Is the US military as good as it claims to be?

In June, an American Green Beret was reportedly strangled to death in Mali by U.S. Navy SEALs, allegedly in connection with a shadowy money-skimming scheme. (The military is currently investigating.) In July, The Intercept, the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture, and Amnesty International. revealed that a drone base used by U.S. forces in Cameroon was also a site for illegal imprisonment, brutal torture,and even killings on the part of local forces. (The military is investigating.) In August, according to a blockbuster investigation by the Daily Beast, U.S. Special Operations forces took part in a massacre in which 10 Somali civilians were killed. (The military is investigating.) In October, four Special Operations soldiers were killed in murky circumstances during an ambush by militants in Niger. (The military is investigating.)

This spate of questionable, or even criminal, activity involving U.S. forces in Africa should come as little surprise. Over the last decade and a half, operations on that continent have exploded. A cast of thousands is now carrying out about 10 separate missions per day, ranging from training to combat operations, which are up 1,900% since last year alone. U.S. commandos sent to that continent have jumped from 1% of special ops forces deployed overseas in 2006 to nearly 17% today, the highest total outside the Middle East. There have also been numerous indications of U.S. forces behaving badly from one side of the continent to the other, a sign of lousy morale. Few in the mainstream media or among those tasked with oversight of such operations have, however, taken any significant notice of this. (Nick Turse. TomDispatch) 12/17/1917.

Endless drone warfare, over- geared, and getting out of hand

America’s robotic killers, the drones that long ago were grimly named Predators (retired this year) and their more advanced cousins, the Reapers (as in Grim…), who have taken a once-illegal American activity, political assassination, and made it the well-respected law of the land and increasingly of huge swaths of the globe.

In these years of predation, the president — any president — has become an assassin-in-chief. George W. Bush began the process with 50 drone strikes in the Greater Middle East during his years in office. Barack Obama multiplied those numbers tenfold. He even had his own White House “kill list” and “terror Tuesday” meetings to decide just who should be on it. Donald Trump has simply given the U.S. military and the CIA license to send those drones wherever they please. Such drone strikes are now commonplace from Yemen (almost a strike a day in the months after Trump entered the Oval Office) to Afghanistan (where the CIA has, for the first time, been given license to strike at will), Pakistan (where such strikes have recently intensified) to Somalia (23 of them in 2017), Iraq to… Niger (where U.S. surveillance drones are now being weaponized). In the process, across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, the U.S. has taken out not just terror suspects but civilians in significant numbers, including children and American citizens (two of whom were children). The drones, which terrorize the populations under them, have proven to be ferocious assassins, capable of crossing borders without a blink and without respect for national sovereignty, not to speak of remarkable recruitment tools for terror groups.

And keep in mind that these never-ending drone killings are just one small part of America’s wars of the last 16 years that have driven funding for the national security state to new heights and turned Washington into a permanent war capital. (An excerpt from TomDispatch, 10. December 2017)

Commenting on the above Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, wonders when this country will truly notice America’s Predators abroad the way, in recent weeks, we’ve finally noticed them at home!

I believe Epicurus would be appalled at what is going on. Drone attacks do not discriminate. Women, children, the old, the infirm who can’t be seen from up there in the sky, all assassinated in the blink of an eye. At least with a sword and shield you can clearly see who you are fighting. Of course, you can argue that drones are no more a menace than a V2 rocket in 1945 or, indeed, a medieval siege engine lobbing rocks over town walls. The difference lies in the unexpectedness and ferocity of the modern weapons. The V2s were spotted on radar; women and children now have no warning whatsoever. I happen to think that peaceful drones, not only military ones, are going to emerge as menaces as they multiply, fall out of the air, hit buildings, crash planes – whatever. We use the technology because we have the technology, but mankind is notoriously unreliable when it comes to wisdom and judgment.

We need something calming, reflective.

The Sea is Calm – a poem

The soft, pink clouds hang over the distant horizon.
The glazed water gently rolls towards the beach.
A breeze-less, tranquil, tropical morning.
A man in a punt moves over the unruffled surface.
You can see that he has used a punt before
By the way he raises the long, wooden pole
And drops it noiselessly into the water, close to the craft.
His companion looks away towards the open sea.
Maybe it’s the coastal freighter that has caught her eye,
Moving hull-down in the far distance.
Maybe she is dreaming of a long, slow voyage
To hot, humid and exotic ports in other seas,
Just puttering from place to place, no rush, no reason;
Just the dream of an idle moment.

White ibis peck for muluscs in the fine, white sand.
A brown pelikan dives, bill-first, into the still water,
Submerging momentarily as it snaps up prey.
Spilling water from its throat-pouch, it swallows the catch
And takes off again, leaving the sea as if nothing had happened.
It is tranquil here, that is, until the speedboats appear.
Robert Hanrott.

Christmas presents

There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map. They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will affect future generations.

Apparently, of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production. We are looting the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate :: ::: :: : :: : : : : : :: : :: ::: : : smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of ornaments. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask “spending on what?”. When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors. Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it.

The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population(7). The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this earth.

So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. Serious people now decry the idea of consuming less, and to associate it, somehow, with authoritarianism. When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics. (George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2012. Edited for length)

No comment needed from me. Monbiot is a great journalist!

Making fun of British scientific studies

Apparently, British scientists are the butt of constant jokes in Russia. Can you work out which of these are Russian headlines about real studies, and which are jokes?

