Liberty and its mis-uses

“America is the only country ever founded on an idea. The only country that is not founded on race or even common history. It’s founded on an idea and the idea is liberty. That is probably the rarest phenomena in the political history of the world; this has never happened before. And not only has it happened, but it’s worked. We are the most flourishing, the most powerful, most influential country on Earth with this system, invented by the greatest political geniuses probably in human history.” — Charles Krauthammer

Krauthammer may be right about the US, even twenty five years ago. But the US has now gone further than any other Western country in encouraging free-riders.  It has allowed the very wealthy to opt out of the obligations of citizenship altogether.  Income from capital is now taxed more lightly than income from labour, the rich now pay a lower rate of tax than school teachers.  Massive multinational operate from small islands with low tax rates, rather than in the western countries in which they operate.  Moreover, the rich effectively dictate to their own political party with massive funding (involving inevitable quid pro quo’s) and are deaf to the dangers facing the country: global climate change, a chronically expensive healthcare system with the worst health outcomes in the world, the rise of China, and a failure to balance the budget when the economy was operating at capacity before the corona virus appeared.

This is glaringly obvious to anyone who keeps up with the news.  Yet huge swathes of the voting population seem unaware that they are being ripped off – politically, financially and morally, and seem content with it, still living in the past.

 Were Epicurus among us now, I suspect he would consider moving to a country with a less toxic political system.  Peace of mind was, after all, his principal objective.

The wild animal trade in China

Teams in China are racing to discover which wild animal at a Wuhan food market was the source of the corona virus:  snakes, pangolins or bats? We don’t know yet.

What is clear is how seriously China is now clamping down on the trade in wildlife. Recently, the country’s highest authorities enacted a permanent ban. “It is forbidden to hunt, trade and transport terrestrial wild animals that grow and reproduce naturally in the wild for the purpose of food,” says the new law.

 For decades, campaigners have been calling for an end to wildlife markets in China, where animals, including those that are sick or disease-laden, are kept caged, often in poor conditions and near to people. Animal welfare is reason enough to ban them. The markets were also home to the huge under-the-counter trade in illegal fare, such as shark fins.

However, there are risks that prohibiting the markets could drive the trade underground, making the situation worse.  After the outbreak of the SARS coronavirus, which, in 2002, also came from animals, legal markets were suspended, but people still bought wildlife on the black market and the virus still spread.  Research has found that bans by Chinese authorities on live bird markets amid the 2013 bird flu outbreak led to the spread of that virus to uninfected areas.The problem was that different provinces implemented bans at different times, meaning poultry prices would be dented in one area, motivating traders to move infected animals elsewhere. 

Fortunately, the new ban is on wildlife traded for food is different. It could encourage criminal activity, but if done well, it could limit the economic incentives that have seen some partial bans fail.  It may also kick-start a generational change, as children won’t grow up with the wild animal trade, the legal markets for which were never well-regulated.  Banning wildlife markets in China permanently won’t end the illegal trade but it will reduce it: a faint silver lining amid the crisis.   (an edited    version of an article by Adam Vaughan, New Scientist)

Rule by religious extremists? Bad for peace of mind!

The weekly Bible study arranged by Capitol Ministries for members of Congress and President Trump’s cabinet, illustrates how entwined Christianity is with our government.  Attendees include the vice president, secretaries of state for education, housing and urban development, agriculture, and health; the head of NASA; Trump’s chief of staff; former labor and energy secretaries; and over fifty senators and members of the House (all Republicans).  If you want a taste of power and get ahead you just have to attend.

The organizer of the weekly study is Ralph Drollinger, who, up until a decade or so ago, was called a fringe zealot, avoided by the powerful in Washington. He is now a key figure, not just in attempting to push a conservative theology but in using religion for political purposes.

We think we have a secular democracy that would be approved of by Epicurus.  No!  What it is becoming, (or largely become) is an evangelical-dominated movement that denies science, bashes government and prioritized loyalty over professional expertise, and denies climate change.  

This is not just politics; it is about the basics of living in America. In the past the country stood for fairness, reasonable equality of opportunity, and giving a leg- up to the poor and dispossessed, or, at least not making their lives and their jobs more miserable.

In the current crisis, we are all reaping what these evangelical power-zealots have sown. Epicurus did not believe in the gods (or, at least, he thought they were uninterested in mankind and spent their time chasing goddesses).  He was a believer in Greek democracy, equity, fairness and expertise.  If you are reading this you probably are, too.

 

Light relief

An email to my son, USA to U.K.:

On 31/03/2020 Robert Hanrott wrote:

Will,  I am going to phone you tomorrow, Tuesday.  I am concerned about you all. 

Dead

………………………………………………………………..

