Wednesday, June 9, 2021

France, the US and Germany: Old Friends, New Friends

This is a timely post, as President Biden is in Europe, repairing our ties with our major allies. 

Several of the books I read recently are about history and war (the two sometimes seem to be almost synonymous). They include Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell, The Kaiser’s Web, by Steve Berry, and The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn.
The first of these books involves France’s role in America’s war of independence. The second book is about Germany in World War Two and thereafter. The third one is about France and Germany during World Wars One and Two. 
I grew up in France, and I remain an inveterate Francophile. France has played a huge role in the history of the Western world during the past two and a half centuries. However, Anglo-Saxon culture - beginning with its language - still dominates the world, and Germany is viewed as the primary European country, certainly in economic terms. For France, there also remains the stain of its prompt defeat by Germany at the outset of World War Two. There are those who enjoy reminding us of this, poking fun at the supposedly cowardly French. An example is Bill Bryson, who wrote in his otherwise delightful travel book, “Let’s face it, the French Army couldn’t beat a girls hockey team.” And of course, we are often reminded how indebted France is to the US for liberating it from the Nazis in 1944-45.  Read more...

Wednesday, May 26, 2021


By Madeleine Kando

The winter is finally over in this little corner of the world I call home.

As May turns into June, I look out on a deep green backyard. The traffic to our birdfeeders is so dense, that the cacophony of bird calls sounds like an orchestra warming up before a concert. Actually, birds are quite civilized about birdfeeder etiquette - as long as they are from different species. But a warbler’s nephew will have to fight his uncle beak and claw, while a complete stranger will be allowed to feed right next to him.

At the crack of dawn, I put on my garden boots, and walk through the French doors into the morning dew. A small red squirrel hops out from under the hydrangea bush. He is making a run for the bird feeder. He stops, grabs a seed and rapidly turns it around in his paws, spits out the hull and stuffs the rest in his mouth. With jerky, quick movements, he buries more nuts, but in the course of the day, he forgets where he put them and will frantically search for the lost treasure.

Two tom turkeys appear, tails fanned out, the iridescent color of their feathers reminiscent of knights in shining armor. They puff themselves up to the point of bursting, vying for a female’s attention. She is busy picking seeds out of the ground, indifferent to their extravagant display.

A red tailed hawk, so still, until he swoops down to catch a pigeon in mid-flight. He stomps on its prey with its powerful claws, feathers flying, blood gushing, He waits patiently, until slowly, the convulsions begin to subside and the pigeon is finally motionless. Then, his beak still dripping blood, he opens his enormous wings and soars up in the sky with a piece of dead flesh dangling from his claws.

In my raised beds the beans and peas have grown tentacles that are trying to reach to the sky. The tomato plants crowd each other out, competing for sunshine. As I slowly walk by them, like a captain reviewing the troops, I pick off the suckers, caress the cucumber leaves to encourage them to grow. Read more...

Sunday, May 23, 2021

On Differences and Inequalities between People

Human beings differ from one another. Groups differ, social classes and cultures differ, and individuals differ. 

The question I want to bring up today is that of different OUTCOMES for different individuals. I.o.w.: different degrees of “success” in some field or other. 

The number of areas in which individual outcomes differ is practically infinite. Maybe most prominently, since today’s world culture is so materialistic, are different degrees of WEALTH. 

We have individuals such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Their net worths are, respectively, $151 billion and $177 billion. At the other end of the spectrum are starving people. The world’s adult median net worth is about $7,000, That of Africans is $1,200. (List of Countries by Wealth)
So the differences are as follows: Jeff Bezos = 25 million times the world’s median wealth, and 150 million times that of the median African wealth. 
The behavioral sciences have long been studying “differences.” Anthropology documents the world’s cultural diversity. Psychology helps us understand individual differences. Explaining the causes of differentiation in wealth, success and power has long been the province of such social sciences as economics and political science. My own discipline, Sociology, practically owns the field of “Social Stratification,” at least since Karl Marx.  Read more...

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Refugees after World War Two, but Fine in the End

 This post is a reminder that immigrants are a positive force in the world. This is a small part of my story and that of my immigrant family. At first, we lived in misery, but we overcame the challenges. In the end we succeeded both for ourselves, and for the good of the countries that received us. This is not a sob story, but a success story. 

We fled from Hungary to France in 1947, two years after the end of World War Two. 

Both countries were still war-torn, but Hungary was in far worse shape than France. It was occupied by the Soviet Army, and in the process of turning Communist. Budapest looked the same as Dresden - a devastated, flattened, pulverized graveyard with over one hundred thousand dead, including some of my relatives. In comparison, Paris was more livable. My parents somehow found the means to take the train to Paris. In late 1947, they and I made the move. It took us five days to get there. I was nearly seven years old.

Our official status in France was “apatride,” meaning “stateless.” I remember my main identity paper: It was a card with the United Nations logo.  Read more...

