Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I Speak Therefore I Am

by Madeleine Kando

I am fascinated with language. When I was little girl, I liked to play language games in my head. If I heard a new word, which was quite often since I had to learn three languages consecutively, I immediately deconstructed it. In Holland this tendency of mine was very useful. The Dutch like to string words together to make up new ones (arbeidsongeschiktheidsverzekering, which means disability insurance) and trying to find the roots of a word helped me learn Dutch.

So here I am, reading yet another book by Steven Pinker, the all-time expert on language. This one is called ‘The Stuff of Thought’. This has stimulated me to play another game in my head.

It is generally assumed that, other than ‘onomatopoeia’, the sounds of words are arbitrary: a train might as well be called a ‘tsorp’, it would not make any difference in its meaning.

But Pinker points out that some phonemes carry meaning in and of themselves. Take the sound ‘sn’ for instance. Many words with that sound in it have to do with the nose. Snout, snooze, snot, sneeze… you get the idea?

So, if I throw out another sound, let’s say ‘gl’? what does that conjure up in your mind? Glance? Gloat? Glean? Obviously the ‘gl’ sound has to do with vision. What about the sound ‘cl’? clan, clot, club, cluster? This sound probably has to do with people banding together…

Boy, language is funny. It makes you think about thinking, doesn’t it? It can keep you busy for days, speculating on the endless intricacies of this incredible tool we have developed to communicate with each other.

Pinker is a proponent of the ‘language as instinct’ theory, which means that humans are born with an ability for language, as instinctive as walking or breathing. Others say that people are born a blank slate and that everything has to be learnt, including language. I’ll leave it up to the the experts to fight it out. For me, it’s enough of a miracle that we are able to enjoy language, enjoy it almost as much as a sunset on a beautiful Hawaiian beach.

Words are being created all the time. But who are these Einsteins of language? I’d like to know. I suspect that language is so dynamic that it is being invented by people like you and me. Not by anyone ‘special’. New words come into a language mostly by necessity (texting, emailing, browsing etc). Other words enter our language because of major historical events, like ‘Ground zero’ or ‘wmd’s’.

Some words can be made up very easily. I just read the word: ‘preheritance’, (that is when parents give money to their children during their lifetime.) So why cannot we talk about going ‘pre-shopping’ for a wedding gown? (I guess that would mean going window-shopping), or say ‘I went on a pre-vacation to Hawaii?’ (I didn’t like it so I went to Bali instead.) It might generate an entire new industry or virtual experiences.

Language in itself is so mysterious. We take it totally for granted because we can all speak, but if you really think about it, it is one of the most incredible feats of the human mind. I would like to go on record by correcting what Descartes said so long ago (‘I think, therefore I am’) and change it to: ‘I SPEAK, THEREFORE I AM’. leave comment here
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Monday, August 30, 2010

Where are you the most likely to be Murdered?

By Tom Kando

A recent article (Sacramento Bee, August 23) shows that Venezuela has become one of the most dangerous places on earth. This grabbed my attention, if for no other reason than that my mother spent considerable time in that country.

In my criminology classes, I have usually devoted a lecture or two to global murder statistics. The countries perennially identified as having outrageous homicide rates include South Africa and several Latin American countries. The drug wars which have raged in Columbia for decades and in Mexico more recently put those countries among the top. And then there is Iraq, where sectarian strife has resulted in many thousands of civilian killings over the past decade.

I was a bit surprised to learn that Venezuela is now one of the top contenders - well above Iraq, South Africa, Columbia and Mexico. Since the election of President Chavez, criminal homicide in Venezuela has tripled - from about 25 to 55 per 100,000. Mexico’s rate is less than half as high, despite its well-publicized drug wars. Iraq’s rate is less than one third of Venezuela’s, despite sectarian violence.
Of course, murder rates are usually concentrated in (some) central cities, not evenly spread across an entire country. For example, since 2008, 28,000 Mexican civilians have been murdered, most of them in cities such as Juarez and Tijuana.
In Venezuela, murder is also concentrated in the major cities. Caracas’ murder rate is an astronomical 200 per 100,000. This is ten times higher than the rate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which has long had a reputation of being extremely dangerous.
Things aren’t going well under President Chavez. Venezuela is the only Latin American country whose economy is shrinking. Inflation is 30%. The judicial system is corrupt, rallying around Chavez out of fear. Newspapers are forbidden to publish images of violent crimes. Only 1 in 10 murders leads to an arrest!