And a reply……..

Hi, Dad,

We are all fine. Please do call. It’ll be nice to speak to you.

One thing though. When you sign off — particularly at this time — please don’t do it with the soubriquet ‘Dead’.

Will.  

Why are guns and ammo essential items?

Across America, people have been told to take refuge at home and to venture out only to get things they really need, like groceries, prescription drugs and petrol. But should weapons also be on that list? Gun rights advocates think they should. They’ve now achieved a federal shutdown-order exemption for gun shops( guns and ammo) and firing ranges, arguing that these establishments provide an essential service during a pandemic.

Unless anyone is planning on “shooting those little coronaviruses one by one”, this is a recipe for disaster. In states that are still allowing gun shops to stay open, such as California, there has been a boom in sales, with people queuing round the block outside the most popular shops. Some Asian Americans have reportedly been arming themselves in case they suffer racist attacks linked to the virus. Other people have bought weapons in case there’s a breakdown of social order.

Fear is natural at times like this, but there’s no reason to let gun shops profit from it. Loading up with rifles isn’t a rational response to a medical emergency. “It is caving in to dark thoughts and expectations, and it moves the needle on our collective safety a little further down the ‘dangerous’ part of the scale.” (Scott Martelle, Los Angeles)

My father had a hunting shotgun, which was kept under lock and key.  Every three months a policeman arrived at the house to ensure that the gun was safely locked up and hadn’t fallen into the hands of some nutter.  Result of this nationwide policy?  A handful only of innocent people gunned down for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It is the task of government to protect the people,  not to encourage tens of thousands to lose their lives.   Epicureanism at work, or common sense – take your pick.

 

Epicureanism simply put

Epicureanism was never meant to be a dry academic philosophy.  In fact, it is best kept away from academia, where, as usual with philosophy, long words render it dull, if not incomprehensible. Rather, it is a vital way of living which seeks to free men and women from a life of unhappiness, fear and anxiety.  It is a missionary philosophy for the practical-minded with common sense.  While Epicureans have written scholarly works, they have always been most interested in explaining Epicureanism in a manner simple enough for anyone to understand and remember.

The following eight counsels are a basic guide to Epicurean living.

1) Don’t fear God.

2) Don’t worry about death.

3) Don’t fear pain.

4) Live simply.

5) Pursue pleasure wisely.

6) Make friends and be a good friend.

7) Be honest in your business and private life.

8) Avoid fame and political ambition.

I would add: think of others; be polite and considerate, try to see the other point of view; meet others half way, if possible.  Take the smooth and pleasant road, as free from stress and conflict as possible. But don’t be put upon!

( From time to time I re- post the above – it gives the reader the basic idea without being too long.  There is too much to read during this crisis!)

Auotopsy on the American Dream, part 2

Continued from yesterday:

The core promise of the American dream has always been that you can do better than your parents. But we have to deal with the fact that our values have been hi-jacked.

We decided that we needed more democracy in our politics. What better way to do that than to allow people to go to the polls and vote in primary elections, to choose their nominees? That has not worked out.  What the founding fathers wanted was a representative democracy, not a pure democracy.  When you combine the notion of pure democracy with the total monetization of that democracy by having no limits on what people can spend and no limits on what rich people or rich corporations can contribute during elections , you have a democracy that just doesn’t work.  The smartest, most driven, most talented people have been able to use the. we paradigms to their own advantage at the expense of the common good.

For a country to work, you have to have balance between personal ambition and personal achievements and the common good. The way you do that is to have guardrails on the system. In finance, you have regulatory guardrails. You have labor laws that produce a level playing field between employer and employee. You have consumer protection laws. You have to ensure that the winners can’t win in a way that hurts everybody else. We need to restore the old values and long-term thinking, such as investment both in infrastructure and in companies, asopposed to stock buy- backs.

We need to redirect the old values that were hijacked — the First Amendment, due process, meritocracy, the financial and legal engineering — they need to be reanimated to undo some of the damage that’s been done.

On the other hand there are people out there doing really important work, really good work.The patient isn’t quite dead yet — there are some cures that are still possible.

(A condensed and edited, for length, version of a conversation between Sean Illing and “Tailspin” author Steven Brillon Today, Explained, a daily podcast, 28 June 2018) 

An autopsy of the American dream, part 1

Over the past 50 years, lots of things have changed in the United States. Here are a few examples.

1) A child’s chance of earning more than his or her parents has plummeted from 90 to 50 percent.

2) Earnings by the top 1 percent of Americans nearly tripled, while middle-class wages have been basically frozen for four decades, adjusting for inflation.

3.) Self-inflicted deaths — from opioid use and other drug addictions — are at record highs.

