The threats to Greenland

We concentrate on the obvious places where dictators thrive and warfare kills thousands, but tend not to note the stress experienced by the people of Greenland, who are struggling to cope with global warming, which is totally altering their way of life.  More than 90% of Greenlanders accept that the climate is changing, while 76% are experiencing dangerous sea ice journeys and having to euthanise sled dogs that they cannot keep owing to the shorter winters.  As a result of the stress there is a high level of alcoholism and suicide. The mental health of the Inuit population is causing serious concern to mental health professionals, who are finding symptoms of anxiety, ecological grief and even post-traumatic stress owing to the rapid changes in their lives.

Then along comes Trump, proposing to “buy” Greenland in order to give his election donors the chance to mine the place for coal, oil etc. etc. and make matters hugely worse. Praise the God of Money, money, money!  

Trump would hardly be concerned about the stress already being experienced by the Greenlanders, were he to succeed in buying Greenland because the global warming crisis is “fake news”, is it not?

(This bullying by Trump should be a joke …..but no, it is not. Picking this ludicrous and unnecessary fight with harmless Denmark is not the behavior of a normal person.  Is it psychopathic ?  It is certainly irrational,  but I suppose there is, for his supporters, a rationale somewhere in the Old Testament.  So that’s o.k).  

We will all pay for this

Letter from James Marriott, published in The Times,  London, 17 August 2019

“I don’t own a home,  and like many people in their 20s I suspect I never will. The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who own a house has collapsed over the past 20 years, from 55% to 34%. Getting on the property ladder is famously hard in London, but the problem isn’t limited to the capital. In Greater Manchester, home ownership among that age group fell from 53% in 1984 to 26% in 2017; in South Yorkshire, it fell from 54% to 25% over the same period.

“The idea of never having a place to call one’s own, and always having to pay exorbitant rent, is “depressing” for millennials like me. But this trend also promises to have dire consequences for society as a whole. It’s no coincidence that the birth rate in England and Wales is at a record low. “Young people paying over the odds to live in grubby shared houses are understandably reluctant to start families.” Nor is it any wonder that many of them feel politically alienated as a result. It’s not a healthy or sustainable situation. Pity Generation Rent. “But remember their problems are yours too.” 

On top of that many are working on short-term contracts, with no job security.  They either have no work pensions, or, if they do they are bitty, small and inadequate.  Yes, they (some or most of them) will be inheriting houses, and, presumably some capital from their parents, but by then it could be too late to have children.  Most of my friends, by around 28, were married, had at least small apartments of their own, a mortgage and a first child (a generalisation. of course).  This modern situation is a sign of political incompetence, total lack of forethought, and the overweening power of the modern capitalist system.  Life really is stacked against the younger generation, and I for one can’t blame them for disillusionment.  Some might comment that a smaller population is a good thing for the planet, but along with it comes political instability, no good thing for a calm, peaceful, fulfilling life. First off – build nice, affordable apartments, targeting young buyers.

 

Just so you know

On August 10th I did a posting on the effect of suncream on reefs and marine life…..

From the New Scientist:

In the past five months, the US body that regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs, has declared that 12 active ingredients used in these products might not be safe. Four of these ingredients enter the bloodstream through the skin.  None of the commonly used ingredients have been decidedly declared unsafe, but questions hang over them.

In most countries, sunscreens are classified as cosmetic products. In the European Union, they are subject to rules on which ingredients can be used, and must pass tests for skin and eye irritation, for example.   But in the US sunscreens, including cosmetics marketed with a sun protection factor, are now regulated by the FDA like drugs, years after initial introduction in the 1920s. because they make specific claims to reduce the chances of sunburn, skin ageing and skin cancers.

Take oxybenzone, for example, which is widely used in sunscreens. In 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found traces of it in the urine of 97% of the 2500 people it tested. Other studies have found the chemical in breast milk.  It is thought that  oxybenzone might be a hormone disruptor, and act as a very weak oestrogen (so far unsubstantiated).

