Saturday, July 31, 2010

Feeding on The Dead

by Madeleine Kando

Once in a while you hear something on the news that goes so against your sense of what is right and wrong, that it makes you doubt whether the human race should be allowed to exist.

This is what happened to me when I listened to a report on NPR on how Life Insurance Companies benefit from soldiers who die, even after they are dead. David Evans in Bloomberg News has written about this.

He recounts the experience of a mother whose son just died in Afghanistan. He had a $400,000 life insurance policy. The company sends the family a letter offering them to place the full amount in a convenient ‘interest-bearing account’. They also send them what looks like a legitimate checkbook with blank checks.

They don’t tell them that the account is not placed at a bank but remains at the Insurance company, drawing 4 to 5% interest for the company, while the family at the most gets 1% interest.

They don’t tell them that the ‘checks’ are not really checks but IOU’s which have no monetary value until they get processed by the insurance company. You would assume that a checkbook with blank checks means you can use them to buy things with, no?

They don’t tell them that by withdrawing the money and putting it in a bank they would earn a lot more interest.

Way down buried in very fine print it says that they can close the account and just get the money. But who wants to have $400,000 lying around in cash when the Life Insurance Company offers you a convenient ‘interest-bearing’ account? You assume it is sitting in a bank, drawing the average interest of a savings account.

Not only is this routine procedure at the Department of Veterans Affairs but the Federal Government itself lets this happen for their own 4 million active employees and retirees. It gets worse here: the Insurance Company automatically opens an account in your name and mails you one of those ‘checkbooks’. They don’t say the account is not FDIC insured and they don’t say that it is not sitting in a bank. Nowhere on such a form does it say that you can just withdraw the money, period.

No one seems to regulate this practice by the insurance industry. They are what they call ‘retained-asset’ accounts (they retain the money until it is asked for, which sometimes can take as long as 10 years). The most recent 'finance reform bill' does not even address this issue.

Can you imagine how much money the insurance companies make from the dead during that time? Not even the most hungry pack of hyenas can compete with that!  leave comment here
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Are you better off playing the Stock Market or a Casino?

By Tom Kando

There is a provocative article, “Ten Stock-Market Myths That Just Won’t Die” by Brett Arends in the July 25 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The myths include such cliches as (1)“This is a good time to invest in the stock market,” (2) “Stocks on average make you about 10% a year,” (3)“If you want to earn higher returns, you have to take more risk,” (4)“Stocks outperform over the long run,” and other ones.

I can strongly relate.

Take retirement plans: Over the past couple of decades, the proportion of defined benefits plans has declined sharply, increasingly replaced by defined contributions plans. The former are pension plans which guarantee the retiree a specific monthly benefit for the rest of his life (defined benefits). PERS, STERS and the other massive retirement systems covering California state employees and teachers are examples of this.

The latter are 401Ks, IRAs and other investment instruments. The only thing the member knows for sure is how much is taken out of his paycheck every month (defined contribution). As to his benefits, they will fluctuate, depending on the stock market. He may make a million, or lose his shirt.

The argument for replacing defined benefits with defined contributions is that the former are bankrupting the states and the companies (E.g. General Motors) which offer them. It is said that they made unsustainable promises, and that they are going broke.

By far the most important case in point is Social Security, which many people say is going to ruin the government within a few decades.

And the solution, we are told by Republicans, is to privatize it, i.e. to make Social Security into a defined contribution plan.

So the question is: If defined benefits plans and Social Security don’t work, how do privatization and defined contribution plans solve the problem?

I am told that it is better if I start gambling with my retirement savings. This will help me?

Arends’ article made me realize how many uncanny analogies there are between the Stock Market and a Las Vegas casino.

1. Take Stock Market myth #3, above: “If you want to earn higher returns, you have to take more risk.” The roulette table shows the absurdity of this advice, when taken to the extreme: Only a fool would put all his money on a single number, hoping to multiply his investment 36-fold. But isn’t this what many investment banks did in the recent financial collapse?

2. Take the other three Stock Market myths, above. They are all bullish, i.e. optimistic. The general idea is that on balance, investing in the Stock Market means winning, not losing.

