Refugees

According to Quartz*, last October was the first month since records began in 1980 that the US settled no refugees.  For a country that was built upon immigration and refugees this is a startling  matter.  It is one thing to restrict immigration and be picky about who you let in, but quite another to refuse the victims of war and terrorism, the oppressed and hungry, the children without parents.

Epicureans care for these poor people and want to help them.  This is in the fine old tradition of taking in the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  Ever visited the statue of Liberty?  It now seems that, in order to appease the fundamentalist “christians”, immigrants in general, the sufferers of violence, along with those whose religions are “suspect”,  are being refused entry.  Navigating the bureaucracy is hard enough, even if you speak the language, have useful skills and come from a politically “acceptable” country, without this recent and short-sighted policy. (These are the sort of people who will eventually delivery your Amazon parcels and stand on tall ladders clearing your gutters.  We need them!).

Meanwhile, the famous wall is being built on the Southern frontier.  If this monument stopped the massive importation of the very drugs used by some Americans and which are a primary cause of the Latin American gang violence and the need to get the hell out, perhaps one could support it.  But, of course, it won’t.  In any case, as the effects of climate change worsen no wall is going to be effective.

*(I had to Google Quartz.  It is a business magazine with editions devoted to the US Africa, India and the UK).  Looks interesting.

 

Monopolies again, and why they are un-Epicurean

Contrary to impressions outside the US America is a very expensive country. Mobile phones, for instance cost on average $100 a month, twice the cost of a similar service in France and Germany.  Healthcare costs are huge. I recently spent ten minutes with a foot doctor for correcting an in-growing toenail, billed at $473.00   Pharmaceuticals can cost twice as much in the US than they do in Europe.  Investment in the US has been falling for 20 years.  Because prices are so high wages buy less. The income of workers, unless they can borrow (and borrowing on credit cards is massive), gets squeezed in real terms while those at the top get paid more and more.  Inequality is growing  to unsupportable levels.  Even life expectancy is falling; suicides are growing in number.

The root cause, many believe, is the huge cost of American elections.  Corporations back candidates generously, but expect a quid pro quo, which means protection from competition and an astonishing hands-off policy on acquisitions and mergers.

Some years ago I was introduced to a neighbour, who worked for the government on mergers and acquisitions.  I was a bit cheeky on a first meeting and told him I thought the scale of merger activity was really bad for the country, and I wished him luck in scaling it back.  Well, if looks could kill!  He left me in no doubt that his job was to encourage mergers! And that was a under Obama!

So , having invested in Candidate X every company wants its pound of flesh, and generally gets the green light. The result is a skewed economy and a less well off population in dire financial situations – less security, more hours, lower real wages, chronic anxiety and, a rising tide of desperation and suicide.

Epicurus, were he alive today, might well comment, “That’s politics for you. Stay away from them”.  I would reply, “But it is not just business as usual.  It’s in process of making  America a second class power.  But everyone looks the other way, as they do on the scary subject of global climate change”.

 

Home delivery: sign of our divided times

“The tyranny of home delivery is creating a new class division. There are those who deliver the boxes and those who get the boxes.  There are now millions employed delivering more stuff to more people more quickly than ever before.  Wages and work conditions are rock bottom .  Insecurity, stress exploitation and alienation are sky high.

“Jeff Bezos, Amazon boss, is now the richest man on the planet, a fortune built on the labour of the boxetariat.  Eliminating the last mile of the supply chain has become the new road to riches for the few and the road to exhaustion for the many.

“Whether all this it will, in time, become the new foundation for worker activism and effective organising for better working conditions is both a challenge and an opportunity.”   (Letter to The Guardian from Stewart Sweeney, Adelaide, South Australia).

My response:  Yes, you can argue that it’s exploitation.  Yes, Amazon pays little tax anywhere, leaving that chore to us.  And yes, Bezos is reported, on top of all that, (correctly or not) to give nothing to charity (at all??).  If true, not an admirable man, unless you are an out-of-sight right-winger.  Epicurus spent a lot of time warning us about the vain pursuit of wealth and power that never results in happiness.

On the other hand, at least until Amazon blatantly exploits its monopoly position, it is convenient, competitive in price, and easy to use. No driving to a mall, wasting half a day, and losing one’s parking spot.  I use Amazon, selfishly, well aware that I am helping create a possibly hideous monopoly and well aware of the moral dilemma.  Yet another issue  to beat oneself up about!  But, on the other hand, I spend the time saved in pleasurable activities.  Epicurus would approve of that

“Discontinued” : some rhymed verse

The Japanese may have devised the idea;
I refer to their crass ”innovation”
Where products have barely the life of a year.
Oh, the speed from launch to truncation!
Every few months a new model is born – –
New colour, new size, or new speed – –
And the prospect of spares for a gadget that’s old
In what seems like a flash can recede.