The FDA issued new proposed rules in February this year, saying that only two of the original 16 “safe” ingredients can actually be considered safe and effective: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Of the remaining ingredients, two will be banned, while the rest, including oxybenzone, have big question marks over them. In recent studies, where four such ingredients were tested  (four times a day on the skin, for four days), not only did all four chemicals turn up in the blood, they did so at levels that demand further research to make sure they aren’t causing cancer.  Meanwhile, it was found that. sunscreen was absorbed after the first application and that it persists for days..

The fact is that there is a real lack of information on what the consequences of slathering on suncream are.  Back in the 70s, everyone thought that what you put on the skin stayed there. No one imagined that they  could be absorbed by the skin.

Concerns are now being raised about the chemicals in cosmetics too. They face little regulation in the US and have had the same level of scrutiny as sunscreen in the EU. This means that few studies have been done about which chemicals in cosmetics, if any, can enter the bloodstream and what their effects may be.

Part of the problem comes from complaints falling through the cracks. If someone in the US complains of an adverse drug effect to its manufacturer, then the company has to report it to the FDA. But this isn’t the case for cosmetics. This means that issues can go unnoticed. Notwithstanding this, between 2004 and 2016, “only” 5144 adverse events were reported to the FDA (seems quite a lot to me.  Ed.)   (edited version of a long article in  New Scientist, August 2019)

Kashmir: what happened

Indian-administered Kashmir remains under an unprecedented lockdown, subject to a curfew and without phone and internet links. It followed the announcement that India’s only Muslim-majority state would lose its autonomous status. Article 370 of India’s constitution, in force since 1949, guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir the right to make its own laws in all internal matters, and denied property rights to non-residents. It was revoked by Narendra Modi’s Hindu right-wing nationalist BJP government. The legislative assembly, which should have approved the move, was suspended last year.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan accused India of “ethnic cleansing” in Kashmir, and his government asked for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis.

Why is this event of interest to those who subscribe to the teachings of Epicurus?  One has to go back for context to Indian independence.  The first prime minister, Nehru, was born in Kashmir, which logically should have been awarded to Pakistan.  But Nehru was determined to have his birthplace part of India.  Thus began decades of wars and  mutual hostility.  Since 1947, the disputed Moslem territory has sparked three wars between India and Pakistan as well as a bloody 30-year insurgency. The Kashmiris now fear an influx of Hindu Indians, and will now be more susceptible to recruitment by Muslim insurgents backed by Pakistan,  increasing the risk of military escalation – which between two nuclear-armed states is a frightening prospect. 

All around the world, populist leaders are launching similar attacks on the rule of law and democracy (where it exists at all) based on deliberate misinformation, lies and the manipulation of votes and legal systems.  It has taken centuries to establish forms of democracy, popular controls over the power-crazy, and the idea of a free Press, reporting fairly. All this now being undone.  It will pass, but what will be left we have no idea.  Not good for Epicurean peace of mind. (adapted and re-edited from an article in The Week, 17 August 2019)

The return of federal executions

“Anyone who has witnessed the steady rise of Trump, with the thumbs-up, thumbs-down swagger of an omnipotent Roman emperor,” knew this day was coming.  Attorney General William Barr has just announced the end of the Justice Department’s unofficial, 16-year-long moratorium on executing federal prisoners. The department plans to put five inmates to death in December and January. Barr selected the first candidates carefully, to blunt the complaints of critics: three of the five inmates are white, and “each committed one of the most heinous crimes one could imagine, the murder of children”.

But that doesn’t change the fact that capital punishment has been proved to be racially discriminatory and can lead to the innocent being executed. In recent decades, 166 death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing or other evidence. Most developed nations abandoned this barbaric practice long ago, and even the US states that carry out the bulk of executions in America have “sharply reduced” their use of the death penalty in recent years. So why bring back federal executions now? As is so often the case with our Caligula-like president, “the cruelty is the point”. It thrills his base.  (Will Bunch, The Philadelphia Inquirer, re- published in The Week, 10 August 2019)

This is a moral and philosophical issue.  Surely there has been quite enough discussion and research about the death penalty over many years. Revenge killing-by-society is immoral, and, in some Southern States, often with suspected racial overtones. It is also useless as a deterrent.  Murderers don’t not murder because they might  be executed for it; it never occurs to them that they will be caught, and, in any case, murders are typically carried out in a moment of rage, or by people who are mentally deranged. All too frequently the accused turn out to be simple-minded, inarticulate, but innocent.  But these objections carry no weight, it appears, with the self-described christian followers of Trump, who get riled up about abortion but are happy to see adults executed, even when innocent. But then who now expects consistency?