This is not unlike the attitude of many casino customers: Have your friends ever told you how much they lost, after returning from Las Vegas? Typically, we brag to each other about the $500 or $1200 we made all of a sudden with a hand of black-jack or at a slot machine. We remember the one-time jackpot. In fact, anyone who frequents casinos regularly is down many thousands of dollars in the long run.

3. Do casinos work for anybody? Of course they do - for their owners. The Stock Market also works for some: Those who gamble with other people’s money, the brokers, the investment firms. For you and me, it works as well as a casino, especially if you play aggressively.

4. Your goal in the Stock Market should be the same as in a casino: forget winning. Just try to lose as little as possible.

I like to spend an occasional three-day weekend in Las Vegas. I enjoy the opulence of mega-hotels, buffets and shows. I gamble for maybe 15 minutes, putting down 1 or 2 dollars on a roulette table or into a slot machine. I usually end up losing $10 over the weekend. Anyone with a similar stock market record can consider himself wise and lucky.leave comment here
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Thursday, July 29, 2010

What If..

by Madeleine Kando

I lost my favorite pair of sunglasses. The ones I bought in Paris for a hundred euros during a bout of temporary insanity. My daughter calls me ‘bug eyes’ when I wear them because they cover most of my face.

So you see, I was in a state of shock when I lost them. It happened while I was walking my diminutive dog in the local forest. When I discovered that they were missing, I first searched the house, which took me a while because I am not known to put things in their proper place.

Then I went back to the forest, retracing my steps, remembering that I had bent over and picked up my diminutive dog in spots where she would have disappeared in the underbrush because of her size. Pouf, that’s when my sunglasses must have fallen off my head.

I didn’t find them and cursed myself and the person who had found them and who was now enjoying my hundred euros perched on her nose.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept hearing this barely audible little voice calling out to me: ‘I am here! I am here! Please find me’, like one of the shrunken kids in the movie ‘Honey I shrunk the kids’.

I just couldn’t resign myself to the loss of all that money. Besides I had grown attached to those glasses. They were part of me, especially early in the morning to hide my puffy eyes and feed my vanity.

So back I went a second time, retracing my every step. I put another pair of sunglasses on my head to see when and how they would fall off.

Almost at the end of my sad, fruitless walk I suddenly remembered that, at that exact spot, my diminutive dog had decided to go her own way instead of following me. I had to run after her and quickly pick her up before she disappeared in the underbrush. Aha! This is the scene of the crime, I realized. The underbrush had not swallowed up my dog, but my sunglasses instead.

I looked closely, stopping every few feet.. no sunglasses. I walked a little further..Hey! What’s that? A small speck of shiny brown amongst the green! ‘Mmm.. somebody must have dropped their sunglasses’ I thought. ‘Oh well, tough luck.’ Wait a minute.. those are mine! The odds that I would find them was so small that I thought I was dreaming.

So here I am, happy as a pig in mud. I am wearing my sunglasses as I type, even though it’s raining. We are bonding. I am still trying to digest my good fortune and my thoughts go something like this:

What if I had not had the good fortune of possessing an obsessive compulsive nature and gone back a second time? What if I had not remembered my dog’s determination to go her own way? What if I had not turned the loss of my stupid sunglasses into a major calamity, giving it priority over everything else?

What if I hadn’t lost my sunglasses at all? This story wouldn’t have been written and you wouldn’t have had the privilege of reading a masterpiece. leave comment here
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Do University Affirmative Action Policies Reduce Injustice?

By Tom Kando

A recent article by Russell Nieli reviews an impressive new study by Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford , on what used to be called “affirmative action,” but is now often under the heading of “diversity.” It is titled “How Diversity Punishes Asians, Poor Whites and Lots of Others”

The study documents meticulously many things we have known for a long time. The gist of it is that (elite) universities’ admission policies, guided by “diversity” criteria, give enormous preferential treatment to blacks and Hispanics, while discriminating against Asians, (poor)whites and some other categories.

