Are cellphones damaging our collective posture?

The next time you reach for your phone, remember that it induces slouching, and slouching changes your mood, your memory and even your behaviour.

The average head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. When we bend our necks forward 60 degrees, as we do to use our cellphones, the effective stress on our neck increases to 60 pounds — the weight of about five gallons of paint. What appears to be happening is that young people are developing postures similar to little old ladies with osteoporosis –  all bent over.

Studies have shown that depressed patients were more likely to stand with their necks bent forward, shoulders collapsed and arms drawn in toward the body.  Further research suggest that posture doesn’t just reflect our emotional states; it can also cause them. Compared with upright sitters, slouchers reported significantly lower self-esteem and mood, and much greater fear.

Slouching can also affect our memory and our productivity.  In  a 2009 study of Japanese schoolchildren, those who were trained to sit with upright posture were more productive than their classmates in writing assignments.  Some people think that the slouchy, collapsed position we take when using our phones actually makes us less assertive, and that there appears to be a linear relationship between the size of your i- phone, i- pad, laptop or desktop, and the extent to which it affects you: the smaller the device, the more you must contract your body to use it, and the more shrunken and inward your posture, the more submissive you are likely to become.

.Here are some tips to counter the problem: Keep your head up and shoulders back when looking at your phone, even if that means holding it at eye level. You can also try stretching and massaging the two muscle groups that are involved in hunching – those between the shoulder blades and the ones along the sides of the neck. This helps reduce scarring and restores elasticity.   (based on a review of a book by Amy Cuddy is a professor at Harvard Business School, “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.”)

My wife and I were dining in a restaurant recently.  Next to us was a table with six young Arab women.  Every single one of them had her head down looking at a cellphone during the whole meal.  They hardly spoke a word to one another, just what I took to be the odd comment on what was on their screens.  I don’t have a cellphone myself and have nothing against them – except if they monopolise her time and damage her health.


The price of religion?

The spectre of civil war is looming over India.  Over recent months there has been a “steady stream of lynchings” of Muslims by Hindu nationalists. These attacks are not just individual tragedies; they’re an assault on the whole notion of India as a democratic nation where people of all faiths and ethnicities mix in harmony. The Hindu chauvinists, who are stirring up resentment against Muslims and calling for them to migrate to Pakistan, should bear in mind the cautionary example of Sri Lanka. The Tamils are a small minority there, making up about the same proportion of the population as Muslims do in India. Their persecution at the hands of chauvinist Sinhalese politicians led to a civil war that drained the country of economic energy for decades. Fighting the politics that spawns lynch mobs is “a battle for India’s soul, for its gathering coherence as a national ideal for an interdependent, multicultural world, and for India’s future prosperity”.  (T.K. Arun,  The Economic Times, Mumbai)

India is becoming an international power to be reckoned with.  It manages to offer a good technical education to those with a digital bent, and its engineering graduates are in demand everywhere. The country has huge potential, but it seems there are everywhere in the world disgruntled, hate-filled people who display for all to see the ugly side of humanity (a good example is the support offered by right-wing ” christians” and Trump supporters to the violent  alt-right and neo-nazi thugs in the Charlottesville horror). All too often tribal/religious groups are a violent, backward-looking crowd, led by preachers or gurus who usually live very comforably (thank-you) on the donations of their flocks.

I’m sure there are decent, educated hindus who deplore the attacks upon moslems, and it isn’t clear whether, if one magically eliminated religion from every corner of the planet, things would change that much.  There is simply a very nasty minority of Hindus, just as there are intolerant “christians” in the West.  Hatred is not confined to any single country.  It makes the gentle thoughtfulness and consideration associated with Epicureanism  a stark contrast and all the more important.

Good news: slowly we are seeing the end of smoking

Smoking is rapidly dying out in the UK and US among young people – the first generation to come of age surrounded by laws that discourage smoking. Figures from the UK Office for National Statistics reveal that the proportion of smokers in the country fell to 15.5 per cent in 2016, down from about half in 2010. Although 19.3 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds smoke, the percentage has  declined by 6.5 percent.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the number of smokers aged between about 12 and 18 dropped to 3.9 million in 2016, down from 4.7 million in 2015. These figures include cigarettes and e-cigarettes, both of which have seen large declines in use.

