Monday, October 16, 2017

Yoga vs. Smartphones

Sometimes it’s fun to compare and contrast two things that don’t even appear to be closely related.  Consider yoga and smartphones.

Although many practitioners view yoga as merely a set of good stretching exercises, a good yoga teacher will strongly emphasize the psychological aspects:  focus on your breathing and try to avoid (or dismiss) mental distractions.  Yoga is also associated with mindfulness, which is again a form of mental focus: paying attention to what you are doing, whether it be walking or eating.  Mindfulness is moving the focus “off the mat” into daily living.

As we focus in yoga we also become aware of outside thoughts that creep into the mind.  Recognize and acknowledge those thoughts whether they be hopes, worries, regrets or whatever.  This skill helps return to the mental focus at the time, but it also is useful in being otherwise conscious of gut reactions to try to slow down and contain those reactions long enough for critical thinking to kick in.

Smartphones on the other hand often do just the opposite, but it goes beyond the distraction of continual nagging ringtones, chirping and vibration or of pulling out the phone to check it 80 times a day on average.  This Wall Street Journal article paints a far scarier picture.  Studies show how the phone can affect the owner’s concentration and performance, even when it is in an apparently passive mode.

Research over the last few years suggests that as our brains depend more and more on technology our intellect weakens.  Two studies found the beeping or buzzing affects owner’s focus and performance “whether they check the phone or not.  Sometime just hearing the phone signaling but being unable to answer it can cause a spike in blood pressure spikes and other negative physical reactions.

A more worrisome example involved a test of 520 undergraduate students in two areas:  available cognitive capacity (related to ability to focus) and problem solving. “Some of the students were asked to place their phones in front of them on their desks; others were told to stow their phones in their pockets or handbags; still others were required to leave their phones in a different room.”  They found that the farther away the students were from their phones, the better they did; although none reported that the phone was consciously a distraction.  (The same dynamic shows up in some college classrooms where those who bring their phone to class generally earn a lower grade.)

But the two are similar in other ways.  Yoga and mindfulness have in some ways become a fad.  As I wrote back in August, the mindfulness-like exercise of walking in the woods is becoming a moneymaking venture for some who label it forest bathing, which apparently requires a trained leader.  Just last week a reader sent me another ad for a similar activity offered by a parks and rec department in Connecticut: hiking yoga for only $25 per session.  Brown University warns:  Dependable scientific evidence has lagged worrisomely behind the rapid and widespread adoption of mindfulness and meditation for pursuing an array of mental and physical wellness goals.”   Many of the claims are based on hype.

Likewise smartphones are promoted with a great deal of hype.  The newest model is superior to anything on the market and to all competitors.  People will stand in line to trade in perfectly good phones just to be on the cutting edge.

Both smartphones and yoga may also have something of an addictive quality.  As long as two-and-a-half years ago Pew research already had a category of smartphone dependent.  Maybe yoga can help with the smartphone problem, or maybe it would be a case of trading one addiction for another.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Some Unusual and Outrageous Thoughts

Sometimes, just trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world is a challenge.  So many seeming contradictions go ignored.  So much silliness just slips by.  People seem to drift along, not noticing what is not in their direct line of sight or what doesn’t agree with their preconceptions.  Consider these examples.

It’s not a bad bet that the BBC is using voice-recognition software to provide closed captioning when you see the name of the president of China (Xi Jin Ping) transcribed as “Tamoxifen Ping” once and “she’s in pain” later in the same broadcast.  I don’t think robots are ready to take over the world yet.

All hail the mute button!  I rarely listen to TV ads.  I use the mute button.  Back in the 1960s the TV just droned on, in some cases telling us how cool it was to smoke cigarettes.  The only way to avoid these commercial spots was to ignore them, using a kind of mental mute button.  The alternative would be to get up every 10 minutes, walk over to the TV and turn down the volume and wait.

Now we have remote control with a mute button, but government consumer protection and other advocates think we are unable to resist the marketing lure.  They can’t tie us to the mast to resist the Siren Song as Ulysses' crew did for him, so they must pass rules and regulations to protect us.

Before the mute button came along, when you didn’t agree with something or didn’t want to hear it, you tuned it out or walked away.  Could it be that generations growing up with mute buttons have not only forgotten how to use them, but have also failed to develop that mental mute button and are unable to ignore what they don’t want to hear or change the channel?  Perhaps we did have another options in the 60s.  Instead of turning down the volume, we could have started chanting anti-smoking slogans and holding up signs during the ads.  We could have burst into our neighbor’s house, in a holier-than-thou crusade with signs and chanting, to make sure they weren’t exposed to information we found objectionable.  What a good idea!