It’s time to stand up to “flying rats” a.k.a Seagulls

Letter to The Sun:

Vicious seagulls are taking over our country.  The decline of the fishing industry has left less food for these feathered menaces to scavenge from the docks, so tens of thousands of them have taken up residence in inland towns and cities. And they aren’t just poking through rubbish bins. These “flying rats”, some of which grow to a huge size, have been dive-bombing families, biting toddlers and attacking pets. In 2015, gulls pecked a Yorkshire terrier to death in Cornwall, and one was recently reported to have carried off a chihuahua from a woman’s garden in Devon.

As a city councillor in Worcester – which is fully 40 miles from the sea – I am inundated with frightened parishioners telling tales of aggressive birds pecking at them whenever they venture into the garden. Residents and tourists are avoiding eating in outdoor cafés, and business owners are complaining about coming to work to find their shops “blanketed in white droppings”. There’s only one answer to the gull problem: “We must kill the bloody things.” As a nation of animal lovers, we may baulk at the idea of a cull, but something must be done.  (Alan Amos,The Sun, 10 August 2019)

Years ago my wife and I visited Brighton, which is on the South coast of England.  We were sitting in the open air, harmlessly having lunch, when a huge seagull swooped down upon our table. Wings outspread, it must have been over two feet across, wingtip to wingtip.  It had a nasty, disdainful look in its eye, was totally unafraid and was armed with a fearsome beak.  It seized my egg and tomato sandwich, its contents spilling out on nearby sightseers as it fearlessly flapped away.  Moral: don’t eat outside by the seaside, or, if you do, don’t choose bacon, egg and tomato sandwiches.

P.S  This seagull crisis is clearly the fault of the EU.  Once Britain has crashed out of the EU seagulls will obviously confine their activities to France.

The British political system is bankrupt (and in good company)

The Queen, who by tradition does not comment on politics, is quoted as saying that the political class is incapable of governing.  Amen to that.

Robert Unger, a philosopher at Harvard, says that European politicians don’t know how to do anything apart from splitting the difference, and are incapable of facing up to fundamental problems.  This leaves an opening to nationalist populists, who know even less and have nothing to offer that is constructive, but know which resentment buttons to push.

Unger wants a radical transfer of power and money to people and places far from Westminster, so that they can try their own social and economic experiments, in contrast to the current busted economic and governing model. He believes this would revivify national politics. Centralisation has been a massive failure.

At the moment the UK is in existential crisis (per Michel Barnier). The institutions, the economy and the system of representation are being shown up to be no longer fit for their tasks.   During the recent election the two main parties each took less than a quarter of all the potential votes (you wouldn’t know it listening to the business-as-usual speeches of the Prime Minister).  Old codgers continue to vote for business as usual, and, of course, Brexit, the results of which they arguably won’t live long enough to endure.

London-centric politicians starve the provinces of cash and sit on anything that smells of political imagination.  Disabled people, for instance, are apparently of no interest to the government. They are left hungry, housebound and ignored. There are few people who are capable of re-imagining what the state and the economy are for.  Instead the country is stuck in old battles over who gets what subsidies and which clique runs everything.  Nothing is forthcoming from the Labour Party, run by a man stuck firmly in the socialist mind-frame of the 1950s.  You can get by with the tired approach to governing while most people are getting richer, but after a decade of no wage growth and benefits going to the 1%, things will get even more toxic unless we clear out the two irrelevant main political parties and see what ideas the local yokels can make work. (sparked off by a Guardian article on 7 June 2019)

Followers of Epicurus are not supposed to get involved, or take a particular interest, in politics.  But we face an existential crisis, even the break-up of the “United” Kingdom.  This cannot be ignored by responsible and thoughtful people.  Devolution of power seems a sensible answer to at least some of the problems, if you can get citizens actually motivated and involved.

