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  Snooty or what?

  Oct 14th 2004 From The Economist print edition

  Inverted snobbery prevents good teachers going where they're needed

  A clever man wants to do a good thing, but the wicked government stops him. That is the scandalous-sounding story of the difficulties encountered by Tristram Jones-Parry, head of fee-paying Westminster School, one of the best in the country. He retires next year and wants to help teach maths in a state school.

  Was he welcomed with open arms? No. He was told, he complains, that he would need retraining for the state system. It was a similar story for David Wolfe, a retired American physics professor who teaches in a British state school. He said this week that the authorities told him to sit the GCSEmaths exam normally taken by 16-year-olds if he wanted to continue.

  The system is not quite as insane as this might suggest. The rules that require state-school teachers to be formally qualified do have exceptions. The Teacher Training Agency insists that Mr Jones-Parry could gain his ticket in just a day, by having an assessor from the state system observe his work at Westminster (a requirement scarcely less ludicrous than the supposed demand for retraining). Mr Wolfe's American PhD would count as an equivalent to the GCSE maths pass normally required. So he would scrape by as well. The General Teaching Council, another quango, has now apologised to Mr Jones-Parry for giving him the wrong information at first, and then leaving his follow-up letter unanswered for six weeks.

  The real story is the gulf between the two kinds of school. Heads like Mr Jones-Parry hire teachers with good academic credentials but not necessarily with state qualifications. State-school hiring is closely regulated; their teachers need to be expert form-fillers and jargon-wielders, and are much less likely to have good degrees: indeed only 38% of state-school maths teachers have a degree in the subject; in independent schools, 63% do.

  So it's not surprising that private-school teachers think even the most nominal barriers to their teaching in state schools are offensive and silly. The other side responds in kind: teaching unions this week said snidely that Mr Jones-Parry might be good at teaching advanced maths to well-behaved bright kids, but would not necessarily know how to teach simple sums to rowdy, dim ones. Perhaps. But many state-school parents desperately seeking better maths teaching for their children might consider that risk rather small.


  2、Parents and children

  Family values

  Sep 30th 2004 From The Economist print edition

  Rich kids have little time for their elderly parents. The ingratitude!

  WHY was King Lear treated so cruelly by his daughters? Until recently, most of the answers have come from scholars with scant knowledge of economic theory. Fortunately, John Ermisch, an Essex economist, is working to remedy this deficiency. His research proves what many parents have long suspected—that increased wealth goes along with filial ingratitude. –Topic sentence

  Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, Mr Ermisch shows that affluent parents are slightly more likely to supply offspring with money and help with child-rearing than poor parents. But success seems to have precisely the opposite effect on children. The mere possession of a university degree makes children 20% less likely to phone their mothers regularly, and more than 50% less likely to pay them a visit.

  This is puzzling because self-interested children might be expected to behave in precisely the opposite way. Most wealthy people are descended from wealthy parents, which means they have a lot of patrimony to lose by cutting back on the fawning. “Nothing will come of nothing,” as a pre-retirement and still sane King Lear put it when his youngest daughter dared to withhold her affections.

  So why are rich kids such brats? There are two likely explanations. The first is that, as their income rises, the marginal cost of providing services goes up. It simply isn't worth their while to help with the shopping, particularly since affluence tends to increase distances between parents and children. And, since personal contact correlates with telephone contact, they are less likely to phone, too. Out of sight, out of mind.

  Another answer comes from an obscure branch of economics known as strategic bequest theory. This predicts that children will provide only enough services to ensure they get a reasonable share of the inheritance. But that point is reached sooner by those who have only one sibling rival, or none at all. Wealthier families, which tend to be smaller, simply fail to ensure the optimum amount of competition.

  Given these iron laws, what are parents supposed to do? Good results might be achieved by having more children, or expressing a sudden interest in the local cats' home. But Mr Ermisch is not optimistic. “The only thing they can do is follow their children around,” he says. And don't make King Lear's mistake by handing over the cash first.

  3、The internet

  Alive and kicking Sep 23rd 2004 From The Economist print edition

  Competition still exists on the web

  JUST when you thought you knew the web, along come new competitors to keep things interesting. On September 15th, a new search engine called A9.com was unveiled by Amazon, the giant internet retailer. It repackages Google's search results, but with useful tweaks. Searches not only call up websites and images on the same page, but other references, such as Amazon's book search, the Internet Movie Database, and encyclopaedia and dictionary references. Moreover, it keeps track of users' search histories—an important innovation as search becomes more personalised.

  Many had assumed the market was stitched up by Google and Yahoo! (who account for over 90% of searches), barring the expected entrance of Microsoft. Likewise, the market for online music seemed settled: Apple's iTunes is the leader, its main rivals being RealNetworks and Microsoft's MSN Music. Yet this, too, understates the potential for battle. Last week, Yahoo! bought Musicmatch, an online music retailer and software firm, for $160m. Music downloads are now worth roughly $310m annually but are forecast to grow to $4.6 billion by 2008, according to Forrester Research, so there is room for new firms to sprout.

  Meanwhile, the most surprising new competition is in web browsers. Microsoft was the undisputed champ( Informal:=A champion), after bundling Internet Explorer with its Windows operating system in the 1990s and destroying Netscape. However, Microsoft's browser is so vulnerable to attacks by online crooks and various troublemakers that the American and German governments have recommended that users consider alternatives. This has been a boon to two small browser-makers, Opera, a Norwegian software company, and Mozilla, which developed the Firefox browser based on an open-source version of Netscape. Firefox boasted 1m downloads within 100 hours of its release on September 14th.

  Security has become the main competitive difference. The software of both Opera and Mozilla is considered safer (partly because they have fewer users and so are a less attractive target for hackers). Microsoft's share of the browser market has actually shrunk over the past three months from around 96% to 94%. It is a highly symbolic phenomenon, albeit a modest decrease. Even Google is thought to be toying with the idea of launching its own browser.

  Underlying this ripple of competition is the ability of large companies that already benefit from economies of scale to extend into new areas, says Hal Varian, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. That explains Amazon's A9 search service and Yahoo!'s move into music. As for browsers, “Microsoft had a lock on the market and just dropped the ball. Microsoft hasn't provided any innovation in the browser area and they had poor security,” he says. The message: watch your back.(1—俗语:擦亮你的眼睛;2—Microsoft的一款软件,用来阻挡可疑信息或过大邮件。这里一语双关,反讽十足。)

  4、Brain scanning

  No hiding place

  Oct 28th 2004 | SAN DIEGO From The Economist print edition

  Studies using functional brain-imaging take on sophisticated topics

  FEW recent innovations have transformed a field of research as much as functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI). The technique has revolutionised the study of the human brain. By making visible the invisible (the activity of different bits of the living brain on a second-by-second basis), it has revolutionised the study of that organ. But what started out as a medical instrument is now used routinely to probe complex questions about behaviour and motivation. That was the lesson of two studies presented to a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, held in San Diego earlier this week.

  In one of the studies, Jonathan Cohen, of Princeton University, and his colleagues tried to explain an anomaly that has been nagging economists for decades. If humans were fully rational (at least, rational in the way that economists define the word), they would attach the same monetary value to a week's delay in receiving a payment, regardless of when that week began. So, if someone is offered $10 at the beginning of any given week, or $11 at the end of it, he should make the same choice, whether that week starts now or a year from now. But that turns out not to be how most people judge it. In most cases, they will take the $10 today but the $11 in a year and a week.

  Dr Cohen reasoned that this inconsistency might reflect the influence of different neural systems in the brain. To test this, he recruited 14 students, the traditional workhorses in such studies. While lying in his brain scanner, the students were offered the choice of receiving an Amazon.com gift certificate worth somewhere between $5 and $40 immediately, or getting one worth 1% to 50% more in a couple of weeks' time.

  When a participant chose the earlier reward, there was an increase in the activity of his limbic system. This is a region of the brain that is involved in emotion. In contrast, when the choice was to delay gratification in exchange for a bigger reward, brain activity was concentrated in the “thinking” regions, such as the prefrontal cortex. The inconsistency therefore seems to be the result of different sorts of calculation happening in the two cases.

  Of course, that does not answer the ultimate question of why evolution has equipped the brain this way. Dr Cohen speculates that it may have something to do with survival when the arrival of resources is scarce and unpredictable, rather than the subject of contracts and an efficient banking system. But it does shine a new light on issues such as drug addiction and procrastination, which are both situations where the temptation of immediate reward can lead to choices that might ultimately be detrimental.

  While Dr Cohen's group wrestles with how people make choices, Klaus Mathiak, of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, and his colleagues, are using fMRI to study the effects which certain sorts of choice have on brain activity. Specifically, the team is looking at what goes on in the heads of dedicated video-games players during violent “social interactions” within a game.

  Dr Mathiak enlisted 13 gamers who played video games for, on average, 20 hours a week. While the gamers stalked and shot the enemy from the relative discomfort of a scanner's interior, the researchers recorded events in their brains.

  As a player approached a violent encounter, part of his brain called the anterior cingulate cortex became active. This area is associated with aggression in less fictional scenarios, and also with the subsequent suppression of more positive emotions, such as empathy. Dr Mathiak noted that the responses in his gamers were thus strikingly similar to the neural correlates of real aggression. As he puts it, “Contrary to what the industry says, it appears to be more than just a game.”



  Grim reality

  Nov 4th 2004 From The Economist print edition

  America's appetite for reality television is flagging

  “THE Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best” will make its debut on America's Fox network next week, featuring a British tycoon, Sir Richard Branson, trying to make as successful a reality-TV show as an American mogul, Donald Trump, star of “The Apprentice”. A contestant will get dumped in each episode; the winner will get $1m and a job. The timing is not auspicious for Sir Richard. Reality TV has faltered in the American ratings recently, with viewing down for “The Benefactor”, “The Bachelor” and even “The Apprentice”. New shows, such as “The Next Great Champ” and “The Last Comic Standing”, have done so badly that they have been relegated to cable networks.

