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Fan Bingbing was in 2015 described by Time magazine as China’s “most famous actress”.  Yet she has not been seen in public since June when her official social-media account, on a solely Chinese platform, posted a visit she made to a children’s hospital in Tibet.  No official source has given any suggestion in regards to her whereabouts but many are pointing towards suspected tax evasion and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) crackdown on celebrity corruption.

The first piece of evidence to support this is the leaking of a film contract by a TV presenter Cui Yongyuan, a social media post that was soon deleted.  The state tabloid Global Times reported on it as being a dual-contract commonly referred to as a ‘yin-yang contract’.  This refers to the two contracts, one presented to the government that is therefore tax deductible and one personal contract that the government would have otherwise been unaware of.  Then in September the Beijing Normal University published a report on ‘social responsibility’ where prominent celebrities given a rating and Bingbing was ranked last at 0 out of 100. 

Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist, was detained for 3 months in 2011 by the government citing similar issues of tax evasion.  Upon release he had signed a confession related to tax evasion and his treatment has contributed to the suspicion surrounding Bingbing’s withdrawal. 

Many consider her disappearance and poor ‘social responsibility’ ranking to be the government making her an example of their crackdown on corruption in the Chinese film industry, in part as a result of the public nature of the contract leakage.  It is also likely that it is an attempt to divert attention from the rumoured exploitation within the government itself. 

Law, PPE and Politics students should consider the manner in which the CCP is using Bingbing’s treatment as a deterrent for others in China’s creative industries and how anachronistic their desire to promote the ‘Chinese dream’ is with the inevitable income divide that they wish to denounce.      

The US government has been the subject of heavy criticism in the last few years over the blacklisting of certain Muslim countries under its immigration laws, among other things. However, the history of suspicion towards Muslims entering America goes much further back.

In 1522, a group of Muslim African slaves carried out the first slave revolt of the New World, attacking their captors on Christmas day. The uprising led  Charles V of Spain to ban from the Americas “slaves suspected of Islamic leanings”, attributing their revolt to their religious ideology. Before the revolt, travel into the New World colonies was already forbidden not only to non-Christians but to Christians with Muslim or Jewish ancestry. After the revolt, this rule was extended to slaves. The decree does not seem to have had a major effect, as papers could be forged and bribes easily given. Slaveowners were reluctant to obey the rule as Muslim slaves from West Africa were often more skilled and therefore more valuable than other slaves.

Officials in British America later adopted similar policies, deeming Christian baptism a requirement for entering the country, including for slaves. Moreover, all those whose parentage was not Christian were automatically considered slaves. Unsurprisingly, excluding non-Christians and suppressing “dangerous” Islamic tendencies did not keep either Spanish or British America free of slave revolts, though the governments were quick to attribute insurrections to irreligiosity or to volatile religious leanings, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt at the beginning of the 19th century. In fact some rebellions were driven by the slaves’ Christian beliefs, as in the case of Nat Turner who had visions of Christ giving him the authority to fight against evil.

With reference to this or other examples, students applying to study History or Politics may want to think about the concept of history ‘repeating itself’ and how current social and political phenomena are shaped by the past. More broadly, they might wish to consider to what extent the USA is still a reflection of its colonial past.

Raw honey is considered to be a natural energy source, antioxidant and handy hayfever preventative, but how different is it to its cousin which is found on the supermarket shelves?

Recent studies have shown that commercial honey is often more than just stored, heated, chemically refined, pasteurised and filtered (if that wasn’t enough). Much of the honey sold in the United States has been declared by food health and safety experts to consist largely of sweeteners, unrefined sugar, corn syrup and a tiny amount of real honey. This process of passing off impure honey as real honey is now known as ‘honey laundering’.

When one imagines cartels dealing in illegal substances, honey isn’t often the first thing to spring to one’s mind, however honey is a very valuable product! The sticky substance is consumed in vast quantities in the States, either in baked products or used as a topping. The US Department of Justice has indicted two American companies for selling mislabelled honey and has handed out several million-dollar fines to other brands.

Honey imported from Asia contains even more horrors than that produced in North America, such as metal toxins and antibiotics. These bee antibiotics are banned in the USA, however the unpleasant taste can be disguised by more added sugar in imports. The Chinese ‘bulked up’ honey can be sold for far lower prices than its real counterparts and, as a result, Chinese honey is subject to heavy duties. To avoid these import taxes, honey from China is often shipped to neighbouring countries, before passing to the US to disguise its original origin.

