The modern corporate university

The horrendous behavior by the Israeli government and military in Gaza, where the Palestinian people have been subjected to bombing on a massive scale as well as being attacked by ground troops, and are the targets of an embargo on aid that has resulted widespread famine and starvation, has led to a spate of protests on university campuses. In some of those campuses, university authorities have responded harshly, with presidents calling in riot police, breaking up encampments, and attacking and arresting protestors, even though in almost all cases the protests were peaceful. As a result, there have been a flurry of no-confidence votes brought by faculty against university presidents.

Ostensibly, university presidents are supposed to represent the interests of members of the university community, namely. faculty, students, and staff. If significant segments of those populations are opposed to them and their actions, whom do they represent?
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The Beatles as The Four Musketeers?

In yesterday’s post about the 1973 film The Three Musketeers, I mentioned that the director Richard Lester had once had the idea of casting the Beatles in the role of the four Musketeers.

Ever since then, I have been idly thinking about which Beatle would be best to play each role and this is what I ended up with:

Paul – D’Artagnan
John – Athos
Ringo – Porthos
George – Aramis

One can extend this silly speculation even further and ask about casting the Marx brothers in the four roles. One would have to add one of the lesser known brothers such as Zeppo or another serious actor to serve as the foil for the antics of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo in order to make up the quartet.

My choice would be for the serious brother to play D’Artagnan, with Groucho playing the cynical Athos, Harpo playing the somewhat spiritual Porthos, and Chico playing the Lothario Aramis. And of course the long-suffering Margaret Dumont would play Milady.

I actually think that this idea might have worked for the Marx brothers back in the day.

The Three (or maybe Four) Musketeers and their puzzling lack of muskets

When I read the sprawling novel The Three Musketeers written in 1844 by Alexander Dumas, I was puzzled by two things, both arising from the title. The main character is D’Artagnan, a brash young man from the country who journeys to Paris in search of adventure. He is not a Musketeer himself but dreams of joining that elite squad of warriors who protect the king. He wants to prove his mettle and challenges everyone to duels over the merest slights. He first challenges Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, the three Musketeers of the book title, but the four of them become friends and go on various adventures. D’Artagnan only becomes a Musketeer towards the end of the book, in recognition of his services. I am not sure why Dumas did not call the book The Four Musketeers or D’Artagnan and The Three Musketeers, which would have been more accurate.

The other puzzle is that the Musketeers never seem to carry any actual muskets. This was addressed by Simon Kemp, Oxford University Fellow and Tutor in French.

“One of the odder things about Dumas’ novel for the modern reader is its singular lack of muskets.

“In the mid-1620s, when the story is set, the Mousquetaires are the household guard of the French king, Louis XIII, an elite force trained for the battlefield as well as for the protection of the monarch and his family in peacetime. They are named for their specialist training in the use of the musket (mousquet), an early firearm originally developed in Spain at the end of the previous century under the name moschetto or ‘sparrow-hawk’. Muskets were long-barrelled guns, quite unlike the pistols shown in the trailer, and fired by a ‘matchlock’ mechanism of holding a match or burning cord to a small hole leading to the powder chamber. By the 1620s they were not quite as cumbersome as the Spanish originals, which needed to have their barrels supported on a forked stick, but they were still pretty unwieldy devices.

“There are lots of weapons in the opening chapters of Les Trois Mousquetaires, where D’Artagnan travels to the barracks and challenges almost everyone he meets along the way to a duel (including all three of the musketeers). Lots of sword-fighting, but no muskets in sight. One of the musketeers has nicknamed his manservant mousequeton, or ‘little musket’, and that is as near as we get to a gun until page 429 of the Folio edition, when an actual mousqueton makes its first appearance. A mousqueton is not quite a musket, though, and in any case it’s not one of the musketeers who is holding it.

Their absence from the novel up to this point is simply for the historical reason that the heavy and dangerous weapons were appropriate for the battlefield, not for the duties and skirmishes of peace-time Paris. Even when his heroes are mobilized, Dumas remains reluctant to give his musketeers their muskets.

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The inner life of plants

When I was a boy in Sri Lanka, I was fascinated by a small plant that grew close to the ground. It had tiny leaves that looked like miniature versions of coconut palm fronds. When you gently touched even a single leaf, the entire set of fronds would immediately curl themselves in, as if to escape from me. It was extraordinary. I used to go through the plant bed, touching each one until they all were curled up. After being left alone for some time, they would unfurl themselves.

Did the plant have intelligence? Was it seeing me as a threat to withdraw from and re-emerge only after I left? It never occurred to me then to wonder. To even pose such a question is to invite controversy, if not outright ridicule. We tend to think of an intelligent organism as having a mind, which presupposes the existence of a material brain and a nervous system, and also having a body which enables the organism to have agency and move around freely in response to external conditions. Plants were long thought to lack pretty much all those features, although they have limited movement in response to light and water and other features of the environment. Some can also trap and devour insects. But we tend to stop short of using the term intelligence to describe those actions.
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Macron’s gamble pays off, sort of

Going into the second round of the elections for the French National Assembly, the right wing National Rally (RN) party led by Marine Le Pen was anticipating coming in first and even gaining an absolute majority of at least 289 seats in the 577-seat body. This was based on their showing in the first round last week when they obtained the most votes and won 38 seats of the 78 that were won outright.

The second round was for the remaining 499 seats in which no candidate obtained the required 50%. But there was a hastily cobbled together agreement between the left wing coalition of the New Popular Front (NFP), consisting of the France Unbowed (LFI) party, the Greens and the Socialists, and the center-right Ensemble coalition led by president Emmanuel Macron, where one of their candidates agree to drop out in three- or more-way races in order to not split the anti-NR vote. That strategy seems to have worked. The final results have the NR and its allies pushed into third place with just 143 seats while the NFP came out on top with 182 and Ensemble came second with 163. Other parties got 89.