  Too many shows of obviously inferior quality have pricked reality's bubble, says David Poltrack, head of research and planning at the CBS network. According to CBS's audience research, people are especially fed up with the glut of copycat programmes that schedulers have rushed on to the air following the genre's spectacular success over the past few years. That will make it hard for any new reality show—good or bad—to get a strong start, he says. It also bodes ill for Fox's forthcoming dedicated reality-TV cable channel—especially as there are two of them already.

  So is the genre over? Network executives and advertisers agree that the strongest and most original shows will survive—CBS's “Survivor”, for instance, remains popular—although they will no longer be able to count on any me-too programme succeeding. Reality TV is still far cheaper to make than drama. Advertisers like its younger audiences.

  There is little sign of fatigue outside America. Familiar formats are making their way across Europe. In Britain, ratings are high for ITV's “I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”, Channel 4's “Big Brother” and Channel 5's “The Farm”, in which a celebrity female contestant recently shocked viewers by manually extracting semen from a pig. British telly may in future make fewer reality shows, but (chiefly) only if the publicly funded BBC decides to emphasise “public-service” fare in a bid to persuade the government to renew its subsidy.

  Reality TV's pause in America is allowing scripted drama to bounce back, to the relief of professional actors and scribes who complain of being under-employed. The hit of America's autumn season is “Desperate Housewives”, a highly-sexed fictional version of suburban life. Yet reality's techniques are influencing even scripted programmes, says Alan Boyd of Fremantle Media. ABC's new drama, “Lost”, for instance, about passengers surviving a plane crash, looks rather like “Survivor”. “The Office”, a British comedy that has received critical acclaim in America too, looks much like reality TV with a script.


  Stubbing it out Nov 11th 2004 From The Economist print edition

  What effect will Scotland's smoking ban have?

  IT WAS a radical, sweeping and entirely expected move. On November 10th the Scottish cabinet voted to follow Ireland, New York and Norway in banning smoking in public places, including pubs, restaurants and even private members' clubs.

  The Scottish Executive argues that Scotland is one of the unhealthiest nations in Europe, and smoking is partly to blame. Some 31% of Scots smoke, compared with 26% of Britons. Lung cancer rates are 49% higher in Scotland than in the rest of the country. Jack McConnell, Scotland's first minister, says that cigarette sales in New York fell by 13% after a ban was introduced in 2003, and by 16% in Ireland, which brought one in earlier this year.

  Whether the public is as keen as its leaders is less clear. The Scottish Executive insists that there is support for a total ban, but a leaked internal poll indicated that only half the population was in favour. A different poll, conducted by Populus for the pro-smoking group Forest, found that 73% opposed an outright ban; most favoured a compromise of some sort.

  Nor is the likely impact on Scottish business any clearer. The Licensed Traders' Association, which represents Scottish pubs, predicted 30,000 jobs would go. Nonsense, said the government.

  Evidence from overseas sheds little light. After the ban in Ireland, the Irish Brewers' Association reported a 6% decline in beer sales in pubs. But the Irish are among the heaviest drinkers in Europe, and sales fell by a similar amount in 2003, before the ban. So the decline may be part of a long-term trend. The Vintners' Association, which represents Dublin pubs, says it has clearer statistics: it reckons that trade is down about 16%, and that about 2,000 jobs have gone.

  Anti-smoking groups prefer to point to New York, where a government study reported that bars and restaurants had hired 2,800 extra staff to cope with increased demand in the wake of the ban there. But the New York Nightlife Association, a trade body, points out that the study covered workers in fast-food restaurants that had never allowed smoking on their premises, even before the ban. It reckons that employment has fallen by 10%—although the number of people applying for a licence to run a bar has stayed the same.

  Smokers will now turn their attention to England, which has been toying with the idea of a ban for some time. Ministers there are thought to be reluctant to ban smoking outright, especially with a general election looming, but new health proposals dealing with the subject are due before the end of the year. No doubt the English ministers will be studying the Scottish debate closely.


  Small sums, big issue Nov 18th 2004 | NEW YORK From The Economist print edition

  The United Nations turns its attention to finance for the poor

  AMONG the more benign activities of the United Nations is the dedication of various years to specific causes. Mountains, deserts, rice and dialogue have all had their 365 days of fame. There is little evidence that the attention has done mountains, deserts, rice and dialogue any harm—but also not much to suggest that they have benefited either.

  In the next 12 months the spotlight falls on microfinance, the business of lending small amounts of money to the poor, taking deposits from them, transmitting money on their behalf and insuring them. With luck, the UN's effort will turn out to be substantial rather than symbolic. It certainly kicked off in style, with a big party at the UN's New York headquarters that demonstrated how fashionable the subject has become. Among the 700 in attendance were top bankers, politicians and a film star or two. The UN also announced the appointment of an advisory panel to consider what may be impeding the growth and effectiveness of microfinance. Its members include businessmen and financiers (as well as the editor of The Economist's business section).

  The success of the year depends to a great extent on whether the UN can harness its member states and financial institutions to establish some basic facts. Remarkably little is known about how finance operates outside wealthy countries. No good data exist on how many people have access to financial institutions, the breadth and penetration of banks in poor countries, the real cost of a loan and the time it takes to get one, the ease of making a deposit and so forth.

  Microfinance itself is something of a mystery. There are no authoritative figures on the number and performance of microlending institutions. There is not even convincing information, beyond lots of anecdotes illustrated by photographs of women in rural villages, about whether microfinance makes any significant contribution to economic growth or is merely another philanthropic fad.

  In principle, loans to the poor should bring great benefits. Because the poor have less capital and often can borrow only with great difficulty, if at all, they ought to use extra capital more productively than the rich. Indeed, this might explain why even in the poorest places there is some form of money lending despite staggeringly high interest rates: 1,000% a year is not uncommon. However, such rates inevitably take a toll on enterprise and economic growth. The year of microcredit will have proven to be of great worth if it can first document the impediments to more efficient forms of financial intermediation and then begin to clear them away.

  For example, the UN would do well to address the common complaint that banks ignore the poor out of class bias. If they do, the UN's interest may hasten change: some financial institutions are already making efforts to work with the poor, either directly or by providing wholesale services to smaller financial institutions. And many working in microfinance complain that their small size and lack of traditional assets make it hard to attract capital either on their own account or through syndicated loans. A year hence, perhaps some of this will have changed.

  8、The dollar

  Further to fall

  Dec 29th 2004 From The Economist print edition

  A new year is likely to bring a new low for the dollar

  THE dollar ended the year as it began: heading downhill. It hit a new low against the euro, below $1.36, on December 28th. Against the yen, it was steadier: ¥103, slightly stronger than in late November. The yen has risen by less than the euro because, although the Bank of Japan has not intervened in the foreign-exchange markets since March, the bank looks more likely to act than the European Central Bank. Japan's finance minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki, gave warning this week that his country's authorities would monitor foreign-exchange markets over the New Year holiday. In contrast, Gerrit Zalm, the Dutch finance minister, suggested that the euro's rise so far was acceptable.

  Since early 2002 the dollar has lost 37% against the euro and 24% against the yen. But it has shed only 16% against the Federal Reserve's broad basket of currencies, because many Asian currencies are pegged or closely tied to the greenback.

  The cause of the dollar's decline is hardly a mystery: private investors are less eager to finance America's huge current-account deficit. The deficit widened slightly in the third quarter of 2004, to a record $165 billion, or 5.6% of GDP. If the deficit remains so big, America's foreign debt burden and hence its debt-service payments will increase sharply.

  So far, America's mounting foreign liabilities have not harmed its economy because the rise in its debt in recent years has been offset by lower interest rates. As a result, America still enjoys a net inflow of foreign investment income despite being the world's biggest debtor. But, as interest rates rise, refinancing America's debt will become more costly. Goldman Sachs forecasts that net foreign investment income is likely to shift to a sizeable deficit during 2005, growing thereafter. The investment bank estimates that, if America's current-account deficit remains steady as a share of GDP and interest rates average 5% in future, net foreign debt-service payments will reach 4% of GDP by 2020—a significant drag on American living standards.

  By most measures the dollar is already undervalued, but experience suggests that it will need to fall further still to cut the deficit to a sustainable level, say 2-3% of GDP. Capital Economics, a London research firm, forecasts that the dollar will fall to $1.40 against the euro and to ¥90 by the end of 2005. But it expects the dollar to recover against the British pound to $1.82 from $1.93 today, as British interest rates are cut in the wake of falling house prices.


  9、Classical music and social control

  Twilight of the yobs

  Jan 6th 2005 From The Economist print edition

  How classical music helps keep order

  THE question of how to control yobbish behaviour troubles many. One increasingly popular solution is classical music, which is apparently painful to teenage ears. Co-op, a chain of grocery stores, is experimenting with playing classical music outside its shops, to stop youths from hanging around and intimidating customers. It seems to work well. Staff have a remote control and “can turn the music on if there's a situation developing and they need to disperse people”, says Steve Broughton of Co-op.

  The most extensive use of aural policing so far, though, has been in underground stations. Six stops on the Tyneside Metro currently pump out Haydn and Mozart to deter vandals and loiterers, and the scheme has been so successful that it has spawned imitators. After a pilot at Elm Park station on the London Underground, classical music now fills 30 other stations on the network. The most effective deterrents, according to a spokesman for Transport for London, are anything sung by Pavarotti or written by Mozart.

  When selecting a record to drive people away, the key factor, according to Adrian North, a psychologist at Leicester University who researches links between music and behaviour, is its unfamiliarity. When the targets are unused to strings and woodwind, Mozart will be sufficient. But for the more musically literate vandal, an atonal barrage probably works better. Mr North tried tormenting Leicester's students with what he describes as “computer-game music” in the union bar. It cleared the place.