Planned obsolescence is now universal.
For consumers it’s antipathetic.
What once just applied to recording machines
Is now in the realm of cosmetics.
My wife combs the shops for the lipstick she likes,
Dodging the so-called “new” sprays,
And at last she discovers the colour she thinks
Will last her the rest of her days.

The trick is to buy all stock she can find,
And store it away as if gold.
For try to return in six months and she’ll find
That the colour is no longer sold.
“No, Madam,” they tell her, as if to a child,
“That shade is no longer in fashion.
Young ladies wear lipstick in silver and white.
This season complexions are ashen.”

The same for men’s shorts. For years I have worn
Light cotton that’s comfy and dapper.
Millions were sold, they looked good, but oh, no!
In the new styles I look like a rapper.
They’ve got it all wrong, for no youngster who’s cool
Would be seen in Marks*, dead or alive.
Nonetheless, we’re resigned to be once more de-signed;
It’s us middle-aged men they deprive.

Sauces and hi-fis and cleaners and shoes,
You can barely buy anything twice.
We like the familiar, the tried and the true,
It’s not just a question of price.
This all helps the salesman – – new models to sell!
But consumers? Oh, dear, here we go,
Fruitlessly searching for something again
We had settled on ages ago.

So who’s going to set up a sensible website
Where it’s no longer Autumn or Spring,
Where they stock the right colour, or flavour, or size,
And where changing the range isn’t King?
Where the goods you have known for a decade or so,
That the shops are unwilling to sell,
Are there, reassuring and ready to buy,
And sent to the house where you dwell.

Who’s going to set up a sensible website
To sell last year’s colour of paint,
And wallpaper lately removed from the market,
To replace the areas gone faint?
The margins on cost will be bigger and better;
Convenience only would rule!
I reckon he’ll end up rich as old Croesus,
While the marketing boys play the fool.

* Marks & Spencer, the traditional mid-budget clothes store in England.

 

An ethical dilemma: taking advantage of generous guarantees

“I do a lot of online shopping. I try to stick with the merchants that offer free two-way shipping and unlimited return policies (e.g., any time, any condition, no questions asked). I often order items in three sizes and four colors and return most of them. I keep something for a year or more and then decide I don’t want it, often after I’ve used it.

“Some people have told me that what I’m doing is disgraceful, but I don’t see why. The stores make a big deal promoting these policies, and if they didn’t offer them, I wouldn’t shop there. Am I missing something? I’m becoming ashamed to tell anyone what I do, but I can’t resist getting my money back if I can’t tell in advance what the colors or cut will look like on me in real life, or if I will no longer want something after I discover it forgotten in my closet.

—Deliver Me not Evil

 Dear Deliver,

You’re right—with a caveat. If merchants tout a return-any-time-for-any-reason policy and offer to pick up the shipping charges in both directions, you’re certainly entitled to take advantage of that. As you point out, this policy brings these companies business that you (and others) otherwise might not give them (unless no one had such a policy—but that’s not the case at this time). The organizations must have calculated that they make more money and earn good will eating the cost of postage and returned goods than they would if they required customers to pay for shipping or be stuck with unwanted items. They build those costs into their prices, and if it isn’t working out for them, they increase the prices or reduce the benefits (e.g., switch to limited-time or unused return policies, or charge for shipping).

The caveat: It’s in your own interest (as well as the companies’) not to take excessive advantage of this “generosity.” If you return items unused and promptly, they can be resold and the companies have only lost the cost of shipping and restocking—plus the environmental costs of sending them back and forth. But if you hang onto things for years, or use them and then return them, that will be a loss to the seller. Although some items may get donated to people who are grateful to have them, many will just end up in landfills.

Another thing: thanks to modern technology, companies are keeping track of  our buying habits, including our returns. If yours get to the point of being deemed abusive, companies may cut you off. It’s also possible that you might be a “returnaholic.” If that’s you, seek professional help. But if you’re just milking the system, be careful not to wear out the cow or get kicked.