When controlling for other variables, being Hispanic confers an admission boost equivalent to 130 SAT points over comparable whites. In other words, two equally qualified applicants apply for admission to Harvard - one Hispanic the other one classified as “white.” They both scored 1350 on their SAT combined. In order for the two to have equal chances of being admitted, the “white” applicant would need a score of 1480.

Being black rather than white confers a staggering 310 SAT point advantage.

On the other hand, Asians suffer a 140 point penalty.

I pride myself for having been a critic of affirmative action from its very inception. I published articles against this racial policy as far back as the landmark Bakke Supreme Court decision in 1978. So it’s not that the findings and conclusions of this study should surprise me.

But there is more. It’s not just that affirmative is “reverse discrimination” against whites. This has been said for decades. Sometimes, this reeks of a “white power” argument, which can be ugly.

No. What is really appalling is that elite universities’ affirmative action policies discriminate against poor whites only. Rich whites still take care of themselves quite nicely. Less than well qualified rich whites still have no trouble getting into Harvard or Yale (think of George W. Bush).

As I have been saying for over 30 years, affirmative action and current “diversity” policy are abominations because they are based on race and utterly fail to recognize social class, thereby compounding social inequality and injustice, instead of alleviating them, as the study shows.

There are two kinds of people who criticize affirmative action:
(1) those whose self-interest is threatened by affirmative action (e.g. white males). After all, when have white conservative males been concerned about social justice, except when it suits them? Only after the table of privilege has been turned, do they begin to clamor for a “merit system.” To some extent, the debate over affirmative action is a case of whose ox is being gored.

(2) the moralists, who don’t understand that they may be morally right, but that they are pragmatic losers.

Affirmative Action is not meant to rectify injustice, certainly not economic injustice. The reality is that America is the world’s most diverse society, and becoming more so every day. So what is the elite to do, in order to prevent instability and fragmentation, and hold on to the reigns of power? It designs policies which contribute to ethnic integration, without contributing one iota to greater economic equality. The peace is preserved. No more Watts and South Central LA riots. Poverty increases, especially among whites. But class consciousness has never been a factor in this country, and it never will be. Poor whites and poor blacks will turn on each other before they will ever join hands. This is called Pragmatism. It is ugly, it is hypocritical, it is political. It works and it is American. leave comment here
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American English: The Most Polite Language on Earth

by Madeleine Kando

One advantage of being multi-lingual is that you can compare the colloquialisms of one language with another. In ‘the old country’ American English still has the image of being a pragmatic, somewhat ‘rough around the edges’ kind of language. Nothing like its more sophisticated cousin British English.

Americans use their language in a direct, no-nonsense, no-frills kind of way. So I am totally blown away by the myriad ways one can say: ‘You are welcome’ in this country.

In America, the way you respond to a ‘thank you’ depends on how generous you are as a ‘giver’ of a favor. It seems to run on a scale from taking pleasure in doing something for someone (my pleasure), all the way up to making them know in no uncertain terms that they are in your debt (you bet).

So here are a few ways of saying ‘you are welcome’ on the indebtedness spectrum:

If you are a true giver of favors by nature you would say: ‘you are welcome’, ‘no problem’, ‘don’t mention it’, ‘it’s no trouble’, ‘it’s nothing’, ‘not at all’, ‘no biggy’, ‘my pleasure’ or ‘any time’.

Then, if you feel that having done a favor to someone has been somewhat of an effort on your part, you could say: ‘sure’, ‘all right’, ‘certainly’, ‘ok’, ‘forget it’, ‘fair enough’ or ‘that’s ok’.

Sometimes, the person who has received the favor can feel so indebted that they say: ‘Much obliged’, (which means you are obliged to do something in return in the future.)

‘You bet’ really sounds innocent (when the waiter has brought you your meal and you say ‘thanks’, and he says ‘you bet’.) But doesn’t it really mean: ‘you bet your sweet bottom that I did you a favor by bringing you your meal?’

And what about ‘you got it’? What did you get, exactly? As if someone could take the favor back, so they make sure you ‘got it’?