  If, however, the aim is not to disperse people but to calm them down, anything unfamiliar or challenging is probably best avoided. At the Royal Bolton Hospital, staff have begun playing classical music in the accident and emergency (A&E) ward, as well as in the eye ward and the main reception area. Janet Hackin, a matron in the A&E ward, says that patients do appear calmer, “rather than running around anxious and bleeding all over the place”. But classical music might not have much effect on the consequences of more liberal licensing laws. “If they're stone drunk and past it then it doesn't have much effect,” confirms Ms Hackin.

  10、Sex and academia


  Jan 20th 2005 From The Economist print edition

  Are women naturally bad scientists?

  IN HIS three-and-a-half years in the job, the president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, seems to have upset a large number of people. First, he said students were getting too many “A” grades because of grade inflation (which was correct). Then he took on Cornel West, a black professor, over his dodgy extra-curricular activities (again, Mr Summers had a point). Now he has suggested that one of the reasons women achieve less in science and maths is that they have less innate ability.

  Mr Summers's comments were off the record; but he has since confirmed that he did draw attention to the possibility that innate differences, rather than social factors (such as education and treatment in the workplace) might have a role to play. This has drawn howls of complaint from the usual quarters. But, scientifically speaking, is he correct?

  There is certainly evidence to suggest that the average male and female brains may be different, with men better able to “systemise” about the world and women better at “empathising”. So are we wired differently from birth?

  Some clues come from a theory that autism is a developmental disorder that produces an “extreme male brain”. Autism is up to four times more common in boys, and is thought to be caused by high levels of testosterone in the womb. Those who have it tend to be better at puzzles and pattern-related tasks than at verbal communication. Maybe males, with more testosterone in the womb, are simply better at non-verbal skills? A medical description of autism practically reads like a scientific job description. Clumsy and overwhelmed by the physical world, autistic minds are often far more comfortable with the virtual realms of maths, symbols and code.

  However, even if geeks are naturally male, says Susan Ganter, executive director of the Association for Women in Science in Washington, DC (and a mathematician by training), it would not warrant Mr Summers's comments. Nobody knows to what extent such variations are actually important. They may well be a minor factor, while there are plenty of others that undoubtedly affect female success in science. One of these is that it is very difficult to return to science after a career break to have a child—something Mr Summers also talked about in his speech.

  Worse, from a scientific viewpoint, Mr Summers may have compounded the problem by mentioning it. A slew of scientific research shows that if people are told they will fail, they will do so.

  11、No, but maybe yes

  Feb 10th 2005 | NEW YORK From The Economist print edition

  The city's mayor goes deliberately ambivalent

  LAST year San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom began handing out marriage licences to any gay couple who wanted one, only to find himself in a mess when California's courts ruled that the licences had no legal validity. Now New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken the opposite line. The Republican mayor is appealing against a lower court's decision allowing the city clerk to issue marriage licences to homosexuals (this contradicted two recent court decisions elsewhere in the state) while at the same time promising to push for a change in New York's laws.

  This has brought predictable snorts from his opponents. The city council's Democratic speaker (and would-be mayor), Gifford Miller, has joined the crowd calling the mayor a coward. Another Democrat, Fernando Ferrer, Mr Bloomberg's most serious rival in the next election, calls him “opportunistic”. And a fellow Republican, Thomas Ognibene, who would also like the mayor's job, has called him “spineless”.

  Legal recognition of a marriage has many practical consequences in America. There are, according to one gay-rights group, 1,100 federal benefits directly tied to marriage, to say nothing of hundreds more provided by states and private employers, as well as rights connected with inheritance and insurance coverage. All this adds to the homosexuals' argument for recognition of their marriages.

  If the case now goes directly to the state's highest court, there will either be a full judicial endorsement of gay marriage, which Mr Bloomberg would endorse, or (more likely) the opposite. At present the state's law, as the plaintiffs acknowledge, is quite clear in not permitting same-sex marriage. However, in ruling in favour of five couples who last summer demanded marriage licences from the city clerk's office, the lower court said the law was unconstitutional on two grounds: failure to provide equal protection (by treating people differently because of their sexual orientation); and failure to provide due process (by failing to allow people the right of privacy to arrange their marriage free of unjustified government interference).

  These arguments touch on difficult areas of law, and so far have arisen primarily in abortion and sodomy cases; the results have left neither side really happy. The Bloomberg approach, if successful, might ultimately encourage an endorsement of gay marriage to come about through the legislature, by a change of law backed by political will and public opinion. That will not be easy to achieve. Only a third of the people in New York state, on the evidence of current opinion polls, are in favour of gay marriage.


  A-levels reprieved

  Feb 24th 2005 From The Economist print edition

  Big changes are coming to exams, but not the ones that teachers wanted

  CRITICS of vocational education are snobs, obsessed with academic qualifications. That was the official line—but now reality is dawning. Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, this week described vocational qualifications as “second-class and second-rate”.

  Sad, but true: if you are clever at school, you do lots of GCSE exams at 16, a bunch of A-levels at 18, and go to a good university. If you are not, you end up with rather few GCSEs, and instead do a confusing mix of qualifications with off-putting names like NVQ, GNVQ, AVCE, GSVQ, or BTECH; 3,500 variants are possible (nobody keeps a full count). If you get into a university, it is unlikely to be Oxford.

  The current system of educating 14-19-year-olds is not just insanely complicated. It also pleases almost nobody. Employers complain that around a third of school leavers lack even the most basic numeracy and literacy. About a quarter of the least able pupils drop out at 16. The most able find it too easy to get A-grades at A-level, meaning that admission to sought-after university courses becomes a lottery.

  Last year, in an official report, Sir Mike Tomlinson, a former chief schools inspector, proposed ingenious changes. The system should be more demanding, yet also more flexible, and more broadly based. The central proposal was to replace the existing exams with all-encompassing diplomas. That pleased the egalitarian-minded, who liked the idea of having the same kind of exams for both hairdressing and physics. But many—including the prime minister—regard even flawed A-levels and GCSEs as better than none.

  So this week Ms Kelly binned Sir Mike's central recommendation, saying that A-levels and GCSEs would stay. The educational establishment is furious. But three big changes are coming.

  The first is to make basic maths and English compulsory. The current benchmark for 16-year-olds, reached by 53% of pupils, is five passes at C or above at GCSE. But a fifth of those skip maths, English or both. Under the proposed scheme, five GCSEs will be relabelled a diploma—but gaining passes in new “functional” maths and English will be mandatory. Those failing to reach this at 16 will keep trying, rather than leaving. From next year, school-performance league tables will be based on the new benchmark.

  The second idea is to give disaffected pupils something to do outside school. From the age of 14, they will be offered placements with employers for two days a week. That sounds fine—although finding employers keen to take schools' least-favourite pupils, and willing to overcome the legal and insurance problems of having minors on the premises, will be hard. The third change will be to allow clever pupils to take exams early, or even skip some of them altogether, and start more advanced courses while at school. That should help identify the brightest. It too sounds a fine idea, but even top private schools, with lots of money and good teachers, find it tricky to timetable lots of variation within one age-group's lessons. Teaching a subject at the same level to bright 13-year-olds alongside struggling 17-year-olds, for example, is not a recipe for classroom harmony.


  13、Mobile e-mail


  May 12th 2005 | SAN FRANCISCO From The Economist print edition

  The battle for the mobile e-mail business has barely begun

  SUDDENLY, it seems, everyone is realising that the next big thing in telecoms and technology could be mobile e-mail. On May 10th, Microsoft, the world's largest software firm, unveiled a new version of its Windows operating system designed for mobile phones. This will be able to run programs from independent software firms, such as Silicon Valley's Visto, Good Technology, SEVEN and Intellisync, that will let mobile-phone users send and receive e-mail on their handsets. This follows a very busy April, when SEVEN bought Smartner, a Finnish rival, and Visto reached deals with the largest mobile operator in the world, Vodafone, and, in Canada, with Rogers Wireless, to start rolling out mobile e-mail services.

  In the short term, this would seem to be bad news, above all, for Research in Motion (RIM), a Canadian firm that now dominates mobile e-mail with its BlackBerry handheld device (nicknamed “CrackBerry” for its addictive nature). Unlike the smaller software firms snapping at its heels, RIM offers employers a complete service that includes both software and hardware. Controlling everything in this way let RIM establish an early lead.

  The bigger picture is more intriguing. RIM has been stunningly successful, but even it has only around 3m users, mostly itinerant corporate executives. This compares with an estimated 150m employees worldwide who rely on e-mail but do not yet have a mobile service for it—not to mention the 1.5 billion consumers who have mobile phones, love text messaging and might also love e-mail. Of the 680m handsets sold last year, only 20m were so-called “smartphones” that double as calendar, contact book and e-mail device.

  “It is still early, early, early in this—dare we say nascent?—trend,” says Pip Coburn, an analyst at UBS. He expects mobile e-mail to be a “killer application” because it taps into people's strongest psycho-emotional needs—the urge to connect with others (and simultaneous fear of social isolation if they cannot), as well as the desire to be mobile—while asking relatively little of them by way of new learning, as they already know how to send e-mail via their PCs. Indeed, e-mail is likely to blow away a lot of the other fancy services that mobile operators are hoping to push over their third-generation wireless networks. Andrew Odlyzko, a telecoms guru, once did a survey in which he asked people to choose, hypothetically, between having either e-mail or the entire content of the world wide web: 95% chose e-mail.

  This has several implications. First, as Mr Coburn argues, the trend toward “Swiss Army knife” handsets that do absolutely everything may not go very far, whereas simple and cheap “dumb smartphones” that stick to connecting people via voice, text messaging and e-mail may ultimately win in the mass market. Second, for the software industry, the field is still wide open. Woody Hobbs, the boss of Intellisync, draws an analogy to PCs in the early 1980s. Apple was then ahead with a winning product bundle of proprietary hardware and software. But eventually it lost out to a host of hardware makers whose products were compatible with Microsoft's operating systems. Today, RIM might be cast as Apple; auditions have only just begun for all the other roles.