My comment:  From time to time we all have ethical issues that pose dilemmas.  I thought readers might like to see an answer to one from Joan Reisman-Brill,  who responds in The Humanist magazine to those who have ethical problems.  Questions  to The Humanist Dilemma at dilemma@thehumanist.com (subject line: Humanist Dilemma.  All inquiries confidential)

 

Boeing again: crashes and lousy management

Boeing timeline:

  • 29 October 2018: A 737 Max 8 operated by Lion Air crashes after leaving Indonesia, killing all 189 people on board
  • 31 January 2019: Boeing reports an order of 5,011 Max planes from 79 customers
  • 10 March 2019: A 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashes, killing all 157 people on board
  • 14 March 2019: Boeing grounds entire 737 Max aircraft fleet

Boeing pushed back determinedly against the aviation regulator’s calls for a certain aspect of simulator training, which would have led to higher costs for its customers, making its aircraft less attractive.  Documents also appear to show problems with the simulators being discussed.

In February 2018, a Boeing worker asked a colleague: “Would you put your family on a Max simulator-trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”   “No,” came the reply.   One unnamed employee wrote in an exchange of instant messages in April 2017: “This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

“I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition from NG to Max,” Boeing’s 737 chief technical pilot at the time, Mark Forkner, said in a March 2017 email.  Boeing will not allow that to happen. We’ll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement.”

In other emails and instant messages, employees spoke of their frustration with the company’s culture, complaining about the drive to find the cheapest suppliers and “impossible schedules”.

“I don’t know how to fix these things… it’s systemic. It’s culture. It’s the fact we have a senior leadership team that understand very little about the business and yet are driving us to certain objectives,” said an employee in an email dated June 2018.

And in a May 2018 message, an unnamed Boeing employee said: “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year.”. Without citing what was covered up, the employee added: “Can’t do it one more time, the pearly gates will be closed.”

US House transportation committee chairman Peter DeFazio – who has been investigating the 737 Max – said the communications “show a co-ordinated effort dating back to the earliest days of the 737 Max programme to conceal critical information from regulators and the public”.

The comment from the FAA , which is the regulator, was,  “The tone and content of some of the language contained in the documents is disappointing“.  (Washington Post)

Disappointing!  This system isn’t working. It is corrupt.  There are too many Boeings around, getting away with unsafe and unlawful stuff because they have multiple lobbyists and plentiful cash to support pliant congressmen.  Disappointing , indeed!

 

Re-writing history

Putin is now claiming that Poland invaded Russia at the start of the Second World War and that the Poles and Nazis amounted to the same thing!  Could this just be a joke in bad taste?

It is , in any case, total fake news.  Stalin signed the Stalin Ribbentrop pact expecting to acquire a hunk of Poland and to dissuade Hitler from expanding Eastwards and threatening Russia.  He seriously miscalculated, and had mis-judged Hitler’s malignity.   Poland had a good air force but was absolutely incapable of “invading” Russia.  It was the victim of both juggernauts on either side. Hitler invaded Poland and kept going until the battle of Stalingrad stopped him. Stalin is supposed to have been shocked.  He had supped with the devil and had been doubled-crossed.  There are no insuperable frontiers to Russia from the West, as Napoleon realized in 1812.

What our current foreign policy wonks seem to have discounted is the desire among Russians to recover their empire and sphere of influence which, most importantly, included Ukraine. For centuries the Tsars controlled some or all of Poland, but Ukraine was the Russian Empire’s bread basket and essential for any kind of healthy Russian economy. The Russian sphere of influence included the three Baltic countries, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria as well.  They also, on and off over the centuries, controlled most of Poland.   Putin, with America (temporarily we hope) in his pocket, is on a roll at little expense.  The EU is rightly conflicted about expanding further Eastwards.  This is the moment for Russian self-assertion.

All very foreseeable to those who know the history.  Regrettably, that knowledge is in short supply, history and the liberal arts being shunned as more people take business study degrees.  I think this regrettable. Don’t get me started!

Fired Boeing head gets $62 million

Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing boss fired last month, will receive equity and pension benefits worth $62m.  This was the head of a company whose staff have quietly told the Press that management are incompetent and interested mainly in maintaining profits and share price.  346 Passengers are dead because the company sold planes whose electronics were faulty, and, it appears, the top management knew it and just kept their fingers crossed.  And, by the way, his successor in charge of this ”flagship” corporation, David Calhoun, will receive an annual salary of $28 million p.a., plus a long- term incentive reward of $7 million.

Oh, and the executive in charge of the commercial plane division, and recently also fired,  is receiving a lump sum $14.75 million.

Meanwhile, the same day as this news broke about Muilenburg’s pay-off, one of the largest parts suppliers for Boeing’s 737 Max plane, laid off 2,800 employees. 24 companies who supply Boeing , and rely on their business, are also in limbo and under threat.  The workers only, of course.