4) Nearly one in five children in the US are now at risk of going hungry.

5) Among the 35 richest countries in the world, the US now has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy.

The American Dream has vanished, What happened? Who or what broke the country?

  • the movement towards corporate free speech — that supplied the money and the power for all the lawyers who are being hired in Washington to be lobbyists, and to fight regulations, to fight labor laws. This gave corporations more power, weakened unions, undermined support for a re- training program, and consequently undermined support for a real program for job retraining in the face of automation, and in the face of global trade.

The key distinction you make in the book is between the protected and the unprotected classes. Why is this so important in American society?

Steven Brill, the author of this autopsy says”

“I think talking about protected and unprotected people is more relevant distinction than saying people are Democrats or Republicans, or that they’re conservatives or liberals.

“The unprotected are all the people in this country who rely on the government in some way to provide for the common good. They actually need public education to be good because that provides opportunity to their children. They need mass transit. They need a fair tax code. They need someone to answer the phone at the Social Security Administration when they get their Social Security check.

“And what’s happened over the last three or four years is that big swaths of the unprotected people in this country have gotten very frustrated and angry that basically nothing is working for them — whether it’s the economy, or the highways, or the power grid, or the tax code, or job training programs, or public education, or health care. They basically have the sense that the government’s responsibility to provide for the common good is gone. It’s evaporated.

“This is why they reacted, or at least 46 percent of them reacted, the way they did in the 2016 election, which was really an effect of severe frustration — “Let’s just elect this guy who’s promising all this stuff. He seems really unconventional, but at least he says exactly what’s on his mind. Let’s try this.”

“And the protected class?  They are the “winners”. They don’t need a good system of public education because their kids go to private school, or care about mass transit because they can afford to drive anywhere.  And they don’t need public health care because they can pay for private coverage.   In short, they’re not invested in the common good because they’re protected, and the system is rigged to keep them that way.

“The story of decline really begins about 50 years ago, so is this basically a story of how a subset of the baby boomer generation drove the country off a cliff,  the high achievers in the knowledge economy — the corporate lawyers who helped take companies over, the bankers who created derivatives and stock buybacks, and so forth. We became an economy that basically moved assets around instead of creating new assets.

(An edited version of a conversation between Sean Illing and “Tailspin” author Steven Brillon Today, Explained, a daily podcast, 28 June 2018)   Part 2 tomorrow.

A bit of history – scurvy and the Sicilian mafia

Scurvy is an exceptionally revolting disease, and it was once commonplace on the high seas. The discovery in the 18th century that a regular supply of citrus fruits could prevent it eventually made seafaring far less treacherous. But it had rather less palatable consequences on Sicily: the emergence of the Mafia,  the world’s most notorious criminal enterprise, which sprang up in parallel with the growing thirst for lemons.

Popular explanations for the rise of the Sicilian Mafia tend to emphasise the weakness of government institutions, which had precious little power to protect property, and the legacy of feudalism. But such theories alone can’t account for the variation in the organisation’s rise in different parts of the island. That is why some researchers have instead looked out to sea.

Historians estimate that between 1500 and 1800, scurvy caused 2 million deaths at sea, making it the leading occupational hazard of a nautical life. At the heart of the problem was a failure to understand the disease: was it caused by an infection or some sort of dietary deficiency?

It wasn’t until the 1790s, after a series of experimental trials demonstrated the preventative power of citrus fruits, which we now know to be rich in vitamin C, that the British navy issued official guidance that all ships should carry a supply.

A few years later, in 1806, Sicily came under British control. It was the perfect place to grow lemons, and the navy was quick to take advantage. In the 20 years after its new guidelines appeared, the admiralty served up 7.3 million litres of lemon juice, a good portion of which came from Sicily.

The rising demand transformed the island’s economy almost overnight. In the 1850s, Sicily gave over just 80 square kilometres to growing lemons, producing 750,000 cases a year for export. Thirty years later, those numbers had more than tripled.

Sicily’s lemon boom coincided with the Napoleonic wars, when British and French forces occupied the Italian peninsula at various times. This in turn provoked Sicilians,and those on the mainland, to fight for a unified Italy.  What resulted was a series of rebellions, revolutions and full-blown wars. During all this the leaders of the risorgimento enlisted thugs to help.  

The enlisted gangsters formed secret societies such as the Cosa Nostra, using their connections to wrest positions of influence in politics and law enforcement. In the south of what is now Italy, where governmental oversight was especially weak, they flourished – and nowhere more so than Sicily. The high profit margins for investing in citrus meant the criminal societies there grew particularly rich.