  14、Chinese tourists


  Jun 16th 2005 | BICESTER, OXFORDSHIRE From The Economist print edition

  An early indication of what Chinese tourists like about Britain

  JAPANESE tourists bearing credit cards loaded with yen transformed the fortunes of British tourism in the 1980s, and also rescued a handful of rather fusty British luxury brands. So the arrival of a new supply of Asian tourists, this time from China, is arousing some excitement. At the moment, Chinese visitors can travel to Britain only on business or student visas. But from the end of July, they will be allowed to visit Britain as tourists, thanks to an agreement signed by the British and Chinese governments earlier this year.

  What might these people want to do when they are here? An early and rather bizarre indication came this week, when a group of 2,000 door-to-door salespeople who hawk Amway household cleaning products in China were brought to Britain as a reward for flogging exceptional quantities of bottles containing stuff for cleaning sinks. They were not on tourist visas, but their itinerary—London, Oxford, shopping—was more like that of tourists than of the wealthy businessmen and cash-strapped students who can already visit.

  The trip took 700 of them to Bicester Village, a collection of designer-outlet stores near Oxford. Though many of the most expensive fashion brands have shops at Bicester, the only place where it was difficult to get through the door was Clarks, makers of frumpy but sensible shoes for British adults and schoolchildren. Some of the shoppers were filling suitcases with the shoes. During a previous Amway visit, the store had to hire security guards to restrict entry to the store. Why the crush?

  Oddly, Clarks shoes are apparently seen as luxury items in China. The company reckons that the brand, which has been around since 1825, may be helped by its lingering colonial associations. Its presence in Hong Kong when the Chinese market was opening up may also have allowed it to get its products into smart department stores before the competition: although many of the shoes are made in Guangdong, they are pricier there than in Bicester. Evidently much planning had gone into the shopping expedition: some shoppers brought pieces of string cut to the length of a friend's shoe to get the size right, others brought cardboard cut-outs of a child's foot.

  The Britons present were bemused by this frenzy, but the incomprehension may be mutual. Market research by Visit Britain, a government agency, says that along with beautiful scenery and bits of castle, Chinese tourists coming to Britain expect to find friendly local people and delicious regional cooking.

  15、Boeing gets back on track

  Jun 2nd 2005 | LOS ANGELES AND SEATTLE From The Economist print edition

  As America goes on the offensive over subsidies to Airbus, Boeing, its biggest exporter, is learning valuable lessons from its rival's success

  ANOTHER week, another twist in the eternal struggle between Airbus and Boeing. On May 30th, the American government began the latest round by announcing that it will take a case challenging European government subsidies to Airbus to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The next day, the European Union (EU) filed a counter claim against the American government's aid to Boeing. The two sides had been trying (sort of) to settle the dispute in bilateral talks since late last year, but the Americans broke them off after Airbus applied for further aid to launch its new mid-sized A350 aircraft, designed to compete with Boeing's great white hope—the 200-300-seat 787, aimed at the fast-growing long-haul market.

  This dispute has rumbled on since the late 1980s, when Airbus first started to weaken America's dominance of the commercial aircraft market. A truce in 1992, limiting “refundable launch aid” to Airbus to one-third of development costs and Boeing's subsidies from government to 4% of its turnover, lasted until 1998. By then Airbus was steadily approaching 50% of the market. Last week Boeing's chairman, Lew Platt, conceded that, with hindsight, he wishes that Boeing had gone ahead in 1998 with a case it had prepared, supported by the Clinton administration, challenging subsidies to Airbus before the launch of the European firm's super-jumbo, the A380. But Boeing and its allies backed off. The new plane was successfully launched, with over 150 orders so far and at least 50 more to come at the Paris air show, which opens on June 13th (though the plane is six months behind schedule).

  Now Boeing is gunning for the latest Airbus, the A350. An early buyer is supposed to be the new airline to be formed by the merger of America West and US Airways; indeed Airbus is pumping $250m of unsecured finance into the merger to land the deal. But the possibility that 100% import duties might be levied by America on Airbuses following a WTO ruling may deter further American purchases. The WTO is thought likely to find that both sides have breached subsidy rules. That prospect may create pressure for the two firms to—again—seek a negotiated bilateral settlement, if only to avoid a wider trade war.


  The euro is no cure-all

  Apr 28th 2005 From The Economist print edition

  French voters are right to fret about Euro-economics

  HOW dare those materialistic French fret about unemployment and other bread-and-butter questions as they contemplate the lofty issues posed by the forthcoming referendum? That is what an irate Euro-establishment in Brussels is asking as it watches the Gallic debate. The electorate in France, Eurocrats complain, seems to be ignoring the topic in hand—and anyway, what have job losses to do with the Union's defining document?

  In fact, it is not unreasonable for the French and other Europeans to express their anger about the economy when voting on the constitution. For the last decade and more, the signature projects of the EU have been economic ones: in particular the launch of a single market in 1992, and a single currency in 1999. Each of these was sold on the basis of their economic benefits. And yet average unemployment in the 12 euro-area countries is almost 9% and growth is slow. It is not terribly surprising if politicians—seeking to promote the latest brilliant idea from Brussels—now get a fairly cool reception.

  Criticism of the economic policies promoted by Brussels may be unsurprising—but is it fair? Economists reckon that the single market has increased growth, albeit by less than promised. And the euro has promoted trade and price transparency—as well as being a huge practical boon. But it is also true that many of the questions raised about the single currency before it was launched have yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

  How would less productive economies cope with competition in the euro area when devaluation was no longer an option? Would a single interest rate for such different economies cause problems? Could Europe have a single currency without effective controls on national budgets? And is a monetary union ultimately sustainable without a political union to back it up?

  The problems of the Italian economy raise the first question in an acute form. Since the single currency was born in 1999, Italian labour costs have risen by about 20% relative to Germany, because German firms have been much more effective at controlling wages and boosting productivity. While German exports have risen steadily, Italy's are struggling—and the Italian economy is the slowest-growing of the big countries in the euro-area. If Italy had its own currency, devaluation would be a way to restore competitiveness, at least temporarily. But in a monetary union that is impossible. EU policymakers are worried.

  In a speech last week at the Brussels Economic forum, Klaus Regling, the senior civil servant in the European Commission's economic directorate, commented that Italy's “loss of competitiveness does not bode well for the country's economic prospects.” The audience waited for the soothingly optimistic balancing sentence that usually follows any such official comment—but it never came. Some EU economists argue that only a wrenching recession—involving bankruptcies and cuts in nominal wages—can now restore Italian competitiveness. And they point out that Italy is not the only country in the euro-area to have a growing problem with competitiveness. Spain, Portugal, Greece and even Ireland, that paradigm of European success, face similar challenges.

  But if Italy is suffering a decline in its competitive position, why is Germany not booming? In his speech, Mr Regling hinted that this too might have something to do with inappropriate policies caused by the euro. Strong German exports, he observed, had been offset by stagnating domestic demand. He added: “Unavoidably in a monetary union, countries with below-average costs and prices experience relatively high...real interest rates.” Translation: when Germany needed lower interest rates to boost domestic demand, it did not get them because rates were set for the euro-area as a whole. Worse, Germany may now be stuck in a rut, because, as Mr Regling explained: “Low growth expectations...have become entrenched.”

  A commission's credibility

  There is nothing the European Commission can do about the side-effects of a fixed exchange rate and a single interest rate for the euro area—they are inherent to a single currency. But when it comes to controlling budget deficits, the commission is determined to assert itself. Italy is again in the firing line. The commission intends to open an “excessive-deficit procedure” against the Italian (and Portuguese) authorities, for repeatedly breaching the 3% limit on government deficits set for EU countries. Eurocrats see their credibility is at stake. Both Germany and France evaded commission action, by insisting on a rewrite of the EU rules governing government deficits. Many analysts have concluded that the new rules are worthless. Senior figures at the European Central Bank say that it is critical to the future of the single currency that the EU shows it can still enforce budgetary discipline.

  But it is far from clear that the commission will win its Italian test case. After seeing the French and Germans escape sanctions, the Italians may see little point in co-operating—all the more so since Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, is desperate to push through tax cuts ahead of an election. The difficulty in enforcing budgetary discipline on national governments illustrates why some have always argued that monetary union needed to be followed by political union. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former French finance minister who played a crucial role in launching the euro, told last week's Brussels forum that it should not assume that the creation of the single currency was irreversible. If Europe did not advance further towards political union, he argued, there would come a time when political tensions between EU members became so high that they threatened the future of the euro. Unfortunately for Mr Strauss-Kahn, his own country's voters may soon be sending a message that makes life harder, putting it mildly, for political union's keenest advocates. What then happens to monetary union may be the next big question those people must face.


  17、Big Pharma

  The benefits of hypertension

  Dec 4th 2003 From The Economist print edition

  Growing pressure on pharmaceutical firms is a force for good

  FIRMS today fall from grace with the alarming ease of wayward bishops,few industries, however, have tumbled as far, as fast and on as many fronts as drugmakers. Only five years ago, big firms were celebrated as the purveyors of exciting new medicines, such as Viagra, and even more stimulating earnings growth.

  Today, firms are seen by many as more profiteering than profit-making. Companies are castigated for spending billions on research and development, only to deliver too many “me too” drugs and too few genuinely new ones. Comparable sums spent on sales and marketing—particularly on direct-to-consumer advertising in America—are lambasted for corrupting doctors and creating demand on the back of fancy publicity rather than legitimate medical need or product superiority. Efforts to fend off lower-cost competition from manufacturers of generic drugs through patent lawsuits leave companies accused of driving up the drugs bill in rich countries and depriving millions of life-saving medicines in poor ones The shares of most big drug firms now trade at a discount to the market, as promises of bright times ahead are marred by risk.