1. British scientists have established the height of Cinderella’s heels.

2. British scientists have found that women more often reach orgasm if they have sex in their socks.

3. British scientists have invented a teacup for left-handed people.

4. British scientists have found that ostriches become sexually active in the presence of humans.

5. British scientists have discovered that primates can find the connection between a cassette tape and a pencil more quickly than people born after 1995.

(The real studies are 1, 2 and 4). These are some of the research made fun of in Russia:

– Richard Stephens of Keele University, who showed that swearing can help reduce pain.
– Olli Loukola, Queen Mary University of London, who has taught bumblebees how to play football.

In the past year, Russian news outlets have reported that

– “British scientists have found that fish have personalities”
– “British scientists have discovered the best time to make love”.
– “British scientists have calculated the IQ of cats”.
– “British scientists have proven that birthdays are good for you: people who have the most live the longest”.
– “British scientists have invented a way to walk through walls. They called it a door”.
(New Scientist, Christmas issue)

The problem is it’s all rather true. Some researchers waste their time on the silliest things. But then the British do do things with tongue in cheek. It’s called a sense of humour, Ivan.

Have a happy ChristmasJ,

How to have an Epicurean Christmas

Since it’s Christmas Eve, I thought I would share some tips on how to have the best Christmas possible. For me, Christmas is a lovely time, and always has been. But I realise many people are looking to tomorrow with trepidation. The problem with Christmas, at least in the Western world, is that too much stress accompanies the holiday. Whether you are celebrating Christmas for religious reasons, or simply because it’s our culture, everyone ought to be able to relax. Here’s my advice on how to:

  1. Don’t spend too much money. If you believe Christmas is about having the most lavish lunch, or buying family the most luxurious presents, then you are doing the occasion wrong. Rather, spend no more than what you feel comfortable spending. If certain family members have unreasonable exceptions as to what Christmas ought to consist of, better to let them down than give in to peer pressure. I personally believe excessive lighting around the house, decorations covering all the furniture and a massive Christmas tree are vulgar and in bad taste.
  2. Avoid family arguments, even if it means ‘losing.’ Better to accept someone else’s point and enjoy the rest of the day than get caught up in a dispute or debate. You may have an uncle who supports Trump, or even a friend who is pro-Putin (as I do), but you must simply let them make their point and move on. Getting into a heated argument only ruins the festive and joyful nature of the holiday.
  3. Follow Epicurus’ advice and avoid politics altogether. This is kind of related to number 2, but I find it is better to avoid politics entirely, even if you think everyone agrees on a particular subject. There are far more cheery subjects to talk about. Particularly in Britain, there is too much politics nowadays. We all deserve a break, even if it is only for once a year.
  4. Definitely avoid excessive drinking. There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine at lunch, or a bit of brandy on the pudding. But Christmas is not the time to get drunk. So much can go wrong. You may accidentally say or do something embarrassing in front of the whole family. Worse, drunk people are more confrontational and even aggressive. You’ll want to keep a cool head for the whole day, especially if there’s someone you know will get on your nerves.
  5. Don’t spend all day in front of the TV. Some families do, and it ruins the social nature of the occasion. Instead, I believe it’s best to avoid electronic devices altogether, even electronic presents- you’ll have plenty of time to use them on Boxing Day. Rather, board games, Pictionary, Charades, card games and other amusements are equally fun, and far more interesting. Games where you get to know your family better are the best ones.
  6. Invite as many people as you can comfortably host. Christmas is one of these occasions where the more really is the merrier. Having more people makes for a livelier and more special day. If the day feels like just another regular meal with the immediate family, then you won’t have as much fun.
  7. Save the presents until well after Christmas lunch. This is a family tradition of ours. Opening the presents with everyone else is a great moment. It gives you a chance to say thank you properly to those that bought you your presents. It’s also something to look forward to, and it keeps you occupied for much of the day. Opening the presents early in the morning means you miss a euphoric moment when everybody is happy because they’ve got something new.
  8. Never compare the current Christmas with Christmasses in the past, or Christmasses at other people’s houses. Only reflect on how the day is going once Christmas is over. This helps avoid any feelings of disappointment or inadequacy.
  9. Not strictly related to Christmas, but don’t go shopping on Boxing Day. You may have vouchers you desperately want to spend or a horrifically ugly jumper that needs returning. But so does everyone else. You’re far better off avoiding the mayhem and shopping when the crowds have gone. If you’re anything like me, you won’t enjoy shopping even at the best of times. You may as well make the experience as painless as possible.
  10. Don’t eat too much. You may enjoy the deliciousness of the food at the moment. But your stomach won’t forgive you. You’ll feel more tired more quickly. And it’ll make that New Year’s Resolution of trying to lose weight that much harder.

I wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas! If you’d like me to do more advice guides, or simply more non-political posts, please say. Equally, if you think all my advice is nonsense and a waste of a post, I’ll stick to politics from now on.

Bribery and corruption

Earlier this year both houses of Congress voted to nix a bi-partisan law that would have forced US oil, gas and mining companies to disclose annually, and project by project, royalty, licensing and backhanders to foreign governments. As you can imagine the American Petroleum Institute labelled this more big government interference that puts US companies at a competitive disadvantage. Trump naturally agreed. He and his friends are fiercely hostile to any moves to prevent corruption.

