The World Today for February 05, 2019

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The Silent Killer

Things went downhill for Tomoki, a 29-year-old Japanese man, after he quit his job in 2015.

He went to a job center to find new work. He also attended a religious group to stay focused. But the group’s leader criticized him publicly for failing to locate employment. Eventually, Tomoki withdrew from the group and then from society in general, joining the ranks of the “hikikomori,” or modern-day hermits who remain in their houses, sometimes for years at a time.

“I blamed myself,” Tomoki, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, said in an interview with the BBC. “I didn’t want to see anyone, I didn’t want to go outside.”

At first blush, hikikomori might seem unique to Japan, where birth rates sank to a record low recently – suggesting some kind of a lack of intimacy – and where a hyper-technological economy and strict culture of shame put enormous pressure on people to succeed.

But concerns about social isolation are being raised globally.

Last year, British Prime Minister Teresa May appointed a minister for loneliness after a government report found that many of her constituents were sad and isolated.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” May said at the time. She wanted to help “people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

Recently, a British group launched Chatty Bus, a program that sends volunteers onto public transit to spark spontaneous conversations with folks, reported the Brighton & Hove Independent, a local newspaper. Londoners started a “loneliness café” to bring people together.

Researchers in South Korea and Hong Kong, as well as the US, France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, have documented a spike in loneliness. Simon Fraser University found that 20 percent of Canadians experienced loneliness, especially people older than 80 who have lost a spouse, wrote the Canadian Jewish News.

The US Senate held hearings on the issue in 2017. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has raised alarms about an epidemic of loneliness.

It’s no surprise that social media might be playing a role. University of Pittsburgh scientists found that positive experiences online afforded little sense of community while negative experiences hurt. Working too much doesn’t help either, several researchers noted in the Conversation.

The phenomenon has costs. Loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, reported Inc. magazine.

Taking a page from Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian novel “Brave New World,” American scientists are working on a pill to combat the problem, according to a Medium story reprinted in the Guardian.

Pharmaceuticals might be a solution. Saying hello to a stranger might work better.



Paying the Piper

Seoul agreed to pay nearly $1 billion to keep around 30,000 US troops in South Korea, temporarily resolving its dispute with President Donald Trump over the cost of maintaining US soldiers on the peninsula.

Though the agreement eases immediate fears that Trump will move to withdraw the troops during his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it’s only a one-year deal with the possibility of a one-year extension, CNN reported. And though it’s a substantial increase over the roughly $800 million Seoul had been paying, it’s still a far cry from the $1.6 billion Trump had demanded.

That leaves the door open for a fresh ultimatum next year, if Trump even signs off on the deal forged by his negotiators. And the president could well promise Kim to end the US troop presence on the peninsula regardless of the financial commitments involved, said Mike Green, the former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.


Rewriting the Script

Egyptian lawmakers proposed constitutional amendments Sunday that would allow President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to dramatically extend his term and take greater control over the judiciary.

If approved by two-thirds of the legislature, the amendments would allow Sissi to stay in power for up to 12 years beyond his current term, Reuters reported. Otherwise, the constitution requires that he step down after the end of his second term in 2022.

Specifically, one amendment would change the length of a presidential term to six years from the previous four and “reset the clock” rather than consider Sissi’s ongoing eight years in office to be part of the limit. Another would give Sissi new powers over appointing judges and the public prosecutor and create a second parliamentary chamber for which he would appoint a third of the 250 members.

Sissi’s supporters say he needs the added time to implement his economic plans and ensure the country remains stable, but critics see the moves as further steps toward stricter authoritarian rule.


Lots of Likes

Political outsider Nayib Bukele declared victory in El Salvador’s presidential election Sunday after a preliminary tally showed him winning a clear majority.

With 90 percent of the ballots counted, the 37-year-old social media star and former mayor of San Salvador was leading with 54 percent of the vote compared with 32 percent for business tycoon Carlos Calleja, Deutsche Welle reported.

Under El Salvador’s election rules, a run-off vote would have been required if no candidate won a mandate of more than 50 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times

Assuming these results hold, it will mark the first time that neither the right-wing Arena party or the FMLN, the party of El Salvador’s former leftist guerrillas, has won the presidential election since the 1992 accord that ended the civil war.

Echoing populists around the world, Bukele’s far right Great Alliance for National Unity party wooed voters by promising to root out graft and establish an anti-corruption commission.


Just One More

For some people, a predisposition toward alcohol or drug addiction is hereditary, wired into their genes.

Now, scientists have discovered that heavy alcohol consumption also changes human DNA in ways that may result in stronger cravings, Forbes reported.

In a recent study, researchers analyzed two genes thought to be linked to drinking behavior: PER2, which controls the body’s biological clock, and POMC, which regulates the way humans respond to stress.

They monitored those genes in groups of moderate, binge and heavy drinkers, and in the latter two groups observed changes that effectively stunted the genes. Another experiment in the study suggested that those changes encouraged people to drink more – meaning that their control center was switched off, increasing the desire for alcohol.

“We found that people who drink heavily may be changing their DNA in a way that makes them crave alcohol even more,” said lead author Dipak K. Sarkar.

“This may help explain why alcoholism is such a powerful addiction,” he said.

Though more research is needed, he added that the study’s findings may also contribute one day “to new ways to treat alcoholism or help prevent at-risk people from becoming addicted.”

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