There will have to be some kind of coalition to get to 289 seats but Macron is in a bind. While there was a pre-election alliance between the NFP and Ensemble, forming a coalition between two coalitions is going to be hard because despite uniting against the NR, the two coalitions have little in common and outgoing prime minister Gabriel Attal, who is a member of Macron’s coalition, has already said that he will not serve under the premiership of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the head of LFI, the largest party in the NPF.
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A double portion of Pie

He gives a farewell to the outgoing Conservatives.

It was left ambiguous as to whether comedian Tom Walker was retiring his character as well.

And in this segment aimed at Americans, he summarizes the years of Tory rule and tells us what to expect in the coming years from the incoming Labour government and its leader Keir Starmer.

UK elections confirm predictions

As predicted in the polling, the Labour Party won a sweeping victory in the general elections. They got 412 seats, a gain of 211 from its previous 201 in the 650-member parliament. Conservatives got just 121, dropping by a whopping 251 seats from its previous 372, even worse than exit polls had predicted. The Liberal Democrats, who after they joined the Conservatives in David Cameron’s government in 2010 as a junior partner, got hammered in 2015 (going from 56 seats to just 8) also had a good day, winning 71 seats, a gain of 63. The Scottish National Party lost badly, getting just 9 seats, down by 39. I am not sure what that implies for the Scottish independence movement. Sinn Fein won seven seats in Northern Ireland, making them the largest party there. The implications for leaving the UK and uniting with Ireland are not clear.

In this clip, made just before the election, Jonathan Pie provides a brutal analysis of how bad the 14 years of Conservative rule have been.

Many of the front-bench Conservatives and cabinet members, including the ministers of defense, veterans, justice, education, culture, transport, and chief whip have lost. Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt, seen as a potential replacement to Sunak as party leader, has also lost her seat. Sadly, the awful Suella Braverman, Priti Patel, and Kemi Badenoch were not swept away by the tide and have retained their seats. Mordaunt’s departure have improved their chances of becoming party leader. The infamous Liz Truss did lose her seat, one that had been considered quite safe since she last won it by a huge majority and it had been held by conservatives since 1964, ruling out any fantasy that she might have had about making a comeback as party leader.

Turnout is one of the lowest in post-war history, suggesting that there was not that much excitement about the race. Labour really did not offer an inspiring platform and indeed implied that they would not make any major changes.. Their main message was that the Conservatives should be thrown out and although voters seemed willing to oblige, it was hardly an inspiring message. Even in his victory speech, Keir Starmer promised ‘stability and moderation’, hardly the stuff that fires up supporters.
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The high price in the US of weight-loss drugs

The drugs Ozempic and Wegovy, although developed to treat diabetes, have become wildly popular outside its original target population because it seems to be highly effective in reducing weight as well. This has resulted in it becoming harder for diabetics to gain access to the drugs as well as their price rising.

US senator Bernie Sanders has long been a critic of the pharmaceutical industry and how it charges highly inflated prices in the US that are available for much less elsewhere in the world. He has been successful in pushing for the cost of insulin and asthma inhalers to be drastically reduced and now he is targeting Ozempic and Wegovy.

The blockbuster weight-loss drugs Wegovy and Ozempic are arguably as omnipresent in the American zeitgeist as Taylor Swift or the iPhone. The drugs and others in its class are associated with the sparkle of Hollywood, on the lips of Oprah and considered transformative by doctors.

But the giant market for drugs like Wegovy, including not just the roughly 11% of adults who have diabetes but also the 42% of adults who have obesity, has conjured one of the demons of American healthcare – price.

Americans paid 10 times more for Ozempic than patients in the United Kingdom in 2023 – $936 a month compared with $93. Wegovy costs Americans $1,349 a month, compared with $296 in the Netherlands (the drug is not yet available in the UK).

That wild discrepancy has captured the attention of one of the drug industry’s loudest critics, the US senator Bernie Sanders.

“What we’re focusing on right now is what may end up being one of the best-selling pharmaceutical products in the history of humanity, and that is Ozempic and Wegovy,” said Sanders. “These are very important gamechangers helping people with diabetes and obesity.”

Sanders is preparing to square up against the chief executive of the Danish pharmaceutical giant that makes both drugs, Novo Nordisk. Under threat of subpoena, its CEO, Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, agreed to testify before the same committee in September. But even for Sanders, the challenge is formidable.

“You’re taking on a company which will make billions of dollars every single year, many billions of dollars from the US, on just this product,” said Sanders. “So, do I think this is going to be a difficult challenge? I do.”

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Political maneuvering in France

The first round of elections for all 577 seats in the French National Assembly have been held and, as expected, the National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen captured the most votes nationally with 33% of the vote. In second place with 28% was the New Popular Front, an alliance of center-left Socialists, greens and far-left parties. President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance placed third with 21%.

In the French system, a candidate who gets more than 50% of the vote in the first round gets elected to the seat. Failing that, anyone who gets the support of 12.5% of registered voters in the first round qualifies for the second. Hence the second round can have two, three, or possibly even four candidates competing in an electorate compete.

In the first round, 78 seats were won outright, including 38 by the National Rally, leaving 499 to be decided in the second round.

So now there is serious negotiating among the second, third, and fourth place finishers to drop out so as to give the remaining candidate a better chance of defeating the NR candidate. The deadline for dropping out was 6:00pm (Paris time) today.
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