How can anyone claim that this situation is fair and just?  How can they say that capitalism, current American style, is working?  It breaks every principle of moderation and fairness (look after the company politicians, to hell with the workers!).  Locked into the “good ‘ole boy” network of more money than they can spend, the elite seem unable to think about the long-term consequences of their greed.  The “swamp” is not the Washington civil service; it is something else entirely.

Will someone come on this blog and explain why they think the system works for the  American people?

 

Hate crimes

History shows that violence generally climbs in election years, and given the media-fueled polarization of Americans just now, 2020 bodes to be especially combustible in the United States (it has been such in the UK).  Unlike 2001, when hate crimes peaked in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 assaults, this time the threat of violence is largely homegrown.

Far-Right violence has been on the rise in the US. Hate crimes nearly tripled in 2016  rose nearly 8 percent in 2017 and 12% in 2018. Targets  were mostly black, Hispanic, Jewish, and Muslim people, all harmless human beings.  A 2018 survey of thirty major cities found that hate crimes against whites rose 15.5% to ninety-seven incidents.  While hate-driven attacks are small in number (5,565 out of 1.2 million violent offenses reported in 2018), by design they have an outsize impact.

“The Racial World War starts today,” white supremacist James Harris wrote in 2017  “God has ordered us to eliminate the Negro races from the face of the earth for the good of all mankind.” Oh, really? Then he went out and  stabbed Timothy Caughman, a middle-aged African-American man, in the back.

White supremacists are not alone. Politicians and crass people on social media join in as well. Then there is Russia, endeavoring to divide and break up Western institutions, exploiting the internet and stoking racial hatred.  They are at it constantly, as you read this.

Hatred has no place in our political discourse.  Democracy is in peril, let alone tolerance and decency.  Social media companies are grudgingly tackling only the most egregious examples of crudeness and hate, in little ways and in bits and pieces, denying culpability and issuing pathetic excuses about freedom of speech.

Those of us who support liberty do not equate it with saying vulgar, violent and hurtful things in public.  Nor are blatant misrepresentations and lies acceptable.  To suggest otherwise is to support license and violent language, coarsening public discussion.  It was never this bad before Twitter and Facebook et al.

Speech is not “free” if it comprises caustic tweets and violent outbursts that loosen the bonds of society and breed hatred and distrust.  Such speech comes at terrible cost.  Weigh up the pros and cons of social media and I believe the scales tip toward  strict oversight.   And normally this would not be thought Epicurean or in the tradition of Western tolerance.

The British NHS dismantled

(This post is longer than usual, but most important, because it illustrates how the priorities of society have been perverted and corruption rules.  It is not generally known to the British public, having been imposed by stealth.  Epicurus, a kind man, would have been appalled)

“Since 2017 Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) have taken over National Health Service (NHS) purchasing as well as the provision of NHS services. ICSs decide who gets the services, which are free and which have to be paid for by patients. The idea is that the less care offered patients the more money is made by ICS’s. Since 1977 it has been Tory policy to return healthcare to private ownership by stealth, fragmenting once fully integrated services into competing and commercially-driven units. This to be done without public scrutiny or debate, little by little, and scarcely noticed by the ultimate customers.

“The first thing to be privatised was hospital cleaning.  Then, in 1997, the Tories created an “internal market” – service purchasers and service providers – hospitals and GPs had to compete for “customers”, the successful being rewarded by greater funding. It was explained in parliament that “in competition doctors would impose on themselves controls they wouldn’t accept if imposed upon them by government.’

“Legislation in 1990 and 1997 then turned NHS hospitals into trusts (commercial businesses) that then went on to build their own hospitals.  The result is that the NHS developed a huge 80 billion pound debt as trusts tried to compete and be self contained. The 2012 Health and Social Care Act enabled trusts to raise 49% of their budgets from private sources, including the charging patients. 60% of the NHS budget was, under the Act, given to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG’s), comprised of GPs  and other doctors, the object being to commission services from both private and NHS organisations.

“Because the latter had no business experience, private consultants (KPMG, Price Waterhouse and others) actually ran the business side and effectively began  overseeing the day-to-day franchising of NHS services.  The Health Minister was removed from responsibility for healthcare provision, and a man called  Simon Stevens was put in charge.  Stevens had previously led the opposition to Obamacare in the US.  Stevens created the NHS England’s Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STP’s), which were intended to save 5 billion pounds  a year by 2020 by reducing access to to care (my underling).