Lemons were ideal for the budding mafiosi. Even with the island’s perfect growing conditions, they were a considerable investment: farmers had to secure access to a water supply and set up an irrigation system, and then they had to wait five years or more for the first fruit. With the lemon trees so delicate and the lemons themselves so easy to steal there were a whole series of points where gangsters could extort money from the farmers.

Researchers at Queens University Belfast, UK, and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, using  the Sicilian section of a report commissioned by the Italian parliament in the early 1880s, examined the conditions of the new country’s land and people, recording the location and nature of crimes committed with lemon production.   They found that areas that produced a lot of lemons were more likely to have a strong mafia presence.  Nearly all the early mafia bosses of the Palermo area in the 19th century were lemon traders, owners of lemon groves, guards of lemon groves. (the researchers  also said that you couldn’t put all mafia activity down to lemons! But the thirst for lemons was “one of several factors that contributes to the emergence of organised crime”.)

The one thing that Sicilian lemons did not do was eradicate scurvy from the British navy, at least not for a while. With the Americans importing an ever larger share of the island’s crop, market forces eventually drove the British towards cheaper Caribbean limes, a preference that earned British sailors the epithet “limeys”.

But limes were less effective, largely because they contain less vitamin C than lemons. That led many seafarers to question the very idea that citrus can prevent scurvy, and to call for mandatory consumption to be abandoned. Even former sailors who mounted long expeditions to the poles were not convinced, which might help to explain why Captain Robert Falcon Scott was beaten to the South Pole in 1911.

It was not until 1932 that vitamin C deficiency was definitively identified as the cause of scurvy. By that point, however, with the mafia firmly entrenched on both sides of the Atlantic, the demand for Sicily’s lemons had itself borne some bitter fruit.   (the gist of an article by Gilled Amit, features editor at New Scientist, March 2020)

Re-writing history: revanchist Russia

”Second World War commemorations were once characterised by gestures of reconciliation, but Vladimir Putin is changing that. The atmosphere ahead of May’s 75th anniversary of VE Day is becoming “poisonous”, not least where Poland is concerned. The country is generally regarded as the first victim of Nazi expansionism, but in a speech in December, Russia’s president turned this truth on its head, wrongly blaming Poland for helping start the War. He claimed that the 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact was an act of Soviet self-defence. And Stalin was merely trying to save Polish lives when he invaded the country from the east two weeks after the Nazis, said Putin.

“This is utter nonsense. Putin failed to mention the secret protocol in which Hitler and Stalin agreed to split Poland between them, and the thousands of Poles killed by Stalin’s forces. He is clearly out for “revenge”. Enraged last year when the European parliament blamed the Hitler-Stalin pact for starting the War – itself a response to earlier Russian efforts to revise history – Putin was also offended at being refused an invitation to D-Day celebrations in Normandy last year. With tempers rising, it’s hard to see this year’s commemorations proceeding with the usual dignity”.  (Frank Herold, Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin, 18 January 2020).

My take:  Putin is a nasty piece of work, but what Western commentators fail to comment on is the history of the last few decades and the fall of the Soviets.  Russians are proud of the massive empire they once had, and which for reasons of pride they would like to restore (hence Crimea, for instance, their warm water access to the Mediterranean).

Russians are very aware of what they believe to have been Western arrogance and bullying.  The EU has expanded and expanded, right into what Russia believes is its sphere of influence – Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Roumania (a great mistake!).  Then there was the rocket ring NATO proposed that would ring Russia.  Russia itself is a minor economic power, but very good at electronic snooping,  disrupting elections and intruding on our lives.  It is time to try to calm Putin down and create an accord., or this will never stop.   This is what we have diplomats for. We have enough challenges , for heaven’s sakE, climate change being even scarier than the corona virus.

Yes, this is international politics, forbidden in Epicurean discussion,  but we have enough to mess up our ataraxia without stirring the further enmity of Putin and his people.

 

Can tea help stop Alzheimer’s?

Drinking at least one and a half cups of tea a day could reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Flavonols are a group of compounds found in plant-promote cardiovascular health. Now a study suggests that they also help “stave off” dementia.

Researchers at Rush University in Chicago tracked 921 people with an average age of 81, dividing them into five groups, or “quintiles”, based on their consumption of flavonols. Those in the highest quintile, who consumed more than 15.3mg a day (equivalent to one and a half cups of tea), had a 48% lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease compared with the lowest, who consumed under 5.3mg. Of four types of flavonol considered by the researchers, one called kaempferol appeared to be most beneficial: it is found in tea, kale, beans, spinach and broccoli.  (The Week, 15 February 2020).