  To be sure, pharma companies come in for criticism not just because they are more profitable than those in other sectors but because they are profitable in a field, medicine, where money makes people uneasy. And not only are drug companies profitable, but also visible: in America, rising hospital and physician costs are as much to blame for soaring insurance premiums as pharmaceuticals, but it is drugs which are the most obvious recurring expense and the one that consumers are asked, at least in part, to shoulder directly. Firms are caught between shareholders, who fear drug prices will fall, and consumers, who complain about their rise.

  Some of the pain which big firms now feel is undoubtedly self-inflicted. Firms were slow to recognise the gathering storm around the lack of access to life-saving drugs in the developing world. Their public relations on most other issues remains pretty clumsy too, and their promises to investors have been overblown.

  And yet it is also true that producing new drugs today has become a more complicated, costly and risky business than before and many firms now face a couple of years during which they will have relatively few new products coming to market. For example, using the human genome to identify promising new treatments is proving a much more difficult scientific task than many had predicted, and it will be many years before the promised flood of new drugs occurs.

  Current pressures on pharmaceutical firms are forcing a long-overdue examination of how they organise research and development and these changes could cut the cost, in time and money, of R&D and eventually boost output GlaxoSmithKline, the world's second-largest company, this week showed early signs that such root-and-branch re-engineering is starting to bear fruit. The final step drug firms will need to take is to prove that the drugs they produce really do justify the prices charged, in conferring appreciable benefits compared with existing therapies.

  18、School meals

  Eat up your greens

  Dec 2nd 2004 From The Economist print edition

  Can school meals be appetising, nutritious and profitable?

  PUPILS, like soldiers, march on their stomachs. A well-nourished child is more likely to be a studious one. But food has been seen as a cost to be cut, rather than an ingredient of good schooling. That may now be changing: as the government worries about obesity—which is rising fast among children—and urges everyone to eat less salt, fat and sugar, and more fruit and vegetables, the paucity and unhealthiness of most school meals is striking. But cash constraints and rules on public-sector contracts make improvement hard.

  Since cost-cutting began in the 1980s, quality has fallen along with food budgets. More and more children have chosen to bring packed lunches, spend their dinner money on fast food or skip lunch altogether. Now only half the pupils who could eat school meals do so. As numbers fall, the overheads become more burdensome and the pressure on ingredients greater. Of a typical £1.20-1.30 ($2.30-2.50) charged for a primary-school meal, labour costs account for 55p, equipment another 5p, administration charges up to 15p and profit 8p, according to Paul Kelly of Compass, a leading catering company. That leaves barely 40p for the ingredients. By contrast, a prison would spend 60p (per adult). The Dragon School in Oxford, a top junior school in the private sector, spends 75p per child and a hospital 90p.

  The easiest way to get more children into the school dining room is to offer fast food, like chips and pizza—but that conflicts with improving nutrition. What is both tasty and good for you is likely to be more expensive. One way round that would be to cut labour costs—which is impossible thanks to a government directive which says that workers in privatised services must have the same terms and conditions as they would have enjoyed in the public sector.

  All this is no fun for contractors, whose margins are being squeezed. Compass and another big firm, Rentokil Initial, a conglomerate with its roots in rodent control, have complained that they are finding the primary-school business unattractive. “We have decided not to go into that market,” says Mr Pollard of Avenance, an upmarket catering firm which mainly works for state hospitals and independent schools. “We cannot provide the right food to put on a child's plate for 42p. The government has made the effort with hospital food, but has yet do so with schools.”

  Some local authorities are getting fed up too. Essex County Council has given its 600 schools direct charge of catering. That has been good news for some—chiefly large ones, or those able to form clusters in order to negotiate good deals. But it is bad news for small schools in remote areas, who benefited from a cross-subsidy under the old scheme. Around 75 of them have given up offering hot meals.

  It is not just about money, says Neil Porter of the Local Authority Caterers' Association, who notes that school meals are only 15% of a child's annual food intake. It is unrealistic, he says, to think that they are the key to delivering better nutrition. “Children live in a processed-food culture with at least two generations of parents who cannot cook and are themselves unfamiliar with certain foods,” he says. “The vast majority of children will not eat in school what they do not recognise and do not eat outside of school.”

  19、Race and education

  Black marks

  Mar 10th 2005 From The Economist print edition

  It's the natives, not the immigrants, that are the problem Alamy

  WHITE people tend to be nervous of raising the subject of race and education, but are often voluble on the issue if a black person brings it up. So when Trevor Phillips, chairman of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality, said that there was a particular problem with black boys' performance at school, and that it might be a good idea to educate them apart from other pupils, there was a torrent of comment. Some of it commended his proposal, and some criticised it, but none of it questioned its premise. Everybody accepts that black boys are a problem.

  On the face of it, it looks as though Mr Phillips is right. Only 27% of Afro-Caribbean boys get five A-C grades at GCSE, the exams taken by 16-year-olds, compared with 47% of boys as a whole and 44% of Afro-Caribbean girls. Since, in some subjects, candidates who score less than 50% get Cs, those who don't reach this threshold have picked up pretty little at school.

  Mr Phillips's suggestion that black boys should be taught separately implies that ethnicity and gender explain their underachievement. Certainly, maleness seems to be a disadvantage at school. That's true for all ethnic groups: 57% of girls as a whole get five A-Cs, compared with 47% of boys. But it's not so clear that blackness is at the root of the problem.

  Among children as a whole, Afro-Caribbeans do indeed perform badly. But Afro-Caribbeans tend to be poor. So to get a better idea of whether race, rather than poverty, is the problem, one must control for economic status. The only way to do that, given the limits of British educational statistics, is to separate out the exam results of children who get free school meals: only the poor get free grub.

  Poor children's results tell a rather different story. Afro-Caribbeans still do remarkably badly, but whites are at the bottom of the pile. All ethnic minority groups do better than them. Even Bangladeshis, a pretty deprived lot, do twice as well as the natives in their exams; Indians and Chinese do better still. And absolute numbers of underperforming whites dwarf those of underperforming Afro-Caribbeans: last year, 131,393 of white boys failed to hit the government's benchmark, compared with 3,151 Afro-Caribbean boys.

  These figures suggest that, at school at least, black people's problem is not so much race as poverty. And they undermine the idea of teaching black boys separately, for if poor whites are doing worse than poor blacks, there's not much argument for singling out blacks for special measures: whites need help just as badly.

  It's a nice thought

  This isn't, however, a message that anybody much wants to hear. Many white people find the idea that there's something fundamentally wrong with black people comforting: it confirms deeply held prejudices and reassures them that a whole complex of social problems—starting with underachievement in schools, but leading on to unemployment, drug addiction and crime—is nothing to do with them.

  The race-relations industry also has an interest in explaining educational underachievement in terms of ethnicity. A whole raft of committees, commissions and task forces has been set up on the assumption that racial differences are a fundamental cause of social problems. If that's wrong, then all those worthies might as well pack up and go home.

  Trying to explain educational underachievement away as a racial issue may be comforting and convenient, but it is also dangerous, for it distracts attention from the real problem—that the school system fails the poor. That's not a black problem or a white problem: it's a British problem.

  20、Restoring hearing

  Hair tonic

  Feb 17th 2005 From The Economist print edition

  Gene therapy may restore lost hearing and balance

  EVOLUTION has provided people with an exquisitely sensitive system of hearing and balance—the inner ear. But that sensitivity comes at a price, for the inner ear is also the sensory system most susceptible to damage. Nearly one child in 1,000 is born profoundly deaf, and if you are lucky enough to live to be 80, you have a 50% chance of losing enough of your hearing on the way for normal conversation to be troublesome without a hearing aid.

  Often, the reason is damage to specialised sensory cells known as hair cells. The hair-like cilia that give these cells their name act as transducers. They convert the vibrations of sound into electrical impulses that the nervous system can handle. But cilia are fragile. Loud noises, such as those produced by machinery and booming stereos, can knock them away. So can some infections, such as meningitis. And so can some antibiotics. This damage is, at the moment, irreversible. But if Yehoash Raphael of the University of Michigan and his colleagues have their way, that will not be true for much longer.

  Over the past two decades, many of the genes required for ear development have been identified. One of the most important is called Math1. But it is active only in embryos. Dr Raphael wondered, therefore, whether it would be possible to turn it on in adults, and thus generate new cilia.

  The adults in question were guinea pigs—both literally and metaphorically. (Despite the colloquial use of the name, experiments involving rodents more often use mice or rats.) They were treated with antibiotics, to kill their hair cells. This made them completely deaf. Then, after four days, their left ears were infected with an adenovirus (one of the sorts of virus that cause colds). Half the infections were with viruses that had had a Math1 gene engineered into them. Half used viruses that had had a dummy DNA sequence engineered in instead. The hope was that the Math1 gene would be activated in the infected cells, which would then grow cilia, thus becoming hair cells. And it worked. As Dr Raphael reports in Nature Medicine, eight weeks later the animals treated with Math1-carrying adenovirus had regenerated their hair cells and were able to hear.

  Their hearing was not restored completely. Although they were able to perceive sounds in the range of 40-50 decibels—similar to the volume of a typical conversation—Dr Raphael suspects that what they heard was rather fuzzy. That is because the treatment only caused the regrowth of a group of cells called the inner hair cells. These determine the threshold of hearing. A second group, the outer hair cells, did not reappear. The outer cells are responsible for amplifying sound, and for modulating its quality. Dr Raphael suspects that a second gene will need to be added to the viral package to stimulate the outer cells' regrowth.

