Friday, August 28, 2009

Words Say It All

by Madeleine Kando

There are words and then there are WORDS. My favorite words are actually not English but French. The way the French language describes life can be so endearing that it gives me goose pimples just listening to it. Take the words of one of Edith Piaf’s more famous songs: ‘Milord’. When she sings it she pronounces it ‘meelor’ as if it were someone’s name like Frank or Joe. None of the British snobbishness of the words “My Lord”. Because it is in French, in a few sentences Piaf pulls us into the world of a harbor prostitute and her love for a gentleman who does not know she exists. In her song she tells him to come in and make himself comfortable. To ‘put his feet up on a chair and his sorrows on her heart.’ ( ‘vos peines sur mon coeur et vos pieds sur une chaise.’)

What is it that makes French so good at describing matters of the heart? Why is it so poetic? French has the ability to describe reality in such rich details that you could stay in bed for a year reading French novels and not feel like you are missing out on the world outside. You want to experience the feel of a soft breeze on your cheeks? Say it in French: ‘Le vent me caresse les joux avec ses ailes de soie’. (the wind strokes my cheeks with its wings of satin).

American English, on the other hand, has the incredible vitality of a language that uses action words in many of its expressions. Even talking about something as dry as the stockmarket, by saying it in English it becomes exciting: ‘ the stockmarket crashed today and investors ran for cover.’ A French person might say: ‘the stockmarket lost shares today and investors withdrew their money.’ What’s fun about that?

In America you don’t study, you hit the books. You don’t make small talk, you shoot the breeze. You don’t get suspicious: you smell a rat. Americans have elevated many nouns to the status of verbs: ‘to interface, to impact.’ This is to make sure that your listener gets the importance of your statements.

What is interesting about the use of words in different languages is not the language itself of course. A language can not really BE poetic, dynamic or imaginative. A language is a reflection of the people who speak it. And Americans ARE different from the French. As are the Chinese, the Japanese, the Russians, The Mexicans.. I only wish I would have enough time to learn all those other languages.

But who wouldn’t be totally blown away by my latest experience in the heart of Paris. As I was passing a construction site, a young construction worker looked at me and said: ‘Mademoiselle, vous avez perdu quelque-chose’. (Miss, you dropped something). I looked down and said: ‘what?’. With a beaming expression he said: ‘votre sourire’. (your smile). That is how a Frenchman makes a pass at a female passerby. Vive la difference!!
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Is America Broken?

By Tom Kando

The other day, I gave a small music recital at a homeless women’s shelter. Yes, I am an amateur musician, and I am a good guy sometimes, especially when being good and having fun coincide. This was one of several shelters in Sacramento, a city where homelessness, unemployment and poverty abound, like in many other American cities.

The shelter showed the good side of human nature. It houses about 150 people - mostly single, homeless mothers and their children, up to 14-year old boys and girls. Most of these women had sad stories to tell, tales of drugs, rape and abuse by men, the whole nine yards. Here, they found not just a haven, but also their own inner goodness again. They smiled, they worked diligently to pick up job skills, they took care of their children lovingly, their quarters were impeccable, they spoke eloquently about their plans and aspirations for a better life. They were lower-class, overweight, tattooed, intelligent, resilient, with expressions of hope in their beautiful eyes.

It made me think. A microcosm of America. The country has so many crying needs. There are enormous metropolitan regions where conditions are comparable to Calcutta and Sao Paulo. Downtown Detroit (whose population is less than half what it was 40 years ago) has so many vacant lots and incinerated buildings that it is reverting to prairie conditions, with foxes, coyote and deer roaming again. New Orleans will never be what it was before Katrina again. The American landscape is dotted with vast wastelands of slums, poverty, crime, drugs, decay.

The richest country on earth? What a worn-out and false cliché! In 2008, the US was the 8th richest country in the world, per capita. Now, as the dollar’s value has declined by 20%, it is in 20th position (See CIA World Fact Book), after countries such as Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Iceland, Canada, Austria, Sweden, Australia and a few other small countries.

Anyway, per capita income is a flawed measure of well-being. Exchange fluctuations and the distribution of wealth are just two of many factors which make such comparisons unhelpful. But I mention the fact that by this measure, in any event, America is no higher than the 20th richest country in the world. So stop calling it the richest country on earth already!

And yet, the idiot stewards of our national patrimony keep thinking that we can do it all.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t include President Obama among those idiots. The man inherited the Bush mess, and he is doing his valiant best. What I am talking about are the mindless conservatives who believe that we can continue to police the world, fight several simultaneous and never-ending wars. The mindless liberals who believe that we can save the world, give aid to every Third World country, export democracy everywhere. And the mindless and megalomaniac belief among the media and public opinion that we are all-mighty.