So that’s one country in a mess. Here are some rankings for 20 other countries around the globe:

The numbers are per 100,000, per year. So for example if you live in the most murderous country in the world - El Salvador - your chances of being murdered are 71 per 100,000 in any given year. This means that you have a 1 in 20 chance of being murdered over your lifetime.

El Salvador: 71 per 100,000
Honduras 67
Jamaica 58
South Africa 37
Russia 16
Mexico 14
Ukraine 7
US 5.4
Canada 1.8
France 1.6
UK 1.5
Spain 1.2
Ireland 1.1
Italy 1.1
Greece 1
Netherlands .9
Germany .9
Japan .4
Iceland .3
Liechtenstein: 0

Meaningless statistics, you may say. Yes and no. As I said, there is huge variation within each country. The dozens of thousands of soccer fans who went to the World Cup in South Africa were pretty safe.

Still, you can look at this way: If you live in El Salvador, your chances of being murdered over your lifetime, are 1 in 20, in Venezuela 1 in 25. In the US, it’s 1 in 260. In Canada, 1 in 800. In Japan, 1 in 4000, in Iceland 1 in 5000. You are safer traveling to Baghdad than to Caracas.leave comment here
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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Are we All Born Racist?

By Tom Kando

I knew it! They found where racism is located in your brain.

According to NYU Psychology Professor David Amodio, racism is found in the subcortex. That is where “the basic machinery... to make snap judgments on race is located...Our brains are wired” that way. Also, “the neocortex is... the part of the brain which tries to override prejudice, and which makes you feel guilty... when prejudice escapes.” (Washington Post and Sacramento Bee, Sunday August 22).

According to the article, this is good news for Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the conservative radio talk show hostess. She recently got in trouble for using the N-word in one of her broadcasts. According to the article, her neocortex will now make her feel guilty about what she did, and she will never again use the N-word and be racially insensitive.

Articles like this make me sad. I am sad at the astonishing silliness to which our culture, politics and media chitchat are stooping.

I don’t want to talk about the Laura Schlessinger flap. It’s a tempest in a teapot.

What is tragic, though, is the degeneration of psychology into total reductionism. The desperate search for a chemical/genetic holy grail that will explain all human emotions, attitudes, behavior, culture.

Today, we are told by scientific experts that “we are born racist.”

So I’d like to know: is one also born with Republican or Democratic attitudes? I used to be a Republican. Now I am a Democrat. How did that happen? Did my brain chemistry change? But being from Europe, maybe I have socialist genes?

Look: I am not denying that genetic factors and neural processes have much to do with emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Duh. But how on earth has it come to the point where nature is becoming the overwhelming winner in the old nature-nurture debate?

The simplification and vulgarization of psychology are unquestionable. It seems that the whole society wants the mental to be reduced to the chemical. It is easy to understand why: Were “science” to achieve this, it would offer the promise of easy manipulation. We are already on our way. Hardly any problem - bi-polarity, addictions, neuroses, ADHD, you name it - is approached through means other than psychotropic medications.

Again, only a fool would deny that psychotropic drugs have an important place in fighting mental disease, which is very real, despite what radical libertarians such as Thomas Szasz and Erving Hoffman believed in the 1960s.

But now we are told that medications will also cure racism, hatred and other undesirable attitudes. Of course, obesity has long been on that list already. What about conservatism? Or its opposite, liberalism? Or a desire to get an abortion? Or homosexuality, or homophobia? Or a desire to murder or rape? Or a desire to take vacations overseas?

Now don’t come back at me all outraged that I put all these things on the same list.

My point is that the vocabulary which is being popularized these days - a neuro-scientific paradigm - is an idiotic simplification which can potentially be applied to any attitude or behavior deemed “undesirable” by some group. And more importantly, this quest is as futile as was that of the medieval alchemists. Human psychology will never fully be reducible to chemistry because it is fundamentally cultural. Did the Holocaust happen because Germans had a racist subcortex? leave comment here
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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Decisions, decisions

by Madeleine Kando

Ever since I can remember I have had difficulty making decisions. It started already when I was ten years old. I had to choose between a bike with pink handles and one with blue handles. I agonized for a whole day, pacing my room in Amsterdam. That’s where I lived with my parents, my older brother and my twin sister. I blame it all on her of course. Choosing the right thing is essential when you are competing with a twin for your single parent’s love and your older brother’s attention. It creates a lot of sister-envy and self-doubt.