  Meanwhile, at the University of Maryland, Hinrich Staecker has been doing similar experiments designed to restore balance in mice. In these experiments, which have yet to be published, he uses an antibiotic injection to knock out the hair cells devoted to balance. (These cells work by detecting movements in the fluid that fills the canals of the inner ear.) Forty-eight hours later, he injects the animals with adenoviruses containing Math1 genes. A month after the injection, the animals have regained their sense of balance.

  Both groups of researchers think this is the beginning of a new approach to treating inner-ear problems. Dr Staecker predicts that the first Math1 gene-therapy trials will happen in people who have lost their sense of balance. If those work, hair cell-regeneration treatments for deafness may follow. There is still a long way to go. Trials of any kind are probably five years away. But it looks as if science is having more luck restoring the hairs of the ears to youthful vigour than it is with the hairs of the head.



  1、聪明人要做件好事,可恶的政府却阻止他。这就是对Tristram Jones-Parry遭遇难题的经历进行的深入探究得出的结论。他是全国最好的学校之一、收费学校Westminster School的校长,将于明年退休,想要在一家公立学校帮忙教数学。

  他受到人们敞开怀抱的欢迎了吗?没有。他抱怨说,他被告知根据国家教育体制规定,他需要进行再培训。同样的事情也发生在英国公立学校教书的一位退休的美国物理学教授David Wolfe的身上。他说,本周权威机构告诉他,如果他还想继续教书,就要参加一个通常由16岁的孩子们参加的、名为GCSE(General Certificate of Secondary Education)的数学考试

  这一制度也不像前面提到的这么愚蠢之至。要求公立学校老师要得到正式资格认定的有关条款也是有例外的。The Teacher Training Agency教师培训机构坚持认为,Mr. Jones-Parry只要一天就可以获得入场券,就是让一名评估人员依据国家制度来观察并评价他在Westminster学校的工作表现就可以了。(简直是和必须要求再培训一样愚蠢可笑的一项要求)Mr.Wolfe的美国博士学位将会作为相当于GCSE数学考试通过的一般要求考虑在内。所以他倒是可以勉强通过。另一家半官方机构,The General Teaching Council,已经向Mr. Jones-Parry就最初向他提供了错误信息、以及尔后对他的后续信件置之不理达6周之久而道歉。

  真正的问题是两种学校之间的差异鸿沟。像Mr. Jones-Parry这样的校长们聘用教师时注重的是学术上的优良信誉、而不是必须要经过国家资格认证。公立学校雇佣教师几乎是被管着的;那里的老师们必须要做个专业填表人和行话专家,并且好像很少拥有较高的学位:实际上仅仅38%的公立学校数学教师拥有专业学位;而在自主的私立学校,则有63%。

  因此,不足为奇,私立学校的教师们会认为他们到公立学校教书的那些即使是最表面的阻碍也是讨厌而又愚蠢的。还有类似的其他片面回应:教学协会本周就虚伪地声称,Mr. Jones-Parry可能很擅长教授表现好的聪明孩子高等数学,不过不一定知道怎么给粗鲁的笨蛋们讲讲简单的加法。或许是吧。但是很多公立学校的学生家长们拼命给孩子寻求更好的数学教育时,可能认为那种风险是相当小的。

  2、为什么李尔王遭到了女儿们的残忍虐待?直到最近为止,大多的答案还都是来自于那些缺乏经济理论知识的学者们。幸运的是,埃塞克斯(Essex)的一位经济学家,John Ermisch,正在尽力解决这一问题。他的研究表明,财富越多,随之而来,子女就越不孝顺—这正是长久以来许多为人父母者将信将疑的。

  依照英国皇家陪审团调查委员会的数据,Mr. Ermisch指出,和穷人比起来,有钱人在养育孩子时往往给子女提供更多的金钱和帮助。然而在孩子身上所起的作用却好像正好相反。仅以拥有大学学位这一项为例,有大学学历的人通常给妈妈打电话的次数要少20%,去看看妈妈的次数就要少50%以上了。




  既然有这么多铁定的规律,父母们又应该做些什么呢?可能多生些孩子会得到好的结果,或者突然对当地的宠物机构表示浓厚兴趣。不过Mr. Ermisch却并不乐观。他说,“他们唯一所能做的就是围着孩子转。”并且不要犯李尔王那样的错误,先把钱交出去了。

  Note: 《李尔王》是莎士比亚四大悲剧中最成熟的作品,讲述年老的李尔把国土分给三个女儿,但恩赐之前先要女儿声言多么爱他。大女儿二女儿都讲出一番动听言词,小女儿则不愿花言巧语,结果应得的国土被两个姊姊分去,在毫无嫁妆的情况下嫁给赏识她的法国皇帝。李尔逊位之后受到大女儿二女儿虐待,最后在暴风雨中发疯。小女儿听到父王受虐,领兵入侵欲救李尔,最后兵败遭擒被害死,李尔王也在忧伤中死去。


  许多人曾经以为,搜索市场已经被Google和Yahoo!瓜分殆尽(二者已占领了搜索引擎的90%的市场),除非是将来Microsoft会加入。与此相似,在线音乐的市场似乎也已被分割成型:Apple的iTunes占据老大,其主要竞争对手有RealNetworks和Microsoft的MSN Music。然而,这也同样低估了竞争的规模。上周,Yahoo!以1亿6千万美元收购了Musicmatch,一家经销在线音乐的软件企业。如今每年网络音乐下载交易约为3亿1千万美元,而根据Forrester Research的预测,到2008年这一数字将增至46亿美元,因此,仍有很大的空间供新公司参与。



  U.C.Berkeley的经济学家Hal Varian认为:暗藏在表面竞争之下的是那些已经从规模经济向新领域的扩张中获益的大公司之间的能力之争。这就是为什么Amazon提供A9搜索服务,以及Yahoo!为什么转向音乐。至于浏览器,“Microsoft的市场封锁恰恰犯了个大忌。其在浏览器方面没有任何创新,安全性能极差,”敬告:擦亮你的眼睛。

  4、近来很少有创新像功能性磁共振成像这样,可以改变一个领域的研究。这项技术革新了人脑的研究。通过使无形的变有形(对有生命的大脑不同部分进行逐秒记录的活动),这一技术使对器官所作的研究有了翻天覆地的变化。不过作为医学仪器开始应用,如今是在例行检查方面,以探究有关行为和动机的复杂问题。就是本周早些时候于圣迭戈召开的Society for Neuroscience会议上提交的那两项研究。

  在其中一项研究中,Princeton University的Jonathan Cohen和他的同事们试图解释一个挑剔了经济学家们几十年的怪人。如果人们都是完全理性的(至少是经济学家们定义的那样),那么对于延迟一周支付应赋予相同的货币价值,无论那一周什么时候开始。所以,对于在某一周开始时得到10美元、或者在这一周结束时得到11美元,一个人应当做出相同的选择,不管这一周是现在还是一年以后。但是那并不能证明人们究竟如何判断的。大多数情况下,人们会选择今天拿10美元而不是一年零一周之后的11美元。

  Dr Cohen解释道这一矛盾可能反映了大脑中不同中枢神经系统的影响。为了验证这一解释,他招募了14名学生,一般在这样的研究中都是由学生来充当牛马。在处于大脑监测仪的监测之下时,学生们被要求在是现在得到价值5到40美元的亚马逊礼券还是几周以后得到多出1%到50%的礼券之间做出选择。


  当然,那并没能回答为什么进化会以这种方式装备大脑这一根本问题。Dr Cohen推测可能是在资源奇缺且不可预料时有什么与生存相关的因素,而不是合同和有效的银行系统这些原因。但是这却使解决像毒瘾和拖延这样的问题有了一丝光亮,这两者都是眼前回报的诱惑会导致最终作出有害选择的情形。

  就在Dr Cohen的团队不断斟酌人们怎么做出选择时,德国Tübingen大学的Klaus Mathiak和同事们正使用功能性磁共振成像来研究特定类型的选择对于大脑活动产生的影响。他们尤其注意观察社会交际暴力游戏中专注于视频游戏的玩家们的大脑。

  Dr Mathiak招募了13个平均每周玩20小时视频游戏的玩家。当玩家们追踪并向敌人射击时,研究人员从内置扫描仪中记录下了他们大脑相对处于不舒服的状态。

  当一个玩家开始一场暴力遭遇战时,他大脑中称为前扣带脑皮质的部分开始活跃。这一区域在虚构情节较少时与进攻相关联,还在后来感同身受一样的更积极的情绪出现时与抑制有关。Dr Mathiak指出玩家们的反应和真正的进攻相关联的中枢惊人地相似。正如他所指出的,“与业内同行所说的相反,这看来似乎远不止于仅仅是一场游戏。”

  5、“叛逆的亿万富翁:Branson追求最好”将于下周在美国福克斯广播网闪亮登场,讲述一位英国大亨Richard Branson爵士试图像美国要人、“The Apprentice”(学徒)节目明星Donald Trump在纪实电视方面大获全胜。每一节会有一个竞争者被炒;胜者将会得到100万元和一份工作。对Richard爵士来说现在并非良辰吉时。真实秀电视最近在美国收视排行勉强维持,不仅有“The Benefactor”和 “The Bachelor”,即使“The Apprentice”也不例外。新近的节目,比如“The Next Great Champ” 和 “The Last Comic Standing”,表现更差,只好转手给有线广播网。

  CBS广播网研究与计划总监David Poltrack说,太多明显质量差的节目刺破了真实秀电视的泡沫。根据CBS观众调查,人们尤其受够了充斥屏幕的类似的节目,在过去几年里,编播人员仓促推出许多类型化了的场面浩大的成功故事。他说,那将使得任何新的真人秀类节目,无论好坏,都举步维艰。同时这也预示着Fox即将专著于真人秀电视的有线频道将会面临的麻烦,尤其是在已经存在两个的情况下。