America, you have to pull back, you have to turn around. Start fixing yourself. Stop squandering your rapidly shrinking resources. Fix your defective health care system, your inferior education, your decrepit infrastructure, your deteriorating housing stock.

The French are building a highspeed train traveling at 350 miles per hour. But it’s taking us 30 years to retrofit the Oakland Bay bridge against earthquake. The Germans provide free, universal, single-payer health insurance to all. But we have been trying to reform health care since Truman, i.e. for 65 years, and we are further from the goal now than we were during Nixon.

America, learn from some of the dozens of countries that are doing better than you. Start protecting the commonweal. Be less timid in taxing the obscene wealth of billionaires and multimillionaires, whose numbers have increased so much over the past decades. Turn around.
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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What does “E= mc square” mean?

By Tom Kando

I recently read an entertaining little book - Davis Bodanis’ E= mc square. Popularizations of Einstein and of his famous equation abound. (Actually, the formula is Henri Poincaré’s).
I see another example on my shelves: Evert de Bruin’s Einstein in 90 Minutes.
As a layperson utterly ignorant of relativity theory, quantum physics and other such matters, I am nevertheless fascinated by them. Here are just a few comments - actually questions more than comments. I hope they don’t elicit guffaws from physics professors who might read this:

Like many other popularizations of Einstein’s work, Bodanis’ book leaves many questions unanswered, the most important one of which is this:

Exactly how much energy can a given mass of matter generate?

Okay, we know that the speed of light is a very large number (nothing can travel faster), regardless of what unit is used to measure it (meters per second, mph, or whatever). So the conversion factor used to convert mass into energy (c square) must be an astronomical number.
But is the Einstein/Poincaré formula so simple that you can just plug two specific numbers into it - one for m (mass), and one for c (celeritas; speed) - and presto, you find out how much energy this mass can produce?
And if so, what systems of units should be used?

Bodanis does not answer these questions, and some of his numerical examples confuse rather than enlighten. For example, on page 69, he mentions that in units of mph, c is 670 million, and so c square is 448,900, 000,000,000,000, i.e. 448 quadrillion.

But why on earth would you plug in 670 million into the Einstein/Poincaré formula for c? You could just as well plug in the speed of light measured in kilometers per hour (1.08 billion), or meters per second (about 300 million), or in parsecs per 3.3 years (1)*. In each instance, the number on the energy side of the equation changes. For example, if you were to measure and express the speed light in parsecs (which would be no more arbitrary that expressing it in mph), you would end up with the following absurd equation:
E = m x 1 square,
i.e. E = m

But I looked up a few things. It seems that physicists use the International System of units. The speed of light is expressed in meters per second, which is nearly 300 million. Mass is measured in kilos. And energy is measured in joules**. So one kilo of matter could generate 300 million times 300 million joules, i.e. 90 quadrillion joules of energy (90,000,000,000,000,000).

* The distance covered by light in 3.3 years is slightly over 3 x 10 to the 13th power in kilometers, or nearly 2 x 10 to the 13th power in miles.
** I came across a very scientific explanation of how much a joule is: it is about how much energy it takes to lift a small apple about one meter up. It is also the equivalent of one Watt.second.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Are people Fat?

By Tom Kando

A Sacrament Bee article by Ellen Shell on obesity (November 13) illustrates a problem with contemporary pop science: The issue is America’s obesity epidemic -- what causes it, and what can be done about it? Her magic-bullet-of-the-day is the hormone leptin.
In the old nature-nurture argument, the nurture side has been losing ground for years . We desperately want to find a bio-chemical/genetic explanation not only for physical conditions , but also for a growing list of behavioral and mental phenomena -- obesity, criminality, intelligence, mental illness, alcoholism, sexual preference, addictiveness, etc. But we should question this growing tendency towards bio-chemical reductionism.

Ms. Shell’s article is drenched in pseudo-scientific rhetoric: "people act on biologically wired drives....pathways in the brains...the brain’s weight control center, ...scientists are decoding....leptin signals..." etc.
However, such language is metaphorical, inspired by computers and the other gadgets with which we are so enamored. It makes little contribution to our understanding of human motivation, consciousness, social life, or dysfunctional behavior.

Let’s be Aristotelian: Americans have become overweight. The other 96 % of the world’s people do not have this problem (yet), and neither did America until a few decades ago. So how could this new and primarily American problem be caused by (insufficient) leptin or some other genetic trait? This would only make sense under the absurd assumption that Americans are genetically different from (1)everyone else and from (2) their ancestors a few decades ago. For A to be the cause of B, there must be concomitant variation of the two, right?

Isn’t it obvious that the obesity epidemic is caused largely by sociological trends? Two things distinguish Americans: (1) we are the least ambulatory people in the world, and (2)we eat more than anyone else. The culprits are our diet and our relentless quest for comfort -- in sum: lifestyle changes!
Shell’s article is symptomatic of today’s culture, of the decline of common sense and of the death of a meaningful science of psychology, distinct from biology. Instead, we have the mumbo-jumbo of chemical reductionism, which increasingly attributes all behaviors to genes and biology. Next we’ll be told that one is born a racist, or born divorce-prone, or born with Republican tendencies.