And now the Prime Minister wants to prorogue (i.e suspend) Parliament so that he can ram through a No-deal Brexit.  How does that distinguish him from any other run-of-the-mill petty autocrat?  And in case I am criticized for being too political, I have five grandchildren and want the peace of mind of knowing that their lives are is going to be at least as happy and secure as mine.

 

Good news, we hope: a new approach to cancer

From The Guardian:

Scientists have opened up a new front in the war against cancer, aimed not so much at curing the disease as disarming it, so that it becomes a “manageable” condition. Just as bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, cancers can mutate to become resistant to the drugs used to treat them, which is why when cancer metastasises (reappearing elsewhere in the body in an advanced form), it is so often fatal.

Conventional cancer treatments are based on a “shock and awe” principle of killing as many cancerous cells as possible. Researchers working at a new centre being built by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) are focusing on developing new drugs that can be given alongside conventional treatments, and which are aimed not at killing the cancer, but at stopping its evolution into a resistant form. “What we’re really looking at here is a culture change – among cancer researchers and clinicians, and also among patients,” Professor Paul Workman, chief executive of the ICR, is quoted as saying. “We will always strive to cure cancer, but in advanced disease where that may not be possible, an evolutionary approach opens up the prospect of long- term control with a good quality of life.” 

My comment:  My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all died of cancer.  As someone who has had one serious cancer condition that involved surgery, and a second threatened one that was caught in time before it developed, I share with millions of others the fear experienced when the doctor talks about the subject.   If some of that fear is eliminated this will be good news for scores of patients.

Drug deaths in the US and some unintended consequences. No. 2

Well-intentioned policies can have unintended consequences. For example, while the rate of new opioid prescriptions has fallen in recent years, a large number of physicians have stopped initiating opioids altogether.  While that may sound like a good thing, it’s not clear whether this does more good or harm to patients in severe pain.

This isn’t the first time the rate of opioid deaths has slowed for a year. They appeared to stall in 2011 and 2012, but the death rate then shot back up as fentanyl made its way into the US.  Fentanyl deaths in 2018 continued to rise, but grew at a slower rate than the past several years. So, it’s right to be only cautiously optimistic when it comes to a possible break in the wave of opioid-related deaths.(The new numbers are still being finalised, and may increase when the final CDC report is published later this year. They also do not include deaths related to infection from intravenous drug use.)

Furthermore, renewed attempts to overturn President Obama’s Affordable Care Act are currently underway. Should these succeed, many people who currently receive legal pain relief may end up turning to illegal drugs if they lose their health insurance. Celebrating the end of the opioid epidemic is premature. (An edited version by Chelsea Whyte in the New Scientist , Aug 2019).

In our local pharmacy they informally stopped dispensing opioids months ago and tell you to go elsewhere, even if you have a legitimate prescription, written to deal with pain after an operation.  This not just because of the dependency and deaths they cause but because pharmacies which dispense these disastrous drugs can get physically raided by gangs or desperate addicts, and the place wrecked if the pharmacy is known to stock them. (I hasten to say that this could be just a local decision, not necessarily countrywide)

The family reputed to profit most from opioids, and which is famously generous in giving to the arts, is, as far as I know, still out and about and unrepentant. Of course, their profitable market is now being reduced by the sales of fentanyl.

Drug deaths in the US, No. 1

For the first time since 1990, the number of annual drug overdose deaths in the US has declined. The 5 per cent fall reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is almost entirely due to a drop in deaths from prescription opioid painkillers. Does this mean the opioid crisis has peaked?

The early data predicts that there were 68,500 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2018, down from 72,000 the previous year. But it is unknown whether overdose deaths will continue to fall.  The CDC data shows that overdose deaths from fentanyl, synthetic opioids, cocaine and methamphetamines are still increasing, which is an ominous sign.

Drug overdose deaths in the US related to prescription opioids rose from just over 3,400 in 1999 to about 17,000 in 2017. This dramatic upwards trend reflects a nation-wide epidemic of opioid use and abuse. Recent data from the US Drug Enforcement Agency revealed that between 2006 and 2012, 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills – two common prescription opioids – were distributed in the US. That’s about 248 pills per person!