  几乎没有迹象表明美国以外也有类似的疲软现象。亲切的形式使其在欧洲大行其道。在英国,排名较高的有:ITV的“I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”,Channel 4的“Big Brother”以及Channel 5的“The Farm”等,最近一位女明星竞技者更是在“The Farm”中用手得到了一头猪的精液,令观众极受震撼。英国电视将来可能会制作越来越少的真实秀节目,但是(首要地)只有依靠公共投资的BBC决定在力促政府补充津贴时着重强调“公共服务”费用才行。

  真实秀电视在美国的停滞给了改编戏剧卷土重来的机会,这也安慰了那些抱怨大材小用的专业演员和作家们。今秋美国成功上演的“Desperate Housewives”就是一个非常强调“性”的郊外生活的虚构版本。然而,纪实的手法甚至于正在对改编节目施以影响,Fremantle Media的Alan Boyd这样认为。以ABC的新剧,关于乘客在飞机失事中求生的“Lost”(迷失)为例,看起来就更像“Survivor”。英国喜剧“The Office”在美国也受到了交口称赞,也是看起来像极了有剧本的真实秀电视节目。










  在接下来的12个月内,焦点将集中在小额信贷上,就是把少量的钱借给穷人,向其吸收存款,代办汇款,并为之提供保险。如果幸运的话,联合国的努力将会被证实其实质意义远胜过象征意义。开局很成功,在纽约联合国总部举行的盛大仪式证明这一主题如今有多时髦。出席的700人中,有顶级银行家,政治家,以及一两个电影明星。联合国还宣布任命一个顾问团来研究究竟什么可能会阻碍小额信贷的成长和效力。成员包括生意人和金融家们。(也包括The Economist商业部分的编辑)









  从大多方面来说,美元已经是被低估了,然而经验表明为消化赤字美元仍需要继续下跌,才能使赤字达到一个可以接受的水平,比如GDP的2-3%。伦敦一家名为资本经济学的研究机构预测到2005年年底,美元会跌至1:$1.40/ $1:¥90。不过该预测同时也认为,由于英国随着房价下跌而减息,美元兑英镑会从现在的₤1:$1.93回升至₤1:$1.82。

  9、如何管理混混行为的问题可是难倒了很多人。有种越来越受欢迎的做法,就是用古典音乐,显然,这对青少年来说是很难接受的。一家名为Co-op的连锁杂货店,正在尝试在店外播放古典音乐来阻止年轻人在附近晃来晃去、威胁到顾客的安全。好像还很奏效。员工手持遥控器,并且 “可以在状况出现、需要疏散人群时打开音乐”,Co-op的Steve Broughton说。

  不过,迄今为止听觉维持治安得到的最系统应用,是在地铁站。如今Tyneside Metro有6站播放海顿和莫扎特的乐曲来阻止那些故意破坏和游手好闲的人,这个方案还真的很成功,以致于还出现了很多模仿者。London Underground在Elm Park站首先采用之后,如今余下的30站的广播里都飘扬着古典音乐。据伦敦交通部门发言人称,威慑最有效的要数由帕瓦罗蒂演唱、或是莫扎特写的作品。

  根据莱斯特大学研究音乐和行为之间联系的心理学家Adrian North的理论,在选择驱散人群的唱片时,关键要考虑其生疏性。如果目标受众是不熟悉弦乐和木管乐的人,莫扎特的乐曲就足够了。不过对那些在音乐上有点儿修养的坏蛋来说,不成调调连珠炮似的乐曲就会更奏效。Mr North试着在学校酒吧以被他称为“电脑游戏音乐”的乐曲折磨莱斯特的学生们。酒吧内的学生顿时一扫而光。

  然而,如果目标不是驱散人群,而是要让人们镇静下来,那么最好要避免播放生疏或具有挑战性的音乐了。在皇家波尔顿医院(Royal Bolton Hospital),员工们已经开始在意外及突发事件(急诊)病房播放古典乐曲,同时,也在眼科病房及主接待区播放。急诊病房的一位护士长Janet Hackin说,病人们确实显得更加镇定了,“而不是在充满焦虑和流血的环境里四处乱转”。可是,古典音乐对于酒类专卖法令不断放开的结果却可能没什么作用。Ms Hackin证实道,“要是他们酩酊大醉,已经不醒人事了,那可就没什么效果了。”

  10、哈佛大学校长Larry Summers三年半的研究,似乎要让很多人大跌眼镜。首先,他认为学生们得到了太多的“A”是由于分数膨胀的结果(的确也是这样)。而后,他又攻击黑人教授Cornel West的“伪”课外活动(Mr Summers又下一城)。现在,他又提出女性在科学和数学方面成就较少的原因之一是女性缺乏此类天赋。

  Mr Summers的这一论述是非正式的;不过他已经证实他的确注意到了天生差异起到的作用要胜过社会因素的可能性(例如教育及工作场所的待遇等)。这引来了普通人的怨声载道。但是,从科学上来讲,他是否正确呢?



  然而,华盛顿科学妇女联合会执行董事兼数学家Susan Ganter说,即使这些家伙(孤独症)天生是男性,也不能证明Mr Summers的解释。没人知道这种差异实际上会重要到何种程度。可能这仅仅是次要因素,而其他许多原因无疑也影响着女性在科学上的成功。其中一个就是,由于生孩子而造成职业中断一段时间后,再重返科学领域是非常困难的—这一点Mr Summers发言中也提到了。

  从科学的观点来看更糟糕的是,Mr Summers可能在提及这一问题时将其复杂化了。大量科学研究说明如果人们被告知会失败,他们就真的会失败。

  11、去年旧金山市市长Gavin Newsom开始给同性恋伴侣们发结婚证,结果只是自寻烦恼,加利福尼亚州法院判定其发出的结婚证不具有法律效力。如今纽约市市长Michael Bloomberg则采取了相反的方式。身为共和党人的他,正在对初等法院的判决提起诉讼,即允许该市公务员给同性恋伴侣发放结婚证的判决(这相互矛盾的两个判决是该州其他城市法院最新的判决),同时还承诺推动纽约的法律变革。

  这自然是引来了他的政敌们一片嘘声。纽约市民主党参议员(新市长的有力竞争者),Grifford Miller已经参与声讨市长是个胆小鬼。另外一个民主党人,Mr Bloomberg 下届选举中最有力的对手Fernando Ferrer更是称他为机会主义者。而他的共和党同僚、同样也对市长的职位垂涎三尺的Thomas Ognibene,则指责他胆小怕事、毫无骨气。


  如果这一案件现在直接上诉到州最高法院,将会出现要么是像Mr Bloomberg认为的给同性恋婚姻一个完全的司法认可,要么就是相反(这一种可能性更大)。正如原告已经知道的,现在的州法律在不允许同性婚姻方面是非常清楚的。然而,在处理去年夏天5对伴侣向纽约市政办公人员要求发放结婚证一案中,初等法院认为,这一法律在两方面有违宪法:没有提供平等的保护(对不同性取向的人区别对待);没有提供正当程序(没有给人们隐私权自主安排其婚姻,不受是非不明的政府干涉)。



  12、职业教育的批评者们都是些假内行,他们都局限于学术资格的探讨。这是官方底线—不过如今事实正在浮出水面。教育大臣Ruth Kelly本周就将职业资格描述为“二等和二流的”。



  去年,前首席学校巡视员Sir Mike Tomlinson在一篇官方报告中提出了很有创意的改革建议。考试体制应当要求更加严格,也更灵活,基础更加广泛。该项提议主要在于以包罗万象的文凭取代目前的考试。这使得持平等主义观点的人们很满意,他们也同意这一观点—美发和物理也要有类似的考试。不过,包括首相在内的很多人认为即使A-levels和GCSEs考试有很多缺陷,也聊胜于无。

  因此本周Ms Kelly也保留了Sir Mike的主要建议,她说A-levels和GCSEs考试将会继续。教育机构很是焦急。不过三大改革还是即将进行。




  13、好像是在突然之间,每个人都意识到了移动电子邮件将会成为下一桩电信与科技大事。5月10日,世界最大软件商微软将一款新的基于移动电话的视窗操作系统公诸于世,将能运行像硅谷Visto、Good Technology、SEVEN及Intellisync等独立软件公司的那些能让移动电话用户用手机收发电子邮件的程序。之前是一个非常忙碌的四月,SEVEN收购了芬兰对手Smartner、Visto达成了与世界最大移动运营商—Vodafone的业务合作并在加拿大与Rogers Wireless合作开始大量推出移动电子邮件服务。



  UBS分析家Pip Coburn说:“这一趋势发展还为时尚早—我们斗胆称之为初生牛犊”。他认为移动电子邮件是一项“杀手级应用”,因为它能够切近人们最强烈的心理和情感需求—渴望与他人保持联络(如果不能做到就会伴生社交隔绝的恐惧)以及移动的需求—由于人们已经知道如何用个人电脑收发电子邮件,相对来说很少有人想新学点儿什么。事实上,电子邮件很可能将很多移动运营商们期望用来挤倒3G无线网络的其它价格高昂的服务取代。电信业界领袖Andrew Odlyzko曾做过一项调查,让人们在假设中选择—使用电子邮件还是互联网全部内容:95%的人选择了电子邮件。

  这里有几层暗示。Mr Coburn 认为,首先,“瑞士军刀”一样绝对包罗万象的手机成为趋势可能难以走得很远,致力于以声音、文字信息和电子邮件将人们联系起来的简单易懂又价格便宜的“无声智能手机”也许将最终在广阔的市场取得胜利。其次,对于软件业来说,这一领域还依旧是大大放开的。Intellisync的老板Woody Hobbs早在上世纪80年代就勾勒出个人电脑的类似情形。Apple随后就以个人硬件软件捆绑产品取得领先地位。然而最后,Apple还是输给了那些产品与微软操作系统相容的硬件制造商们。如今,RIM可能扮演的就是Apple;其他角色的彩排才刚刚开始。

  14、 日本旅行者带着的存满了日元的信用卡转化成了英国旅游业80年代的巨大财富,并挽救了很多相当陈旧古板的英国奢侈品品牌。因此又一批亚洲旅游者的新鲜跟上,当然这一回是来自中国,同样唤起了一阵骚动。目前,中国游客只能以商务或学生签证赴英旅游。但因为英中两国政府今年早些时候签署了一项协议,从7月底开始,赴英国旅游将被允许。


  其中700人途中到了Bicester Village—牛津附近的流行品牌设计师作品打折专卖店。虽然很多最昂贵的时尚品牌都在Bicester Village设有专卖店,但仅有一点就是难以寻得Clarks的踪迹;这个品牌对英国成年人和学龄孩子们来说虽不时髦、却实际耐用。有些商家成箱地出售鞋子。之前的一次安利团队到来时,店铺就不得不雇用保安来限制进入的人数。怎么会这么挤?