However, the situation in developing countries has not been so positive. Back  in 2012 a study based on the Global Adult Tobacco  Survey showed that nearly half of men in 14 developing countries were tobacco users and that women were starting to smoke at younger ages. Overall, researchers predicted. at that point that  smoking would cause one billion deaths in the 21st century.

The good news is that quit rates have been  higher in countries with programs in place for discouraging tobacco use and helping with quitting.  Uruguay is interesting because of its stringent anti-tobacco policies, including mandated graphic labels on cigarette packaging, sales tax increases, bans on tobacco advertising and on indoor smoking in public places. Tobacco use in Uruguay has decreased by 25 percent over three years.

Among other promising data, 70 percent of Uruguay’s smokers expressed regret for every having taken up smoking, and in the five-year period covered by the survey, over two-thirds of smokers at least attempted to quit. Positive health changes are already being seen, and may in part be attributed to these policies. The ITC found a 22 percent reduction in the rate of hospital admissions for heart attacks and a 90 percent decrease in air contamination in enclosed public spaces in the year after they were enacted.

Hopefully, by picking off one developing country after another we can stop smoking, based on the interpretation of trade agreements.  Only recently Philip Morris sued the Australian government, which demanded plain white wrappers and the words Smoking Kills on them.  Philip Morris tried to get this overturned before a tribunal, a favourite trick.  But the new regulation was surprisingly upheld.   The Australian used a clause in their 1993 Hong Kong bilateral trade deal and the court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.  The days of smoking might be numbered.

Paranoia reigns! Spying on buses

Since 2012 the conversations of people travelling on buses in Maryland have been recorded.

It’s one thing to have active video recording, which can help identify the drunk and the trouble- makers. But to record passenger ‘s conversations! This is really going too far. What this mass surveillance hopes to achieve is puzzling. Maryland has visited this issue four times, and the objection to stopping the recordings (not one person has proved to be undermining the Constitution or to be in league with ISIS) is that to change the cameras so that the the driver activates the recordings when he thinks an incident is developing would incur too great an expense. (Ovetta Wiggins, Washington Post)

George Orwell really got his forecast right didn’t he? Everywhere we look we see intrusion into privacy and encroachment on civil liberties. Serious bombers and planners of massacres don’t generally plan their attacks on local buses stopping and starting in rural Maryland.

The dirty trade in firearms

A  RAND Corporation report reveals an alarming pattern: gun salesmen based in the US  now ship worldwide, with Europe the biggest source of profit. Lax gun laws in the US are undermining stricter rules elsewhere. Over half of the weapons for sale are from the US, with the revenue from Europe five times higher than from domestic sales, through the dark web.

Although sales account for less than an estimated 1 per cent of items sold on the dark web – transactions go far beyond simply putting a gun in the mail. The information and technology available to potential lone-wolf attackers on the dark web range from manuals on how to create explosives to detailed instructions on how to disassemble and ship a gun to various overseas destinations,

The dark web is a subset of the internet that requires specific software to access so that users can remain anonymous. Registration and access are straightforward. Not all items for sale there are illegal, but the promise of anonymity makes it easier to subvert the law. This anonymity makes buying or selling items risky: the person at the other end of the deal could be a scammer or the police. But previously, to purchase an illegal firearm,  you had to contact a gang involved an arms trafficking gang and convince them  that you weren’t with the police. This was tricky; they might scam you.

To help build trust between buyers and sellers, dark web marketplaces allow them to review transactions the way they would on eBay or Amazon. Many dark marketplaces even offer payment protection.  Vendors on the dark web have also honed their delivery tactics. They may often disassemble weapons into many parts that are sent in different packages. Some parts are embedded in less conspicuous items like old stereos or printers.  (Timothy Revell. New Scientist 29 July 2017)

What are we doing tolerating this stuff?  Why  was the dark web ever allowed in the first place? The 2nd Amendment, allegedly allowing arms to be be bought and used for “self-defence” (hah!) in the US is being traduced by unscrupulous gun makers and dealers who are potentially (and probably actually) exporting terror and death overseas via the internet, alongside advice on bomb-making and other  terrorist techniques. Why would anyone want to buy American guns unless they were al Queda or ISIS supporters, assassins or ruthless gangsters?   This whole thing is a form of pornography, only pornography generally doesn’t usually kill people.  No pussy-footing or discussion!  This is not a matter for Epicurean reasonableness.   Close it down!