The epidemic has hit US states differently, and these new numbers bear that out. Deaths continued to rise in some eastern states where the use of illicit fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, is spreading. But deaths are dropping in some midwestern states where local governments have expanded treatments for addiction and monitoring of prescriptions.

Even with this recent reduction in overdoses, tens of thousands of people are overdosing on opioids each year. The recent decrease may be due to increased availability of naloxone – which blocks the effects of opioids and is used by emergency medical practitioners to reverse an overdose – and better training to use it.

If emergency treatment, rather than reduced drug use, is largely behind the fall, this would mean an increasing number of US adults are living with substance abuse disorders. Prescribing restrictions mean many of these are likely being pushed towards using street drugs.  (an edited version of an article by Chelsea Whyte, New Scientist. Aug 2019)

However you look at it 68,500 drug overdose deaths (in 2018) are tragedies as well as a scandal.  If this number were lost to physical violence it would be called a war. I sympathise with those in constant pain, but knowingly pushing or enabling the use of habit-forming drugs should be classed a crime.  Writing as someone in constant mild back pain, my personal prescription is exercise and physical therapy with a very occasional ibuprofen to reduce swelling.  Live with it.  It’s part of getting older (or, at least, that’s my philosophy, Epicurean or not).

Sunscreen toxic for reefs

Toxic for reefs

As of January next year, visitors to Palau, an island country in the western Pacific, will be prohibited from buying or using a range of sunscreens. The country has classified products containing any of 10 commonly used sun filters and preservatives as “reef-toxic”, as they are thought to harm coral reefs. Other places have followed suit, and similar bans will come into effect in 2021 in Hawaii and in Key West, Florida.

Craig Downs at Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia and his colleagues ran laboratory experiments to assess the problem. They found that immature corals exposed to oxybenzone, an ingredient that is commonly used in sunscreens, die.

The corals became deformed and pale in colour, and were unable to eat, as depicted in the images above. “Their mouths just opened, and it looked like a horror movie scream,” says Downs. “They were as good as dead in the first 8 hours.”

Sunscreen manufacturers have said that lab-based experiments can’t tell us what happens in the real world, but more bans are likely. “We have one reef, and we have to do one small thing to protect that,” Teri Johnston, mayor of Key West, was quoted as saying before the city’s vote on sunscreen. “It’s our obligation.”.  (Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist Aug 2019)

But if you don’t use sunscreen you can get cancer.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  And the warming oceans are destroying the reefs in any case.

Tomorrow: problems for humans using sunscreens. And then I will try to find something cheering to talk about!

 

A hard border is simply unworkable

The Guardian, on 7 August,  ran an interesting article on the “border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The hard border is not currently there because of the terms of the Good Friday agreement, underpinned by the fact that both the UK and Ireland are EU states. If Britain leaves the EU with no deal, there will be an international border between two entities with disparate health regulations, tax schemes and immigration policies, meaning it will need to be fortified once more.

The writer, Séamas O’Reilly, points out that, after the Good Friday agreement, the old customs checkpoint at the end of his garden was sold so that a large family home could be built in its place. The couple who live there might object to having a customs outpost erected in their bedroom. The building immediately next door is in the Republic of Ireland, and was formerly the Irish customs post. It’s now a kickboxing gym.

There are 300 miles (482km) of border like this, built on and now privately owned, with family homes, petrol stations, cow sheds and kickboxing gyms.  To re-erect a hard border across Northern Ireland would be the most expensive and logistically arduous engineering, staffing and planning job in UK or Irish history. It would take a great deal more than 85 days and £2.1 billion. And even if it were undertaken it would still be a bad idea, even if it promised a massively improved economy and huge social improvements.  In other words, a hard border in Ireland is simply unworkable.

But for Brexiteers there has to be a barrier between the two parts of Ireland, otherwise the much- resented East Europeans and others can get unimpeded access to Britain via Ireland, making the whole idea of Brexit and “control of our own borders” moot.