Autopsies of former football players show a prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease “associated with memory loss, impulse control problems, depression and eventually dementia.”  It causes irritability and changes in mood and behavior.  In a discussion of side effects Harvard tells us:  “Behavioral changes are typically seen as problems with impulse control which can lead to aggressive or violent behaviors.”

How surprising should cases of domestic violence and other actions showing lack of impulse control among NFL players be when it’s only a side effect of a disease they may have?  How long before some advocacy group, defense attorney or the players union starts arguing that they are victims of a disease and should not be held responsible?  When you think of how often this defense is presented in other instances, giving people a pass because their actions are due to their disease or addiction, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already.  (Perhaps the defiant kneeling before the game is merely a symptom of too many hits to the head.)

Finally, why not avoid all this fuss and debate about tax reform with one side singing its praises and the other predicting disaster for the Middle Class?  The government could easily build a simple spreadsheet-based application where taxpayers could plug in their numbers from last year and see exactly what the difference would be under new rules.  Everyone gets a personalized answer instead of relying on analysts, politicians and others talking in generalities. 

Once you know how it affects you, you can decide whether the supposed effects on others are valid or worth objecting to.  (Note:  According to Forbes and other sources about 45.3%, just under half, pay no Federal income taxes.  Again from Forbes this summer:  “Under current law, some 30 percent of taxpayers itemize their deductions, as opposed to the 70 percent who claim the standard deduction.”  So except for the rates, tax reform could affect about 30% of 54% or about 16% – with some of those possibly moving to the standard deduction (if it doubles).  Most of the rest have large mortgages and property or state income tax payments.  Why is there so much fighting about the fate of a small, mostly well-to-do minority?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Littering the National Parks – Follow-up

An astute follower of this blog sent me an article last week that got me thinking.  It was related to my comments one week ago about the National Park Service struggling with litter in the parks, particularly the plastic water bottles.

This Guardian report tells how the Coca Cola Company increased their use of plastic single–use bottles in 2016 over the prior year by one billion.  Certainly one billion is a lot of bottles, but this is worded in a way that subtly reveals a bias.

As an example, when reporters want to portray a company as being greedy, they will report the company’s profits in the most unflattering way, not only with adjectives such as windfall or extravagant, but also by carefully choosing the numbers presented.  Even if a company’s profits decrease, the numbers for a large company can be very large.  So a decrease from $3 billion to $2 billion may be reported either as making a $1 billion less or as “a whopping $2 billion profit!”  If the same size company made only $100 last year but $200 this year, they can be honestly described as doubling profits even though they very close to losing money.  This tactic can apply to any numerical measure; presenting the numbers does not always assure objective reporting.

So the main headline announces in big, bold type, “Coca-Cola increased its production of plastic bottles by a billion last year, says Greenpeace.”  Smaller print explains they have increased total production to more than 110 billion bottles.  Now that’s really a lot of bottles!  But an increase of 1 billion on from a base of 110 billion is less than 1%.  The headline could have honestly read, “Coca-Cola increased its production of plastic bottles by less than 1% last year.”  But it’s unlikely that Greenpeace would put it that way, because they are concerned about the improper disposal of empty bottles.  The first headline makes that point more strongly.

The next question that came to mind concerned the growth of the Coca Cola market.  If their sales grew by more than 1%, then limiting the increase in bottles to less than 1% would be a step in the right direction.  This is never mentioned in the article so I had to look it up here and found that their sales actually decreased.  Even a small increase would then be a move in the wrong direction.

Finally, the crux of the Greenpeace complaint is that by flooding the world with so many bottles, Coca Cola is responsible for the fouling of beaches, parks, roadways and oceans with empty Coke bottles.  They show pictures of piles of bottles collected along the seashore.  “Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead, most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.”  Greenpeace accuses Coca Cola of not walking the walk on sustainability and urges them to increase their use of recycled plastic in bottles.

There is one flaw in this argument – the Coca Cola Company doesn’t empty bottles and throw them in the ocean, it fills bottles.  In doing so, they supply the bottles, but it’s their customers who carelessly toss them into oceans and yes, into landfills when they should be recycled.  Greenpeace tries to encourage (or shame) Coke and other soft drink companies to back negative incentives like deposit laws, as a way to coerce consumers into doing the right thing.

Responsibility is consistent in that when we don’t exercise it, advocacy groups or governments conspire to take the responsibility (and freedom) away from us or force us to comply.  The problem is ours, but the solution is theirs.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Perspective Reminder

One aspect of perspective is the ability to appreciate what we have and not constantly yearn for more or better.  This may apply to both material possessions and relationships.  It's important to appreciate what the present situation holds, because you never know when it will all be gone.

Consider the victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting.  They woke up on a Sunday morning expecting to enjoy a concert.  The worst outcome that could possibly be anticipated was a bad hangover on Monday morning.  Instead, by Monday morning some 58 were no longer alive.  No one expected it.  This was an extremely rare, hopefully one-time, event.  But no one expects the oncoming car to swerve into their lane at the last minute, and this happens many times a year.