If I chose the bike with the pink handles, she would get the one with the blue handles. And THEN what was I going to do? There was bound to be someone who would say ‘Oh, I love that bike with the blue handles’. It would totally ruin it for me. I would be miserable, hate my bike with the pink handles and wished that I had chosen the one with the blue handles.

So, yes, it is all my twin sister’s fault. As I grew older, my inability to choose grew worse. When she had a boyfriend with blond hair, and mine had brown hair, I couldn’t stop feeling jipped. I wasn’t sure if I liked my brown haired boyfriend any more. Why couldn’t he have blond hair, like HERS?

I started traveling after high school and finally felt the umbilical cord that tied me to my twin sister somewhat loosen around my neck. I still had difficulty deciding anything, however, but that was because there were now a lot more choices in my life. That’s the trouble with growing up: nobody tells you what to do any more. I hated that. I lived in London for a while where I had to make choices a lot. Every day I had to decide whether I should take the subway home or the bus. What I should wear to work: high heels or sneakers. What to do on my days off: go to the park or go to the zoo..I often avoided making decisions altogether by just roaming the beautiful streets of London.

As my life developed things did’nt get any easier for me. Every day I was confronted with a barrage of choices. How on earth was I supposed to decide what kind of dog to get? Long-haired? Small? Blue eyed? Who needs all those breeds anyway?

My wise husband explains my handicap this way: ‘You cannot choose’ he says, ‘because you want it all. You really want both the blue and pink handles. You want to be like the famous Schroedinger cat: dead and alive at the same time. But, unless you shrink yourself to the size of an electron (he read somewhere that they can be in two places at once, the lucky devils), you have to make a choice’.

I know he hit the nail on the head. I don’t want to miss out on anything. Especially now, that I am on vacation in beautiful Kauai. It truly is a curse. I woke up this morning and couldn’t decide whether I should get out of bed on the left or the right side. I can’t decide which beach to go to today. And tomorrow: should I go on a jungle hike or a boat trip?

Maybe, if some words were banned from the English vocabulary I wouldn’t be able to give in to my wishy-washiness. Words like ‘perhaps’, ‘what if’, ‘suppose’, ‘assuming’…

But I think I am fighting a losing battle. Choices are the name of the game these days. Not too long ago I could still understand my telephone bill. The company offered me a few reasonable choices. But these days just receiving the bill in the mail causes me heart palpitations and I postpone paying it until it is way overdue.

When we go shopping, my husband and I couldn’t be further apart on the choosing scale. He is a no nonsense kind of person that grabs the first thing that seems to work and moves on. Me, I am the opposite. Shopping for me is a paralyzing experience. How can I settle on anything? What about all the undiscovered treasures out there? What if I leave a store and someone else finds the glass slipper?

I am looking out my big bedroom window over an endless stretch of Hawaiian ocean. I wish I was a fish. Up, down, left, right, everywhere I looked, it would be the same. I wouldn't have to choose which way to swim or what part of the ocean to visit next. Boy, what a life that would be. leave comment here
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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Americans are the Nicest People in the World

By Tom Kando

Today, I took another long bike ride in the foothills. Redneck country. Where everyone drives a pick-up truck or an SUV. Where they wear cowboy hats.

It was a grueling 30 miles uphill, during the hottest part of the afternoon. I stopped at a roadside joint a few miles outside of Nevada City. You know, with a Budweiser sign out front, a board advertising nightcrawlers, hamburgers, etc. I just wanted some ice water in my bottles.

Then I saw a sign, CLOSED ON MONDAY. Fortunately, the lady owner happened to come around, sweeping the porch. Nice looking, forty-something brunette, somewhat portly.

“You need water?” she asks, smiling.

“Well, I see you’re closed...”

“No problem, come on in. The ice machine is in the kitchen. Let me get you some ice, too...

I follow her inside. She disappears into the kitchen, and I see a bunch of $20 bills sitting on the counter by the cash register.

She returns a few minutes later, with a bucket of ice. She fills my two water bottles for me.

“Great, thank you so much for your trouble,” I say, trying to give her a couple of dollars.

But she refuses.. “Nah, you don’t need to do that...”