Actually corruption is bad for business, which thrives when there is a level playing field. Corruption is believed to equate to 5% of global GNP every year – about $2.6 trillion (yes, you read it correctly!), and raises the cost of doing business by 10% per annum. Bribes are useless – they build no roads, schools or hospitals. What they do do in developing countries is represent 3.7 times the value of global official development funds such are disbursed by the World Bank, AID etc.

The EU has insisted on companies declaring their backhanders, and about 120 companies have complied, revealing $150 billion worth of “off balance sheet ” payments. Now that the Great Oligarchy has abandoned transparency and decency these companies will clearly be allowed to revert to their previous behaviour.

Note: twice in my life as a businessman I was asked point-blank to bribe a customer in return for a large contract. In both cases I flatly refused. I mention this because it is not just the huge international corporations that are playing this game; it is rife throughout industry, down to quite small companies. The playing field IS NOT LEVEL!

It is small comfort that everyone is doing it and, indeed, you cannot build a big corporation anywhere in the world without graft and corruption. The whole American political systen is based upon favours in return for campaign cash, which I consider corruption. Oil, gas, major construction and many other industries thrive on it, a sad fact of life. Speaking personally, even before I bacame involved in Epicureanism I had decided that I felt more comfortable running a business ethically, and leaving the pushy, greedy types to get on with it. One has to live with one’s conscience.

Unwinding gerrymandering

The method of fairly fairly splitting a cake between two people is tried, tested and mathematically proven: one person cuts the cake and the other chooses which slice they get. To get the biggest piece of cake possible, the cutter must split it fairly resulting in no hard feelings between the two eaters.

In US politics, however, cutting states into electoral districts doesn’t have a similarly fair method. The political party in charge often decides where the electoral lines are drawn and does so in such a way as to gain an advantage. This is gerrymandering.

A team at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania have devised a way to extend the cake cutting technique to redrawing electoral districts to make the system fairer. It allows both parties to act in their own self-interest, butstill results in an outcome that is mathematically fair. It works as follows:

One political party draws an electoral map that divides the state into the agreed number of districts. The second party then chooses one district to freeze so that no more changes can be made to it by either side. It then redraws the rest of the map. Once the new map is complete, the first political party freezes one of the new districts, and redraws the rest of the map again. This continues until every district in the state is frozen. In Pennsylvania, for example, this would require 17 cycles as there are 18 districts.

One would have to account for the Voting Rights Act, which protects voting rights for racial minorities. The authors suggest that this could be checked after the process is finished, in the same way that new districts are checked now. (an edited version of an article by Ariel Procaccia, Wesley Pegden and Dingli Yu, of Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania,arxiv.org/abs/1710.08781, and Timothy Revell of the Mew Scientist)

Am I being too cynical if I say that many modern politicians are not interested in fairness. They are interested in power, and staying in power. Go back fifty years and this proposal might have interested the political parties, who, at the time, genuinely sort-of believed in democracy. Pity the Supreme Court won’t take up the idea, but of course it was the Supreme Court that brought us Citizens United and put up the country for sale, so forget that. And in any case constituency boundaries are State concerns, not Federal. Looks like we are snookered. Now the Republicans and Democrats can barely agree on the date, never mind fair elections. Bye bye democracy. You were good for us while you lasted.

Privatisation in healthcare is un-Epicurean

“Earlier this year, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit, based on evidence from a whistleblower, against United Health Group, the largest provider of subsidised private medical insurance for the elderly, accusing it of overcharging the government by more than $1 billion, claiming patients were sicker than they actually were.

“The FBI estimates that fraud, both private and public, accounts for up to 10 per cent of total US healthcare expenditure, or about $350 billion, of the annual $3.54 trillion that Americans spend on healthcare. The scale of medical fraud in the UK is still small by comparison, but some of the companies that have paid huge fraud fines in the US – including UnitedHealth, McKesson, Celgene and the Hospital Corporation of America – are becoming increasingly involved in British NHS privatisation schemes, in accordance with the government’s wishes.

“In Britain the Health and Social Care Act, passed in 2012, was intended to increase privatisation, outsourcing, inter-regional competition and ‘marketisation’ in an already strained system. There is little sign that it is improving services or reducing costs, but private firms see profits to be made.” (Dave Lindorf, London Review of Books, Nov. 2017).

Improve services and reduce costs? It won’t. Never does. The bosses capture the savings
for themselves and,to a lesser extent, the shareholders.

In the United States the medical system is a dog’s dinner (which unfairly casts aspersions on dogs and dinners). Tens of thousands of people will shortly have no medical cover (who cares? – the election donors are happy). The whole system is a bureaucratic nightmare, designed to make profit first and heal the sick second – and few (except Bernie and his supporters) have caught on. The worst are the profiteering drug companies who are actively fuelling the opioid death crisis, while bribing Congressmen to turn a blind eye. Trump has appointed the CEO of one of Eli Lilly, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, to oversee Health & Human Services, a case of the fox guarding the chicken run.

I know I discuss healthcare frequently, but it is with good reason. The American system is over-commercialized, caters to special interests, is extraordinarily expensive and results in a shameful level of national life expectancy. And the advocates of the present system are proud of that?

Offensive language on the web

Reddit supports longer and more complex discussions than Facebook or Twitter, and, unlike Facebook, it does not require you to disclose your identity.

Researchers analysed 3.5 billion comments on Reddit from 25.3 million people between 2007 and 2017. They sorted the comments into two groups: one non-political, the other comprised of things posted to politics subreddits. Noting the frequency of offensive words and phrases gave a measure of how civil the discussions were.