My comment:  I drink a whole pot of tea in the morning. When my wife wakes up I have to ask her what day of the week it is and what we are supposed to be doing today, plus the names of the people  who came to dinner the night before.  You can therefore either deduce that I would have full scale alzheimer’s if I stopped drinking tea, or, on the other hand the survey is seriously flawed.  Hang on a moment what was I about to say……….?  Forgotten.

Contentious comment of the month

History repeating itself

In the 19th Century the United States expanded its borders to the PacificOcean, and in the process killed tens of thousands of native Americans, herding the remainder into the most dismal, waterless and unproductive land.  Then they signed treaties that, to this very day, are being ignored and broken, something to do with oil and gas or greedy ranchers.

Now Mexicans and others are peacefully moving into the United States and effectively taking back the land seized in the war against Mexico. In some areas  they are forcing Americans to learn Spanish in order to get their grass cut and their crops harvested.  With language comes culture.  Unpopular though it is to  point it out, history is repeating itself.   By the end of the Century ( if there are human beings still alive) Spanish will probably be the no. 1 language in the parts of the United States.  

Ladies and gentlemen, I know this will be unpopular, but your predecessors set this system up; don’t blame the immigrants – blame the empire builders of the 19th Century.  What goes around comes around.

The Epicurean answer is not to worry about immigration, but to seek peace of mind going for walks in the Spring weather, enjoying the blossoming trees while the blossoms last.

It seems Britain at least has a leader

As the coronavirus death toll in the UK rose to 422 people as of Wednesday, the UK government called on fit and healthy adults to deliver vital supplies such as food and medicines to up to 1.5 million vulnerable people, drive them home after being discharged from hospital and make regular phone calls to those in self-isolation.

Overnight the number of British volunteers who had pledged support topped 170,000, and as the day went on the target was smashed. “That is already, in one day, as many people as the population of Coventry,” said Boris Johnson in the daily Downing Street press conference.  Announcing on Wednesday morning that the government’s volunteering scheme was two-thirds of the way to reaching its target just 15 hours after it was set in motion, NHS England’s national medical director, Stephen Powis, said he was “bowled over” by the “astonishing” response.

“Yesterday we sent out a call to arms for an army of NHS volunteers, looking for a quarter of a million volunteers, and I can say that overnight we’ve already had 170,000 people sign up … It’s an absolutely astonishing response,” he told BBC Breakfast.

The overwhelming response has prompted the NHS to extend its target to recruit 750,000 volunteers in total. Those volunteers who have already signed up will start next week.  The figure already today stands at 504,303.

In addition, 12,000 recently retired NHS staff came forward to rejoin the frontline following a separate call for help. The government has announced plans to set up a makeshift hospital with a capacity for 4000 beds, in east London.

The difference with the US is that the British love, and feel they own,  their health service, support it fiercely and want to help it triumph over the virus and help the old and the sick.  Prime Minister Johnson is not a personal favorite, perhaps, but on this case he is leading.

The spirit is Epicurean, even if the participants have barely heard of him!  Bravo!

A sign of the times

MPs in Britain have rejected an attempt to force the Government to seek continued membership of the Erasmus+ programme, which funds the studies of 16,000 British students in Europe a year. The vote on a Lib Dem-backed amendment to the withdrawal agreement bill was lost by 254 to 344 votes. However, the Government says it is hoping to continue the “academic relationship” with the EU.

Those who believe in education and open minds, not to mention learning foreign languages will be appalled that Parliament, the new, very right- wing British parliament, could be this short- sighted and petty.  Epicureans regard themselves as citizens of the world and will regard the Erasmus+ programme as highly desirable and civilized.  ( The Week, 18 January 2020)

(P.S:  32% of Britons aged 15 to 30 can read and write in a second language, making the UK the worst performer in Europe. In the next worst country, Hungary, the figure is 71%. In Germany, it is 91%.    (European Commission)

The decline of customer service

The service industry was meant to be the “engine” of our economy.  Whatever happened?  Where did “service” disappear to?

Supermarkets now want to charge you for service but get you to do the work yourself.   You pick from the shelves and often bag the goods yourself. One member of staff supervises six or eight self-check-out machines, watching while you fumble around trying to find the price of a pound of bananas, and reluctantly approaches when the machine won’t work.

Airlines now want you to use a check-in machine, scan your labels, attach them to the luggage and take them to the loading machine, all of which takes longer than if a human being did it for you. Everywhere companies are so-called “empowering” the customer, while actually cutting staff and service. You can be certain that the reduced staff will be paid no more, but the resulting profit will find its way in the pockets to the senior executives.

So big business has managed to reduce face-to-face contact with other human beings (ever spoken to a CEO?) held down wages and made the world a more unequal place

I am no admirer of socialism, but modern capitalism ( which has heralded unprecedented inequality of incomes into the bargain) is letting us down and helping only the rich minority.  It needs an overhaul, along with the health system.

