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‘Debt’ and forgiveness

David Graeber's “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” (Melville House Publishing, 2011)

Forty years ago this month, in 1971, President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard. Anthropologist and author David Graeber points out in his new book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” (Melville House Publishing, 2011) that this decision marked an important shift in how we think about money. With U.S. dollars no longer backed by actual gold reserves, money essentially became a government promissory note. According to Graeber, Nixon’s decision ushered in an era of virtual money or credit, which we all know often leads to debt — something on everyone’s mind these days.
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Photo: London is burning

Cars and garbage bins set on fire by rioters in Hackney, east London, Monday Aug. 8, 2011. A chaotic wave of violence and looting raged across London and spread to three other major British cities on Tuesday, as authorities struggled to contain the country's worst unrest since the 1980s. Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

Deconstructing the myth of the ‘extraordinary teacher’

Photo: AP/Bob Wands

Last week, The Los Angeles Times published an Op-Ed by high-school teacher Ellie Herman entitled “The Myth of the Extraordinary Teacher,” which challenges the compelling – and oftentimes unrealistic – notion held by many policy makers that “superstar” teachers will single-handedly save our education system.

Herman argues that even the most talented teachers can be thwarted by relentless budget cuts and a dysfunctional public education system. For Herman, a larger classroom means that she has less time to devote to individual students; as a result, she often feels less capable in her chosen profession. The hard reality of bigger class sizes is that teachers — even highly capable ones — often become less effective when confronted with the competing demands of 30-plus students with disparate needs.

Or as Herman states, “We can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.” Herman’s editorial begs the question if it’s easier for policy makers to put the onus on individual teachers because it relieves them of the pressure to make the hard decisions that many of our country’s most intractable education problems require.
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Summer reading roundups: what’s on your list?

Books on this year’s summer reading lists are anything but predictable. Summer reading often implies lighter fare, but these so-called “beach reads” don’t necessarily have to be trashy, or recycled versions of the same genres. The beach book has “undergone a makeover for 2011,” writes Janet Maslin in the New York Times, offering up this summer’s fresh takes on true crime, celeb memoirs, thrillers and chick lit.

Other seasonal reading roundups from the Washington Post, the New York Times Book Review and NPR include categories in everything from children’s books and food memoirs to indie press releases and critics’ choices, including Tayari Jones’s “Silver Sparrow,” Preeta Samarasan’s “Evening is the Whole Day,” Mat Johnson’s “Pym” and the Michael Ondaatje memoir “Running in the Family.”
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Italy to vote on a burqa ban

Photo: MW-Paris/Flickr

This week, a parliamentary commission in Italy approved a draft law that would ban women from wearing burqas, niqabs or any other face-covering veil or garment.

The law, sponsored by Souad Sbai, a Moroccan-born member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative party, would issue a fine of 300 euro to women found wearing burqas or other types of veils in public. Those who force women to wear the veils would receive harsher fines (30,000 euro) and up to 12 months in jail. The bill would expand upon an existing Italian law that bans people from wearing masks or other items that cover their faces in public for security reasons.

If Italy ultimately approves the ban, it would follow in the footsteps of France, Belgium and Barcelona, which all passed similar bans in recent years.
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Cleaning up Nigeria’s oily mess

Kome Okwaghecha dries her tapioca near a gas flare belonging to Shell oil company in Warri, Nigeria, in 2006. Photo: AP/George Osodi

This morning, the United Nations released a long-awaited report, which claims that cleanup efforts in the Niger Delta could span 30 years and require a restoration fund of as much as $1 billion.

Nigeria, one of the world’s largest producers of oil, has suffered spills over the past half century that are 50 times the size that of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Yet, despite the enormity of the environmental destruction in the Niger Delta, the international community has paid scant attention to the growing devastation in the region in past years.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which carried out the study at the behest of the Nigerian government, concluded in a statement today that, “the oil industry has been a key sector of the Nigerian economy for over 50 years, but many Nigerians have paid a high price, as this assessment underlines.”
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Photo: Happy birthday, Mr. President

Today is President Barack Obama's 50th birthday. Here's a look back at a much younger Obama in 1990, after he was named president of The Harvard Law Review. Photo: Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Contraceptives to be available without co-pay in 2013

In a landmark move this past Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) mandated that insurance companies provide full coverage for a broad range of women’s preventative health services, including birth control.

These services will be available to women without co-pay beginning January 1, 2013. The preventative health label was expanded to also include domestic violence counseling, checkups for gestational diabetes, breast feeding support, and HIV and STD counseling.

The inclusion of birth control in the package, however, has provoked some protest from socially conservative and religious groups. But under the new rules, religious institutions would be able to opt out of the free contraception provision. DHHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Monday that because birth control was the most commonly prescribed drug for women, not providing full coverage “would be like not covering flu shots.”
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Photo: Standing trial, lying down

This video image taken from Egyptian State Television shows 83-year-old Hosni Mubarak reclining on a hospital bed inside a cage of mesh and iron bars in a Cairo courtroom Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 as his historic trial began on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising that ousted him. Photo: AP/Egyptian State TV