The underlying message: We don’t have to lift a finger to help ourselves, because biology has the solution to all our problems. So there is no need to clean up our act (exercise, quit smoking, stop pigging out, etc.), or for social policies such as less reliance on cars and more governmental monitoring of the junk food.

This is irresponsible. It reminds me of those chain-smoking patients milling around in front of Kaiser Hospital, waiting for the doctors to fix them up.
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Friday, August 14, 2009

Are Children Miniature Adults?

By Madeleine Kando

We like to think that children are miniature adults, unfinished copies that will turn out to become like us. Children know better: they know that grown-ups are a breed apart and other than that they are a lot bigger, they could be from Mars for all they care.

The biggest challenge for them is trying to figure out the rules of society. The problem starts out right away, as soon as they are able to see a face. Their parents expect them to smile and show how cute they are and they soon learn that it’s their ticket to get what they want. Children are so into themselves, they really don’t have a lot of time to follow the rules. They possess a blissful unselfconsciousness that allows them to sing at the top of their lungs in the supermarket, makes them run into people left and right and makes them show up undressed in front of mom’s dinner guests.. all that is perfectly acceptable from the perspective of a child.

They don’t understand things verbally. It mistyfies me to hear moms discuss their shopping strategy with their 2 year old in the supermarket: ‘What kind of cheese do you think we should get, David? Do you think a pound is too much for tomorrow’s guests? Oh dear, look at the price on this!’… and on and on. I am tempted to go over and say: ‘Lady, you are talking to a wall here, not to mention the fact that you are preventing me from following my own train of thought. If you really want David’s advice let him taste the damned cheese. If he spits it out, don’t buy it.’

Thursday, August 13, 2009

'Hey Guys, Let's Smother Grandma...'

By Madeleine Kando

There is this provision in the Obama health care bill that would reimburse doctors for end-of-life consultations for seniors.

It’s a very common sense proposal by a common sense senator from Oregon. The idea is to give seniors a chance to clarify how much care they want in case they are incapacitated: do they want to be resuscitated, put on a respirator or fed through a tube? Or do they want to receive palliative care and be left to die in peace at home, surrounded by their family and loved ones? The default procedure in this country is that a doctor will take every measure in an emergency to keep a patient alive. In fact, most of the time you do not die peacefully with family around you in your home if you do not make plans. (Except for Oregon because more Oregonians plan for their end of life care.)

The amendment says nothing about doctor-assisted suicide, a legal option for terminally ill residents in Oregon for example and in some countries like Holland.

To many uninformed people whom I will call ‘the lynch mob of America’, spurred on by uninformed and dangerous TV talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, this amendment promotes government-sponsored euthanasia. ‘Congress requires seniors to have counseling that will tell them how to end their life sooner’, says one former Congress woman. Sarah Palin and others speak of government-funded death panels.

Some of these uninformed idiots have an issue with the fact that doctors get reimbursed to have such consultations. But doesn’t Medicare reimburse doctors for hip surgery? I don’t think a doctor would perform hip surgery for free, do you? These consultations are also voluntary and talking about how to die is not the same as shooting someone, is it?

The irony is that these (mostly right-wing) protestors are against this part of the bill because they say government should not interfere with their business. If I am not mistaken, this provision is actually trying to give patients more control over how they want to die. (I personally wish it did include an option for assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, but that would be way too progressive, and add fuel to the fire).

Modern medicine has been good at prolonging our life span but it has turned away from the added responsibility of how to handle the side-effects of longer lives. This would be an important step in the right direction.
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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Do You Also Believe in the Flat Earth Theory?

By Tom Kando

It is difficult to remember a presidency which has elicited more venom within its first few months. The Obama-haters are trying to discredit him in some amazing ways. Come to think of it, I do remember that Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were the recipients of similar hate campaigns early in their terms...

1. There are, for example, the birthers. This is a grass-roots (largely Internet) movement of people who claim that Obama was not born in the US. According to columnist Eugene Robinson, 28% of Republicans believe that Obama was not born in the United States, and another 30% are “not sure”! This despite the fact that the President’s birth on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu has been incontestably established.
2. Then there are the town hall meetings, organized by the administration to discuss the President’s Health Care plan. So far they have backfired, because many of the people who come to these meetings are hostile, disrupting and opposing everything that administration spokesmen try to discuss.

I am not sure what happened. Opponents of health care reform - various interest groups - may have orchestrated something here, I don’t know.

But I just want to give you one example of the level of discourse of some of these protesters: At a recent town hall meeting somewhere in the Midwest, an elderly gentleman in the audience stood up and shouted, emotionally, to the administration spokesman who was trying to answer questions: “I want the government to keep its paws off Medicare!”

What does democracy mean, when people are so embarrassingly ignorant? Democracy becomes mobocracy. Maybe that’s what happened in California, where the state has been run by referendum for many years. People pass propositions without the slightest understanding of their consequences.

3. Another asinine catchphrase heard a lot in the health care debate is, “do you want the same people who run the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles, to run your health plan?” - the obvious insinuation being that nothing is more inefficient than government bureaucracies such as the USPS or DMV.

4. So now Obama’s poll ratings have declined. No duh! There is nothing mysterious about a President’s popularity or lack of it. There is nothing “inherent” in public opinion polls. They just reflect how the people have been told to feel, that’s all. Subject a president to a barrage of criticism in the media for three months and, lo and behold, his ratings go down! Or let the media praise him for six weeks, and his ratings go up. Is this a miracle? No, it’s called indoctrination through spin.

5. The cornerstone of our health insurance system is that it goes via your job, your employer. A majority seems to believe that this cornerstone must stay untouched. But there are millions who do not have jobs, who don’t have an employer. There are the unemployed, the unemployable, the retired, the self-employed, the very young and the very old. And of course everyone switches jobs at one time or another. The immutable link between one’s job and one’s health insurance is another piece of nonsense.

6. So for all those of you who believe that Obama is not American-born, that the government should stay out of Medicare, and other similar theories, I have an organization which might interest you:

The Flat Earth Society International
P.O. Box 3543, Lancaster, California, 93540
Membership, Certificate and Map of Flat Earth: $20.00
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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Are You Now or Have You Ever been a Socialist?

By Tom Kando

The astute reader will see that this title is a spoof on Joe McCarthy’s 1950s Communist witch-hunt.

Amazingly, many people have been bamboozled into believing that (1) people like President Obama are “Socialists” and that (2) Socialism is a sin. Things were different at mid-century. When I grew up and went to high school, most of us knew that:

(1) the Western World had made progress in the 20th century because of Socialism, i.e. things like progressive taxes, labor unions, social security, medicare, universal health insurance, unemployment and disability compensation, and aid to families with dependent children.(2) All the affluent western democracies had thriving socialist parties, counterbalancing their conservative, Christian and pro-business parties. These left-of-center parties were called Labor (Britain), Social Democratic (Germany), Socialist (France) Democratic (US), or something else. They all boiled down to the same thing.

(3) Socialism was good. Communism was bad. Communism was a totalitarian and extreme form of Socialism which had gone haywire, for example in Russia under Stalin.

(4) Examples of fine socialist leaders who did good things for their countries included President Franklin Roosevelt in the US, later President Mitterrand in France, Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown in Britain.

(5) Unions were the sine qua non which finally enabled the working man to achieve a decent life in the 20th century.

We knew all these things. They were true.

But now, the political world has become weird. Somehow, the label “Socialist” has become toxic. This is very strange. When demagogues like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh accuse someone (E.g President Obama) of being a “Socialist,” the word is so dreaded that the accused desperately denies being one. “No way! How dare you accuse me of being a Socialist!” This sort of argument-by-name-calling was Senator Joe McCarthy’s forte. He put the living fear into his opponents by simply calling them “Communists.”

What I don’t understand is why people have accepted this. Why people have forgotten the distinction between Socialism and Communism. Forgotten that in every civilized, free, democratic country, socialist parties are among the major ruling parties. Maybe America’s victory in the Cold War and the demise of Soviet Communism, have erased the distinction between Socialism and Communism, in people’s dumbed-down minds.

I can understand why the rich see socialism as evil. But why have millions of little people, maybe a majority of Americans, swallowed this canard? The canard being that socialism is bad, that taxes are what hurts the economy, that unions and the government are bad for the country.

Take the on-going struggle over health care reform: The brain-washing has already succeeded: Most people already agree that a single-payer, government-run health care system would suck. No matter that this is precisely what they have in France and all the other places whose health care system is far superior to ours. The fear-mongering “Do you want government bureaucrats to make the medical decisions?” has worked. People don’t even realize that currently it is Insurance bureaucrats who make those decisions. At least, the government bureaucrats’ decisions would not be determined by the profit motive, as are those of insurance bureaucrats...

Maybe the word “Socialism” is so hopelessly tainted in this country that we might as well jettison it. Maybe we need to use another word with less stigma, to denote the policies pursued by progressives such as President Obama. How about Social-Democrat?

Of course, we already have a Democratic Party. And you know what? Our Democratic Party is our socialist party, just like Labor is Britain’s socialist party, the SDP is Germany’s socialist party, and so forth. If you are a Democrat, you are a socialist - maybe moderately so, maybe extremely so. Be up-front about it.
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