The non-political comments were fairly civil. The political comments were not. People were 35 per cent more likely on average to use offensive language in political than nonpolitical discussions. Political discourse was more offensive between May 2016 and May 2017 than in any other 12-month period in Reddit’s history.

To analyse the complexity of the comments, the researchers found that discourse in political groups had dropped on average from seventh-grade (age 12) to first-grade (age 6) levels since 2007 (arxiv.org/abs/1711.05303).

What accounts for the changes? The researchers identified a large influx of new users to Reddit’s political groups, which may have lowered the average level of linguistic complexity. Also, there were many users who had previously been active only in extremist groups, who now posted regularly in mainstream groups. Such users can take control of the tone or direction of conversations. Another growing group of Reddit users is likely to be bots, who post automatically.

Isn’t it time to give up the idea of freedom of speech if what that phrase has encouraged is vile, sexist, racist and abusive language?p Al these things should be banned, excised from the websites where they occur. It is a simple matter to ban the ignorant and the puerile – they reduce us to the status of animals, which is very unfair on animals.

The future of the Euro

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Eurozone economy is growing surprisingly well. The countries of Southern Europe are recovering strongly from the recession and sovereign debt crisis, and now all of them are growing at a faster rate than an increasingly lethargic Britain. However, there is a broad consensus that the Eurozone is vulnerable any future economic shocks. The interest rate is 0.05%, and Euro rules forbid a big bong buying programme, significant quantitive easing or any sudden currency devaluation, making monetary stimulus virtually impossible. Unlike other currency unions, the Eurozone has no central authority with control over fiscal policy. So if a region needs bailing out, it cannot be done quickly and effectively.

There are a few responses to this conundrum. The first would be some form of fiscal union, as advocated by Emmanuel Macron, Martin Schultz and most of the pro-EU social democrats. Eurozone members would pay into a common budget, which would then be used to redistribute wealth, offsetting any potential losses of being a part of a common currency. Thus, the benefits of the Euro would be maintained, while preventing any countries from falling too far behind. This already happens in the United States, where federal funds are used to subsidise poorer states, while maintaining the strength of the dollar for the country as a whole.

The European Commission opposes those reforms on the basis that it would empower the European Central Bank and the potential new office of a Eurozone finance minister at the Commission’s expense. Thus, a two-tier Europe would be created. Instead, the Commission wants any fiscal powers to be under their control. The problem is that virtually all of the EU’s member states are opposed to giving the Commission that much power. Germany would prefer any permanent bailout mechanism to be an intergovernmental instition, and thus subject to a German veto.

The overall point is that no one can agree on what Eurozone reform should look like, even if everyone agrees that reform is needed. Amongst those who want more integration, they cannot agree as to whether it is the Commission, a new Eurozone system of governance, or an intergovernmental monetary fund that should hold any additional powers. There is a small minority of people who would go even further and create a federal EU, or ‘United States of Europe,’ though that is a fringe position. Then there are moderately Eurosceptic fiscal conservatives who oppose Eurozone integration, because it would result in permanently higher taxes for wealthier countries, even if the benefits of an artificially weak and widely used currency offset those additional taxes. Then of course, are those who would abolish the Euro, but again that is a fringe position.

My problem with the Euro is a lack of trust. There are sensible rules regarding keeping deficits down and honestly reporting how much your country is raising in taxes. But prior to the recession, many countries, Greece especially, broke those rules. As a result, any further Eurozone integration is problematic if irresponsible countries will use the privilege of fiscal union and low interest rates to borrow recklessly. I agree with the fiscal conservatives- there shouldn’t be any pan-European redistribution of wealth, however temporary or irregular. If some Eurozone members find themselves unable or unwilling to comply with the Euro’s rules, then they should leave. If that upsets the countries who want the benefits of the Single Currency without accepting the risks, or the fringe group of federalists who regard any country leaving the Euro as a disaster, than so be it.

For more information, I would read this FT article https://www.ft.com/content/47c734d8-e1af-11e7-8f9f-de1c2175f5ce. But I believe the article makes too strong a distinction between Macron and Schultz’s believes, which regarding the Euro, are essentially identical.

How to fix Brexit.

It’s obvious to all but a small minority of hardcore Brexiteers that Brexit is going badly. The UK has made lots of concessions, whereas the only concession the EU has made is over the length of time the ECJ can protect EU citizens’ rights in the UK for. Discussions about trade haven’t started yet, and won’t start until March at the earliest. The Irish border issue has been fudged; the government has yet to demonstrate how Britain can leave the Single Market and Customs Union while not having a hard border. It has become obvious there will be close regulatory alignment between the EU and the UK after Brexit, defeating the notion of ‘taking back control.’ Meanwhile, the UK’s economy has gone from the fastest growing of the major developed countries to the slowest. Inflation has increased, driving down living standards. This is in the context of a high-performing global economy and relatively strong growth in the Eurozone contrary to the Brexiteers’ predictions.

The fact is, the UK cannot make a true success of the Article 50 process, which is designed by the EU to favour it above any country that decides to leave. The UK has a severely short period of time in which to negotiate a good deal; it will probably make more concessions due to time pressure. To make matters worse, the Conservative Party and the country are divided as to what they want out of Brexit, if it should even be happening at all. The EU are united as to what they want- Brexit did even feature in a lengthy debate between Angela Merkel and Martin Schultz in the most recent German election. There was no need for it to feature, both of them agreed.