It can be difficult to judge the difference between real honey and ‘fake’ honey, however there are some subtle signs that a consumer can pick up on. Pure honey should be thick and viscous in texture, have no saccharine aftertaste, and be silky when rubbed between the figures.

Students that desire to study PPE at Oxford or HSPS at Cambridge should examine the ethics that are involved in the sale of ‘natural’ foods. Aspiring Medicine students should consider the harm caused to public health by contaminated honey. Those interested in pursuing the study of Economics should read up on the consequences of a market flooded by counterfeit products.

As a lover of second-hand clothes and flea markets, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad also happened to be the eighth richest person on Bloomberg Billionaires Index.  Hailed as one of the most influential business men and entrepreneurs of the twentieth century, Kamprad’s wealth was estimated at around $73.8 billion.  Sadly, the mogul passed away late last month aged 91, leaving behind his staggering fortune.  Regrettably for his families and heirs, they will inherit a mere fraction of Kamprad’s enormous wealth.

Starting at the age of five, Kamprad sold matches to his neighbours and gradually progressed to selling seeds, stockings and stationary from his bicycle as a teenager.  By the time he was 17 he had founded IKA; the first mail-order catalogue launched in 1951 and in 1955 the famous flat-pack furniture was launched.  By 1985 it had stores in Europe, Norway and the US, eventually establishing 412 stores across 49 countries.

Kamprad grew up on a farm in southern Sweden and attributed his financial outlook to the attitude of the agricultural region in which he grew up.  This functionality displayed in his business model permeated to the style of furniture he sold.  Rooted in his homeland, he even conducted meetings in the downstairs of the flat in which he was living and grew up.

Although renowned for his internationally successful flatpack empire, Kamprad was equally known to be frugal in his financial dealings and perspective throughout his life.  Bloomberg reported that his purpose is charity donations and ‘supporting [design] innovation’.  Most of Kamprad’s furniture stores are owned by the Stichting Ingka Foundation and controlled Liechtenstein-based Interogo Foundation.  The latter foundation is itself managed by Stiftungsrat Foundation Council, consisting of a Supervisory Council in which, as Bloomberg reports, the Kamprad family ‘ha[s] been and shall always be in minority’.  The Kamprad family has no control over ownership of the company’s shares, with Kamprad arranging all the logistics personally so that they have no control of the IKEA company and will therefore receive minimal sums.  They will receive a small amount from Ikano Group, owned by the family and who runs a number of businesses in a variety of industries.  IKEA Foundation’s Chief Executive, Per Heggenes, confirmed Kamprad’s philanthropic outlook, stating in 2012 that he was ‘not interested in money’.  The complex structure put in place by Kamprad not only means that profits can be reinvested into the company but also ensures IKEA’s longevity, as not even a direct heir can take control after his death.

Applicants for Economics, PPE or Land Economy might want to consider the complex nature of the internal structure Kamprad set up to protect his company’s reputation and longevity.  Although he himself had not been involving in running IKEA since the late 1980s, with his son taking his place on the board of Inter IKEA in 2013, Kamprad had set in place the foundations to remain in control of his company and maintain the ethical values he practiced throughout his life and were inspired by the place in which he group up.

Facial recognition and memory is innately human; being able to recognise faces is something fundamental to our ability to communicate and survive. Familiar faces are easy to recognise and humans can learn to identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images: for example, have you ever met President Trump? Probably not, but you can certainly recognise his face.

A recent study from the University of Cambridge found that this ability to recognise faces is more than just a human phenomenon. Researchers from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience trained eight sheep to recognise the faces of celebrities like Barack Obama, Emma Watson and Fiona Bruce. Initial recognition training involved sheep receiving a reward of food by breaking an infrared beam near the screen showing a celebrity photograph. The initial tests then presented two images: one showing the celebrity and one showing a stranger. The results showed that the celebrity was picked eight out of ten times. When the faces were shown at an angle, the sheep’s performance dropped by about 15%, comparable to that seen when humans perform the same task. Sheep were also seen to recognise photos of their human handlers without any pre-training, and were observed to do a ‘double-take’ before choosing the correct image.

The implications of these results are that, at least in the scientific domain, sheep can be useful models to help us understand disorders of the brain such as Huntington’s disease. Beyond research, Professor Jenny Morton who led the study said that “anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals.” Perhaps then there are wider implications on the way in which sheep will be both understood and perceived in years to come.