The only intelligent option for the extremist Brexiteers is to throw up their hands, abandon the Protestant majority in the North (rapidly becoming a minority anyway), and do what should have been done decades ago – declare a united Ireland. This is about as likely as the Republicans in the US agreeing to civilised gun laws. Which illustrates the fact that the Brexiteers never paused to think about the detail of what they were doing.  I dare say none of them have ever been and looked at the old border between the Republic and Ulster (P.S: I have).

 

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Rich poseurs

You will recall that when Notre Dame cathedral caught fire there was a huge outpouring of horror and concern.  One of the few things about it that warmed the heart was the rapidity with which people offered money for the re-building , which President Macron pledged would be within five years.  Most notable were the financial pledges from the super-rich families of France, like the.  Pinaults of Gucci and  Arnaults of Louis Vuitton and their like. Nearly 600 million Euros were promised.

Three months have gone by.  A senior official at the cathedral commented, “The big donors haven’t paid. Not a cent”.  There have been a lot of small donations, but nothing from the big names, who received all the credit while giving no more than a fraction of the money. And this despite a huge 66% tax relief on charitable giving.  There is an annual cap on charity donations, which might be a reason for staggering the generosity, but no one has proffered this as a reason for the total silence.  As Aditya Chakrabortty commented in The Guardian they are “all press release and no cheque”.

But then the richest man in the world, who runs Amazon, is said to give absolutely nothing to charity, staggered or not.

Charitable giving is both necessary and a pleasure for those influenced by Epicurus and wanting a better, more just and equal world.

Recycling stuff

The townspeople of Eskilstuna in Sweden live in one of the most environment-friendly towns in the world, transformed from a grimy steel-producing place to a town with buses and cars powered by biogas and electricity, low carbon combined heat and power plants and effective recycling.

But it is best known for a shopping mall devoted to taking in surplus-to-requirements goods donated by the residents, and then re-selling them to fellow residents.  The scheme is a huge success. No domestic waste goes to a landfill.  This way, people pick up for a song furniture, pictures, electric and other goods while others find homes for things they no longer want.  Apparently this is a profitable as well as a useful development that could be adopted everywhere.

“Waste-not-want-not” was not a phrase used by Epicurus in his non-consumerist epoch, but were he alive today, he would be advocating more ideas like it. He would save money on things and spend time with people, exchanging ideas and enjoying life.

Were I young and energetic again I think I would like to copy this, maybe in Yorkshire, famous for the carefulness and canniness of its people, and their liking for bargains.

The Britain we knew is gone forever

To lose one country is a misfortune.  To lose both simultaneously looks like carelessness.  I apologise for paying so much attention to the UK, when the system has become so dysfunctional in the US.  But the US is not in danger of actually breaking up, and the UK is.

The following from the highly respected Martin Wolf in the Financial Times:

“No one knows what kind of Britain will emerge from the “Brexit earthquake” – but my increasingly clear conviction is that the outcome will be ugly and the damage long-term.  The UK that “the world thought it knew – stable, pragmatic and respected – is gone, probably forever”.

Failing to agree a smooth Brexit due to fears over the Irish backstop is a national folly – since that backstop only prevents Britain from making trade deals that are either “less important than maintaining good relations with the EU”, “probably unavailable” (China and India) or “abusive” (the US). The now-likely prospect of a no-deal Brexit risks multiple constitutional crises, the suspension of Parliament (“an executive coup”) and the probable break-up of the UK. And when it comes to political leadership, we face a sickening choice between a “serial fantasist” (Boris Johnson) and a man who supports “any notionally left-wing tyrant he can find” (Jeremy Corbyn). Can Britain really be this lost, “dithering between Ayn Rand and Leon Trotsky”? What’s happening is “not worthy of a serious country”. The conclusion? We no longer are one.”  (Martin Wolfe, Financial Times, 20 July 2019)

My contribution:  Without the UK the EU becomes a de facto German economic empire, something the British have traditionally resisted.  The right policy would have been to get back into the Brussels bureaucracy, down and dirty, and change the things you don’t like, not huffing and puffing on the sidelines, with  dramatic visits by Prime Ministers that were never going to work.  We started the process decades ago with a large number of experienced and pragmatic British civil servants running the show in Brussels, but these people have long gone and were never replaced by the Little Englanders in successive governments.  Instead?  Endless hot air, grumbling, and straightforward lies, some of them appearing to emanate from Moscow (well, of course Putin wants to dismantle the EU).