At the more neutral range of the scale there is the: ‘Uh huh’ or ‘yep’. There, I am not sure if it means that the person who did you a favor thinks it wasn’t a big deal or whether they confirm your indebtedness to them by not even acknowledging your ‘thank you’.

In French the only way I know how to say ‘you are welcome’ is: ‘de rien’ (it’s nothing), ‘pas de quoi’ (short for ‘il n’y a pas de quoi’, i.e., it’s not enough to be worthy of a thank you) and ‘je vous en prie’ (I beg you?!).

Only three measly synonyms in a language that is supposed to be culturally far superior to American English? Ha! leave comment here
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is Inception the Movie of the Decade?

By Tom Kando

The new movie Inception is the talk of the town. It gets rave reviews. Richard Roeper gives it an A+. Others put it on a par with Blade Runner and 2001.

First the synopsis: The movie is about dream inception, i.e. the implanting of ideas into someone else’s mind, so as to make him do something you want him to do. Leonardo DiCaprio accepts the job of “incepting” (implanting) the mind of a rival Japanese businessman. The team of inceptors and the target recipient must all be hooked up together electronically so they can make the recipient do what they want.

But here are just a few of the challenges:

1) The target recipient is actually the son of the rival tycoon. It is this son who will have to dismantle his father’s (evil) monopolistic empire, and he must somehow be convinced that this is a good thing to do.

2) Dreamers do not control their subconscious. Once the collective and interactive dreaming gets under way, all sorts of horrible, out-of-control characters and events can pop up. Leonardo DiCaprio, the “dream team” leader, is plagued by guilt for his beloved wife’s death. Coming out of Leonardo’s subconscious guilt, his dead wife aims at sabotaging the operation. In the end, he will have no other choice but to kill his dream wife.

3) The inception into Fischer’s mind requires building dreams within dreams. Eventually, the team goes through four such ever deeper dream levels, each nested in the previous one.

4) Dying in a dream is okay, because that just wakes you up. But in an emergency there has to be a kick. Coming back to reality together and not leaving anyone behind in what is called “limbo” requires the synchronization of the “kicks,” which is nightmarishly complicated.

5) Time slows down factorially each time that you move from one dream into the dream within it. In the first-level dream, the team is in a van which crashes and falls from a bridge into New York’s East River. This takes, say, 20 seconds. In the second-level dream within this dream, the team manipulates Fisher in a fancy New York hotel. For this they have 20 minutes or so. This requires entering into a third-level dream, in which the team has several hours to achieve its objectives.

So the plot is dynamite. It’s tight, complex, sophisticated, creative. But there is a problem with the execution. The movie goes on for another hour and a half. As the protagonists descend from one dream level to the next, things become a bit tedious.

Tedious, not because of the complexity, but because of reliance, as almost always in Hollywood in the age of the computer, on (1) special effects, (2) car chases, (3) explosions and (4) gun battles. When the dream team spent 10 or 15 minutes blowing up a mountain redoubt in the snow, I got bored. Sorry. James Bond did it better.

True, many scenes are spectacular and on-location. Tokyo, Paris, Mombasa, glacial peaks. But in the end, there were just too many explosions, too many shoot-outs, too many deja-vus.
Take for example the 1984 movie Dreamscape (with Dennis Quaid), an earlier film about infiltrating other people’s dreams. Less ambitious, fewer special effects, no explosions and shoot-outs, but fun.

I won’t reveal the end of Inception. It’s satisfying and not too surprising. All in all, the Professor gives the first half of this film an A, the second half a B- , and overall a B+. leave comment here
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Friday, July 23, 2010

Voices

by Madeleine Kando

They are all around us, those voices. They permeate every minute of our waking hours. Radio, tv, friends, family.. voices, voices everywhere. A voice is the medium, what you say is the message. A voice has a personality of it’s own. Why do I like Obama’s voice so much? MyGod, he could say: ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’ and it would sound like the most intelligent thing I’ve heard that day. On the other hand, ever since I heard Bush talk about ‘nukalar’, the hair on the back of my neck stands up just at the sound of his voice.

In our family we have what my husband has baptised the ‘Kando voice’. My mother perfected the ‘Kando voice’ throughout her life. She started using it whenever she needed our help. Voices are very useful, you see. They can be seductive, threatening, authoritative, fearful.. you name it and a voice can become a weapon of choice. My mom’s weapon of choice is her baby voice, the ‘Kando voice’. Now that she is 96 and she is dependent on others twenty four seven, her normal voice has all but disappeared.

I am unfortunate enough to have a neighbor in the building where I work who is a former opera singer. Her voice sounds worse than a bluejay in heat. She is so in love with her own voice that I sometimes wear earplugs at work so I won’t go totally insane.

The problem with voices is that you cannot hear your own voice the way others hear it. My husband’s voice is loud. ‘It’s because I grew up with three loud brothers’, he explains. ‘It was a matter of survival’. He often dominates the conversation by the sheer volume of his voice. When we go out to dinner with friends I subtly encourage him to sit at the far end of the table.

A voice can make up for other things: a small, inconspicuous looking person can have a beautiful barritone of a voice. Radio personalities are a good example of how voices don’t always match the appearance of the owner. I hear Tom Ashbrook on talk radio and I imagine a bit of a heavyset intellectual with glasses and a beard, holding a pipe in his hand. I am sure he looks nothing like that, but I don’t want to find out. I learnt my lesson in that regard when I stumbled upon a photograph of Terry Gross. When it comes to radio personalities our imagination is better left alone if we don’t want to be disappointed.

For some obscure reason, big, sturdy Dutch women have high feminine voices. Happy, exaggeratedly upbeat. As if they just had a refreshing bath and are now clean and free of depressing thoughts. I cannot compete with that. When I speak with my Dutch friends, I am so conscious of my own morose sounding voice. I sound chronicly depressed. That’s why I don’t like to speak Dutch. I prefer to talk back in English so I don’t have to sound so happy.

Watching Japanese samurai movies is a lesson in how looooow a barritone voice can possibly go. In those movies the females have to counteract the barritones by sounding like little crickets, ready to be crushed at the slightest provocation.

And let’s not forget the part that air plays in a person’s voice. You can tell when you hear a heavy smoker talk: raspy, worn-out, trying to finish a sentence with their poor destroyed lungs. But having strong lungs can sometimes be too much of a good thing: I have this American Indian CD where the singer doesn’t take a single breath until the whole bloody song is finished. Listening to him perform his three-mintute warrior song makes me hyperventilate. 

Voices are so incredibly diverse. That’s what makes them so fascinating. If I were to loose any part of me, my voice would be one of the last things I would want to give up. It is so much part of who I am. Voices are complex, mysterious, unanalyzable. They are probably one of the most unique parts of a human being. The lucky few who can harness the power of their own voice have the world at their feet. It is up to them to put that power to good use. leave comment here
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Infrastructure

by Madeleine Kando

The funny thing about traveling is that you see things from a different perspective when you come home. I know my husband will be faithfully waiting there to pick me up at Boston’s Logan Airport to drive me home.

Is he going to look different? Will I look different to him, after our two week separation? It is as if I have borrowed someone else’s glasses for the first few minutes of our reunification. He looks… well, actually he looks terrific. I forgot how handsome he really is, my husband. Yes, I know, he has grey sideburns, his hips aren’t as narrow as they used to be. But I see him now through the eyes of the other tired passengers who watch us embrace, watch us walk off to the parking lot arm in arm, like new-found lovers.

Yes, it’s nice to go away. You come back with a fresh look on things.

When we first step out of the terminal, depending on which season it is, I get hit with a blast of humid, suffocatingly hot air. Either that, or a snow blizzard. I almost prefer the blizzard. It’s so… New England, you know.

In August, the humidity and heat of the summer has sucked every last drop of moisture and life out of the city of Boston. You can hear the heat hum in your ears, like a furnace. The asphalt on the road is melting and it feels like I am walking on marshmallows. When we get to the car, we have to turn on the air-conditioner for a few minutes, before we get in. It would be like walking into an oven.

As we drive home, I am suddenly aware of how abysmal the road conditions are. Only a few hours ago, I was driving on the Dutch highway system on my way to Schiphol airport. Not a single pothole, bump, scratch or blemish. How can Holland afford such a perfect road system?

How can America put up with such a rundown infrastructure? Isn’t America supposedly the richest country in the World?

How important to the health of a nation is its infrastructure? Just as a body’s circulatory system, nervous system and skeletal system is vital to one’s health, so too is the nation’s infrastructure vital to the healthy functioning of society.

I know you can repair tires, you can bury the dead after a bridge falls down, you can privatize law enforcement to replace a police force. If you have a car you can drive to the nearest forest instead of the park so that your dog can poo. But is that a good way to live?

These are the thoughts that race through my head as we drive home, trying to avoid bumps and unrepaired cracks. But, as usual, after a few days, I look at things with resignation and apathy. Gone are the borrowed glasses.

It’s sad to admit that I look forward to my next trip to Holland just so I can enjoy roads without potholes. So I don’t hold my breath every time I have to cross a bridge. Still, a little voice in me always asks the same question as I read about our activities in far-away, exotic places, like Afghanistan and Iraq: ‘Why aren’t we taking care of our own backyard instead?’ leave comment here
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Friday, July 16, 2010

Big Numbers

By Madeleine Kando

Do you ever blank out when you hear huge dollar amounts mentioned on the news? 'BP already spent $3.5 billion dollars on the oil cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico'. And: 'BP puts $20 billion dollars in escrow to cover damages caused by the oil spill.'

These big numbers immediately cause me to draw a blank. I have no idea how much a billion dollars is. I have tried to figure out at which zero in the dollar chain I start to show signs of incomprehension. So let me start with one zero and work my way up.

One zero - For 10 dollars I can get a decent lunch.
Two zeros - For a 100 dollars I can go out to dinner with my whole family.
Three zeros - For a 1000 dollars I can get a very decent computer.
Four zeros - For 10,000 dollars I can get a good second hand car.
Five zeros - 100,000 dollars is what my daughter makes as a computer engineer.
Six zeros - For one million dollars I could get a very fancy house in a very fancy neighborhood.
Seven zeros - At the 10 million dollar mark it starts to get fuzzy. You hear people winning the lottery and win that kind of cash. But still, I can fathom buying 500 cars and give them to my friends and family. I can fathom buying Donald Trump's 10 million dollar home.
Eight zeros - One hundred million dollars! Now I am really starting to blank out. To put it in perspective: Avatar, the movie, cost about 300 million dollars to make (and I think it grossed between 2 and 3 billion in sales).
Nine zeros - that's one billion dollars. For that you could get 100 houses the size of Donald Trump's house.
Ten zeros - $10,000,000,000: If you were an oil giant we won't mention by name, for 10 billion dollars you could almost clean up the mess in the Gulf of Mexico because you probably would have made 25 billion dollars somewhere else.
Eleven zeros - In the 100 billion dollar range you are looking at the approximate cost of the war in Iraq every 8 months! BP's profits over the past 10 years (not in the least thanks to the war in Iraq which made the price of oil go way up), was 250 billion dollars.
Twelve zeros - $1,000,000,000,000 - One trillion dollars. In the trillion dollar range we are looking at the US budget deficit in 2009.

So you see, even those large numbers are manageable for a simpleton like me.

Comparing big numbers with each other sometimes reveals misplaced priorities. Here is an example:

'Tide of new PTSD cases raises fears of fraud'. Some people are worried that if the rules for proving that a war veteran suffers from post traumatic stress disorder are made easier, it will cause some veterans to take advantage of it. But even if as much as 1 % of every 40,000 veterans that file for ptsd submit false claims, and they get the $15,000 a year in benefits, that would be only 6 million dollars a year. That is less money than just one of Donald Trump's houses.

Another example of pure idiocy related to big numbers is the worry over potential fraud if an expanded bottle bill passes in Massachusetts. That bill would include water and juice bottles that currently litter our roads and parks. Some say that the 5 cent deposit would put an extra burden on the consumer. Others are worried that people from bordering states like New Hampshire (who do not have a bottle bill), will come and redeem their New Hampshire bottles in Massachusetts and rake in the vast amounts of money that the 5 cent deposit will provide them. Oooh. Scary. That bad New Hampshire man just raked in $10 by returning alien water bottles... The expanded bottle bill would provide the State of Massachusetts $20 million from un-returned bottles.

What is the moral of all this? That, when it comes to priorities for spending money, humans seem to have lost their mind. They opt not to worry about a 25 billion profit by an oil company, but fret about the possible 'fraud' amongst veterans, those young men and women who have risked their lives so we can fight the pros and cons of an expanded bottle bill.

(For those of you who are interested, here are some more big numbers that I came across during my research for this article: 4,400 Americans died so far in Iraq. 600,000 soldiers suffered traumatic brain injury. 200,000 cases of post traumatic stress disorder have been reported so far. Shell Oil (mostly Dutch) made 5 1/2 billion dollars in profit in 2009. British Petroleum made 250 billion dollars in profit over the past 10 years. Contrary to what you might think, there are no American oil companies that have signed contracts in Iraq. BP (British) and the Chinese, however, have.) leave comment here
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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Do Facts Matter?

By Tom Kando

Mark Twain once said about a man that “he knows a lot, except that most of what he knows ain’t so.” (Paraphrased).

This accurately describes the multitudes among us who believe in various conspiracy theories, the birthers who “know” that Obama isn’t US born, the millions who “know” that immigrants cause the crime rate to rise, those who believe that 9/11 was a plot concocted by Israel and Dick Cheney, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that Jews control Hollywood, the media and American foreign policy, etc.

Humans have an innate need to reduce Cognitive Dissonance.

There is a long line of research documenting this, starting with Leon Festinger’s famous When Prophecy Fails in 1956. A small occult group had predicted that the world would end on a specific date, but that the group would be rescued by aliens. When this did not happen, the cultists, far from abandoning their beliefs, actually persisted in them with even greater vigor.

In other words, when confronted with facts which disprove our beliefs, many of us are more apt to deny the facts than to alter our beliefs.

If scientists find undeniable proof of life on earth 200 million years ago, creationists simply argue that those fossils were planted there by God 6,000 years ago, to fool us. In the face of irrefutable evidence of man-caused global warming, millions continue to quibble about minor scientific errors made while collecting the evidence, so as to deny the whole thing.

When Rush Limbaugh tells millions of hypnotized ditto-heads that the European middle class is poorer than the American lower class, they gullibly accept this as fact, even though it isn’t true.

When the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports prove that the crime rate is way down, millions continue to believe that it is out of control.

There are many established facts which should no longer be debated. The Solar System is heliocentric, not geocentric. We don’t need to cite Copernicus to support this assertion. Same with Darwinian evolution, global warming, and the fact that the American health care system is inferior to that of France, Germany, Canada and most other advanced countries.

It is tempting for a progressive such as myself to locate what I call the “triumph of belief over fact,” mostly on the right. And sure enough, sources such as Fox News are very guilty of the fraudulent and selective manipulation of facts for their nefarious political ends. Also, fundamentalist religious beliefs aggravate the reckless disregard of facts.

However, no part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on this. For one thing, the most virulent form of religious fundamentalism today is not conservative Christianity, but radical Islam. The belief in lunatic conspiracy theories is nowhere more widespread than in places like Pakistan.

And then there is another threat to scientific progress and to a rational, fact-based culture today:

Ever since I began teaching in the 1960s, the entire intellectual community has prayed at the altar of cultural relativity: Soon after the social sciences discovered this principle, it became dogma. Every 18-year old sociology freshman now came to the same conclusion: there are no absolutes.... And there is no such thing as good or evil.

....which means that there are no such things as facts. Post-modernism ran even further with the ball. Traditional math is sexist. We need to create a feminist math. History only consists of narratives, not facts.

For example: How did human life emerge in the Western Hemisphere? Archaeologists tell us that this happened when pre-historic tribes crossed the Bering Straight from Asia. But this is just one narrative. An alternative narrative is provided by American aborigines, who believe that humans sprang forth from the womb of mother earth. To the post-modernist, neither of these two narratives is more valid than the other.

So you see, the obstinate rejection of facts which contradict our beliefs is not limited to any group. It is rooted in our psychological make-up. The problem is, action based on belief over fact is likely to get you in trouble. Believing that you can fly doesn’t make jumping off a skyscraper any safer. leave comment here
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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Spain Wins World Soccer Cup over Netherlands

By Tom Kando

Ouch! Holland lost the world championship to Spain. I have nothing against Spain. Lovely country, lovely people. My sister and her children live there. But hey, I was rooting for “my” Holland, naturally.

It was tough to watch: Holland lost in overtime, during “power play,” to borrow a term from ice hockey: They only had 10 men, against Spain’s 11. Is this fair?

Actually, I had predicted the final score correctly (see my recent post about the Tour de France) : 1 to 0 - just the wrong way around. Go figure.

As always, there were many questionable penalties called, and some missed calls too. But I am not going to be a sore loser. The bad calls and the missed calls went both ways. Except the last one, which reduced the Dutch team to 10 men.

It was a defensive game, played cautiously and a bit roughly, especially by the Dutch. The Spaniards were probably slightly better. They took more shots, had more ball possession, and passed better. So I guess they deserve the win.

The Dutch soccer team reminds me of the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s, with quarterback Fran Tarkenton at the helm: They went to the Super bowl 4 times, and never won. Similarly, this is the 3rd time the Dutch go to the world final, and come out 2nd best.

Oh well, I congratulate the Dutch team anyway. Thanks for the joy you brought to millions. You are a great team, great athletes, among the world’s very best.

Someone said that soccer is a game for 4-year olds, which the rest of the world takes seriously. I must be a 4-year old. leave comment here
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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Message to the Tour de France Organizers

By Tom Kando

The Tour de France is the greatest athletic event in the world. Nothing compares with a nearly month-long, almost 3,000 mile long road race involving 200 of the world’s greatest athletes.

However: I don’t understand why the organizers and the authorities allow the racers to be subjected to such mayhem - generally caused by the public.

The millions of roadside spectators are incapable of controlling themselves - or their dogs. Every year, they seem to move a little closer to the very middle of the road, leaving practically no space for the racers to bike through. This causes innumerable accidents and serious injury to countless racers, who fall, break their bones and are often forced to quit.

Decades ago, the great Eddy Merckx was on the verge of winning his sixth Tour, when an unbelievable a....hole spectator caused him to fall!

A few years ago, Lance Armstrong fell after a spectator got tangled up in his handle bar.

This year, a spectator’s dog ran onto the road and caused two dozen racers to fall, some of whom had to quit the race altogether.

On July 4, fully half of the nearly 200 racers fell at one time or another during the stage, many of whom had to quit this year’s Tour as a result. Some of this was caused by motor oil spilling on an already rain-soaked and slippery road.

A couple of years ago, a spectator died. I believe he was run over by one of the vehicles of the Tour de France Caravan.

So let me address the Tour’s organizers in their own language:

Est-ce que vous etes fous, de permettre une telle situation?(Are you crazy, to allow such a situation?) Ces heros surhumains meritent respect et protection. (These superhuman heroes deserve respect and protection) Pourquoi tolerez-vous un tel bain de sang? (Why do you tolerate such a blood-bath?) Ne suffit-il pas que ces geants de la route entament - chaque annee - leur lute titanique, soufrant des douleurs inimaginables et des efforts epuisants?(Isn’t it enough that these giants of the road take on, every year, their titanic struggle, suffering unimaginable pain and exhausting efforts?) Pourquoi ne punissez-vous pas deja ces cretins spectateurs - au moins avec des grosses amendes, et meme la tole?(Why don’t you punish these idiot spectators - at least with heavy fines, and even with jail?) C’est inoui, qu’un saoulard ou un imbecile au bord de la route puisse severement blaisser ces athletes, ou meme mettre fin a leur cariere! (it is unbelievable that a roadside drunkard or imbecile could seriously hurt these athletes, or even put an end to their career!) leave comment here
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