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Archive for the ‘from the reading room’ Category

sinking boat

This is my last article in this series about health. I started by addressing the needs of health services, then continued with an exploration of how to move towards healthier communities so that more people might expect more years of healthy life. I began with shelter, exploring housing, then, food, education, and the environment.

Finally, I want to address the issue of inequality.

In Scotland, in 2008, life expectancy figures revealed that men living in one part of Glasgow could expect to live 28 years more than those in another part. This was publicised as the plight of “Shettleston man”, named after the area with the poorest male life expectancy. Twenty eight years of difference in two areas a mere 15 minutes away from each other.
Shocking? Of course. This wasn’t the full story. The number and severity of illnesses suffered by the men in poor Shettleston, were far greater than those living in the more affluent, Lenzie.
Since 2008, that picture has changed somewhat, partly because that dramatic figure was a result of high numbers of drug deaths. Ten years later the figures still show huge differences between the richest and the poorest parts of Glasgow. One area has a male life expectancy of 82, whilst in another it’s 66 – still a difference of 16 years.

This huge inequality in health experience and in life expectancy are closely linked to other inequalities, from income, employment, and housing to education.
For many years Richard Wilkinson and his partner, Kate Pickett have produced research evidence for inequality itself being one of the most significant factor in the production of these shocking statistics. It’s not just poverty, it’s inequality.
They’ve recently published more findings which explore the links between mental health, wellbeing and inequality. What they demonstrate is some of the potential mechanisms of the links between inequality and illness, through the psychological impacts which are part of the daily lives of the poorest communities.
We don’t live in isolation.
We can’t just exhort people to eat more healthily, smoke and drink less, and move more and expect the population to suddenly become healthier. We have to address the conditions in which people live. Unless we tackle inequality it’s going to be hard to bring better health to the majority of the population.
Many reports have shown how inequality around the world is on the increase. This article, in The New Yorker neatly summarises the findings of the French economist Thomas Piketty on this issue.

The famous “elephant graph” (so called because of its shape) shows what’s happened over the last four decades.

elephant graph

Is this inevitable?
Surely not. It wasn’t always the case, and it’s actually changing. If we want to change it in a different direction we’ll need to get to grips with ways in which the richest manage to grab and hoard their wealth.

A recent story reported that, in the US, Amazon, despite making a profit of $11.2 billion, they’ll not only be paying zero Federal tax, but will actually receive a tax rebate of $126 million.

It’s not only the richest corporations who work hardest to pay as little tax as they can. Individuals do too. The CEO of Ineos, the UK’s richest man, is moving to Monaco to save £4 billion in tax. His two wealthiest executives are following suit.

The “Panama Papers”, leaked from the offshore law firm, Mossad Fonesca, revealed, amongst other things

“the myriad ways in which the rich can exploit secretive offshore tax regimes. Twelve national leaders are among 143 politicians, their families and close associates from around the world known to have been using offshore tax havens. A $2bn trail leads all the way to Vladimir Putin. The Russian president’s best friend – a cellist called Sergei Roldugin – is at the centre of a scheme in which money from Russian state banks is hidden offshore. Some of it ends up in a ski resort where in 2013 Putin’s daughter Katerina got married. Among national leaders with offshore wealth are Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister; Ayad Allawi, ex-interim prime minister and former vice-president of Iraq; Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine; Alaa Mubarak, son of Egypt’s former president; and the prime minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson.”

 

The “Paradise Papers” are another big data leak related to a separate company showed many, many, similar examples

“Key revelations include:
Millions of pounds from the Queen’s private estate has been invested in a Cayman Islands fund – and some of her money went to a retailer accused of exploiting poor families and vulnerable people.
Prince Charles’s estate made a big profit on a stake in his friend’s offshore firm.
Extensive offshore dealings by Donald Trump’s cabinet members, advisers and donors, including substantial payments from a firm co-owned by Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law to the shipping group of the US commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross.
Twitter and Facebook received hundreds of millions of dollars in investments that can be traced back to Russian state financial institutions.
The tax-avoiding Cayman Islands trust managed by the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s chief moneyman.
The Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton avoided taxes on a £17m jet using an Isle of Man scheme.
Oxford and Cambridge and top US universities invested offshore, with some of the money going into fossil fuel industries.
A previously unknown $450m offshore trust that has sheltered the wealth of Lord Ashcroft.
The man managing Angola’s sovereign wealth fund invested it in projects he stood to profit from.
Apple secretly moved parts of its empire to Jersey after a row over its tax affairs.
How the sportswear giant Nike stays one step ahead of the taxman.
The huge tax refunds given by the Isle of Man to the owners of private jets.
Offshore cash helped fund Steve Bannon’s attacks on Hillary Clinton.
The secret loan and alliance used by the London-listed multinational Glencore in its efforts to secure lucrative mining rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A former UK minister who defended tax avoidance has a Bahamas trust fund.
The complex offshore webs used by two Russian billionaires to buy stakes in Arsenal and Everton football clubs.
Stars of the BBC hit sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys used a web of offshore companies to avoid tax.
British celebrities including Gary Lineker used an arrangement that let them avoid tax when selling homes in Barbados.
Prominent Brexit campaigners have put money offshore.
The Dukes of Westminster pumped millions into secretive offshore firms.
A tax haven lobby group boasted of “superb penetration” at the top of the UK government before a G8 summit that was expected to bring in greater offshore transparency.
The law firm at the centre of the Paradise Papers leak was criticised for “persistent failures” on terrorist financing and money laundering rules.
Seven Republican super-donors keep money in tax havens.
A top Democratic donor built up a vast $8bn private wealth fund in Bermuda.
The schemes used to avoid tax on UK property deals.
The celebrities, from Harvey Weinstein to Shakira, with offshore interests.
How a private equity firm tried to extract £890m from a struggling care home operator by making it take out a costly loan.
Trump’s close ally Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner, is the longtime owner of an offshore firm.
One of the world’s biggest touts used an offshore firm to avoid tax on profits from reselling Adele and Ed Sheeran tickets.”

It’s only the wealthiest individuals and companies which go to such lengths to contribute less of their wealth to the societies in which they made their gains.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, there is a growing evidence that increasing minimum wages is a great way to make positive impacts on populations.

A 2011 national study showed that low-skilled workers reported fewer unmet medical needs in states with higher minimum-wage rates. In high-wage states, workers were better able to pay for the care they needed. In low-wage states, workers skipped medical appointments

“Studies have linked higher minimum wages to decreases in low birth-weight babies, lower rates of teen alcohol consumption and declines in teen births. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that between roughly 2,800 and 5,500 premature deaths that occurred in New York City from 2008 to 2012 could have been prevented if the city’s minimum wage had been $15 an hour during that time, instead of a little over $7 an hour.”

None of these issues can be tackled in isolation. They need co-operation and collaboration. That should encourage us, because these are two of the greatest strengths of the human species.

 

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Today’s woodprint is another Hokusai. It shows a group of five hunters warming themselves in front of a roaring fire in the middle of winter.
I think anyone looking at this will be struck by the vivid representation of the fire. The flames and smoke, maybe even the heat (because you can see heat sometimes, can’t you?” leap up as tall as the men and flow, driven by the wind, towards the mountains and the sky.
I then looked at the hunters. A curious group! Why is one of them actually sitting on the snow? Is he drunk? And another one, apparently determined to warm up his bum! Maybe he’d also been sitting on the snow and was now trying to dry his breeks! Then one of them who is warming his hands is obviously finding the fire so hot that while trying to get his hands as close as he can to the fire, he is simultaneously trying to get his face and his body away from it!
They do look a lively bunch, and I suppose my first thought was about human beings inventing fire and how much that had changed the course of history. Our ability to start fires and generate heat enables us to survive cold conditions, explore places we’d previously been unable to explore, as well as warding off wild animals, and greatly diversifying our diet once we applied fire as a method of food preparation (otherwise known as cooking!) – which reminds me about the Netflix series, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” and, their, Cooked  by Michael Pollan. I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan, and often recall his fabulous, seven word best diet recommendation – “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much

But then my mind flipped to the more symbolic level and I saw in the woodcut two of the four great elements – fire and water. Fire in the hunter’s bonfire, and water in the form of snow and ice surrounding them.
Flames always reach upwards, don’t they? Which is probably partly why the alchemical symbol for fire is an upward pointing triangle. Traditionally, both, the fire and the upward pointing triangle, are associated with the male principle.

I’m not talking gender here, but the centuries old understanding of male and female principles as symbolic forces. The Sun, a fiery ball, is often associated with the male principle, while the Moon, with the female.

In the Tarot, The Emperor and the Empress make a similar pair.

In the yin yang symbol, which powerfully conveys the concepts of dynamism and wholeness, the feminine, yin, and the masculine, yang, are shown as equals.

Maybe it’s because my train of thought went off down that track of the unions of these forces, of the power of such coupling, but the next thing I noticed were the two trees on the right hand side of the image. The one, nested into the forked branches of the other. Am I just imagining something here? Or was Hokusai showing us something very important…..how reality is created by connections, by the embrace of fundamental principles or forces. That reminded me of Carlos Rovelli’s beautiful phrase where he explains why we should think in terms of events instead of objects –

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.
(from “Reality is Not What it Seems”)

I’ve written more about that idea in my book, “Unique in All the World”.

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In “Sens et Santé” magazine there’s a special feature on Forgiveness, or, in French, “Pardon”.

Psychologists, philosophers and spiritual guides often teach about the power of gratitude. Keeping a gratitude diary, for example, where you note down a list of things you are grateful for each day is a powerful way to fix your attention on the positives in your life, and to break free from the negative loops of rumination and despair.
Forgiveness, is a related, but different skill. Somehow, or at least so it seems to me, it’s not talked about as much as gratitude is. Maybe because forgiveness is more deeply connected to religious teaching? I don’t know.
Whatever the reasons, I think this feature in “Sens et Santé” is very welcome, and timely, given the depth and breadth of feelings of anger, resentment and hatred which we are witnessing at this time in the world.

The article is primarily based on the works of Thomas Baumgartner, a researcher in neuroscience at the University of Berne, in Switzerland, and Robert Enright, Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, in the United States.

I took two main points of learning from my reading of it.
One is the connection between forgiveness and the brain’s capacity for “theory of mind”. It seems the same network of areas in the brain is active when either forgiveness or “theory of mind” is taking place. Theory of mind is the ability to imagine another’s experience, their thoughts and feelings. It develops in human beings around the age of four years old. Before that we think that whatever we know everyone else knows. There’s no understanding that someone else might have different knowledge from our own. There’s a clue in this neurological association, because forgiveness involves the ability to step outside of our own circuits of rumination and self-focus.
That’s the second point of learning for me, actually, and it takes up much of the article.
Robert Enright says it is important not to confound forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation is the bringing together of two people to help them to rebuild confidence in each other. Forgiveness, he says, in contrast, doesn’t require us to have confidence in the other person. He also points out that forgiveness is not about excusing someone, it’s not about saying what they did was fine, nor is it about forgetting. It’s not about saying “I don’t care”, or “I’ll let go and just not think about this any more”
Instead he describes forgiveness in three steps.

  1. First, recognise the wound, or the hurt.
  2. Second, decide to stop nourishing the negative feelings of resentment.
  3. Third, and he says, this is the hardest part, feel compassion for the perpetrator.

Helpfully, he unpacks both steps two and three to show how they are both powerfully linked and actually work together in a kind of positive feedback loop. The one, enhancing the other.
We can only shift our attention, if we direct it somewhere else. That’s a beginning. Deciding, I’m going to interrupt the negative loop. When I become aware of thoughts of resentment and rumination, that I decide at that point to focus on something else.
What else?
Well, towards the other person. Think about both their differences from you, and their commonalities with you, and, if you can, learn about their vulnerabilities and their weaknesses. Once you understand what you have in common with the other, as well as what’s different about them, and focus on their weaknesses, then it is easier to feel compassion for them. It’s easier to even build feelings of good intention towards them, suspending your legitimate claims to vengeance and anger, and choosing instead wish them well.
Oh, that sounds easy in a sentence of two doesn’t it? But he accepts that this, third step is by far and away the hardest. It’s not a magic wand he says. It takes willpower, continued effort, and time. It’s not a quick fix.

The article comes with a nice little set of references at the end, and despite the fact it’s a French language article, the references are all English language ones. Here they are –

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may18

One day last year I walked outside and saw this rainbow at the top of the vineyards.

Yeah, sure, I’ve seen a ton of rainbows in my life but I’d never, ever, seen one like this.

I took several photographs but I’m not sure any really captured the view.

The rainbow lasted for about 30 minutes. Much, much longer than any other rainbow I’ve seen.

It’s brightness was incredible. If you look carefully you can see a second, parallel one just to the right of the main one. But the most astonishing thing was how different the world looked under the actual rainbow. You can see that quite clearly. The colour of the sky to the left of the rainbow ie under it, is completely different to the colour of the sky elsewhere. I’ve never seen that before.

You know the old story about finding gold at the end of the rainbow? Well, it seemed that this rainbow was arching over an entirely golden world.

There is another thought I had during that rainbow, and which come back to me now. That rainbows are a symbol of hope. Where does that come from? Is it the story of Noah and The Flood in the Old Testament? I suppose that’s where I get that memory. I was taught that the rainbow represented God’s promise not to flood the Earth again. It’s not entirely clear to me how that story of a promise morphed into a symbol of hope. So I went looking to see – are there other origins to this association of hope with rainbows? Actually, there seems to be a huge diversity amongst various cultures (why wouldn’t there be?) Here’s where I explored some of them.

One of the things which struck me, reading through that entry in wikipedia, was how often the rainbow was seen as a bridge.

Well that’s convenient! Because I wrote about how January is named after Janus, the god with two faces, one looking back and one forward. Look at this, from the wikipedia entry about Janus –

While the fundamental nature of Janus is debated, in most modern scholars’ view the god’s functions may be seen as being organized around a single principle: presiding over all beginnings and transitions, whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane. Interpretations concerning the god’s fundamental nature either limit it to this general function or emphasize a concrete or particular aspect of it (identifying him with light, the sun, the moon, time, movement, the year, doorways, bridges etc.)

It feels like we are living in a time of transition (aren’t we always??) so maybe a beautiful rainbow is a good place to start the year – with hope, with a sense of new beginnings, and with the idea of a path, or a bridge, there, inviting us to follow it.

What about you? What do you associate with the appearance of a rainbow? Were you handed down any stories?

PS Didn’t I say yesterday I was starting a new blog over at bobleckridge.com/read ? Well, after yesterday’s post here, despite it being the first in a year, I was surprised and delighted by all the messages I received, and the new followers who signed up to heroesnotzombies. So, I’ve reminded myself of one of my favourite teachings – “AND not OR”. I’ll continue to post here, as well as creating new content for my new site. The new site will have a fresh photo of mine every week on the home page, an ever expanding gallery of my photos at bobleckridge.com/look and videos and the spoken word too, as well as articles and blog posts.

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Many years ago I discovered the writings of a French philosopher called Gilles Deleuze. I found some of his writing really hard to understand but several of his basic ideas and concepts completely changed the way I saw the world. That “becoming not being” phrase at the head of my blog is one of them. That shift from seeing the world as a collection of separate objects to seeing that everything is connected and always changing was a radical shift for me.

One of the other concepts was exploring the difference between trees and grass….what he termed “arboreal” vs “rhizomal” thinking.

You know the basic shape of the tree….a single stem or trunk which bifurcates again and again producing more and more branches and twigs as it grows upwards, and more and more roots and rootlets (is there such a word?) as it grows down into the soil, the one a kind of mirror image of the other.

This tree like form is everywhere. It’s the shape of our circulatory system as arteries branch out into smaller arteries which branch out into capillaries. It’s the shape of our lungs as the trachea bifurcates into bronchi which bifurcate into smaller bronchi, bronchioles (there is such a word!) and ultimately into alveoli.

We use it as a way of ordering and organising what we see in the world. It’s the most fundamental way of categorising and classifying the world. Everything is ultimately connected back to the single trunk or stem….the same original root, but everything exists in a separate category way out along the furthest branches, each ultimately distinct from, and separate from, everything else.

Grass is a rhizome. It doesn’t grow in this branching way from a single root. You can’t find the original stem or root of the grass. It’s like it has multiple points of origin, and each blade is connected to roots which then connect to other roots in a vast web or network. This rhizome structure is everywhere too. Because there is nothing which isn’t connected. The connections are multiple, diverse and ever increasing.

Two things became clear to me when I compared these two phenomena.

One was that the tree like view was produced by a sequence of “or” choices – at each division we say this is either this or that. The rhizome view is produced from a sequence of “and” choices. We don’t say “I’ll use either Facebook or Twitter”, we’ll use them both and connect them to each other. That’s what I do when I started to blog. I created my blog on WordPress but automatically connected every post to a tweet and a Facebook post. That way I could write once and share on several different platforms, for different audiences.

The other thing, which came after I read “The Master and His Emissary” was discovering how well adapted our left hemisphere is to the “arboreal” view of the world, and our right is adapted to the “rhizomal” one. We use the left to discriminate, categorise and classify. We use the right to see the whole by focusing on the relationships and connections.

How amazing that we have evolved this incredible brain with its ability to engage with the world in both tree-like, and grass-like, ways simultaneously.

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Look at this! I mean, just look at this! I know, it’s not one of my best, my sharpest photographs, but I was in the garden the other day and I heard this deep low buzzing sound. It wasn’t as deep as the humming-bird moths which will arrive when the buddleia bushes bloom later in the year, but it was a lot deeper than the various species of bees and wasps I usually hear in the garden. Luckily, when I turned to the sound I saw the source. This inch long jet black bee with iridescent blue wings. I quickly got my iPhone out of my pocket and did my best to snap a shot before the bee flew away. I have never seen anything quite like this. There were two or three of them buzzing around the flowers but they just never settled long enough to be able to focus a camera and take a nice close up (not yet anyway – I haven’t given up!).

I looked it up online and it seems this is a “violet carpenter bee”. Never heard of such a creature. What a thrill! What a delight! Made my day!

There’s an important lesson to learn here. I’m sure you’ll have come across “mindfulness”. It’s quite the thing these days. Mostly the term is used in relation to certain meditation practices and they are good ones. It seems that mindfulness meditation can have a lot of benefits, from easing depression and anxiety, to stimulating “neuroplasticity” (that’s the phenomenon of how the brain changes and develops itself). But even before the meditation practices were popularised Ellen Langer researched mindfulness in everyday life. She claims we can either go through life mindfully or mindlessly. Seems a clear choice, huh? How do we lead a more mindful life? Search for the new.

By new, she means what’s new to you. The trick, you see, is that every day is new. You have never lived this day before. Nobody has ever had, or ever will have, the same experience as you are going to have today. Once you are aware of that you can set out to be aware of what’s new.

Iain McGilchrist points out in “The Master and His Emissary” that our left cerebral hemisphere has a preference for what is familiar, whilst the right hemisphere thrives on curiosity – it leads us to seek out what’s new. His larger thesis is that we have become very left brain dominant in our present society and that some deliberate change of focus to the right brain might bring about a much more healthy, more integrated level of brain function.