“The STPs  divided England into 44 areas , which were pressured to amalgamate hospitals, shrink specialist units and cut the number of hospital beds (the bed-to-patient ratio is now on of the lowest in any developed country).  Accident and emergency units which require expensive equipment and a high number of staff are being cut from 144 to about 50.  GP services are being replaced by nurse practitioners and pharmacists..  Patients are exhorted to consult private, for-profit healthcare organisations (Doctaly, GP at hand and myGP).  This is the signal for US healthcare companies to enter the market , with their huge resources and equally high charges. 1000 GP practice have closed since 2014 and the number with more than 20,000 patients on the books has tripled. Non-urgent operations such as hip replacements and increased waiting times for everything have encouraged  patients to seek private treatment.  Over the last few years American firms have appeared on the British market in a big way:  Medtronic, Qualcomm Life, Kaiser, IBM, Optum, Centene, Priory Group.

“All this has put up operating costs , since private companies have higher overheads, have to offer shareholder dividends, and pay their CEOs more than if government was still funding health (overheads of American health companies are estimated at $3.6 trillion).  Management and administration of the NHS now costs 14% of NHS spending. It is estimated that privatisation has probably added at least 9 billion pounds to the NHS budget.

“And now Stevens is asking the Government to scrap Section 75 of the 2012 health and social care Act, which in practice means de-regulating the health sector entirely and making ICS’s more attractive to profit-making US companies.

“Meanwhile, surprise, surprise, NHS property and land assets worth 10 billion pounds are being sold to private developers!”  ( John Furse, London Review of Books, 7 Nov 2019. )

My comment: This all amounts to a form of theft from the public of the most respected and necessary public service, to the benefit of those for whom money is all that matters. One’s strong impression is that efficiency has fallen and morale is bad.  Certainly, there is much more complaining. My sister, who does not have much money, was told she had to have a hip replacement.  But no surgeon was available on the NHS for months ahead, so in pain and desperation, she had to pay out of pocket for the surgery.  Never mind. Who in government cares? The important thing is that important people are making tons of money.  This is a huge and un-debated scandal.

Why is this information on an Epicurean blog site? Because it offends against all ideas on moderation and any form of social welfare and care for the sick and poor.  And the sick and poor voted for the Tories unaware of what was going to hit them! You couldn’t make it up!

Harry and Megan

Yes, I know!  You have better things to do than think about them.  But……

Some years ago my wife and I were walking down a London street when we encountered a group of photographer on the sidewalk, looking expectantly across the street at a block of flats.

“Who are you waiting for?” I asked one of the photographers.

He replied,  “We are waiting for Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant”.  (movie stars, in case you have forgotten).

I asked, “Will you be able to interview them?”

“Oh, no, “ he replied “We just take the pics.  The reporters come along later and make up the story”.  (This is absolutely true)

If moderation is the keynote of Epicureanism then the British trash news industry gets zero out of a hundred. Much of what they (there are too many of them, which is part of the problem) print is imaginative fabrication, entertainment for those with too little else to entertain them and too scanty an education to look beyond gossip.  But it is also scurrilous, crude, divisive and hurtful.  Were I dictator I would ban the whole lot of them and tell them to do something useful.  But I am not and I can’t.

I happen to be a great supporter of the Queen, and would rather have her as head of state than Boris Johnson.  She and her family, for all their human faults, deserve better than to see the institution trashed by the gutter press.

Monitoring tweets

”If you thought “the thought police” existed only in Orwellian fiction, then you haven’t been following a case in the U.K High Court.  Douglas Murray Miller, a former constable, had posted a few ribald tweets on the subject of transgender self-identification. (Sample: “I was assigned mammal at birth, but my orientation is fish. Don’t mis-species me”.)

“Not long after, he got a visit from a Humberside  police officer warning him that his tweets had been recorded as “a hate incident” and that his social media account would now be monitored. “I’m here to check your thinking,” was how the officer put it, Miller told the court. Miller rightly claims this breached his right to free expression, yet Humberside police still insist they did nothing wrong in assuming the power to decide what can and can’t be said in our society. The scary thing is it’s part of a trend: the police are increasingly invoking the notion of hate crime to stifle debate. Those challenging reigning orthodoxy have always had to brave the wrath of the rabidly orthodox. Now they also have to contend with the police at their door.” (Douglas Murray,  Daily Telegraph).