So we chat for a few minutes, while I guzzle down some ice water, and then I start my descent back to Sacramento, after she waves me off with a friendly,
“ you come back now, ya hear!”

So, as I start tumbling down the hill, I think to myself, “I swear, Americans are soooo nice! And she leaves a total stranger alone at the bar with $20 bills all over it! Something like this would be inconceivable in any other country where I have lived or visited. Hungary? France? Russia? Even Holland or Switzerland? No way. Nor anywhere else in Europe.

Have you ever tried to take a leak in a European café without ordering a drink? They’ll hound you out! Last year I took my 96-year old mother on the road in Europe. At her age, she has to go a lot. We had to make an emergency pitstop at a roadside café in France. No way. They wouldn’t let her use the bathroom, unless we ordered a couple of drinks. For the rest of the trip, she learned to squat on the roadside, between the two car doors open and shielding her.

Same thing happened to me in Switzerland. I was told at a mall restaurant, “first you order ze drink, ja! Zen you use ze bassroom!”

In Holland, don’t try to get a refill of hot water for your tea, or a second wedge of lemon. “We don’t do that here, sir! You must buy a second cup of tea, and pay for the extra lemon.”

And don’t expect free tap water in restaurants. If you ask for it, they’ll bring you a tiny bottle of mineral water, which costs an arm and a leg.


Well, you get my drift. But maybe you don’t like my sociology. I just told you about the nice lady in the California Gold Country. That’s a sample of one. Stop always generalizing, Kando.

Well, all I can tell you is that I have had dozens - maybe hundreds - of such experiences over the past 50 years. Of course, there are always exceptions. But by and large, I have found Americans to be the nicest people.

I haven’t been everywhere. Maybe in Bali people are even nicer. Or some place else. But hey, I am just giving you an insight. Take it or leave it.

Today, I am not ranting about Americans’ political misconceptions. Who knows, the nice lady at the roadside joint might belong to the Tea Party. But that’s a different topic. All I know is that Americans are the nicest people in the world. Maybe it’s something left of the pioneer spirit. An ebullient, friendly, outgoing mentality that says, believe the best in people, until proven otherwise. leave comment here
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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is Europe being overrun by Muslims? Some Afterthoughts.

By Tom Kando

Recently, Paul commented on, and criticized, something I said in our August 4 post, “We are at War!”

I said that Europe was being “overrun by Muslim immigrants.” I sounded like Geert Wilders, the outspoken, controversial and popular nativist Dutch politician known for his hostility to immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants. Okay, I’ll backtrack. Let’s forget “Muslim.”

I only singled out this one religion, I suppose irrelevantly, because it is numerically by far the largest group of immigrants to Europe.

Let’s just ask (1) whether Europe is being overrun, period, (2) if so, by whom, and (3) whether this is good or bad.

My answer to my own questions is this:

1) Maybe “overrun” is an exaggeration. But there is no doubt that many millions of immigrants have been moving to Europe for decades.

2) They come largely from Third World countries, obviously in search of a better life - North Africans, Turks, Pakistanis, Afghans, Senegalese, Congolese, Serbs, Bosnians, Somalians, Surinamese, and many others.

3) Obviously moving is good for the immigrants. It is also good for Europe in some ways. It helps the labor market. It helps demographically, as the birthrate of many European countries is below replacement level.

In a cosmic/planetary sense, the mass migration of poor Third World populations to the affluent West is “moral,” and “just.” Why should Europeans be rich and Africans starve?

But surely it is inconvenient for Europeans, no? The quality of life in Europe declines as a result. There is more crime. There is more inter-cultural conflict. There is economic cost. There are vast new slums (Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam, L’Ile St-Denis in Paris, etc.). Algerians periodically burn several thousand cars in Paris.

There is a difference between the current mass migration to Europe and the largely Latin mass migration to the United States: The people who cross the Rio Grande come entirely for jobs and for a better life, with very little political or revolutionary baggage. But some/many of the “allochtones” (the Dutch word for such largely ethnic immigrants) in Europe have, in addition, a cultural and political agenda that aims to “change” (= subvert) the European status quo. Their economic grievances may be justified, but the difference of which I speak is very real.

We could look back at Ancient Rome, and say that they, too, admitted “allochtones” to their midst.
Applying this word to ancient Rome instead of speaking of “Visigoths,” and “Lombards” is funny, and it puts things in an interesting context.