How the Republicans should respond to Trump

The second of my two-part series on how enlightened citizens should respond to the farce that is the Trump administration. You can read the first part on the Democrats here, Also, next Monday the Modern Philosophy series is returning, so look out for that! 

Being an anti-Trump Republican is a lonely job. The President enjoys an 80% approval rating amongst Republican voters. In a era of hyper-partisanship, many people believe that because Democrats hate Trump so much, he must be doing something right. The potential collusion with Russia and other scandals are fabrications or exaggerations by the media, purported in order to undermine him. Similarly, the only reason why he hasn’t achieved more is because of Democrat opposition, treachery within the Republican ranks, and the corrupt nature of ‘the swamp’ (a nickname for the Washington establishment.) This means that any Republican who openly opposes Trump will come under fire from their core supporters, especially if they live in a state or district where Trump has a net positive approval rating.

So I have a lot of respect for Republican politicians and outspoken conservative commentators who critique Trump and the general direction of the conservative movement. No one has done a better job of doing this than Senator Jeff Flake. He recently published a book, Conscience of a Conservative (just like Goldwater), in which he not only rejects Trump, but also the nationalism, populism and disregard for traditional conservatism that led to Trump winning the nomination. I completely agree that in America, just as in every country, there is a need for a healthy debate between respected individuals who are thoughtful and principled. Whatever your feelings are regarding the Republican Party, it is just as necessary to the wellbeing and functioning of American democracy as the Democrats. So of course Flake is right that the GOP should ditch its cult of personality fixation with Trump in favour of universally applicable conservative principles.

However, Flake presents too simplistic a picture. He seems to imply that before Trump came along, conservatives were largely intelligent and moral. Then Trump ruined the movement, so by getting rid of him we can return to an idealised state of affairs prior to 2016. The reality is more complex. It’s certainly true that conservatism has degraded since Trump sought the Republican nomination. But it was hardly perfect before then. While Flake acknowledges the failures of specific Republicans like Newt Gingrich or Mitch McConnell for being excessively partisan, he doesn’t account for the Republican establishment’s toleration and utilisation of illiberal nationalism for electoral gain. Conspiracy theories like Obama not being an American, evolution being a product of militant atheism to destroy Christianity, or climate change denial, were routinely accepted ideas amongst the conservative base even before Trump came along. Given how sceptical of climate change Mitt Romney was, was it really surprising that Trump’s assertion that climate change was invented by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive, proved popular? Nor is conservative demagoguery the exclusive preserve of Trump- the Economist points ought that Republicans have long made vitriolic and implicitly racist remarks against ‘welfare queens’ to promote fiscal conservatism amongst the working class.

Given the long-term degradation of conservatism, I am far less hopeful for the future than Flake. The senator only criticises Trump and other Republican elites. But the real blame lies with ordinary Republican voters. They chose Trump above a plethora of real conservatives like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. They then voted for him in the general election, instead of choosing a genuinely conservative third party candidate. Republican elites didn’t invent conspiracy theories or bigotry; those things already existed amongst the electorate, and were simply politicised to the Republicans’ advantage. Since Trump’s inauguration, it has become obvious that the man is unfit for office. The various scandals shows he has clearly acted improperly, if not illegally. He gets into needless fights far too easily. He is short-tempered and easily goaded. He doesn’t have a consistent and coherent vision for the American economy, nor for America’s place in the world. He has appalling approval ratings, not only in America but worldwide. Yet it is Republican voters who choose to stick by him. If Trump’s popularity amongst Republicans dropped from 80% to say 40% or less, he would be finished.