The solution is to cancel the Article 50 process and apply for EEA membership, otherwise known as the Norway model. This has the advantage of respecting the referendum result, while not getting an unfavourable deal that hurts the economy. If the UK economy crashes as a result of a bad deal or no deal at all, it is the Brexiteers who will be blamed, and we may end up back inside the EU but without the financial rebate. In contrast, EEA membership would be alright- much of the damage from a soft Brexit has already happened in the form of lower growth and a devalued pound. More importantly, it would buy the country the time it needs to find out what it wants and then negotiate it. If we wanted to leave the Single Market and Customs Union, we could negotiate a free trade deal better than the one negotiated under Article 50, since there would be no time limit. If we wanted to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, we would simply stick with the status quo rather than be ravaged by the uncertainty facing the country right now. And crucially, if Britain decided it wanted to stay in the EU after all, it could rejoin far more easily.

The problem is that the Conservative Party won’t do this, because Conservative Brexiteers see the EEA as equivalent to EU membership, and so won’t consider it, even as a temporary measure. They think being outside the EU will make Britain better off, regardless of the unlikelihood of a good deal. To me, that view is absolutely deranged. The Conservative Brexiteers are consumed by delusional paranoia, accusing anyone wanting parliamentary sovereignty over the Brexit process or a softer Brexit of treachery, betrayal and disloyalty. However, their views may come back to haunt them. If Britain gets a bad deal or no deal at all, and the economy tanks, the Conservatives will probably lose the next election. The most right wing people in the country will have been responsible for veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. I’m very critical of a lot of what Corbyn believes, but I can’t deny the hilarious irony of that situation.

Trying to fix American education

Two dozen state lawmakers and legislative staffers spent 18-months studying some of the world’s top-performing school systems, including those in Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Ontario, Poland, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan. They concluded as follows:

1: More help is needed for the youngest learners!
In the U.S, poverty is a powerful drag on the youngest learners, with too many children showing up to kindergarten both hungry and lacking important cognitive and noncognitive skills. Research suggests that preschool, when done well, can have a profound impact on children’s lives, but too often in the U.S. it’s done badly or not at all. Of the top performers the group studied, all of them invest in early education. Ontario, for example, offers free, full-day kindergarten not only to 5-year-olds but to 4-year-olds too.

The differences continue once America’s disadvantaged students reach first grade. There, they’re often in poorer schools with low-performing teachers. Not so elsewhere. In many of the world’s top school systems, according to the report, “providing additional resources to schools serving disadvantaged, struggling students is a priority. More teachers are typically allocated to such schools, with the best teachers serving in the most challenged ones.”

2: Teachers need to be better
America’s patchwork of teacher-training programs is famously broad and threadbare. The U.S. simply has too many institutions that claim to train teachers, but pay no attention to what a school district wants or needs in the classroom. In many top-performing countries, educators are often trained at a handful of the best, most selective universities. Once these top-flight teachers enter the classroom, they also enter a very different professional reality — one that involves as much training as teaching. In some places, the report says, just “30 percent to 35 percent of a teacher’s time is spent teaching students, while the rest is spent on activities such as working in teams with other teachers to develop and improve lessons, observing and critiquing classes, and working with struggling students.”

What makes good teaching?
Too often in the U.S., teachers work in isolation, cut off from their fellow teachers. In contrast, many high-performing countries have embraced a team-teaching model, where newer teachers are constantly observing veteran teachers and being observed, fine-tuning their skills in real time. Overseas, observation is about improvement — not just accountability.
And then there’s pay. Yes, other nations have higher standards for their teachers, but with those standards come increased respect and pay, on par with engineers and accountants.

3: Fix Career And Technical Education
For the less academic CTE — auto repair, welding, carpentry, etc. is important, but schools have failed to adapt their CTE offerings to fit the needs of the modern economy. CTE also has the same perception problem ss it does in the UK It is considered a second tier for low-performing students. Actually, many schools ignore practical skills and too often students need college in order to be career ready. In top-performing countries like Singapore, the report says, “CTE is not perceived as a route for students lacking strong academic skills, but as another approach to education, skills development and good jobs. CTE is well-funded, academically challenging and aligned with real workforce needs.”

My comment: you will see that arts subjects get not a mention. Otherwise, the issues are rather similar in both the US and the UK. Teacher pay is a crucial matter. If you pay peanuts for doing a truly exhausting and stressful job then you get …you know what. But better pay infers higher taxes, and while true love and care are mainly lavished on the rich, change will never happen.

Swearing and bullying

“Giles Coren fails to understand that the principal purpose of swearing is as a means of bullying and control. This explains its use by drill sergeants, celebrity chefs, university lecturers and drunken louts on trains.
“Swearing is the lexical equivalent of the shaken fist, used by the more powerful as a means of intimidation against the less powerful. Some journalists condone it under the mistaken impression that it gives force to their views.”
(From Clive Ashwin, Aylsham, Norfolk to The Times)

There is also a mistaken impression among playwrights in particular, but also TV producers, novelists and so on, that swearing, cussing amd foul language is creative, that it adds verisimilitude to a production, and that somehow the old miseries who like clever, well constructed and amusing dialogue are living in some Elizabethan past and ought to get with the scene.

Well, no! Bad language is not clever on the public stage; it simply illustrates how uninspired writers fill out their work with mindless dross. It shows what a poor command of the language they have that, thinking to shock the elderly theatre audience in particular, they drive that audience away and make themselves look small and lacking in talent. We can hear the “f” word for free ten times a day on the street. We don’t need to pay to hear it.