Monday, May 17, 2021

The God Particle

By Madeleine Kando

In the Middle Ages people weren’t very interested in things that didn’t affect their daily lives. If religion didn’t have an explanation for something, it meant that it wasn’t important. End of story.

Today, people are interested in things that don’t directly affect their daily life, but up to a point. How many of us are truly interested in finding out about quantum mechanics, dark matter, the uncertainty principle and other esoteric concepts that only a fraction of humanity truly understands? Even famous physicist Richard Feinman said: ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics’.

I belong to the category of humans that suffers from what is called “The Dunning-Kruger Effect”, which means that the stupider you are, the smarter you think you are, (and vice versa). I think I understand something only because I am too stupid to realize that I don’t understand it.

Do particle physicists tackle the problems of world hunger or poverty? Do they make the world a better place? Or is it all a gigantic waste of human capital and resources? Why should we care if a sub-atomic particle has a half spin or a whole spin, why it decays in a billionth of a second? Whether it is a Fermion, a Gluon or a Boson?

Well, I’ll tell you why. Because without quantum mechanics, we wouldn’t have smart phones, x-ray machines or laser surgery, just to name a few. Without particle physics, we wouldn’t have discovered the Higgs field and without the Higgs field, an energy field that permeates all of space, I wouldn’t be sitting here, trying to write about something that is way beyond my pay grade.

Once you embark on the road to the infinetisimally small, you enter a realm that borders on the incomprehensible and in my case, it has turned into an addiction. How can it not, when you read headlines like ‘Science discovers the God Particle’, or ‘the Particle at the End of the Universe’. Read more...

Tuesday, May 4, 2021


I’m thinking about vaccine resistance. 

There are millions of people who don’t want to get the Covid vaccine. The friendly way to refer to many of these people is to say that they suffer from “ vaccine hesitancy.” However, many of them are not just hesitant; they are adamant Covid deniers and vaccine resisters. There are vicious anti-vaxxers. According to recent polls reported by CNN, 26% of all Americans and 41% of Republicans said that they plan NOT to get the vaccine. 

I grew up in a sane world. When I was in primary school and in high school in France, we all got our diphtheria, measles, tetanus, polio, rubella and a few other vaccines. Mandatory, period. Prevents contagion and epidemics, saves lives. 
But now that we are going through the deadliest pandemic in a century, there is a “debate” as to whether the Covid vaccine represents an unacceptable infringement of human rights. Nuts. 
Keep in mind that America remains by far the top country in the world in terms of its number of Covid infections, both in absolute and in per capita terms. There is half a dozen micro-countries such as Andorra, Gibraltar and Luxembourg that have higher rates of Covid infection than we do, but not a single “regular sized” country exceeds our rate. There are still seven times more people per million infected with Covid in America than in India. Check it out. 
Also, the anti-vaxxer movement is mixed with right-wing extremist movements such as QAnon and fascist white supremacists such as the Proud Boys. For example, there is a group in California, and expanding into other states, called “Freedom Angels” (See Sacramento Bee, May 2, 2021). It is a heavily armed, largely female survivalist militia. It shares its agenda with other right-wing extremist and conspiracy groups. They all see vaccines as a common enemy.  Read more...

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Good Country Index

By Madeleine Kando

If you are like me, you don’t associate the word ‘good’ with a nation. That word is usually reserved to qualify people, or food or the weather. Some countries are considered ‘good to live in’ because of the weather or quality of life, but Simon Anholt, the creator of ‘the Good Country Index’ has something completely different in mind when he brands a country as ‘good’.

What makes a country rise to the top of the ‘Good Country Index’, is how much it contributes to the welfare of the entire planet. Conversely a ‘bad’ country does the opposite. The Index measures how much each of the 163 countries on the list contributes to the planet, and to the human race, through their policies and behaviors.

Most governments feel that their responsibility is to their own citizens, not the planet. ‘Make my country great again!’ is what many leaders hear from the people who voted for them. But often, this means that other countries, including the planet itself, are getting worse in the process. Anholt advocates for a new ‘culture of governance’, which he calls ‘the Dual Mandate’.

“One day soon, the casual nationalism that characterizes almost all political and economic discussions will seem as outdated and offensive as sexism and racism do today. Leaders must realize that they're responsible not only for their own people, but for every man, woman, child and animal on the planet; not just responsible for their own slice of territory, but for every square inch of the earth's surface and the atmosphere above it.” (From the Good Country website).

This, in fact, makes Anholt’s Index the first global ‘watchdog’ of its kind.

It really makes a lot of sense, since the most important challenges facing humanity right now are global in nature: Problems like global warming, migration, human rights and poverty, do not recognize borders; they cannot be solved on a national level, no matter how well-off a country is. The Good Country Index is interested in how MUCH countries are doing, not how WELL countries are doing. Read more...

