Watching the World

Britons and Leisure

In 1999, for the first time, the average Briton spent more on leisure goods and services than on “food, housing or any other single element of the weekly family budget,” reports the Times newspaper of London. In 1968, only 9 percent of total family spending went for leisure, compared with 17 percent today. Consumer consultant Martin Hayward says: “Because we are now all so much more affluent than, say, 30 years ago, many leisure purchases that might once have been regarded as a luxury are now regarded by most people as a basic necessity. Taking a holiday is now regarded by most people as a ‘need’ rather than a ‘want.’ Some people even regard taking three holidays a year as a basic need.” Households now spend four times as much on video and audio equipment, TVs, and computers as they did in 1968. In fact, 1 household in 10 is connected to the Internet, and 1 in 3 has a computer.

A Nap That Refreshes

The habit of relying on caffeine to get through early-afternoon drowsiness may be counterproductive, according to The New York Times. “Consumption of caffeine will be followed by feelings of lethargy,” says Cornell University sleep expert Dr. James Maas. “A debt in your sleep bank account is not reduced by artificial stimulants.” Instead of taking coffee breaks, Maas recommends taking naps, which he says “greatly strengthen the ability to pay close attention to details and to make critical decisions.” A short midday nap, less than 30 minutes long, can revive a person’s energy without making it difficult to wake up and without interfering with a good night’s sleep, notes the Times. “Napping should not be frowned upon,” says Maas. “It should have the status of daily exercise.”

Cotton Grows on Sheep?

According to a recent survey commissioned by the European Council of Young Farmers, “50 per cent of EU [European Union] children do not know where sugar comes from, three-quarters . . . do not know where cotton comes from, with over a quarter who believe that it is grown on sheep.” In addition, 25 percent of nine- and ten-year-olds in Britain and the Netherlands believe that oranges and olives grow in their countries. The children’s main contact with agricultural products is, not the farm, but the supermarket, and they learn about agriculture mainly at school. These may be among the reasons why farming as a profession does not attract many European children today. “On average,” states the council, “only 10 per cent of EU children would ‘very much like’ to become a farmer in the future.”

Friendship Under Fire

Longer workdays, more business travel, and electronic entertainment “that keeps us wired to just about everything but other people” are taking a toll on personal friendships, reports The Wall Street Journal. “Spending time with friends is played down as an optional indulgence that steals scarce hours out of an already jam-packed schedule,” notes the paper. But those who neglect friendships may find that when family tragedy strikes, “no one’s there for them,” says sociologist Jan Yager. On the other hand, studies seem to indicate that those who have good friends usually suffer less stress and illness and may even live longer. “The key,” notes the Journal, “is realizing that maintaining friendships takes extra effort, just the way balancing work and family does.”

Overweight Children

“Obesity is one of the most serious health problems facing the youth of Asia,” warns Dr. Chwang Leh-chii, head of the dietitian’s association of Taipei, Taiwan. The incidence of overweight children in many parts of Asia is high, especially among boys and in urban areas, reports Asiaweek. A recent study in Beijing revealed that more than 20 percent of primary- and secondary-school students there are overweight. It seems that Asian youngsters are spending more and  more time watching TV and playing video games, states the report. What to do? According to Asiaweek, the solution lies not so much in limiting the amount of food children eat but, rather, in combining regular exercise with a healthy diet—one that emphasizes fruits and vegetables over fatty snacks. Dr. Chwang further notes that making physical activity fun is the key to success. But without a change in habits, says the report, overweight children could be facing high blood pressure, liver trouble, diabetes, and psychological problems.

Movies Versus Church

“To teenagers, films such as Terminator 2, Titanic and Star Wars offer deeper religious experiences than conventional churches,” reports London’s newspaper The Independent. Dr. Lynn Clark, of the University of Colorado’s center for mass media research, asked 200 young people which film was most like their religious beliefs. Many cited Terminator 2, which portrays a battle between good and evil, with the lead character traveling back in time to save a Messiahlike child. Speaking at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dr. Clark concluded: “Young people are now looking to Darth Vader and the X Files as sources to help them unravel questions about what life is about. The X Files appeals because it looks at the whole idea of an unknown force controlling the universe. It raises the question that there are things unexplained by science. That’s a religious question, but one that religion is not handling well.”

Smoking Shortens Life

“Every cigarette a man smokes reduces his life by 11 minutes,” reports the University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter. Thus, smoking a carton of cigarettes would shorten his life by a day and a half, and each year that he smokes a pack a day, his life would be shortened by nearly two months, according to researchers at the University of Bristol, England. Scientists arrived at these estimates by comparing the life expectancies of men who smoke and those who do not. The researchers commented: “It shows the high cost of smoking in a way that everyone can understand.”

Elephant “Artists”

In Ottapalam, India, baby elephants are being taught to paint pictures by grasping a brush with their trunk. Conservationists have established the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project to raise money to protect elephants by selling elephants’ paintings, reports The Indian Express. One six-year-old tusker named Ganesan appears especially to enjoy his “artistic” endeavors. When he is in the mood to paint, he wags his ears and accepts the brush from his trainer. When Ganesan is painting, he does not like to be disturbed, even by the presence of birds or squirrels. After making some colorful strokes, Ganesan pauses and seems to study his work. However, not all young elephants respond to efforts to turn them into animal “artists.” Some show their displeasure by breaking the paintbrushes.

Programming Birth

“Children have learned to be born when the hospital wants,” says the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. At a conference on birth held recently in Florence, Italy, Swiss gynecologist Fred Paccaud noted: “Since the 19th century, in the Western world, there has been a 95-percent drop in births on Saturdays and Sundays. But that is not all: We can state that the majority of births take place during labor-union-correct hours of the day, that is, during those shifts when most doctors and nurses are at work.” The births are either induced by medication or performed by cesarean section. “We find ourselves faced with the medicalization and the surgicalization of birth,” says Florence gynecologist Angelo Scuderi. “We see a rapid increase in cesarean section, which by now accounts for more than 20 percent [of births].” However, Professor Carlo Romanini, president of the Italian Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics, claims that “‘programmed’ births are not a choice of convenience” but are a safeguard for the mothers and their infants against unforeseen complications. “It is much better for [a birth] to occur when the hospital is fully staffed and able to guarantee the best possible care,” he said.