Foreign languages “protect” the brain

The theory that learning a foreign language has a protective effect on the brain has been boosted by a new study showing that people with multiple sclerosis (MS) experience less cognitive decline if they are bilingual. When a team at the University of Reading compared the mental abilities of bilingual and monolingual MS patients, they found that the former performed markedly better, and particularly in an area known as “monitoring”, which is connected with people’s ability to think laterally.

That bilingualism provides some protection against neurodegenerative decline was first suggested by studies that found evidence that the symptoms of dementia develop later in bilingual people. Bilingual people have also been found to be better at remembering shopping lists and at distinguishing quickly between important and irrelevant information.  (The Week, 1 Feb 2020)

My take:  When I tried to learn a foreign language, in this case Italian, at the local university, I made the mistake of joining a class of 18 and 19 year olds, most of whom already spoke fluent Spanish.  I desperately tried to keep up, but it was like trying to race a group of Olympic athletes.  I had to admit defeat.  Learning German as an adult for business reasons was also a bit frustrating. The  Germans only wanted to practice their excellent English.

I do think born English speakers are at a disadvantage growing up to speak the main world language -a moral one anyway. However the shoe will soon be on the other foot. Soon  English speakers will have to learn Chinese.  Good luck with that!

Pathetic!

It’s the taking part that counts. That used to be the great mantra of school sports at Britain’s old private schools.  You don’t hear it so much in the fee paying sector these days. The focus today has dramatically shifted to the importance of winning at all costs. Where school sports were once run by academic staff, today they’re increasingly managed by ex-professionals, especially hired as directors of sports.

In rugby, in particular, success on the playing field is now seen as a potent marketing tool for impressing prospective parents. One rugby coach has revealed that whenever the 1st XV lose a Saturday fixture, the headmaster calls an urgent meeting to demand an explanation. There has also been a surge in schools offering bursaries or scholarships to talented rugby players – some even poach top players from rival schools with offers of fee discounts. And along with this professionalisation of school rugby comes an obsessional focus on year-round weight training to bulk up the players.

Now, following a recent influx of ex-pros into school coaching jobs, hockey and netball look set to follow suit. It may be the way to get results, but it isn’t really cricket. (Robin Hardman, The Spectator)

My take:  My father played for the England international rugby side against France.  One appearance only, but you can imagine the pressure on me, having a top-class player in my own Dad.  But I was big and ran fast and did well at it in my turn – but thought it all ridiculously overblown, even in those Dark Ages.  Keep fit, yes, and learn to work as part of a team, yes,  but the emphasis on such games, especially, in England, rugby was, well, totally out of proportion.  I was hailed at school for my sporting ability, but no one even commented, including the teachers, when I got into a good college of a good university (no names, no pack drill).  As for the year-round weight training for teenagers, this sounds definitely dodgy, if not obscene.  I have heard of kids taking drugs that bulk them up and help them run faster.

These adults have their priorities seriously messed up.  I’m glad I don’t have teenage kids at schools such as described here.  And where are the parents and what on earth are they thinking?

Air pollution

Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is responsible for more than 4m premature deaths around the world each year and costs the global economy about $8bn a day, according to a study from Greenpeace. Puts the effects of the virus into proportion somewhat.  Separately, analysis by the World Wildlife Fund estimates that loss of nature will wipe £368bn a year off global economic growth by 2050.  Pollution leads, among other things, to a loss of the habitats which provide homes for marine life, supports fisheries and gives natural protection against flooding and erosion. (Guardian 12 Feb 2020)

My take: Now, suddenly, the air is more breathable, and the seawater in Venice is apparently clearer than anyone has seen it for decades.  Where I live we are on the flight path into the, very busy, local airport. Flights normally end and around 11p.m and start again at 6 a.m.  The racket is constant, although one tunes it out.  I rely on the first flights of the day to get me up at crack of dawn;  I am now over-sleeping without the noisy “alarm”.  In addition, the traffic is reduced on the street where we live.  The  main, and best, result is a freshness and clarity of air which hits you on leaving the house.   One can also park the car more easily, as well.  Two silver linings to the crisis, even if we are not using the car.

Offer a compliment, or give the bad news first?