The fact is, the vast majority of Republicans do not care about the sort of principles Flake believes in. They don’t know anything about Edmund Burke, Adam Smith or Thomas Paine. Most of them haven’t read anything by Milton Friedman or F.A Hayek. Abstract principles like constitutionally limited government, free markets and individual liberty mean little to them. Instead, what concerns them is not the size of government, but who it works for. That’s why they are perfectly happy with Trump’s protectionist economics or statements he’s made in the past about protecting Social Security and Medicare. Government can be as big as it likes, as long as it works for ‘ordinary Americans,’ as opposed to immigrants, foreigners, and liberals who live in big cities. What drives Trump voters is identity politics, not ideology.

The reason why Trump was surprisingly successful was that he understood this, the traditional Republican elites didn’t. Republicans in Washington have long been out of touch with their base on a whole host of issues, because they wrongly believed the base shared their conception of and dedication to conservatism. Now that their folly has been exposed, they dare not criticise the base for fear of losing office. So instead, they collude with Trump in order to achieve their long-term objectives like tax cuts and healthcare deregulation, while pretending to be on the side of working class Trump supporters. This strategy may work for the next few years. They already have another conservative Supreme Court justice and the repeal of various Obama-era regulations. They may get tax cuts and healthcare deregulation yet. But come the forthcoming elections, they will not be able to distance themselves from an increasingly unpopular president. Their moral cowardice will be their downfall. The best thing that can happen to American conservatism is the collapse and total defeat of the Republican Party, which will hopefully be reformed into a party backed by intelligent and authentically conservative voters, as opposed to the pretence of conservatism and nationalistic dog-whistling that characterises today’s GOP.

Best of the Week #11 The potential pitfalls of a US-UK trade deal

Apologies for posting this late, I had to reinstall Mac OS onto my laptop because it wasn’t working. 

Awhile ago, Donald Trump tweeted his enthusiasm for a US-UK trade deal. Inevitably, Brexiteers were ecstatic. Here was irrefutable proof the UK wouldn’t suffer any loss of trade after Brexit. Trade with the US and other countries would replace any losses from leaving the EU. But as usual, the reality is more complex. Partly because the EU and the 45 agreements the EU has with 75 countries around the world account for 60% of our exports, which doesn’t include the abolition of non-tariff barriers that comes with the Single Market. Partly because Trump has made numerous protectionist statements in the past, so the idea that he can be a genuine free trader when it comes to the UK is nonsense. But also because the benefits of a potential US-UK trade deal are mixed at best.

This week’s article comes from George Monbiot in the Guardian Monbiot’s argument is that trade deals are not principally about reducing or eliminating tariffs anymore, because WTO rules already disincentivize them. Instead, trade deals are about the harmonisation of standards, which ought to increase prosperity by encouraging trade and promoting competition. This has very few drawbacks to groups of countries with already-similar standards, like the EU member states or Australia and New Zealand. But to countries with different standards, the policy areas covered by a trade deal become more contentious.

So in the instance of the US and the UK, you have two disparities. The first is in economic clout. The US is the world’s largest economy (excluding the EU), that conducts only a small proportion of its trade with the UK. On the other hand, the UK is a relatively small economy that conducts a much larger proportion with the US than vice versa. Moreover, because the UK has chosen to leave the EU with uncertain consequences, it has far more to lose from a deal not coming to fruition. The second disparity is in standards- the UK currently has the EU’s high standards, whereas America’s standards are much lower. In a negotiation where the US has the upper hand, it is very unlikely that the US will change its standards in order to reap a very small reward. It is far more likely that the UK will dramatically lower its standards, due to a Conservative government comfortable with American standards and sheer desperation.

For Monbiot, the infamous example of chlorinated chickens are but one instance of the UK lowering its standards to the detriment of the country’s wellbeing, even if the deal is good for headline economic growth figures. More severe consequences include the degradation of environmental regulations, the opening up of currently nationalised services to American corporations, a slimmed-down welfare state, weaker health and safety standards, and the rights of employees to holidays and sick pay. The point is that it may not be worth sacrificing our EU-level standards for a trade deal with the US, especially as such a deal probably won’t offset the losses of leaving the EU. Monbiot was a voracious critic of the proposed TTIP agreement between the EU and the US. But in my view, TTIP had the potential to be beneficial because the EU and the US were negotiating as equals. No such parity exists if the UK negotiates alone.