Alas, poor Britain! badly served!

The endless US gun murders – an Epicurean view

There are so many simple, clear steps that lawmakers can take to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in America.  The following policies are actually supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans and even many gun owners:

Universal background checks.

Closing the gun show loophole.

Banning assault weapons such as AR-15s.

Banning bump stocks.

Addressing America’s mental health crisis.

Redoubling our efforts to combat white supremacy and domestic terrorism.

The Democratic U.S. House passed two bills that would accomplish many of these goals earlier this year, but Mitch McConnell and the GOP—at the bidding of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun manufacturers—won’t allow the bills to come up for a vote in the Senate. They won’t even allow federal funding for research into gun violence.

The endless gun atrocities are killing as many people as an international war.  The word “obscene” is inadequate to describe this situation, made worse by the President’s pathetic response, made, apparently, reluctantly.  It seems the United States cannot win a conventional war overseas and won’t lift a finger to halt an extremist pro-gun war at home, indiscriminate but mainly on immigrants and people of colour. There is a moral vacuum among right-wing voters and politicians, many proclaiming their religiosity.

My British father had a sporting gun.  It was locked up when not in use, and the lock-up was inspected every three months by the local police.  Moreover, if you wanted a gun you had to be 21 (from memory) and had to show that you had been on a gun safety course.  When I asked my father whether he thought this  onerous he replied, “ No, its common sense”.  But then he valued human life, all of it.

The Disunited Kingdom?

Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories: no fan of the new PM

From The Independent, The New Statesman, The Times, Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian and The Week:

Boris Johnson professes to love the United Kingdom, said The Independent. He extols “the awesome foursome” and speaks of the UK as “the most successful economic and political union in history”. But how can that be squared with his readiness to countenance a no-deal Brexit? The very idea is anathema to the Scots who opposed quitting the EU in the first place: 62% voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. And if Scots are given a second chance to vote on independence, they might well now choose to sever their 300-year-old ties with their neighbour to the south. When Johnson visited Edinburgh this week, he was loudly booed as he arrived at the official residence of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and chose to leave by the back door. Johnson’s stance on Brexit represents the “most lethal threat” to the union since the partition of Ireland in 1922. Without an abrupt change of course, the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom could also be its last.

It doesn’t help that Johnson is at loggerheads with his party’s best-loved figure in Scotland, said Chris Deerin in the New Statesman. “Charismatic, funny, outspoken, smart and brave”, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, has turned around her local party’s fortunes. Indeed, the 13 Scottish Tory MPs returned to Westminster at the last election are now vital to the Government’s survival, said Euan McColm in The Times. But Davidson, a convinced Remainer, is no fan of the new PM: in the leadership election she voted for three other candidates – anyone but Boris. And the mutual antagonism grew yet more intense, said Alan Cochrane in The Daily Telegraph, when Johnson last week sacked Davidson’s close ally, David Mundell, as Scottish Secretary. Growing demands for the Scottish Tories to break away from the UK party may prove irresistible. But Johnson is fully aware of the need to soothe Scottish sensitivities.  His concern to appease local opinion is the reason he deliberately chose Scotland as the place to announce a £300m investment in “Growth Deals” for the devolved nations.