Ten top quotations from Epicurus

1. The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.

2. Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

3. A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs.

4. Not what we have but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.

5. Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.

6. Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.

7. It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.

8. I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.

9. Misfortune seldom intrudes upon the wise man; his greatest and highest interests are directed by reason throughout the course of life.

10. The misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool.

Hope for the day

So Doug Jones won the Alabama Senatorial seat with 49.9% of votes against Moore’s 48.4%. In his victory speech, Jones declared the campaign had been about “dignity, respect and the rule of law”.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! As a follower of the thoughts of Epicurus I try to avoid in-your-face party politics. You can get those in a thousand venues. But all decent, civilised people who find bare-faced lying and bullying distasteful must be relieved to see a candidate as measured, polite and courteous as Jones. In his victory speech no point scoring, put-downs or sexist or racist. Just when we were despairing of the crudeness and verbal violence that pervades the American public space, at least some faith has been restored. One hopes the present unpleasantness is a passing nightmare and that we will awaken to a return to the more civil and bipartisan behaviour of half a century ago.

The existence of God

To the Editor:
Are all religions equally valid or equally invalid? I suppose that it depends on one’s perspective. But here’s the thing: In normal human discourse, the individual who proposes an assertion such as “God exists” has the burden of coming forward with evidence that can be evaluated, analyzed and challenged. But the community of believers has never met its burden; not in thousands of years have they come up with anything more than “This is my faith,” or “This is what is written,” or “This is what has been taught for generations.” None of that is evidence.
Atheists have never had the burden of disproving a negative, and unless and until someone provides some evidence for the existence of God, I shall remain a happy and secure atheist.
JASON S. SHAPIRO,  Santa Fe, N.M.

God, to the religious, is the all-seeing creator of us all. It can be assumed that He created us for a purpose and does not mean us ill. Indeed, one could expect that he would want to protect, defend and succour all those He created and from time to time reassure His flock by showing His power to put a stop to hatred, violence and multiple other anti-social misbehaviours.

To those who harbour doubts about the existence of God would reply that, to the contrary, God, if he exists, has in fact stood by while his creatures kill each other in wars, contract horrible diseases, die too young, starve to death in some parts of the world, steal, murder, cheat, tell lies, exploit their power over others – and other selfish and greedy things I can’t momentarily call to mind.

Epicurus proposed that there was a group of gods who avoided getting involved in the ordinary lives of humans, caring not a jot about disease, early death, warfare, unhappiness and misery, but tolerant nonetheless. What their role on Earth actually was is a mystery. They mirrored human depravity, not condemned or sought to change it, but it seemed important to most men and women at the time that they were around to be adored. Reassuring, maybe.

That’s fine, and I for one respect their belief in God and the good works they do for communities and the poor, then and now. But to anathematize those who have doubts and bring religion into party politics (Roy Moore in his incoherence last night is an example) is unacceptable.

Why is pay between men and women so different?

Female high school graduates, aged 21 to 24, earn an average of 92 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. Curiously, in America and contrary to expectations, the salaries of female graduates, in general, are 79% of those of their male peers of the same age group. Only a year ago the figure was 84%. At 21-24 most women have yet to have to make choices about having a family and scaling their working hours back.

This growing disparity can only be accounted for for the big demand for young male graduates in technology and finance, regarded as male jobs. Women who majored in business studies, for example, earned an average of $38,000, compared with $45,000 for men. Across all fields, including the more feminine fields, and controlling for major, occupation,and grade-point average, women still earned 7% less than men. (Economic Policy Institute report co-author: Teresa Kroeger)

I have been a “feminist” since I was 17, in so far as I have always been convinced that the ability to do a job well trumps gender. If the employee is smart, hard-working, efficient and pleasant to work with, what difference does gender make? I think Epicurus believed this as well, and was known for welcoming women into his garden on equal terms with the men. But for some reason some men feel uncomfortable with clever women in a company if they perform well, and also feel uncomfortable with them in the office if they don’t. We really should be past this by now. I think it has a lot to do with self-confidence and amour propre, and the fear of being outshone or being ordered about.

Another take on the same subject, from The Times. Interesting! :

Is the gender pay gap just a myth?

Why do women in Britain still get paid less (by an average of 18%) than men? If you believe the “shock-horror headlines”, says Professor Alison Wolf, it’s proof of “pervasive discrimination”. Yet “study after study” has looked for evidence of significant gender bias in the modern workplace, and “there just isn’t any to be found”. If you compare like with like – employees of the same age, education and rank who put in equal hours at the office in the same occupation – the “gender pay gap” doesn’t exist. The real story here is of a much bigger social divide, between “the elite and the rest”. The vast majority of women in Britain work in low-paid jobs, often doing chores outsourced by richer families: cleaning, childcare, looking after old people, preparing takeaway meals. On top of that, low-paid women are far more likely than professionals to work part-time when they have children; they don’t worry about derailing their careers, because they know another low-paid job will be waiting for them. It is the inferiority of the female labour market itself that drags down average wages – and that is a much harder problem to tackle than misogyny.
(Professor Alison Wolf, The Times)

Which of the two points of view above do you subscribe to?

