The media seems obsessed with Sarah Palin's family affairs. More importantly, she enjoys and is obsessed with personally killing wildlife and promotes the aerial shooting of wolves in Alaska and calls this a "safari". Wolves are chased by light planes and killed. Palin proposes paying a $150 bounty for the left foreleg of each dead wolf and has approved a $400,000 state-funded propaganda campaign to promote aerial hunting. She has introduced legislation to make it even easier to use aircraft to hunt wolves and bears.
She has lobbied aggressively to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, pushed for more drilling off Alaska's coasts, and put special interests above science. Ms Palin has made it clear through her actions that she is unwilling to do even as much as the Bush administration to address the impacts of global warming. Her most recent effort has been to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the polar bear from the endangered species list, putting Big Oil before sound science.
Is this what Americans want for a Vice President? The woman is an environmental disaster and a serial killer of wildlife.
John McCain in his acceptance speech claims to have fallen in love with his country when he was a prisoner in another, Vietnam. And one of the things he was so enamoured of was America's decency.
Remind me, John, was that at a time when your country was bombing the life out of Vietnam, a country a fraction of America's size, deflowering it with Agent Orange, napalming its children, and massacring old people and babies at My Lai? Well, at least we know where you stand.
Fair deal for state pupils at Oxbridge
My experience of Oxford interviews was very different from that described by Johann Hari (4 September). My best friend and I were accepted to different Oxford colleges in the 1970s, both to read law. Neither of us had any family member who had participated in post-compulsory education, except for my mother, who had attended teacher-training college. My father was a factory maintenance worker, his was a coal miner.
We had both passed the 11-plus and attended Wigan Grammar School. We had spent a term after A-levels completing Oxbridge past entrance papers under some fairly laissez-faire school supervision, and punctuated by longer bouts of drinking beer, listening to records and general chilling out. We received no coaching for the interviews (except the sound advice not to get talking about anything of which we were ignorant "because these fellows are no mugs, you know") on the basis that both of us could talk the hind legs off donkeys about most things already.
We compared experiences after the interviews and agreed that each one had been long, probing, very difficult, wide-ranging, thought-provoking, fascinating, amicable, completely devoid of any allusion to social background, impeccably fair and strangely enjoyable. I can remember mine vividly, and the two gentlemen concerned would have spotted a heavily coached interviewee a mile away and dealt with them accordingly.
Neither the interviews nor the academic demands made on us once there favoured any social class over another. Indeed it was the very social anonymity of the process, and of Oxford, that made the university such a special place to be an undergraduate.
Johann Hari describes a very different Cambridge from the one I knew in the early Nineties. Of course, there was a "private" and "state" divide among the students. But there are privileges that money can buy – and plenty more that it can't.
The state kids were street-smart, knowing what clothes to wear, what bands to see and what to do in the holidays. Most of the firsts seemed to go to state kids, without much (apparent) effort.
The private kids, who huddled for protection on rugby pitches, seemed to end up with 2:2s. The state kids went on to be successful across a range of professions, whereas the private kids went on to become lawyers.
If Cambridge prefers to admit expensively educated but essentially dumb kids, so be it – employers will see through it and simply recruit the smartest kids from elsewhere. That is Cambridge's problem to solve – not the Government's.
Wadhurst, East Sussex
Johann Hari is right to stress the continuing role of inherited privilege in transmitting "cultural capital" as well as wealth between the generations.
I well remember in the 1960s the history master at my public school simply writing our names against an Oxbridge college, and that was that. If you were at all bright, to go anywhere else was simply unthinkable! However today's sixth formers look far wider. One of the motivations behind the proposed weighting system may be the sense that the old universities are losing out on the best undergraduates from non-traditional backgrounds, many of whom are going to "modern" universities less tainted by elitism, and where they may actually get a better quality of teaching. Moreover, while the "old boys' network" continues to flourish, in politics, in merchant banking and the armed services, it is a different story in the "knowledge economy" and creative industries, where having a public school or Oxbridge background may confer little or no competitive advantage – indeed it may count against you.
Professor Phil Cohen
University of East London
Learn to live with an ageing population
Archie Bland's Big Question, "Why is the UK's population growing so fast?" (28 August) ends by asking, "Should we worry about an ageing population?", and lists the pros and cons. Isn't this a pointless question? It carries the implication that there is some feasible alternative to an ageing population, when there is not.
The only other choices would be to kill off people earlier in life, or increase the birth rate, or rate of immigration of younger people, which can only result ultimately in an even greater problem as those young people, in turn, grow old. The total population would have also increased even more rapidly at a time when we have an urgent need, in the face of the end of the fossil-fuel age, to allow our population to fall.
There is no choice but to adapt to an ageing population. The only useful question to ask is what we need to be doing now to start those adaptations.
Market Rasen, Lincolnshire
The EU needs more women in top jobs
Gender inequality in the workplace is still with us, and it is unacceptable that women face a constant battle against prejudice to land top jobs (report, 4 September).
In 2009 there will be potentially four top EU jobs to be filled: President of the European Council, President of the Commission, President of the European Parliament and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. All the potential candidates named so far are male.
