hallowed ground as the Oxford Union, which has played host to great historical figures including Mahatma Gandhi, Bobby Kennedy and Mother Teresa.

What tosh. If the Oxford University is indeed the apex of intellect it professes to be, then where better to forensically dismantle some bampot fascist ideas and show them up as historically illiterate, morally indefensible and politically naive?

The second group's viewpoint is slightly different: yes, we have a right to free speech in this country, but that only applies if your views are nice and cuddly and liberal, like ours. Otherwise, we will shut you up. If you want to preach racial intolerance then we will deny you a platform, we will deny you a debate and we will try to drown you out by shouting very loudly.

More tosh. By refusing to engage in debate with the extreme right - or any group that plays to base fears - all we do is nurture and sustain them. It's not good enough to say we're not going to dignify their views by responding to them. We must meet them head-on, always giving trust to reason and the power of argument. Anything else is a counsel of despair.

Of course, the right to free speech is never an absolute. There are laws in place to ensure that if BNP statements stray into incitement to racial hatred they become a criminal offence. But within the bounds of what is legal, free speech should mean exactly that. Even if it means the freedom to be racist, misogynistic, homophobic or any other intolerant social trait.

There was a third group at Oxford too, and their reasoning could be summed up like this: whether or not you have the right to free speech is irrelevant - you're a fascist bastard and I'm going to try my best to give you a good kicking. I admit in my student days in the early 1980s - the era of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League - I may have had some sympathy with this view. These days I hope I'm more reasonable.

A useful rule of thumb is this: your fundamental right to free speech will only be curbed when it infringes on the fundamental rights of others. And there's an important distinction to be made here. There is no fundamental right to have your religious beliefs protected from criticism. Just because you claim your views are sanctioned by God does not provide you with any additional protection, or justification for that matter. This is what psychologists call a 'category error'.

At the moment, the novelist Martin Amis is being accused of being a racist because of his sustained criticism of extremist Islamism. His critics' reasoning appears to be that because most followers of Islam are non-white, Amis's views are therefore racist. At the risk of repeating myself: utter tosh.

Amis is exercising his right to free speech in the precise area where it is most needed - in seeking clarity in a debate about religion and race that is too often a fug of lazy assumptions and unexamined prejudices. His criticism is not of a race or a religion but of an ideology. He refuses to take the craven and cowardly position that we must accept other cultures and other traditions entirely on their own terms, without any reference to our own morality and values.

There's a phrase we're all familiar with, for which we can thank Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Here and now, in Britain in 2007, this notion feels a bit antique. Today we are far more likely to say: "I disapprove of what you say, so I will accuse you of racism/religious intolerance/political incorrectness until you shut up."

It's time we rediscovered the spirit of Voltaire's original sentiment and applied it anew to the troubled age in which we live. Free speech, after all, has a price.


Australia/Britain ties still strong

Article below by Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor of "The Australian". He notes strong ties at the military level between Australian and Britain. One reason is that there are many British-born people in Australia's armed forces and even some Australians in the British armed forces

IT was good to see Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Aussie troops just before Christmas. That is the right place for a leader to be. Rudd bolstered the troops' morale, showing them that we all care about them. The trip also had geo-strategic purposes. In Iraq, Rudd is withdrawing our combat troops, but he underlined Canberra's continuing commitment to help Iraq, not least through military assets, and indeed help the US project in Iraq. In Afghanistan, Rudd said Australia was committed "for the long haul" to fighting the Taliban.

These are admirable and important statements. They indicate clearly that, contrary to the wishes of some commentators, Rudd is not withdrawing from Australia's global engagement in security matters, including involvement in the Middle East. It also means the US-Australia intimacy of recent years, especially the military intimacy and its all-important intelligence aspect, will continue. It was not an aberration born of the unique circumstances of Iraq but a natural evolution. Although Rudd will rightly put heavy emphasis on Asia, he also cites the US alliance as another of the three pillars of his foreign policy. (The third is the UN.) He also has close British connections and spoke to Gordon Brown soon after his victory.

Last year I wrote a book on the US-Australia alliance called The Partnership. In researching it I was astonished at just how intimate the US-Australian military and intelligence relationships have become. But the most surprising thing I discovered while writing the book did not directly concern the Americans at all. Rather, it was the astonishing, continuing, political, military and intelligence closeness between Australia and Britain. This was surprising in part because we are not big players in Britain's primary sphere of concern, Europe. And London's direct security interests in our part of the world are limited. But we are global players and so is Britain, even more so. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the G8 and NATO, and with renowned armed forces, London doesn't have to punch above its weight to be highly influential. It merely has to punch at its weight.

Everywhere I went in the US-Australia alliance, I found the Brits. Our special forces train with theirs, as we do with the Americans. Our troops on exchange with the Brits can deploy into military operations with them, an extremely rare practice, but something we also do with the Yanks. Australian liaison officers attend the most sensitive British intelligence meetings and vice versa, in arrangements of such intimacy that they are equalled only in our relationship with the US.

Then another thing struck me: that while this was all entirely to the good as we share so much in values and history with the Brits (and I say this an Irish Australian), this was really all happening without any overarching structure to inform the public or even to give top level policy guidance. It was organic.

Now here, dear reader, I have to confess, for the sake of the historical record, an episode of direct personal activism. I have never had any problems with journalistic activism so long as this activism consists primarily of advocating a policy and so long as this advocacy is carried out primarily in print. But in this particular case events moved more swiftly than I could get into print and I also faced some question about the status, in terms of on or off-the-record, of certain conversations. In any event, now that all the politicians involved at the time are retired, here is the story, for what it'sworth.