My comment:  I read Mr. Miller’s message as a tongue-in-cheek joke, albeit not at all funny to some.  One of the characteristics of the modern era is the self- importance and lack of sense of humour of so many people in positions of authority.  Yes, it’s fair enough for those who feel, for instance, that they are women trapped in a man’s body to be asked to be treated with respect.  But now we have a veritable minefield of gender identification in schools and universities (she, her, hers; he, him his to name two), and society has to get used to it .  It takes time.  We need lightness of touch.  The way to deal with those who can’t see the point is to gently educate them and persuade them, not to accuse them of spewing “hate”.  This is an over-reaction that arguably begs a conservative comment from a very conservative publication.

Moderation, please, the Epicurean way.

Being old

Paul Theroux has announced that he is moving to Mexico.  He feels the elderly in the US are “in superfluity”.  They are slighted, ignored, and treated as deck cargo, not worth a thought, and occupying nice houses that could be occupied by the deserving young.

“I think of myself in the Mexican way”, commentedTheroux, “not as an old man but as most Mexicans regard a senior, an hombre de juicio, a man of judgment; not ruco, worn out, beneath notice, someone to be patronised, but owed the respect traditionally accorded to an elder, someone (in the Mexican euphemism) of La Tercera Edad, the Third Age, who might be called Don Pablo or tío (uncle) in deference.”

“Mexican youths are required by custom to surrender their seat to anyone older. They know the saying: Más sabe el diablo por viejo, que por diablo – The devil is wise because he’s old, not because he’s the devil. But “Stand aside, old man, and make way for the young” is the American way.”

The curious thing is that, until recently, many young British people  ignored the old people standing on a Tube train.  On the contrary, American servicemen in  London were always scrupulously polite, leaping up to give my wife a seat. Now we are both  a certain age we are offered seats almost every time we use the Tube;  so young people have not lost their manners (or we look older!).

But on the general point, I don’t find that young people in America treat me as a piece of second hand furniture at all.  Make them laugh and the years melt away. Epicureans should be attentive and respectful to people of all ages.  It’s usually, although not always, reciprocated.

 

SUVs

Europe has acquired a noxious American habit : the Sports Utility Vehicle. A third of new cars sold in Europe are now SUVs. The parents of school kids in my street in east London all seem to have a Nissan Qashqai or BMW X5 parked outside their house. Once, when small cars filled our roads, we Europeans enjoyed a sense of ethical superiority over Americans, with their heavy postwar gas guzzlers. Indeed, in the mid-1970s they decided to copy us and downsize.

But with the dawn of the SUV, US cars piled on the pounds again, and in two decades CO2 emissions from US vehicles rose by 11%. Now the same is occurring here: thanks to the SUV, average vehicle CO2 emissions in Europe rose by 2% last year. Indeed, the International Energy Agency says the world’s 200 million SUVs (China has gone big on them too) are among the largest contributors to a rise in global emissions. With their high seats and greater sense of security, it’s easy to see the lure of SUVs. Carmakers love them too: they sell at wider margins than small cars. But for the planet’s sake, they are a habit we must shake.  (John Gapper,  Financial Times. & The Week, 15 Nov 2019)

My comment:  I live in a spot where parking can be difficult.  Visitors arrive here,  stay sometimes all day in a 2 hour parking zone  and are seldom fined for over- staying their allotted time.  We therefore have one of the smaller  cars ( a Honda FIT) available.  I wish I could say that we were thinking of the environment when we bought it; alas, we were thinking of the parking and the tiny spaces left to us.  I feel a bit better about it because my wife and I walk everywhere possible, and that’s partly for fear of losing a parking spot.  Silly, one’s priorities, aren’t they?

 

The Robert Harris prediction

 

We may think we’ll be here forever – but Robert Harris reckons our civilisation is probably doomed. “The Roman Republic, Cicero, those people were just as clever,” says the novelist, 62. “The things that their society produced – its oratory, its philosophy, its painting – were as sophisticated as anything we do. But still the system collapsed… Mayan civilisation collapsed in about nine years, and nobody knows why. The same could happen to us.”

Our problem today, he told Tim Shipman in The Sunday Times, is that we have been overtaken by technology. “My father could strip down a car engine and put it back together again. He wasn’t an engineer, he was a printer, but he could do that… There are huge areas of the modern world that none of us know how they work, and if the plug was to be pulled, we would be quite incapable.” And when we go, the sadness is that there won’t even be any great ruins to commemorate our civilisation – because our buildings aren’t designed to last. “We have reached a peak of civilisation, yet paradoxically we will leave nothing behind us except plastic dross: iPhone casings, plastic bags, nappies, cotton buds. That will be our memorial.” The Week,  14 September 2019).