Question to agony aunt:  “When giving negative feedback, is it better to start with the admonition and end with a compliment, or vice versa?”.  (Gillian Peall, Macclesfield, Cheshire, UK)

First answer: “Definitely give the compliment first. Knowing you have done something right may make the negative feedback more acceptable. Giving the bad news first can make the compliment seem patronising or condescending.”   (Julia Barrett, Oakhill, Somerset, UK)

Second answer: “When I ran my company, I used a technique called sandwich criticism. You start by commenting on something good about the person, then move to the negative and finish on a positive. If you start with a negative, a person’s defences go up and they can hardly hear anything else you say. This is also true about the use of “but” or “however” as they are triggers for defensive behaviours.    There are those who say that this method is rather stale and can sound contrived, but it is up to you to make sure that it isn’t.    (Ron Dippold, San Diego, California)

Third answer: “It depends on the severity of the issue, and the sensitivity of the recipient. A repeat bad actor will grasp any compliment as a straw to continue their behavior, so it may be counterproductive.

12055345767968669487.jpgFor best results, the answer is to do both, also known as bookending. Offer a compliment, give the admonition, describe what bad effects it has for them and other people, then end with the positive benefits of fixing the issue.”.  (Robert Willis, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada)

Fourth answer:   “Various studies have found that employees want more feedback, not less. A global survey by OfficeVibe in 2016 found that 82 per cent of employees appreciate feedback, whether it is positive or negative.   Standard advice used to be to “sandwich” negative feedback between positive comments. This has been shown to be less than effective: employees quickly recognise that the positives are only window dressing and so all comments are considered dubious and disingenuous.

”Tactful honesty is the best approach. Being direct and polite makes employees feel respected. Constructive criticism offers both a critique and a solution. Research shows that people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers. Learning appropriate people skills can go a long way“.  (Tim Lewis, Landshipping,Pembrokeshire, UK)

Fifth answer:    The classical sandwich of praise, criticism, praise often fails as the employees cotton on. Asking the employee if they are open to feedback and then asking them for comments on their own behaviour or performance, good or bad, is more productive.   (Terry Gillen, Tring, Hertfordshire, UK)

Sixth answer:    “Neither. The problem with mixing praise and criticism is that the feedback becomes “contaminated”, causing confusion. A more effective approach is to begin with an objective acknowledgement with which both parties can agree. Then state clearly the change you want, and finally provide a reason to make the change.

”As I said to my son once when he was very young and angry with me: “When you speak to me like that, I have difficulty listening to you. If you take a few deep breaths and say it again in your normal tone of voice, I promise I’ll listen.”.  (Simon Phillips, London, UK)

Seventh answer:   I’ve spent countless hours in training sessions on giving feedback. One thing seems clear: the order in which you give feedback doesn’t really matter. What’s important are your intentions and soft skills.

  •  Do you genuinely want to help the other person by kindly indicating where improvements could be made?
  • Are you sensitive to the other person’s feelings? Can you see their point of view or sense when someone is becoming defensive? If the conversational flow needs to change, do you have the words ready to effect that change? Can you be funny or engaging? Can you use eye contact and friendly body language to reassure?

“If you can master such skills, the order in which you deliver feedback becomes irrelevant.”   (Pauline Grant, Business psychologist, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, UK)

12055345767968669487.jpgAnd from the agony aunt: ”Please consider carefully if feedback is needed at all. If someone has behaved in a way you judge to be substandard or inappropriate, check first how they view the situation. Ask questions – real, open questions – and listen to the answers.

”Mostly we know when we have made a mistake, and someone else pointing it out is at best unnecessary and at worst deeply patronising. If they don’t know that they have made a mistake, it may be that a conversation is appropriate.  The result will tell you if your feedback is likely to be helpful. Finally, being open and humble will always help with the outcome.”

The Shame of Child Poverty

The plight of impoverished children anywhere should evoke sympathy, exemplifying as it does the suffering of the innocent and defenseless. Poverty among children in a wealthy country like the United States, however, should provoke. shame and outrage as well.

Unlike poor countries (sometimes run by leaders more interested in lining their pockets than anything else), what excuse does the United States have for its striking levels of child poverty? After all, it has the world’s 10th highest per capita income at  $62,795 at and a gross domestic product (GDP) of $21.3 trillion. Despite that, in 2020, an estimated 11.9 million American children — 16.2% of the total — live below the official poverty line, which is a paltry $25,701  for a family of four with two kids. Put another way, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, kids now constitute one-third of the 38.1 million Americans classified as poor and 70% of them have at least one working parent — so poverty can’t be chalked up to parental indolence. (Rajan Menon, Tom Dispatch  3 Feb 2020).

My take: I regret to say that this situation is not going to change anytime soon.  The country is firmly in the grip of those whose dearest wish is to emulate the group of billionaires, who pay, in terms of taxable percentage of wealth, less than their secretaries, chauffeurs and gardeners.   It’s going to take a sea change in the attitude to American capitalism and social fairness before any kind of leveling out occurs, however careful and gentle.  And this has to start with a change of heart among the evangelical christians and the hard-heads at Fox News.  If these people soften their hearts and realize that the country is headed in quite the wrong direction, resulting in decline, not greatness, then America could be equitable and fair.