When then British prime minister Tony Blair visited Australia I was invited to participate in an Australia-UK Dialogue held in Canberra. Given the chance to put in my two bobs' worth, I argued that the two nations were military allies in effect, but there was no formal framework for this alliance and, while economic, cultural and sporting links were well celebrated and understood, there should be some agreement, pact or structure that carried the security relationship. Most attendees at this function were business types and the idea didn't seem to grab them.

That night, there was a reception for Blair at the Lodge in Canberra and those of us who had attended the day's meeting were invited along. Howard introduced Blair around the room and I had a few minutes' conversation with him. Determined not to waste this opportunity, I put my idea to Blair. Blair was quite euphoric about Australia, where he was getting a very friendly reception, but gently joked about my idea, saying (with full irony and no intent to be taken seriously) that perhaps Britain and Australia could team up against China.

Howard reacted politely enough to the idea but had that uneasy quality of the politician cornered by the mad voter from Gulargambone who wants him to turn the rivers back. But if you have a mad policy idea, you mustn't be deterred by mere indifference at the highest level. Around the Lodge that night I buttonholed various senior defence, foreign affairs and intelligence bureaucrats and put the idea to them as well. None had any argument against it, but all were similarly noncommittal. Finally I found Alexander Downer and put the idea to him. He, too, was noncommittal, but he pointed out that Iraq and Afghanistan had intensified Australian-British military and intelligence co-operation from an admittedly already high base. He seemed to chew the idea over.

I was planning to write a column in a few days making the argument in print that I'd been making verbally. But the next day Blair attended an Australian cabinet meeting. In the middle of the meeting, without any preparatory staff work, Downer suggested a new Australian-British body of foreign and defence ministers meeting annually, along the lines of the AUSMIN meetings Australia has annually with the US. Downer apologised to Howard for not having raised it in advance privately. Blair, without consulting his advisers, was generous and enthusiastic in his response. He thought it was a great idea.

Thus was born AUKMIN, which is now the highest level formal strategic consultation we have with the Brits. I felt weirdly constrained about writing about this, as I presumed the Lodge conversations were more or less off the record. Bureaucrats in both countries were taken wholly by surprise, despite what they might tell you. Rudd was also at the Lodge that night. His splendid words in Afghanistan suggest he will make full and intelligent use of AUKMIN, as sound an institution as has ever been created with so little bureaucratic preparation.


Britain rapidly becoming less English

At least a dozen British towns and cities will have no single ethnic group in a majority within the next 30 years. Leicester will become the first 'super-diverse' city in 2020, then Birmingham in 2024, followed by Slough and Luton, according to a new study of population trends in the UK.

The report reveals that Leicester has seen the proportion of its white population fall from 70.1 per cent in 1991 to 59.5 per cent today. By 2016 the white population will make up 52.2 per cent of the population, falling to 44.5 per cent by 2026. 'Britain is becoming ever more plural; our diversity ever more diverse,' said Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, whose predictions are based on the most comprehensive study into the country's population trends. 'This increased diversity is most evident in its cities, with plurality becoming commonplace.'

The immigrant and ethnic populations are no longer characterised by large, well organised Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities, said Dorling. Instead, increasing numbers come from countries scattered across the globe - from Germany to Guyana, from Sweden to Singapore.

'It is going to become increasingly difficult to generalise about Britain's plurality because different cities are experiencing different levels and types of diversity,' he said. 'This creates a complex challenge for those responsible for successfully managing the country's changing population.'

In the Thirties, the proportion of people living in Britain who were born in foreign countries was 2.5 per cent. Typically these individuals came from one of 15 countries, in particular Ireland and India. Today more than 10 per cent of the population were born abroad, with no single ethnic group dominating.

Sukhvinder Stubbs, chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which commissioned Dorling's research, said the findings indicate key challenges facing Britain, including a need to reframe the immigration debate and to focus on the changing pressure on the country's resources. 'For Britain's major urban centres, ethnic diversity is the reality,' she said. 'Regardless of future immigration patterns, it is just a matter of time until cities such as Birmingham become plural. Even if we prohibited another single soul from entering the country, the trends have already laid root.'

In the period from 1991 to 2026, which will see Leicester's white population fall from 70.1 per cent to 44.5 per cent, the city's second largest ethnic group, Indians, is predicted to rise from 22.9 per cent to 26 per cent. The Pakistani population will triple to 3.3 per cent, while the proportion of Africans will rise from 0.4 per cent in 1991 to 11.2 per cent.

Birmingham's transition to plural city status will, however, be markedly different to Leicester's, added Dorling. The proportion of white people in its population will fall from 77 per cent to 47.7 per cent. But while much of Leicester's growth in ethnic minorities will be driven by African growth, Birmingham's population shift will be dominated by those of Pakistani descent.

Dorling's research also looks at the shifts in population patterns in towns that are not expected to become plural in the foreseeable future. Oldham, for example, will remain a town with an overwhelmingly white population. However, it will witness a significant change in its demographic profile, with the town's white population falling from more than 90 per cent to 74.4 per cent in the 30 years from 1991. 'Contrary to popular opinion, Oldham's ethnic minority population is not homogeneous,' said Dorling. 'The town's second largest ethnic group after whites is Pakistani, but by 2021 there are likely to be as many Bangladeshis in Oldham as there are Pakistanis.' [Few others would be able to tell the difference]

Dorling's research also shows that, although Greater London's population is already significantly diverse with a white population of 67.5 per cent, it is not likely to become plural in the near future. By 2026 the white population is predicted to reach 60.7 per cent, with just eight of London's 33 local authority areas predicted to become plural.


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