Epicurus and politics

Epicurus was a strong advocate for the idea that people should reach and carry out agreements and promote fellowship and common sense cooperation. This implied a contractual form of government. Epicurus and his followers disapproved of agitation for social change because they saw political struggle as creating unnecessary stress. On the contrary, they advocated civic tranquillity, living unnoticed, abstaining from public life and the avoidance of anything that made enemies. This approach to politics suited those living under authoritarian (Alexander, the Roman Emperors) rule.

But is it appropriate for us today? We do not (yet)live under a totalitarian regime, although more and more people throughout the world are doing just that, or are threatened by dictatorial regimes. Our security and freedoms are being whittled away, both in the US and in Europe, and we are threatened by an unprecedented storm of bogus “news” and denigration of anyone seeking truth. Now unrestrained corporations and unscrupulous rich are endangering our health, safety and peace of mind. We no longer have thoughtful statesmen debating how to make life more happy and pleasant for the greatest number, but ideologues whose interest are power, money, keeping their jobs and drawing handsome pensions while kow-towing to their vulgar election funders. It’s scary.

I am personally worried that one party, controlling the Presidency and Congress and is busy berrymandering the constituencies and packing the Courts with lifetime political hacks calling themselves judges. This could presage a de facto end to democracy and the primacy of the Constitution. Gone are the wise men of honor. Perhaps we can survive a “Chinese Century” of hegemony, but can we survive a Mussolini style nationalism in America, the purge of liberals and progressives from public life? The world has seen turmoil before, but the last time (1939-45) a decent, democratic country was in the wings and came to the rescue of a Europe dominated by monsters. Now both the US and Europe are threatened, and possible help there is none.

How far can we be true Epicurians and ignore these threatening politics, and at what point do we get involved and resist? I wish I had the health and energy of youth, because there is only one responsible answer to this question.

Israel and Palestine. Enough is enough

Just over a hundred years ago, Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour signed a 67 word long statement that committed Britain for the first time to backing “the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people”.

Israel and its supporters duly celebrated “the anniversary of a foundational moment” in their nation’s history. Palestinian representatives, meanwhile, called on Britain to apologise for the declaration – because it set in train a process that eventually led to much of the Palestinian population being “uprooted from their homes and condemned to life in squalid refugee camps”.

It is true that at the time of its creation, in 1948, Israel served as a haven for a people who had so recently faced mass extermination at the hands of the Nazis. They deserved resettlement after what they had gone through. But Palestine? Had the pious words within the Declaration been honoured, i.e. “without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, then the situation would not be fraught. But they were not honoured, and the British could not keep the peace.

Balfour wrote the Declaration to raise money for the prosecution of WWI, but he gave inadequate weight to the fact that the land offered was already occupied. Some people believe that the present day Palestinians are descended from Jews left behind when their neighbours evacuated the area after the Roman invasion, and were converted to Islam at the time of the Prophet. (e.g they are historically Jewish). Correct or incorrect, it has all gone very wrong, and has been made very much worse by the advent of the Russian Jews, who have helped create a very right-wing and uncompromising (and corrupt) system (not me saying it – the President of Israel!)

Why mention this 100 year anniversary that has already passed by? This is the Epicurus blog, and Epicurus believed in moderation, discussion and compromise. Both sides in this dispute are stubborn and certain of their own rectitude. It is impossible even for people who are neither Jewish or Palestinian to have a civilized discussion on the subject, such are the passions aroused, especially among committed evangelical Christians. There has to be give and take. Trump’s intervention  changes nothing, except to announce his partisanship., unhelpful as usual.  The fact remains that the division of Jerusalem is perfectly possible, since both sides prize different bits of it.  The problem is Temple Mount, squabbled over for centuries.  The Palestinians have to accept the reality of the Israeli State, and share access to Temple Mount.  And the Israelis have to stop taking more and more Palestinian land, give the Palestinians an idependent state of their own – and share Temple Mount.  The rest of us are fed up with religion as manifested in that whole region.  Yes, it’s tribal, but we have had enough of it.

Is Israel ceasing to be a democracy?

This a bit long but important to know:

Israel is in the news again these days. President Trump is proposing to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, contrary to international policy. Is Israel the country that many Americans, particularly evangelicals. imagine it to be? Read on:

Arabs, peace activists and Israel’s left wing have long challenged as undemocratic the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But now that criticism is being leveled by former security officials and members of the right-wing establishment itself, including veterans of Mr. Netanyahu’s own political party and his Justice Department.
They say that the government’s efforts to control the news media, curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and undermine the military threaten the future of Israeli democracy.

Netanyahu and his colleagues are accused of corruption. A former chief of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic security service, publically stated that if “the ethical and moral rot that leads us ontinues, this incredible Zionist enterprise will expire.” The attorney general has criticized efforts to thwart corruption investigations against Netanyahu, and the Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu’s party, has warned that “statesmanship has come to an end” and that Israel was “witnessing the winds of a second revolution or coup.” Rivlin accused those in power of working to delegitimize and weaken “the gatekeepers of Israel’s democracy,” and, crucially for a country that lacks a constitution, erode the justice system and the influence of the courts. The government, he said, was championing the will of the majority while weakening the institutions that protect the rights of the minority.

The internal politics of Israel has reached an unprecedented level of toxicity and partisanship. Netanyahu is responsible for attacks on the news media, efforts to impose sanctions on human rights organizations deemed to act against Israel abroad, and attempts to advance legislation in Parliament to override decisions of the Supreme Court. Politicians from Likud have maligned Shin Bet as cowardly and delusional, and branded former security chiefs critical of government policy as “leftists,” now almost a synonym for traitors in some right-wing circles. Netanyahu himself, under investigation in two graft cases, personally attacked the police in a Facebook post, accusing them of leaking details to the press. And Likud politicians are trying to prohibit the corruption investigations of a sitting prime minister.