If you have never read a Robert Harris novel you have missed a treat.  He is a wonderful and creative writer.  The above comment is the theme in his latest novel, “The Second Sleep”, where the action takes place many years after the collapse of our fragile “civilization” in an apocalyptic event.  (I gave the book to my wife for Christmas, haven’t read it yet, but know what his theme is).

Apostrophes and how to use them

John Richards, who is 96 and founded the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001, is now terminating the Society.  He is quoted as saying, “Fewer organisations and  individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language”.  So I thought a brief run- down on the rules would be a good idea.  We should be on top of our language.

It’s vs. Its

“it’s”:  should be used as a contraction of “it is”, while its is only used to show possession.

      –    It’s (it is) your responsibility to be a grammar queen.

       –   If you can say “it is” in its place, then you DO need the apostrophe. If its is showing something has possession or ownership of something, then you do NOT need an apostrophe.

       –   The dog was chewing its bone. (possessive because the bone is in the possession of the dog.)

Who’s vs. Whose

    .  Who’s (who is) going to love me if I can’t get my apostrophes right?

  • Whose apostrophe is this?

If you can use “who is” instead of who’s in the sentence the apostrophe stays. If there’s an E on the end of “whose” do NOT use an apostrophe.

Your vs. you’re

Just in case we didn’t drive the contraction thing home yet, let’s look at one more common error that makes every editor, professor, and book aficionado cringe.

  • Your apostrophe usage is spectacular.
  • You’re (you are) not demonstrating a spectacular handle on comma usage.

If you can say “you are” in its place, then keep the apostrophe hanging. If it is showing possession (your dog, your usage), you do NOT want to use an apostrophe.

There vs. Their vs. They’re

Remembering that apostrophes mainly like to hang out with contractions, there’s only one time an apostrophe enters into the ”there, their, they’re” family of homophones:

  • There is an apostrophe in the contraction “they’re.”
  • They’re (they are) not playing well with apostrophes.
  • Their apostrophe usage is not their strongest point.

If you’re talking about something in a certain place (there) or something that belongs to people (their) you do NOT need to use an apostrophe.

1930s vs. 1930’s vs. ’30s

Is it a contraction? Is it indicating something missing? Is it showing possession? 

  • You could say that 1930’s music and dance scene set the stage for many great composers. (Possession)
  • The ’30s were great years for jazz and swing music. (Omission)
  • The 1930s were a great time for music and dance. (Plural)

In this case, the only time you would NOT use an apostrophe is when the date is plural.

Plural

Store signs have been notorious over the years for grammar errors. What’s wrong with these signs?

Bob’s Cheesesteak’s and Cubano’s

Smith’s Greengrocer’s: The Best in Town

If it’s a contraction or a possession, only then are apostrophes on the guest list. So, the signs above should read:

Bob’s Cheesesteaks and Cubanos

Smith’s Greengrocers: The Best in Town

If, however, a plural noun needs to show possession, then it’s time for the apostrophe to Be included.  An apostrophe showing the possessive on a plural needs to go after the S that is making the word plural. So it would be acceptable to say:

Bob’s secret is in his cheesesteaks’ sauce.

Or, it could reference a singular cheesesteak and say:

Bob’s secret is in his cheesesteak’s sauce.

The point is: no possession, no apostrophe.

So, there are only two occasions when you have to use apostrophes: contractions and noun possessions.

Measles has made a shocking return to the US

The World Health Organisation recommends that 95 per cent of people need to be vaccinated against measles to achieve herd immunity, which stops the infection spreading through populations.)  An estimated 169 million children worldwide have missed out on getting the first dose of a measles vaccine, according to Unicef. This includes nearly 2.6 million children in the US, 608,000 children in France, and more than half a million children in the UK.

The study analysed global data from 2010 to 2017, and found that an average of 21.2 million children are missing their first dose of vaccine every year.   Children need two doses of the MMR vaccine for protection. An estimated 110,000 people – most of them children – are thought to have died from measles in 2017, a 22 per cent increase on the previous year.  In the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 measles cases were reported worldwide, up almost 300 per cent on the same period the year before.