Philosophy, Psychology and PPE applicants may want to look into the implications of how our perception of animal intelligence may influence the social and economic landscape. Natural Sciences (B) and Medicine applicants may want to explore how studies like this enhance our ability to understand human diseases.

The past decades have borne a steady decline of the ‘public intellectual’, accompanied by an increasing disparagement towards their presence. There is no absolute definition of the ‘public intellectual’, but we could take it to mean a person whose academic training and experience makes them well-equipped to speak and advise on a broad number of public policy issues. Elif Shafaq, in a recent talk on populism for the Royal Society of Arts in London (listen/watch/come to their events!), highlights their decline as symptomatic of a broader set of cultural and political changes happening across the world.

We feel as though enlightenment, liberal, democratic values are so deeply entrenched that they are here to stay, and that progress is irreversible. Yet, the rise of populism and nativism – evidenced by several political events of 2016-17 – reminds us that the scaffolding of democracy is truly fragile and subject to change and even reversal. Far right movements, and charismatic right-leaning political leaders, have taken advantage of increasing uncertainty and fear among populations, meanwhile there is an increasing disparity in the voting patterns of people in cosmopolitan cities and those in the rural countryside. It is this fragility that writers and commentators such as John Gray (see ‘False Dawn’ or ‘Straw Dogs’) have been so powerfully exposing for many years.

Why then, does distrust of public intellectuals epitomise the fragility of democracy described above? One of the explanations lies within a broader unease towards authority, leading to what Daniel Drezner has described as the ‘democratization of ideas’. This has lead to a fertile ideas marketplace, with contrasting opinions and concepts emerging from every corner of society. However, it has also led to an increasing ability for intellectual charlatans and charismatic politicians to inject their ideas through to the population. Drezner describes this rag-tag bunch as ‘thought leaders’, echoing Orwell’s language in 1984. This is coupled by an increasing sense in which ‘emotion’ has become more important to the world of politics.

What is more worrying is that it is becoming more difficult to separate the good ideas from the bad. This is where public intellectuals are important, because they serve the function to analyse and critique influential and emerging ideas in the public forum.

Is this situation salvageable by any imposed means? Could our brightest and best thinkers and speakers be given more government support? What may help is to re-engineer the role of the public intellectual so that it can better speak to the demands of the people, helping to re-instill people’s belief in reason as a way to balance the shift towards a politics of emotion. This does not mean we, in response, disparage the anxiety and fear that drives people towards the right, but instead find better ways to step in to the intersection between so-called ‘thought leaders’ and the population they seek to enlist.

References:

Drezner, D. 2017. The Ideas Industry How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas

Gray, J. 2002. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals

Gray, J. 1998. False Dawn: The Delusion of Global Capitalism

Orwell, G. 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four

Shafak, E. 2017. Talk at the RSA, accessible here: https://www.thersa.org/events/2017/11/elif-shafak (see also their other events)

Anticipating the Communist Party meeting in October, China’s government has disrupted WhatsApp.  The increased censorship actions taken by the government now mean that it is solely accessible through virtual private networks (VPNs) and only on occasion, with even some of these being blocked.  Well known for their strict social media policies, many other platforms are prohibited in mainland China.  People have access to government monitored apps, in this case ‘WeChat’.  Created by the Chinese company Tencent, as an app it is far more multifaceted than WhatsApp, allowing people to pay for things and play games.  The price paid by millions of Chinese users is that all of the information is accessible by the government.

It’s not just WhatsApp that the Chinese have taken over, but all of the mainstream Western social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube.  Since 2009 Twitter has been banned, due to the government blaming it for a protest that year.  Instead, they created Weibo.  The main difference is the nature of discussion – instead of political posts, users write more about personal affairs.  Regarding Google, also forbidden, they replaced it with Baidu.  Investigating similar areas as Google and offering parallel services, the government is able to control and monitor Weibo to try and increase the controls on it.  QQ is the equivalent to our Facebook messenger, also owned by Tencent, but, surprisingly, is available to those who do not yet have a phone.  Finally, Youku is China’s version of YouTube.  Although similar to YouTube on the surface, as the main platform where anyone can upload videos, any Communist Party criticism is immediately taken down.  Many of the famous ‘Youkuers’ direct users to purchase products from Alibaba, similar Amazon or eBay, conveniently the company which own Youku.