  英国人正被这一狂潮搞得困惑不已,不过这种不解可能是相互的。一项由政府机构Visit Britain组织的市场调查显示,除了美丽风光和众多城堡以外,中国游客来英国还希望看到友好的当地人和美味的地域美食。



  20世纪80年代后期起,纷争已经开始;那时候空客率先削弱美国独霸的商业飞机市场。休战曾在1992年出现,空客的“应偿还启动资金援助”限制在其发展成本的1/3以内,而波音从政府取得的补贴则不得超过其营业额的4%,这一直持续到了1998年。到1998年,空客稳步达到市场占有率50%。上周波音主席Lew Platt也事后诸葛地认为,波音1998年应该成功进行其精心准备的、由克林顿政府支持、旨在迎战空客推出超级巨无霸A380时所得补贴的那场诉讼。不过波音和其他同盟都打退堂鼓了。新型飞机顺利下线,至今已有超过150份订单,而且至少有50份以上是在6月13日的巴黎飞行展上签成的(尽管飞机要在6个月以后才能面世)。

  如今波音正将矛头指向空客最新机型A350。抢先的买家可能是America West和US Airways合并后建立的新航线;实际上空客的确向这个合并后的航空公司斥资2亿5000万美元无担保资助来促成这桩生意。然而美国依据WTO规则也许会对空客征收的100%进口关税的可能性大约也会阻止未来的美国买家购买。有人认为,WTO很可能会看到双方都违背了补贴规则。这一预期可能会对两家企业均再一次产生压力,寻求经双边谈判磋商解决问题的办法,只要能够避免一场更大范围的贸易战。


  16、NOTE:Charlemagne 查理曼大帝(742-814)时期为法兰克王, 800-814为西罗马帝国皇帝)是罗马帝国灭亡后西欧第一个帝国的创始人。寓意欧洲的再次复兴和统一,这在欧洲一体化进程中就可见一斑。

















  从80年代开始削减成本起,质量也随着食品预算的减少而下降。越来越多的孩子选择了自带午饭、以快餐代替正餐或者干脆就不吃午饭。如今,打算在学校就餐的小学生中只有一半真的在学校吃。因为人数减少,固定费用就更难以承担,营养构成方面也就压力更大了。根据业界领先的公共餐饮公司Compass的Paul Kelly所说,在一份价值₤1.20-1.30(合$2.30-2.50)的典型小学生午饭中,劳动力成本占55便士,设备占5便士,管理费用约15便士,而利润为8便士。这就给营养成分仅仅剩下40便士。相反,同样是营养构成部分,监狱花在每个成年人身上是60便士。顶尖的私立初中The Dragon School in Oxford平均每个孩子身上花费75便士,而医院为每个人的花费是90便士。


  所有这些对经营者来说丝毫没有乐趣可言,他们的利润被无限压榨。Compass及另一个立足于营养控制的集团公司Rentokil Initial都抱怨说发现私立学校的生意没什么吸引力。主要服务于国立医院和私立学校的高档餐饮企业Avenance的Pollard先生说,“我们已经决定不涉入这一市场,我们不可能以42便士给孩子的餐盘里提供合适的食物。政府已经在医院食品问题上有所成就,不过在学校方面仍需加强。”


  地方当局餐饮协会的Neil Porter称这并不仅仅是钱的问题,学校膳食只占一个孩子年食物摄入的15%。他说,指望学校膳食能带来更好的营养水平是不现实的。他还说,“孩子们生活在一个加工食品的文化之中,其至少两代家长都不会烹饪,而且家长本身都对一些食物很不熟悉。孩子中的绝大多数不会在学校吃他们不认识的东西,也不在校外吃。”

  19、提到种族和教育问题,白人们都会有些紧张,不过如果是一个黑人提起这个话题,白人们就会滔滔不绝。英国种族平等委员会主席 Trevor Phillips 一提到黑人男孩子在学校表现的特殊问题、并认为将他们和其他学生分开教育兴许是个好主意时,就有一连串的意见和建议。其中有的赞成,有的持批评态度,不过没人质疑问题的起因。个个都承认黑人男孩子是个问题。

  从表面来看, Mr Phillips 好像是对的。仅有27% 的非洲--加勒比裔男孩在16 岁孩子参加的 GCSE 考试中得了A到C的成绩,相比之下,男孩整体上是47% ,而非洲 - 加勒比裔女孩则是44% 。由于在某些科目中,得分低于50%的人会得C,学校里达不到这一程度的学生就更是微乎其微了。

  Mr Phillips 建议黑人男孩应当单独接受教育意味着种族和性别决定了他们智商低。当然,男生在学校里确实是处在下峰,所有种族都是如此:全部女孩中有57%得到了5个A到C的分数,而男孩则只有47% 。然而问题的根源是否在于黑人孩子,就不是很清楚了。


  穷人孩子的成绩说明了一个更加不同一般的问题。非洲 - 加勒比裔孩子仍然非常糟糕,不过白人却排在最后,所有少数族裔都比白人表现好。即使是相当缺衣少食的孟加拉裔,在考试中也比本土白人好两倍;印度裔和华裔就更好了。而且表现不佳的白人的绝对数字也远远超过非洲--加勒比裔:去年, 131,393 个白人男孩子没能达到政府规定的标准,非洲--加勒比裔则只有 3,151 个。





  试图将教育成果不佳推卸为种族问题可能是既令人欣慰又让人感到便捷,不过也同样很危险,因为这将人们的视线从真正的问题转移开来 — 学校系统放弃了穷人。那就既不是黑人的问题、也不是白人的问题:而是一个英国的问题。

  20、进化给了人类感觉敏锐的听觉和平衡系统 — 内耳。但这种灵敏的感觉实在得来不易,因为内耳也是最易受到损伤的感官系统。差不多每 1000 个孩子中就有 1 个是先天的深度耳聋,如果你有幸能活到 80 岁,那么你就有 50% 的可能会在不借助助听器时很难进行正常的谈话。

  通常认为原因是特殊感觉器官毛细胞受到了损伤。毛细胞得名于其像头发丝儿一样的纤毛,这些纤毛起到的作用就像是传感器。它们将声音的振动转化为神经系统可以感知的电波。然而纤毛也是很脆弱的。机器轰鸣和高声音响等噪声喧哗就能轻易将其破坏。某些传染病,比如脑膜炎,也会损伤毛细胞。同样,有些抗生素也会伤害毛细胞。目前,这种损伤还是不可治愈的。不过,如果密执安大学的 Yehoash Raphael 和他的同事们能够成功,这种情况就不会持续太久了。

  在过去的二十年里,耳部研究需要的许多基因都得到了发现。其中最重要的之一称作 Math1 。可是它仅仅在晶胚中才具有活性。因此 Dr Raphael 想知道是否可以给成年个体移植,并由此再生出新的纤毛细胞。

  这里所讨论的成年个体是指豚鼠 — 字面意义和引申含义都是如此。(除了口语通俗说法以外,实验所用啮齿类动物往往是小鼠或大鼠。)给它们施加抗生素来杀死毛细胞,使其完全耳聋。四天以后,另一只不聋的耳朵也被一种腺病毒所感染(引起感冒的一种病毒)。受感染老鼠中一半携带有植入 Math1 基因的病毒。一半携带有植入虚拟 DNA 序列的病毒。寄希望于 Math1 基因能够在受感染的细胞中存活,产生纤毛,进而成为毛细胞。真的起作用了。据 Dr Raphael 在 Nature Medicine 上的报告, 8 周以后,携带 Math1 腺病毒的动物再生了毛细胞并且恢复了听力。

  老鼠们的听力并没有完全恢复。尽管它们能察觉到 40~50 分贝范围内的声音 — 接近于正常谈话的音量 —Dr Raphael 还是怀疑老鼠们听到的声音有些失真。因为治疗仅仅引起了称为内耳毛细胞的细胞群的再生长。这些只是决定听觉的开始。第二个细胞群,外耳细胞群并没有再现。外耳细胞司职放大声音并调节声音的质量。 Dr Raphael 怀疑还有另一个基因需要加入病毒包来刺激外耳细胞的再生。

  同时,在马里兰大学, Hinrich Staecher 也作着类似的实验,旨在恢复小鼠的平衡感。他在这些尚在整理出版的试验中,使用了一种抗生素注射剂来破坏保持平衡的毛细胞。(这些细胞通过探测充满内耳道的液体的移动来发挥功能。) 48 小时以后,他给老鼠们注射含有 Math1 基因的腺病毒。经过 1 个月的注射,老鼠竟重新有了平衡感。

  两组研究人员都认为这是治疗内耳疾病新尝试的一个开端。 Dr Staecker 预言首例用于人类失去平衡感的 Math1 基因疗法试验即将进行。如果奏效了,毛细胞再生治疗耳聋可能随之而来。当然,道路还是漫长而曲折的。任何类型的实验可能都要有 5 年之遥。但是看来好像科学在恢复毛细胞使耳朵返老还童方面比起其对头上的头发所做的努力要更加成功。


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