In this day and age the face of the EU cannot be exclusively male. That is why www.send2 women.eu is calling on all heads of state and government of member states, alongside the French presidency, to ensure that the appointment process of these roles takes into account gender balance.
Catherine Stihler MEP
(Labour, Scotland) Inverkeithing, Fife
Your front page of 4 September – "Blow for women in battle for top jobs" – contrasts sharply with that of the day before – "The woman behind the football deal of the decade". Maybe it's just that women are smart enough to not want "top jobs" but prefer to create their own business success, on their own terms.
Downpatrick, Co Down
Killer's rampage fits a pattern
Michael Berry thinks that the millionaire Christopher Foster's killing spree was "so rare we don't have a name for it" ("A controlling man who could not face failure", 3 September). We do – it's called family wipe-out or homicide-suicide, and it's common enough to be considered as a special kind of domestic violence (Metropolitan Police 2004). An almost uniquely male crime, homicide-suicide is usually triggered by separation or infidelity.
Michael Berry believes that shame was the root cause – that Mr Foster may have been stopping his family from "suffering a drastic loss of face". Left to make their own decisions, I'm sure his wife and daughter would have preferred to live, albeit not as millionaires. But whatever was motivating him, Mr Foster obviously believed his wife and daughter were his possessions, on a par with his house, car and pets. Interestingly, this is the same belief system that underpins killings in "honour" cultures, where women and girls are considered to be men's property.
Was Lesbia's sparrow a bullfinch?
A footnote to Michael McCarthy's speculations on the subject of Lesbia's sparrow (Nature Notebook, 29 August): in 1788, William Cowper wrote a mock-heroic ode "On the Death of Mrs Throckmorton's Bullfinch". It was prompted by an incident described by the poet in a letter: "Mrs Frog's piping bullfinch has been eaten by a rat, and the villain left nothing but poor Bully's beak behind him . . . . Did ever fair lady, from the Lesbia of Catullus to the present day, lose her bird and find no poet to commemorate the loss?"
The linking of poor Bully and Lesbia's "sparrow" here is suggestive, and appears to support the contention that the latter could indeed have been a bullfinch. Interestingly, the poem states that Bully was born in the Rhineland (and imported as a cage-bird to Britain?) and that "Though by nature mute, Or only with a whistle blest,/ Well-taught, he all the sound expressed/ Of flageolet or flute".
Not only Mrs Throckmorton, but Cowper's cousin, Lady Hesketh, kept a pet bullfinch, and these birds were clearly, as Professor Birkhead asserts, valued for their piping and much loved by their owners. In an extended image, Cowper compares the martyred bird to Orpheus, torn to pieces by a Bacchanalian mob, and thus a type of the misunderstood and persecuted artist through the ages. And, of course, as every schoolboy knows, the head of Orpheus was then thrown into the river and borne "down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore".
There is a rich seam to be explored here. What of Skelton's "Philip Sparrow", for example? Could he also have been a bullfinch? And so on.
The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire
Dismayed by irresponsible cycling
I have long regarded James Daley's Cyclotherapy column as a source of perceptive analysis of road craft in general, but cannot believe his undisciplined approach to his mishap with the unfortunate middle-aged female pedestrian (4 September).
To approach a hazard without any attempt to avoid the hazard or mitigate the effect of failure to avoid it is at the very least irresponsible. I am sure that he would, rightly, severely criticise a motorist adopting the same approach in a similar situation, especially if the "hazard" was a cyclist.
He might not have been able to come to a total stop, but he would have been slowing and therefore mitigated the effect of the eventual collision.
Miracle of engineering
In his report on Cern's Large Hadron Collider (5 September), Steve Connor states that the engineering involved is "almost as momentous as the science". Why "almost"? The engineering has delivered a never-before-designed-and-constructed masterpiece, a complex one-off of stupendous proportions and accuracy. It may be three years since planned switch-on, but nuclear fusion has been promised by scientists for more than five decades and still not arrived. The Large Hadron Collider has yet to deliver too. Don't hold your breath.
I've just given four minutes of my valuable time to a television programme about an attempt to recreate the Universe in Switzerland. It's certainly an advance on the cuckoo clock.
Your report on Helen Mirren's comments on rape (2 September) contains a minor but glaring inaccuracy in reference to the "saddo Californian rock band" with the song containing the lyric, "If it wasn't for date rape I'd never get laid".
While taken out of context this sounds damning, the song, by the band Sublime, is quite unambiguously anti-date rape and has never elicited "opprobrium". It tells the story of a woman who, having been taken advantage of after consuming too much alcohol, brings charges against her attacker and successfully sees him sent to prison.
Jeremy M Barker
Seattle, Washington, USA
When we visited Australia a few years ago, my wife – a wind musician – bought a didgeridoo (" 'Daring Book For Girls' breaks last taboo of the didgeridoo", 4 September). On our return she conceived twice in reasonably rapid succession, so presumably the alleged infertility of females who touch the instrument is one sexist superstition that can be quickly laid to rest. For that matter, she also travelled on a boat and it didn't sink.
Follow the instructions
Alan Etherington (letter, 2 September) follows instructions, "To avoid suffocation, keep away from children". My quality of life is improved by doing as advised on a box of matches; "Keep dry and away from children".
Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire