Year: 2018

The flaw in Press Review announced by Theresa May

There are two ways of looking at the new Press Review announced by Theresa May, the UK prime minister: a genuine attempt to inject some badly needed funds into the failing business model of journalism, or another backhander to the mainstream corporate press to keep them sweet. Depressingly, history suggests the latter. The prime minister was effusive about the importance of journalism as a “huge force for good” – and anyone who has seen Spielberg’s The Post could scarcely disagree. That film encapsulated everything noble about great reporting and the vital importance of a free and independent press to a healthy democracy. May chose to highlight the crisis in local journalism – where the journalism may be less dramatic than that portrayed by Tom Hanks et al, but is just as vital: the leaders of local institutions such as hospitals, police forces, local courts or local councils can be equally susceptible to corruption or incompetence and also require the kind of scrutiny which keeps them accountable to local people. At a more mundane level, communities …

Why Democratic governments regularly supply weapons to oppressive regimes

Democratic governments regularly supply weapons to what are sometimes called “outlaw states” – oppressive regimes that violate the basic rights of their own citizens, or aggressive regimes that wrongfully threaten the security of outsiders. Sometimes democratic governments sell the weapons themselves; sometimes they issue export licenses to private arms firms within their jurisdiction. Both practices are frequently condemned on moral grounds. But how might governments who help to arm outlaw states try to defend themselves? What arguments could they appeal to in an attempt to justify their actions? Politicians sometimes claim that their acts make no difference to the degree of suffering inflicted by the regimes that they arm – that if they didn’t sell weapons to the regimes in question, some other government would. For example, when it was revealed in 2014 that Hong Kong’s riot police had used British-made tear gas against unarmed pro-democracy protesters, then foreign secretary Philip Hammond remarked: “CS gas is available from large numbers of sources around the world. To be frank, I think that is a rather immaterial …

Antidepressants Cause Weight Gain?

Antidepressant medications can be hugely helpful—even life-saving—for those who suffer from certain types of mood disorders. But they can also sometimes cause people to gain a significant amount of weight. Not so helpful. Studies indicate that about 25% of the people who take antidepressant medications report significant weight gain. This is seen more commonly in those who take these drugs for six months or more, but it’s not uncommon for people to report gaining 8-10 pounds within just a few weeks of starting drug therapy. Either way, it’s a bummer. You can easily imagine that frustration and negative feelings about weight gain could cancel out whatever mood elevating benefits the drugs are delivering! Are Antidepressants Worth it? There’s also some controversy over how much these drugs are really helping the millions of people who are taking them. My friend Dr. Ellen Hendricksen of the Savvy Psychologist podcast reviewed some of the research on this in a recent episode of the Savvy Psychologist. According to Ellen, studies suggest that a lot of people get little to …

A Likely Dictatorship

Term limits for the leadership are not usually found in dictatorships. The Chinese Communist Party’s proposed abolition of China’s presidential term limit means that it has forgotten one of the main lessons of Mao’s long despotism. The two-term limit was inserted into the People’s Republic of China Constitution after the Cultural Revolution ended and reflected a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship. Its abolition signals the likelihood of another long period of severe repression. This should prompt us to think of Chiang Kaishek as well as Mao and Yuan Shikai and, in a comparative Asian vein, of Marcos and Park among others. Of course, some recognize that Putin’s example may also have significantly influenced Xi Jinping. Xi’s move will have a profound effect on world order. It will enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations. It will surely hinder China’s efforts to be respected for “soft power” as well as military and economic prowess. Xi decided to strike while the iron is hot …

Down side of daydreaming

Daydreaming is one of life’s great joys. You can indulge in it when you’re stuck in a boring meeting or a long queue. This seemingly innocuous pastime, however, is a double-edged sword. Some research has found that it boosts creativity, but other studies suggest that it is bad for your mental health and could lower your intelligence. Before we look at the downside to daydreaming, let’s first look at the positive side. In a studyconducted by psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, undergraduate students were asked to come up with as many uses for everyday objects – such as toothpicks, clothes hangers and bricks – as they could in two minutes, take a 12-minute break, and then repeat the exercise. The students were able to generate more creative uses for the objects the second time around if their break involved completing an undemanding task, which is known to promote more daydreaming, compared with a break filled with a more attention-demanding task, known to reduce daydreaming. Daydreaming has also been linked with feeling socially …

Songs With Philosophical Themes

Most of the Beatles songs, like most pop songs, are about love.  But as the group’s music developed, so their subject matter moved beyond “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah,” and “I want to hold your hand.” Some of their finest songs express, illustrate, or connect up with more philosophical ideas 01 of 10Can’t Buy Me Love “Can’t Buy Me Love is a classic statement of the philosopher’s traditional indifference to material wealth compared to what is good for the soul. It is true that Socrates was more concerned with truth and virtue than “love” (which as conceived in the song is presumably not purely Platonic). And it’s only fair to note that Paul later said that they should have sung “money can buy me love” given his experience of fame and fortune. Still, the core sentiment, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love, would be endorsed by many philosophers from ancient times to the present day. 02 of 10A Hard Day’s Night Karl Marx would have liked “A Hard Day’s Night.”  Writing …

How build a colony on an alien world?

If the human race is to survive in the long-run, we will probably have to colonise other planets. Whether we make the Earth uninhabitable ourselves or it simply reaches the natural end of its ability to support life, one day we will have to look for a new home. Hollywood films such as The Martian and Interstellar give us a glimpse of what may be in store for us. Mars is certainly the most habitable destination in our solar system, but there are thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars that could be a replacement for our Earth. So what technology will we need to make this possible? We effectively already have one space colony, the International Space Station (ISS). But it is only 350km away from Earth and relies on a continuous resupply of resources for its crew of six. Much of the technology developed for the ISS, such as radiation shielding, water and air recycling, solar power collection, is certainly transferable to future space settlements. However, a permanent space colony on the surface of …

Wormhole Allows Information to Escape Black Holes

In 1985, when Carl Sagan was writing the novel Contact, he needed to quickly transport his protagonist Dr. Ellie Arroway from Earth to the star Vega. He had her enter a black hole and exit light-years away, but he didn’t know if this made any sense. The Cornell University astrophysicist and television star consulted his friend Kip Thorne, a black hole expert at the California Institute of Technology (who won a Nobel Prize earlier this month). Thorne knew that Arroway couldn’t get to Vega via a black hole, which is thought to trap and destroy anything that falls in. But it occurred to him that she might make use of another kind of hole consistent with Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity: a tunnel or “wormhole” connecting distant locations in space-time. While the simplest theoretical wormholes immediately collapse and disappear before anything can get through, Thorne wondered whether it might be possible for an “infinitely advanced” sci-fi civilization to stabilize a wormhole long enough for something or someone to traverse it. He figured out that …

Is religion a force for good?

Do we need religion in order to be moral? George Washington cautioned against“indulg[ing] the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion”, and today more than half of Americans believe morality is impossible without a belief in God. The idea that religion is important for morality is not just widespread but deeply ingrained. Psychologist Will Gervais has shown that even people who explicitly deny believing in God harbour the intuition that acts such as serial murder and incest are more representative of atheists than of religious people. Of course, prominent atheistic commentators resent any suggestion that the religious have some special claim on moral behaviour. Comedian Tim Minchin said “if you think altruism without Jesus is not altruism, then you’re a dick.” In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion he writes: “Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” In a month when gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) while murdering 132 school children in Pakistan, it may be easy …

How to help Vaccine Doubters

We are in the golden age for vaccines. We have dozens of highly effective vaccines licensed for infectious disease, promising new technologies contributing to massive advancement of vaccine development, and several promising vaccines on the horizon. Unfortunately, vaccines have been a victim of their own success. With the drastic reduction of once-devastating diseases like whooping cough and measles, it seems like some parents think that the vaccines themselves are the new danger. But the threat isn’t gone; it’s been kept at bay by vaccinations. With clusters of vaccine-hesitant individuals especially worrisome, we need to find effective ways to convince people that the true danger is still disease. Concerns about the chemical components of vaccines, government mandates of vaccinations for school entry, and “Big Pharma” pushing vaccination seem unchanged when facts countering these claims are presented. Most of the existing research focuses on providing education or addressing parental vaccine attitudes, but rarely addresses the values people hold. We know that a host of factors influence how people retain and use facts in their decision-making, and most …