“There is a clash not between left and right but between the values of the founding generation of leaders who put the common good and the interests of the state first and a newer, more populist and partisan politics epitomized by Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
Mr. Rivlin, 78, and Mr. Netanyahu, 68, though only a decade apart, reflect these two Israels. Mr. Rivlin champions the old-school nationalist but liberal democracy envisioned by the right-wing Zionist Revisionist movement of Zeev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, who pushed for a greater Israel territorially but were sticklers for defending minority rights and the rule of law. Netanyahu, who has been elected four times, reflects the ethos of the digital age, leading what many describe as the most nationalist and illiberal government in Israel’s history. Meanwhile the opposition is divided, weak, and has no influence.

Daniel Gordis, an author and senior vice president of Jerusalem’s Shalem College for the liberal arts, says he views much of what is happening in Israel “in the shadow of the Trump administration.” With all the differences in personality, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump have resorted to similar tactics, such as decrying the mainstream news media as purveyors of “fake news.”. Mr. Rivlin probably felt he had an obligation to speak up, Mr. Gordis said, because Israel was “inching ominously toward a watershed moment.” But unlike the United States, he added, “Israel is a 70-year-old democracy, not 250 years old.”

(An edited, shortened version of an article called “Is the End of Israeli Democracy Nigh? Israelis Debate Its Future” by Isabel Kershner in the New York Times, 31 October 2017)

Death on American roads

The United  States has the “most dangerous roads in the industrialised world”. The fatality rate in the US (per miles driven) is more than twice as high as in Britain or Sweden, and about 40% higher than in Canada or Australia. This isn’t one of those situations in which the US has long been an outlier – as is the case with, say, guns or the death penalty. As recently as 1990, America had a lower vehicle fatality rate than other affluent countries. So what happened?

The answer is that other nations decided that their road death tolls were unacceptable, and launched successful “evidence-based campaigns” to reduce them. America, where people are instinctively resistant to any perceived state infringement on their “freedom”, hasn’t taken this sort of concerted action. It is more lax about safety belts – and thus has more deaths – and needs more speed cameras and lower speed restrictions. Roll on, then, the days of the self-driving car. This technology promises to slash road fatalities across the industrialised world, but it will be a particular boon for America. (based on an article by David Leonhardt, The New York Times)

Good point. I live in the middle of a big city, but walk everywhere I can. Our car, bought four years ago has all of 12,000 on the clock. But walking here is a dangerous business. In Europe there are well- marked “zebra crossings” – fail to stop at one and you are in dead trouble with the police, heavily fined at the very least, and banned driving in some dangerous circumstances. In American cities  you take your life in your hands crossing the road. Getting eye contact with drivers is essential, because they believe they have the right of way at all times and that the speed limit is for the birds.  Add to that literally dismal or non-existent road lighting in the evenings, and drivers watching their cellphones more ardently that the road ahead, and you have the conditions for carnage.  I  have managed to stay alive for over 20 years, but it only takes a moment of inattention…… Rules of the road an infringement of personal freedom? Pah!

More on language ( re: grab it)

An online petition calling on Italians to stop using English words for which there are equivalents in their own language gathered nearly 70,000 signatures before it was closed. The petition was called Dillo in Italiano or “Say it in Italian”, and was backed by the Accademia della Crusca, a language institute founded in Florence in 1583. Italians should not squander the “history, culture and beauty of our language”, said the campaigners, who highlighted the growing use of clumsy hybrid terms such as “footing” (jogging), “baby parking” (crèche) and “mister” (football coach). The issue seems to be one of mounting concern: the Italian navy recently caused outrage by using the English slogan “Be cool and join the navy” on a recruitment poster, while the government ran into trouble for referring to a piece of legislation as “the jobs act” rather than “la legge sul lavoro”. (The Week)

Italian is a beautiful language. English is, too, but why further undermine your own wonderful and ancient culture by using these silly expressions. The British use the word “creche” (which is French); now the Italians use “baby parking”. Kiddies produced by Toyota?

English has always adopted foreign words since the days of the Romans; it is expected. But the Italians have done this less. Their way of life is already under seige by a huge influx of people. Were I Italian I would protest these pseudo-English importations, too.

Grab it!

Over the centuries I’m sure that what is acceptable and unacceptable to say has changed numerous times, and new modes of speech have been frowned upon or excoriated by older generation after older generation. So I am willing to accept that I sound a fuddy-duddy, or even an elitist (ouch!).

But one expression makes me cringe: “Grab it”. This phrase crops up all over the place, especially in advertisements: “Great pizza – grab it! (and enjoy greater sex,presumably).
I suppose “grab it” is intended to get impulsive people motivated to scamper off and buy pizza, or whatever, before anyone else can buy it. But to me it is vulgar. What it actually means is to snatch the product out of the hands of shop assistants, servers etc, without so much as a “thank you” or an “if you please”. This discourtesy is a further sign of the decline in manners. Many people couldn’t care less about the feelings of others; but so much the worse for them. Epicurus never used the word “courtesy”, but had he spoken English he would have agreed with me. “Buy it now” or “Order now!” has served us well enough for a Century. Dump “grabbit!”