“The measles virus will always find un-vaccinated children,” says Henrietta Fore, of Unicef. “If we are serious about averting the spread of this dangerous but preventable disease, we need to vaccinate every child, in rich and poor countries alike.”  (Owen Humphreys/PA Wire)

The five characteristics of science denialism:

1.  Conspiracies:  Arguing that scientific consensus is the result of a complex and secretive conspiracy.

2.   Fake experts:  Using fake experts as authorities combined with denigration of established experts.

3.    Selectivity:  Referring to isolated papers that challenge scientific consensus.

4.  Impossible expectations:  Expecting 100% certain results or health treatments with no possible side-effects.

5   Misrepresentation and false logic, jumping to conclusions, using false analogies etc

If you find yourself confronted with avaccine denier, you  should remember that the most substantial arguments are on your side. Having a vast body of evidence agreed by the majority of scientists to back up your position makes you well-prepared from a scientific perspective. The scientific consensus that you are representing can serve as an initial “gateway” through which to influence your audience’s key beliefs and increase their support for public policy in support of immunization. Emphasizing the existing scientific agreement on vaccine safety and efficiency can strongly influence people’s attitudes towards vaccinations. You should emphasize how overwhelmingly the evidence supports vaccine safety and efficacy – not just one or two studies – and that the vast majority of scientists and clinicians in the field agree with this.

Golden passports for a corrupt elite

For years people have been complaining about Cyprus’s “golden passport” scheme.  Launched in 2013, it offers citizenship to anyone investing €2m in Cypriot property, giving 4,000 members of the global mega-rich residency, voting rights and a back door into Europe.

Earlier this year, President Nicos Anastasiades reacted angrily to claims Cyprus was abusing the practice by handing out passports to corrupt individuals. Far from being a money-laundering paradise, he thundered, Cyprus has the “most stringent” vetting criteria in the EU. How hollow that claim sounds now. After Reuters revealed the identities of dubious recipients, the government has had to take back passports from 26 individuals, including Cambodians suspected of corruption and a Malaysian wanted for fraud. Few took Anastasiades’s protestations seriously, given that his family’s law firm facilitates passport sales. Now, alas, suspicions that Cyprus is a place of “corruption and intrigue” have been amply confirmed.  (Philenews, Nicosia)

My personal comment:  I was, years ago, stationed in the British military in Cyprus. At the time I had a sneaking sympathy for the Greek Cypriot call for enosis (self- determination).  Cyprus was treated by the Brits at the time as a mixture of backwater and aircraft carrier (military and listening base), but corrupt it was not. Is the above what the “freedom fighters” were fighting for?  Blatant corruption? And why are so many former colonies now ruled by crooks, authoritarians and people on the make.  They were at least left with parliaments, elections and rational laws, however imperfect? But these institutions turned out to have shallow roots.  The moral seems to be, “perfect your own garden before you try to tell others how to govern themselves”.

Cooking

Only 11% of British adults cook the majority of their meals from scratch, says the remaining 89% mainly rely on takeaways or ready meals. In the past 12 months, one in ten Britons admit to not having cooked at all, and to having relied entirely on takeaways or pre-prepared food. Men are less likely to cook than women: 16% haven’t cooked at all, compared with 5% of women.

These are truly amazing statistics.  No wonder so many people are over-weight.  Unless you buy ready-cooked meals from an upscale restaurant (expensive) you don’t know how much salt and other additives there are in them. Aside from this I assume that, while buying in saves time, it is more expensive to buy in ready- cooked food, if you costed it out.

Epicurus, contrary to the fake news put out by the Christian church in the centuries after his death, is supposed to have regarded bread and water as a feast.  His diet was simple, to say the least.  The writer cannot emulate Epicurus, but then he has a wife who is a stellar cook and only cooks fresh food at every meal, unless we go out to eat.   Guess I am very lucky.

Messing up the trade war

Dictatorships are un-Epicurean.  Period.  Thus, standing up to China, which already  by some measures is economically ahead to the US (dear, oh, dear) is to be applauded.  While I agree that politics should not be discussed on this forum, resisting dictators and would-be dictators intent on world domination seems to be a no-brainer.

It appears that, after all the fuss about the US-China trade agreement, all that has been achieved is to get an undertaking from China to “buy more American farm goods”.  That is all. Left untouched are all the handouts and subsidies given by China to companies operating overseas, something everyone in the West agreed should be reduced or eliminated during the negotiations in the cause of a level playing field.  The US objective was to close the trade deficit with China.  Instead, it has risen from $544 billion in 2016 to $691 billion in the 12 months ending in October.  Meanwhile US tariffs are affecting US consumers and companies, and Chinese retaliation on US farm exports is hitting American farmers badly – the farm bailout has already cost more than twice the bailout of the auto industry under Obama.  According to diplomatic sources, Chinese officials are “jubilant and even incredulous” – out-negotiating the US was easy, so they claim.

Few in the US understand or seem to care, except for some in academia and the civil service.  But who listens to them anymore?

(Paul Krugman commented on this issue in the New York Times, 17 Dec 2019.  The opinions are  my own)