Overall I’m more enthusiastic about free trade generally than Monbiot, provided it is accompanied by high standards on the environment and workers’ rights. The prosperity of much of the EU and the prolonged economic growth of countries crippled by the legacy of Communism proves that economic freedom and quality of life need not be antithetical. I certainly don’t believe there is anything to be gained from intentionally reducing an economy’s openness, as Trump has frequently suggested.

However, on this specific issue, Monbiot has my support. Trump has long expressed a zero-sum view of the world, where any gains made by countries like China or Mexico must have come at the expense of the US. He espouses a mercantilist perspective that emphasises trade balances and not being ‘screwed’ by other countries. So when negotiating with the UK, he is likely to try to enrich the US at the UK’s expense. Industries currently owned by UK companies or the British government will be opened up to American corporate takeovers. Our agriculture industry will have to accept lower US standards and/or significantly less revenue due to American competition. It may be that Britain would have to lower the generosity of agriculture subsidies without America lowering theirs. We would probably lose the right to prevent American energy companies from fracking in Britain. Far from ‘taking back control’, we would be handing it over to corporate America. In any case, I don’t believe a UK-US free trade deal would offset the losses of leaving the EU, especially if TTIP goes ahead. The best case scenario is that economic growth would be the same as it would have done had we remained in the EU, but our standards would be lower. None of this is to say that American corporations are necessarily bad, but that we should be regulating them on our own terms, not theirs.

The price of privatising airports in the UK

If you are flying off on holiday the airport is now, in all probability, the worst part of the experience (except the flight!).  Profit is the motivation of the airport management, rather than security. Misery is the result.

1. More than half UK international airports lack free drinking water. Water fountains have been removed, forcing travellers to buy expensive bottled water instead. As people have wised up to the rules and brought empty plastic bottles through security, the airports started to remove or hide their water fountains.  Where water fountains still exist the water barely dribbles out, raising the suspicion that the water pressure has been set deliberately low.

2. So- called  ‘Dutyree’ is a rip- off

A survey this week of retailers in Heathrow by price comparison site PriceSpy found that a Samsung S7 phone in the Samsung store was £559; on Amazon it was £452. A Fitbit selling for £134.99 at Dixons, was £128 in Debenhams. A £319 Sony Camera at its Heathrow shop was £309 at Argos. This should come as no surprise, given the extraordinary rents retailers must pay to be in the airports.

3. The insanely bad currency rates

One airport, Cardiff, is offering just 88 cents for every $1 of a holidaymaker’s cash. Given that the market rate is around €1.11 to £1, it means the exchange bureau is pocketing around a 20% profit. Even the big names, such as Moneycorp and Travelex, will take a 10-12% cut.

4. The VAT trick
When you are forced to show your boarding pass at the till – with the implication that it is a legal requirement – the truth is that it is merely so that the shop can pocket the VAT on purchases made by customers flying to non-EU destinations. Boots and WH Smith now promise to hand the VAT back on purchases over £5-£6, but other retailers carry on regardless.

5. Charging for wifi
Manchester airport actually crows about the fact that it has extended its free wifi from 30 minutes to one hour, before then stinging you for £5 an hour. In Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dublin, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Munich, Paris, Rome (the list goes on and on), airports give free unlimited access. Not in Britain.

6. Inadequate seating
It is evidently a far more profitable use of the precious floor space for a maze of over-priced shops than giving passengers sufficient seating.

7. The drop-off/pick-up charge
At one airport a brief pause while picking someone up costs £3 for 10 minutes, then £1 a minute thereafter.  All this for foreign owned companies operating airports.  Nothing is now owned by the British taxpayer.  (adapted from an article in The Guardian, 5 August 2017 by Patrick Collinson).

Why do we have to endure all this?  Because the government, which used to run it all, decided to privatise it.  Who benefits?  Well, it is not the travelling citizen.  Could it be associated with any possible corrupt goings-on in the murky world of political funding, or simply neoliberalism run riot?  Is there another government in another country quite so ideological and quite so stupid?  Epicurus, who advocated moderation, would have concluded that we have gone crazy.