Back then, the arrival of those populations into the Roman Empire can also be seen as “just.” After all, they only wanted to share in the wealth and the amenities of Roman life. But it didn’t work out very well, did it?

Did I say that Third World immigrants to Europe are barbarians? No
But does Europe have a problem? Yes
Am I speaking in cliches and generalities? Yes
Is what I wrote probably true? Yes leave comment here
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Where are the Biggest Crooks?

Tom Kando

Okay, so the government of the Southern California city of Bell is made up of crooks. City manager Rizzo and council members voted themselves annual salaries ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to one and a half million. Then, forced to retire by the scandal, they will enjoy annual pensions ranging from a couple of hundred thousand to over a million. Bell is a poor suburb of Los Angeles, with a population of 40,000 people and an annual budget of $14 million.

And every day, we hear about other similar malfeasance - State senators receiving fat per diems even when they are not at work. Public officials on school boards and in the court system enjoying salaries in excess of half a million dollars, and then in addition charging Las Vegas casino trips to their office account, i.e. to the tax payer. And so forth.

But here is what gets me:

In the same issue of the Sacramento Bee which reports on the above crookedness, I find an article about Mark Hurd, the recently fired CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Guess what his severance package is? $40 million!

There is a lot of thievery in society. Greed and dishonesty have become pandemic. But where do we find the most astronomical instances of greed? We focus a lot on the public sector and on politicians. Politicians are seen as the lowest form of human life, something out of which Jay Leno and other banal comedians get a lot of mileage.

But where is the outrage about the ten or hundred times greater money grabs in corporate America?

The President of my university makes almost $400,000, which aggravates the Professors’ Union. Big deal. Michele Obama spent a few thousand dollars on a Spanish holiday. Wooptido.

Meanwhile, in April, Goldman Sachs paid its bank staff $5 billion (yes, that’s billion, with a “B,” five thousand million) in bonuses for three months work.

Clearly, the public is angry. The public wants change. The public has been brainwashed into believing that the government/public sector is the problem, and that corporate America is the solution. People like Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Mitt Romney will save us (after buying their victories).

So here is my question:

Doesn’t anyone understand that, corrupt and dysfunctional as things may be now, a great right-wing victory in the Fall elections will make things infinitely worse?

“Change” is great, but change for what? Republicans offer tax cuts for the rich, cutbacks of the social safety net, escalation of the war in Afghanistan, more inequality, more privilege, more prisons to house the poor.

Two idioms come to mind, when seeing the direction in which groups like the Tea-Party want to go: Cutting off your nose to spite your face, and: jumping from the frying pan into the fire! leave comment here
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Saturday, August 7, 2010

I Just Met Superman

By Tom Kando

This afternoon I biked up to Rescue and back. This has become my favorite ride over the past year. It’s a fifty-miler from my front door and back. I go up to Folsom Lake and then take Green Valley road up to a hole-in-the-wall called Rescue. It’s a 1200 foot vertical climb, and on hot August afternoons, it takes the stuffing out of me. I am slow, but I get there. Beyond Francisco Road, it’s practically non-stop uphill for five or six miles. The road is very beautiful, it follows an isolated stream, there is little traffic and the shoulder is good. Between the endorphins and communion with nature, I am in heaven.

My turnaround point is the Rescue fire station, a single antique building in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Gold Rush mementos. There is never a soul. That’s where I usually take my half-way break, drenched in sweat, guzzling down gatorade and devouring a power gel. Silence reigns.

So I thought I was doing something pretty nifty.

But this afternoon, as I sat on a pile of stones collecting myself for the return ride, this other biker stops and starts chatting.

He is a handsome youngster probably in his 20s. His face bears an uncanny resemblance to my nephew Tomi, although his helmet conceals some of his features.

I immediately detect a British accent. I also notice that his road bike - a fine Giant-brand carbon bike very similar to mine - is loaded with a tent, a gallon water container and assorted other paraphernalia.

“Hi!” I say amicably. “I am Tom. Looks like you went far. Where did you ride from?”
“My name is Daniel. I rode from Virginia....” is his astounding answer.
“No way!” I exclaim. “You mean Virginia City, in Nevada?”
“No, Virginia on the East Coast...”
“That’s stupendous! When did you leave?”
“I’ve been on the road since June 28...”
“So that’s almost six weeks...”
“Right.”
“So you must’ve done 100 miles a day! That’s incredible. That’s better than the Tour de France! You have done over 3000 miles!”
“Over 4000, actually...