It’s not just the pursuit of a no-deal Brexit that makes Johnson unpopular with Scots, said Tom Devine in The Guardian. “Foppish, rich, incompetent, xenophobic,” he is for many the embodiment of the archetypal right-wing English Tory, a figure utterly out of sympathy with their “social democratic” attitudes. Even before Johnson moved into No.10, the polls were suggesting that almost 50% of Scottish voters backed the independence cause. With him in power, there may now be an absolute majority. Of course, it’s the PM who has the power to decide whether Scotland should hold a second referendum, and Johnson won’t be in a hurry to give his approval. But if it ever does come to a vote, the nationalists may find that Johnson is their best “recruiting sergeant since the days of Margaret Thatcher”.   (The Week 3 August 2019)

It would be ironic if the Tories, led by Johnson, caused the breakup of the United Kingdom.  I would remind readers that the official name of the Tory Party is the “Conservative and Unionist Party”, that is union with Scotland and Northern Ireland. Latterly, their more accurate name might be the “Reactionary and Disunity Party”.  When I was a young adult I seriously pondered (for a week , or something) the idea of going into politics on behalf of what was then a reasonable, principled Conservative Party.  The follies of youth……

Collectively we are all guilty of perpetuating misleading “facts”.

From the Harvard Gazette:

We are all too ready to judge the world though anecdotes, images and distorted reporting designed to sell news, rather than quietly studying the actual facts.  Some examples: 

  –   Trump refers to American “carnage” in an era in which violent crime rates are close to historical lows. Bush created a massive new federal department and launched two destructive wars to protect Americans against terrorism, which annually kills fewer people than bee stings and lightning strikes. In the year after the 9/11 attacks, 1,500 Americans who were scared away from flying died in car crashes, unaware that a Boston-LA air trip has the same risk as driving 12 miles.

 –       One death from a self-driving Tesla makes worldwide headlines, but the 1.25 million deaths each year from human-driven vehicles don’t. Small children are traumatized by school drills that teach them how to hide from rampage shooters, who have an infinitesimal chance of killing them compared with car crashes, drownings, or, for that matter, non-rampage killers, who slay the equivalent of a Sandy Hook and a half every day. Several heavily publicized police shootings have persuaded activists that minorities are in mortal danger from racist cops, whereas three analyses (two by Harvard faculty, Sendhil Mullainathan and Roland Fryer) have shown no racial bias in police shootings (poor training or just plain fear?).

– Many people are convinced that the country is irredeemably racist, sexist, homophobic, and sexually assaultive, whereas all of these scourges are in steady decline (albeit not quickly enough). People on both the right and left have become cynical about global institutions because they think that the world is becoming poorer and more war-torn, whereas in recent decades global measures of extreme poverty and battle deaths have plummeted.

– People are terrified of nuclear power because of images of Three Mile Island (which killed no one), Fukushima (which killed no one; the deaths were caused by the tsunami and a panicked, unnecessary evacuation), and Chernobyl (which killed fewer people than are killed by coal every day). They imagine that fossil fuels can be replaced by solar energy, without doing the math on how many square miles would have to be tiled with solar panels to satisfy the world’s vastly growing thirst for electricity. And they think that tiny and voluntary sacrifices, like unplugging laptop chargers, are a sensible way to deal with climate change.

How do we change this destructive statistical illiteracy and disdain for data? We need to make “factfulness” an inherent part of the culture of education, journalism, commentary, and politics. An awareness of the infirmity of unaided human intuition should be part of the conventional wisdom of every educated person. Guiding policy or activism by conspicuous events, without reference to data, should come to be seen as risible as guiding them by omens, dreams, or whether Jupiter is rising in Sagittarius.   ( Lightly edited piece by Steven  Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, in the Harvard Gazette)

Mea culpa.  I too am guilty of drawing dire lessons from relatively isolated instances.  Maybe we all are.  It simplifies life – but life is simply not that simple.  We should look at actual statistics before we make assumptions and unsubstantiated claims.

Incarceration of migrants, 2

The migrants on the Southern border are treated as an army of feckless invaders.  Families are being broken up , children are kept in hot, fetid disease-ridden camps, and no one in the government seems to know how many are in detention, where they are or which children belong to which parents.

Common decency, and Epicurean teaching, requires us to treat migrants kindly and respectfully, feed and accommodate them decently, and treat them as fellow human beings.  Sub-contracting this job to private profit-making companies employing uncaring, even racist staff is unacceptable, as is the  incarceration of domestic criminals in private, for-profit (!) jails.  The idea that one’s friends and political funders should be able to make a profit out of everything under the sun, including tasks only appropriate for government,  is distasteful and was probably at outset never intended to be humane.