Monday, April 19, 2021

A review of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions

By Madeleine Kando

In his latest book, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal continues to show beyond any doubt, that animals are not only sentient and intelligent creatures, but have an emotional life that is as complex as ours.

The book opens with a heart wrenching description of a dying chimpanzee called Mama, the matriarch of the colony at the Royal Berger Zoo in Holland.

She receives a visit from Jan Van Hooff, an 80 year old Professor whom she has known for 40 years. As she recognizes him, her whole face turns into a huge smile. She strokes his grey hair, puts her large hand on his shoulder and makes yelping sounds to show how happy she is to see him. Then, like my own 100 year old mother did, when I went to see her before she died, Mama curls up again into a ball. The brief visit took all the strength she could muster at that moment.

De Waal doesn’t leave any stone unturned when it comes to debunking false beliefs about primates and humans. The fact that we descend from an ‘apelike’ ancestor, does not mean that the primates of today are a more primitive version of us. The evolutionary history of the bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas goes as far back in time as our own. They are not our evolutionary parents, a more primitive version of us, but have separately evolved for as long as we have.


What made Mama the Alpha Female of the Colony? In one of his famous Ted Talks: ‘The Surprising Science of Alpha Males’, de Waal explains that the qualities that make a good leader are not strength and bullying, but traits like generosity, peacekeeping and empathy. Mama had those traits in abundance. She was what de Waal calls ‘the consoler in chief’. She was the boss because she broke up fights, knew how to compromise and make coalitions.  Not only was Mama the boss, she was also the focus of intense male attention. By describing the colony’s sexual habits, de Waal shows us that we are not the only species capable of impulse control. Mama’s admirers did not openly fight to have 'a go at it': they knew that by allowing one of them that privilege, the price was to receive a grooming session afterward. If one of them broke the rule, there was hell to pay. Read more...

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Do we need more Religion?

I recently came across an article by Andres Oppenheimer titled “Churches, Religion Losing Followers Around the World” (Sacramento Bee and Miami Herald, April 13 ‘21). He, in turn, quotes Shadi Hamid’s article titled “America Without God” in the April 2021 issue of The Atlantic
Neither of these pieces is earth-shattering, but I will use them as a prompt for some comments about religion. 
To quote Oppenheimer and Hamid: “The decline of religions in the western world is leaving a huge vacuum.... Human beings by their very nature are searching for meaning...and that won’t change....The danger now is that religions will be replaced by secular political fanaticism....If religions aren’t around to teach us basic values - you shall not lie, you shall not be indifferent to oppression, etc. who will do it instead? Christianity, Islam and Judaism (should) reinvent themselves... (They) offer us ancient tales of wisdom....they can serve as a much-needed moral guide...(if) they adapt to modern times. (Otherwise,) their decline will continue and dangerous secular radicalism will take their place.” 
The only thing which Oppenheimer and Hamid got right is that “human beings by their very nature are searching for meaning,” and truth, I should add. That is what philosophers and scientists have been doing for thousands of years - from Plato’s Idealism and Aristotle’s Metaphysics to Darwin’s theory of evolution, Twentieth Century Existentialism, Socialism and Einstein’s Relativity Theory.  Read more...

Monday, April 5, 2021

US Presidents Ranked

by Tom Kando

So we have a new president (thank God!). 

As an inveterate list addict, one of the numerous lists with which I have often played is that of US presidents. I look up rankings done by experts such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and I also try my own rankings based on a bit of knowledge, some research and a lot of ignorance. 

Joe Biden is our 46th president. His predecessor, Donald Trump, can unequivocally be ranked as the worst president we have ever had. 

Beyond that, I divided our forty-five past presidents into four groups: 1) The twelve best presidents. 2) A group of eleven “pretty good” presidents. 3) A group of eleven not very good presidents. 4) The eleven worst presidents. I then ranked all forty-five men: 

Group 1: The Twelve Best Presidents: 
Tied for 1st place: Lincoln (1861-65) and FDR (1933-45) 
3rd place: Washington (1789-97) 
4th Jefferson (1801-09) 
5th Madison (1809-17) 
6th Eisenhower (1953-61) 
7th Clinton (1993-2001) 
8th Obama ` (2009-17) 9th Kennedy (1961-63) 10th Truman (1945-53) 
11th John Adams (1797-1801) 
12th Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) 

You may ask: What are my criteria? It is impossible to get into that, of writing a twelve-volume encyclopedia. 
Just a few comments: Note the large presence of the Founding Fathers in this first and most excellent group. (Washington, Jefferson, Madison and John Adams). Lincoln’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s prominent positions go without saying. Theodore Roosevelt does not rank as highly as his distant cousin Franklin. However, his legacy, as the leader of the progressive movement, is respectable. Eisenhower and Clinton benefitted from presiding over the country during prosperous times, to which they themselves contributed. Obama and Truman inherited problems which they handled extremely deftly. Kennedy’s role is largely inspirational, as his promise was tragically cut short.  Read more...