I further learn that Dan’s destination, tonight, is San Francisco - still over 100 miles away. He comes from Birmingham, England, and he is just doing this for the heck of it. Just today, he started in Nevada and followed highway 88 in California, crossing the 8650 foot Carson Pass! That’s way higher that the Tourmalet, the Tour de France’s most challenging mountain pass! Unbelievable!

I am flabbergasted. I can’t stop asking questions. The heat, the distances, the utter isolation crossing the Far West.

“It feels pretty good here,” he says (today was in the mid-nineties - a reasonable summer temperature for Sacramento). “Back East was bad, some days. 99 degrees, and extremely humid. Crossing Kansas was the worst.”

“How about Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, the deserts,” I ask, “ weren’t there enormous stretches of absolute nothingness?”

“Yeah! The longest stretch I went without seeing any roadside stops or people or anything was somewhere in Nevada - for 86 miles, it was just the road and me...”

Then he adds, “I thought Nevada was flat, but it sure isn’t, man!”

“So, did you have flats, or other mishaps?” I inquired. “And what do you do, if something bad happens?”

He shows me his map, his cell phone. His spare tire, his gallon water. But he has no GPS.

Two red necks happen to come by. I am so excited, I address them, saying, “Hey you guys, guess what: Dan here just rode his bike all the way from Virginia!”

The only reaction we get from one of the red necks: “Why would he do such a thing?”

Dan answers courteously: “It’s the challenge, I guess.”

And then, he hops on his bike, saying, “Well, I have to get to San Francisco before nightfall. Better go.”

I get his e-mail address, and I wish him the best. I still can’t believe it. Here I thought I was doing something - riding up to Rescue, doing 60 miles on a hot August afternoon. Wooptido! But today I met superman. leave comment here
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Friday, August 6, 2010

Some Random Thoughts on Language

by Madeleine Kando

My husband has difficulty pronouncing English words sometimes. He is originally from The Netherlands. When we visited a plant nursery a few days ago and my husband asked the salesman if he had any jews for sale, the poor man’s face showed total bewilderment. We wanted to create a natural fence in our yard and my husband prefers yews over other species of hedges.

He also likes to tell yokes. But his difficulty making the distinction between a ‘j’ and a ‘y’ often gets more laughs from his audience than the punch line. He likes to talk about the jellow birds that he saw in the yard and how he is going to wear his favorite yacket that day.

I don’t know why he makes those mistakes. It’s not like Dutch doesn’t possess the ‘y’ sound. Now, if he were French, he would have a legitimate excuse. French doesn’t have the ‘y’ unless it is in a word they stole from English or German.

Another favorite of the English language is the ‘w’. Germans are not very fond of this sound. They are known to say: ‘Vee had a vonderful veekend.’

I myself, have difficulty with the English ‘th’. I safely stay away from using words like ‘clothes’ or ‘sloths’. (I prefer to say ‘garments’ and ‘that slow monkey’ for fear of being ridiculed.) More than two consonants in a row is just not acceptable in any language, except maybe Welsh. My sister used to live in Wales, in a place near ‘Cwmbwrla’. Even though finding her derelict cottage was almost impossible, I refused to ask for directions.

Yes, the English ‘th’ is a real toughy for a lot of non-native speakers. The French are the worst offenders in that department: ‘Zis weekend we went to ze beach’, they’ll say. But it’s not easily mastered by many other foreigners. My mom, who is Hungarian, likes to talk about her past: ‘When I was dirty’ she’ll say, ‘I was very beautiful’.

The English ‘th’ must have been invented by someone with a heavy lisp. In Dutch at least the ‘th’ sound is usually represented by a decent, single consonant, the ‘d’. (Dutch for ‘the’ is ‘de’, ‘thin’ is ‘dun’ and ‘thanks’ is ‘dank’). To pronounce a ‘th’ your tongue has to protrude between your teeth and it makes you look like you are mentally challenged.

A mother called me today asking if there was a ‘pass’ that came to my dance studio. I told her I didn’t understand, so she said: ‘I live in Belmont, is there a ‘pass’ that goes to your studio?’ I finally realized that she meant ‘bus’. She was Korean and had trouble with the ‘b’ and the ‘u’.