Yes, this is, unapologetically, is  a political statement, but not a party political statement.  There is no reason on earth why the champions of uncompromising capitalism cannot moderate their opposition to, say healthcare, to mention just one vital issue.   If we don’t start treating one another with consideration the results are not worth contemplating.  Epicurus ( plus a host of other wise people) would agree; there is nothing wrong with compromise and a feeling of community.

 

Why Americans are dying young

IAmericans’ lives are getting shorter. A new study has shown that life expectancy in the US, which rose steadily over the past half-century, has now fallen for three years running. The downward trend is the result of an alarming hike in mortality rates among those between the ages of 25 and 64. Americans in the prime of adult life are increasingly succumbing to so-called “deaths of despair”, through drug or alcohol abuse, suicide, obesity and chronic stress. This phenomenon was once thought to be limited to rural white America, but the new study shows that it has spread to the suburbs and cuts across gender, racial and ethnic lines. In the words of the lead author of the report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Steven H. Woolf, the rise in premature deaths is evidence that, in America today, “there’s something terribly wrong”.

The opioid epidemic is one of the main culprits, said Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post. Mortality from drug overdoses among working-age women in the US jumped by an astonishing 486% between 1999 and 2017; among men in the same period, it increased by 351%. Obesity has also played a big part. “The average woman in America today weighs as much as the average man half a century ago, and men now weigh about 30 pounds more.” But the problem is much wider than that. Mortality has increased across 35 causes of death. Whether as a result of economic hardship, stress, the lack of universal healthcare, loneliness or family breakdown, people just aren’t looking after themselves properly, and are making destructive life choices.

This is a “distinctly American phenomenon”, said Jorge L. Ortiz in USA Today. The US has the worst midlife mortality rate among 17 high-income countries, despite spending more than any other nation on healthcare. When it comes to life expectancy, other wealthy countries “left the US behind in the 1980s” and have widened the gap ever since. Average longevity in Japan is 84.1; in France, 82.4; in Canada, 81.9; in the UK, 81.2. In America, by contrast, it has fallen to 78.6.

We need to tackle this disparity, for the sake of creating a happier, healthier country, and because our economic well-being depends on it. If we don’t fix it, we’ll all pay the price. (The Week, 7 Dec 2019)

Heartlessness

Part of Associate Editor, Jeremy Warner’s, article for the Daily Telegraph on 3 March read as follows:

“In the First World War outbreak there was thus a lasting impact on supply, with many families suffering the loss of the primary bread-winner. This is quite unlikely to occur this time around. Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”.

Formulated in semi-technical and anodyne terms for the most part (‘a lasting impact on supply’, ‘mildly beneficial’, neat opposition between ‘bread-winner’ and ‘dependents’), the piece tries to look neutral. But the word ‘cull’ is truly shocking – and resonates in a paper that actively advocates the culling of badgers and deer.

Warner is a senior editor, not a stringer or occasional contributor.  The strong association between the Telegraph, Tories and the prime minister is well known in the UK. The average age of the paper’s readership is 61.  It maintains an almost inflammatory right-wing editorial policy about the EU, the National Health Service, economics and tax policy – in fact, most political issues. Culling elderly dependents is about par for the course.  Getting people to follow the strong advice of health professionals, and looking out for vulnerable neighbours, are not a priorities. The irony is that the readership represents a population most likely to die from the virus and to the slashing of health spending beloved of conservative policies in past years.

It is strange how people seem to vote for and support those who in reality threaten their health and economic stability. Were Epicurus alive today he would be wanting to protect the old, the vulnerable and the poor, who are as entitled to health, peace of mind and a pleasant life as the well-off.

Fifty years of environmental regulations scrapped

The following are just a few of the reversals of environmental protection laws in the last three or so years.

1. Pulling out of the Paris climate accord.

2. Easing of the regulation of methane emissions.

3. Scale-back of requirements for storing and releasing waste from coal-fired power plants

4. Increase in allowable levels of the herbicide Atrazine for use with crops and lawns.

5. Blocking of stricter efficiency requirements for common light bulbs.

6.  Rescinding of the Clean Water Act for streams and wetlands

7.  Reduction of the acreage of protected land in the US.

8.  Opening of more than 180,000 acres of national forest to logging

9.  Global emissions of HFC23 ( hydrofluorocarbon gas), a chemical expelled from cooling systems, and 12 times more potent than carbon dioxide, are increasing at an all- time record rate

If you agree with these measures you are not an Epicurean!  If you still feel global climate change is a  scam and you should be allowed to trash the natural world at will, well, words fail me…..