I was reminded of the need for perspective not only by the Las Vegas tragedy, but also by a recent conversation I had with a small group including Sam, a retired botany professor, born in 1918 and Edna Mae, a neighbor, born in 1930.  She was complaining about the walnut tree in her yard dropping nuts on the ground.  As soon as she finished picking them up for the garbage, more seemed to drop.

Sam recalled that when he was young they used to look for walnuts; they were among the only nuts they had.  “There wasn’t much variety at the store, and the store was four miles away – on horseback.”  They both recalled their mothers doing the laundry in a tub, sometimes heated over a fire to boil the clothes.  The wash was then fed through a hand-cranked wringer and hung outside on the line to dry – even in the winter, when the frozen articles were later brought back inside to finish drying.  He also mentioned that in the hills of West Virginia, when the Great Depression hit, his family didn’t even notice.

Then everyone remarked about the amount of change in daily living in a single lifetime.  People lived in conditions that most can’t imagine today.  Most, because of our inexperience, could not easily adapt to such a life, if they could at all.

As far as most Americans are concerned, life 80 years ago is unimaginable, if they ever think about it.  It’s not nice to be reminded of our lack of perspective by a mass shooting or a family tragedy.  It’s preferable to relax and reflect when possible.

On a side note, it’s very difficult to keep perspective when the news media are primarily interested in pushing people into a panic about the latest news.  The terms Breaking News and Heard It Here First carry that sense of urgency that translates into emotional stress. 

One example of many reports on the day after the shooting, each with an expert giving advice on how to cope with the induced stress, advised viewers that “even those just watching the devastation from home can feel the effects. It's called secondary trauma.”  They went on to say, "You don't have to be at that event to be traumatized by it.  You can see pictures repeatedly or watch a video of those images and experience that trauma just as if you were there."  Another expert advised those feeling stressed to watch less of the coverage.

And so it goes.  The media contributes to the trauma; then, as a public service, tells viewers how to cope. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

What Consumer Protection Looks Like

A few days ago I signed on to the website for my bank of many years and found that they had updated their terms and conditions for dealing with them electronically.  This is not really unusual, and I wasn’t surprised – until I looked at the amount of information.

I found in front of me thirty-three pages of terms and conditions with the changes effective immediately (but in no way highlighted).  It seems the bank’s legal staff had been very busy anticipating every possible challenge to their system along with every possible bonehead mistake their customers could make and subsequently complain or even sue them for, trying to lay all blame on the bank.

After skimming through the document, which is probably more than most people would do, I clicked on the icon connecting me with my account information and was met with another delay.  You can’t consent until you open another 2-page document detailing electronic delivery.  (I already get electronic delivery of statements and notifications, but I had to go through this step anyway.)

Apparently I had to do this because:  “The following disclosures are required by the federal Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (“ESIGN”).  As part of your application, account registration and/or setup and ongoing maintenance of your account, you have the option to receive all required documents and disclosures electronically. More legalese followed.

“The Disclosures, may include without limitation, disclosures and notices under the Federal Expedited Funds Availability Act, the Federal Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, the Federal Electronic Fund Transfer Act, the Federal Truth in Savings Act, the Federal USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, and Title V of the Federal Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, together with all rules and regulations that implement the same, as well as all other disclosures that are required by applicable federal, state and local laws, rules, regulations, and ordinances."  (Notice the number of times Federal is mentioned along with rules and regulations.)

·      After telling the customer why all this is required by law, they tell us what we must do to interact with them electronically.  To receive statements you must have:
  • ·      A personal computer or other device capable of accessing the Internet;
  • ·      An Internet web browser;
  • ·      Software to access PDF files;
  • ·      A valid email address; and
  • ·      A printer capable of printing text screens should you wish to print copies.
Thank you for the tip, Bank!  If I want to print copies of something on my PC, I must have hardware and software to access the documents and a printer!  What a revelation!  (I know I’m getting a little sarcastic, but really!  Must the bank tell everyone this stuff to protect itself?)

So I have to do all this to give consent to receive the information electronically, but I still can’t get it without signing up somewhere else.  “Please note that your consent to delivery of electronic disclosures, notices, and communications does not automatically enroll you in our e-statement service. If you wish to receive only electronic copy of your account statements (and communications we may include with such statements), you must consent separately through [another] application”, which they provide a link to.

Finally, in case I change my mind they add a paragraph on how to withdraw consent.

This seems like a crazy waste of time and money (35 pages!), but that’s exactly what we get in a litigious society where people don’t take some responsibility for their own action and in a society where the government treats its citizens as helpless victims, unable to take responsibility for their own decisions.  Imagine a better system where all this time and effort resulted in real, value-added work.