In English, you have to be able to distinguish between ‘seat and sit’, ‘set and sat’, ‘sought and soot’ and ‘suit and sot’. Insert an ‘h’ in some of those words and you enter dangerous territory, as a non-native speaker. When my mom skyped me in a panic, telling me that there was a shit stuck in her printer I laughed so hard, I almost fell off my chair. I told her to pull on the shit gently and pull it out from between the rollers.

So you see, it’s almost impossible to become totally fluent in a language that you are not raised in. Even for speakers of other Germanic languages, like Dutch, German or Swedish, these subtle differences are hard to hear, let alone pronounce.

But I shouldn’t complain. We could have ended up living on Iceland. Try pronouncing the name of the volcano that spewed all that ash into the stratosphere. It’s called: ‘eyjafjallajokull’. leave comment here
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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

We are at War!

by Madeleine Kando

(This essay came about as an email exchange between Tom and myself)

Madeleine: As I was listening to a program about the draw-down of troops in Iraq, I realized that most of the time I am not aware that this country is at war. War, to me, means bombed out cities, people trying to survive by hiding in the subway. People being shot at for no reason, just because they are 'in the way'. But we fight our wars somewhere else, so that our streets are safe, our food is on the table, our babies don't get trampled by marching soldiers.

Tom:
What America is doing now is actually what the British General Montgomery once said, "We British fight our wars overseas; we prefer it that way." Americans now say, "If we don’t fight them there, we'll have to fight them here." They say this because they were traumatized by 9/11, and the right-wing elite won't ever let them forget it. But I think Americans are stupid. By "fighting them over there," they are paying much more than it's worth. They are going broke, losing thousands of men, and they are not winning the wars over there anyway.

Madeleine:
It is a terrible thing to be part of a war where the enemy is invisible. Where is our enemy? Yes, I know, we are fighting 'the terrorists', the 'bad guys', the guys that are threatening our way of life. But my life does not feel threatened. I can drive to the pool, I can think about what I should make for dinner. I can go to the movies. What is it that I can NOT do because of this war? At least the German soldiers marching into Paris were visible to the Parisians. They could feel and touch them. They could hate them. They were 'the enemy'.


Tom:
Yes, things are very different from World War Two. There is no standing enemy. But you seem to be ambivalent. Like me, you probably feel that we should get out of there a.s.a.p., but you must also agree that the Taliban, Al-Qaida and radical Islam are bad (think just how they deal with women - for starters).

I feel that we should get the hell out of both Afghanistan and Iraq immediately. We should - as a result - become an economically much stronger country, and be better prepared in case of future confrontations with radical Islam (or with anyone else). We should totally condemn, reject and do everything we can against radical Islam (but not organized, wasteful standing warfare, which only leads to failure). We should stop nation-building in places which will not be functioning nations for thousand years, no matter what (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, most of the Middle East). In other words, do pretty much what Bill Clinton did.

Madeleine:
I understand why Europe has an advantage. Why they created the European Union. As an attempt to bind nations so that the horror of the two World Wars would never be repeated.


Tom:
Of course unification was the right thing to do after World Wars I and II, but who knows what Europe will be like in the future. Unification is not preventing it from being overrun by Muslim immigrants, and it isn't clear who will reach Third World status first - the US or Europe. We are all sinking. Most likely PARTS of both - the US Gulf region is already a catastrophe, and so are various Mediterranean regions...

Madeleine:
Is this country too 'naïve', too 'green', too 'overconfident', to realize that war is never going to benefit us or the nations that we are trying to 'save'?


Tom:
Naïve and overconfident, you say? Of course. I would say it's more than naïve and overconfident. It's tragic and idiotic. It seems that we are bent on digging our own grave, while the rest of the world is laughing all the way to the bank. It's a tragedy all around - for the countries we are trying to "help" AND for us.

So we'd be much better off getting out, and strengthening our defenses closer to home, including fixing our economy.

Meanwhile, the opportunistic Europeans, Chinese and Japanese are reaping all the benefits. America pays the price for (trying to) policing the world and protecting the flow of oil, commerce, etc.

The solution? There isn't one for those countries. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, the rest of the Middle East, etc., those place will not be viable countries for another 1000 years (and by the way, there is NO solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict either. There will never be peace there, never). But for us here, there IS a solution, and that is to get the heck out of there and start rebuilding a country which used to be great.leave comment here
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