In China’s case, the country is the leading economic force globally, a clear marker of development, yet they exhibit such censorship and strict government control. History and Politics students, or those considering other Humanities disciplines such as PPE or Philosophy may wish to consider the relationship between progression and regression in society.  If they develop in some areas why might they regress in others?  Do all society’s progress?

We’ve all heard of fake news, and now it is at the centre of research at the Oxford Internet Institute. Pushing beyond the limiting term ‘fake news’, the team consider news in terms of its ‘junk’ status.  Junk news might not be patently false but will voice “ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial” views and tend to conflate opinion with fact.

Research released just before the June 2017 general election in Britain found that 1 in 8 (13%) political links on Twitter were to junk news sites, while 53% were professional.  This compares favourably against parts of the US during the 2016 election where, in Michigan for instance, 1 in 2 links were to junk news. 

Junk news on social media is not an isolated phenomenon; French and German social media users have experienced it similarly to those of us here in the UK. 

The Internet Institute researchers focused on Twitter, a company that provides 1% of tweet data publicly available for research. Facebook is much more opaque with its data, and the fallout of the US presidential election leaves room for concern. 

Cambridge Analytica is a data aggregation and PR company that claims to have 5000 data points on 200 million Americans.  With this, they can advise parties on specifically where, when and how to target voters on social media.  Where a decade ago users might be targeted at the neighbourhood level, now users are individualised.  Four family members in one household might each view different ads on Facebook, designed to evoke specific emotions in line with their personality as determined by the swathes of their data collected online.

As the mining of user data, and the technology to model it, progresses we are left to wonder at what point political advertising becomes political manipulation.

PPE  and HSPS students may want to think about the political implications of the US election in informing terms and increasing the way in which people respond to news. Psychology and Linguistics students may want to think about how ads and articles can be manipulated towards the individual.

Sand is becoming the centre of an urgent debate concerning environmental damage to riverbeds across Africa. Sand dredging to make key building materials such as concrete, bricks and glass, are jeopardising coastlines across African countries. According to the BBC, sand is now the second most used natural commodity today, after water.

These have colossal environmental implications, but also impact those who depend on rivers in different ways, including for water. Moreover, a black market in different countries for sand has developed to meet demand, and because trading sand has become a lucrative business. Dredging through transnational industries and black market traders has resulted in riverbeds across the global South being left dry. Consequently, communities who rely on the river, as well as animals such as migratory birds, have been left without access to water and fish.

The issue is gaining global prominence, with Cambodia permanently banning sand exports earlier this year citing serious damage to coastal ecosystems. Environmental activists have encouraged such bans, hoping that it will make a difference and set an example for other countries to follow suit.

With projected population increases across the globe, how will demands for water and resources be met with sand dredging on the rise? Will dredging continue to have negative impacts on local communities and the environment? Are there more sustainable alternatives? These questions should be considered by applicants to Geography, Land Economy and PPE.

AI is booming, with machines that can recognise patterns or rules and provide an automated response becoming increasingly popular across a range of industries, from retail to financial services.

For years, software company NeuCo have been developing optimisation technologies – a form of artificial intelligence (AI) – that can make power plants more efficient. This will enable computers to monitor the hundreds of fine-grained controls that may be altered in, for example, a coal-fired power plant, and learn how to adjust them in a more effective way.

Human operators in such facilities are tasked with overseeing all kinds of minutiae, such as the level of oxygen in the furnace, the frequency of the soot blowers that keep tubes in the system clean, or the build-up of slag that, if left unchecked, can grow into huge boulders ready to break off and wreck the equipment.

Peter Kirk, former chief executive of NeuCo states “There’s too much data and it overwhelms the human ability to respond; instead, a computer can take over. Machine learning allows software to identify small changes that improve the efficiency and stability of the coal-firing system. The result” Mr Kirk says, “is sometimes an efficiency improvement of about 1%. That might not sound like much, but coal power plants are massive carbon emitters. I mean, that’s 1,000 cars coming off the road”.

GE Power plans to develop this technology, which has already been used in many plants around the world. They also plan to use similar technology with wind turbines. The idea is to better predict the likely output from turbines, based on weather patterns, so that maintenance days can be more accurately scheduled for times when they are less likely to be operational.

Computer Science and Engineering students should further explore how AI is being used in a range of industries and the challenges involved in programming. PPE students should consider the philosophical and economic debates around the use and impact of artificial intelligence. Psychology students should explore whether we can ever fully replicate the human brain and the ethical issues linked to this.

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