I recently read a book by French author, Belinda Cannone, “S’émervieller”, which explores many of the ways we can bring a heightened sense of wonder and awe into our everyday lives. Bottom line is the same as Langer and McGilchrist say – seek out what’s new. And that’s exactly the experience I had the other day when this violet carpenter bee turned up amongst the garden flowers. Cannone gives various different examples of the places, times and activities which seem most likely to stimulate “l’émerveillement” (“amazement”) and the strongest one is “Nature”.

The thing is the natural world, especially the world of living forms, is constantly changing. Pretty much any time we spend in natural environments will be likely to gift us the delights of something new.

Let me just clarify what I mean by “new” in this piece. I mean it’s anything you haven’t seen before, heard before, smelled before, touched or tasted before. It’s also the newness of the present moment. You have never ever lived this present moment before, so what do you notice? Right here, right now. It’s also the encounter with anything you don’t know or don’t understand. These are the experiences which stimulate our curiosity and our drive to learn. They are the every day experiences of adventure and discovery.

From the Japanese art of forest bathing, to Richard Louv’s claim that we are suffering from “Nature-deficit disorder” which can be treated with a good dose of “Vitamin N” (Nature), to l’émerveillement, to mindfulness and neuroscience, it’s clear that one of the best ways to develop a healthier brain is to spend some time in Nature – whether that’s a forest, a beach, a park, or a garden. I recommend it.

You’ll be amazed.

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I listened to an interview with Yuval Noah Harari recently. I read his “Sapiens” some time ago and mostly enjoyed it, but I haven’t been tempted to read his more recent “Homo Deus”. This latter book looks ahead to consider how things might go as artificial intelligence and robotics develops apace. He argues that our technology could give us incredible powers, so that we may end up more like gods, but he also says things could go the other way and create an increasingly large class of people he labels as “useless”.

That “useless class” terminology is certainly a way of getting attention, but when he specifies what he means by it, there’s a lot in it –

“I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

He goes from there to imagine a future where this class spends its time on drugs and Virtual Reality games machines. Depressing, huh?

So, two things struck me immediately. Firstly, this connects to some of the debate about “Universal Basic Income” – the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly allocation because we are heading towards a system which will be “post-work” – robots and algorithms will take over most of the jobs and the increased automation will increase unemployment. Our current economic system will either be adapted to take account of that, or human beings will have to adapt to the current economic system. Or not. It’s this “or not” that Harari explores by describing the “useless class”. One question then is what do we value in society and how do we allocate resources to what we value? As a society.

The second thought was, what, if people don’t have jobs in factories, shops or offices, the only thing they’ll be able to do is take drugs and play VR games? What popped into my mind straight away were caring and creating.

Human beings are great at caring. Sure, we don’t do nearly enough of it, and we could sure do with developing our capacities to care, but take, as one example, the response to an earthquake, a storm, a flood, a terrorist attack. In all of those situations we hear story after story of human kindness, human sacrifice and human caring. With declining infant mortality and increasing life expectancy more and more people in the world are living longer and in need of more care. We won’t run out of opportunities to care for others.

Human beings are great creators. We are problem solvers, scientists, home makers, gardeners, cooks, and artists of all kinds – writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, dancers. We won’t run out of opportunities to create.

Thirdly, I’d argue, human beings are great learners. We have whole neural circuits primed to seek out what’s new or different. We have whole systems dedicated to learning skills, acquiring knowledge, understanding and making sense of things. We won’t run out of opportunities to learn.

So, when I visited the town of Blaye recently, I saw this artwork in a car park. Isn’t it beautiful? Simple, and beautiful. Doesn’t it capture something about the human ability to care and to create.

Isn’t there an opportunity at this point in civilisation to change our focus away from grabbing and consuming, to caring and creating? And learning!

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