Thursday, February 22, 2024

Is Math a Discovery or an Invention?

Thomas Kando 

(Note: the title of this article is similar to an article by Mario Liovo from which I quote extensively, below) 

I have been thinking about the relationship between the universe and mathematics. Humans have measured and given numbers to various objects. The earth’s circumference is 40,000 kilometers. The speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second. When I first learned about the earth’s size in elementary school geography class, I thought “wow! How neat. How come the earth is exactly 40,000 kilometers in size? What a coincidence. Such a simple and memorable whole number.” 

Of course, I was putting the cart before the horse. I did not understand that “kilometer” is not an a priori characteristic of nature. The earth is (approximately) 40,000 kilometers in circumference because humans decided to use as their basic unit of length one forty millionth of the earth’s circumference, however long that is. They called it the meter, of which one thousand added together make a kilometer. 

The metre was originally defined in 1791 by the French National Assembly as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole along a great circle, so the Earth's polar circumference is approximately 40,000. (metre
But it was later determined that its length was short by about 0.2 millimetres because of miscalculation of the flattening of the Earth, making the prototype about 0.02% shorter than the original proposed definition of the metre. Regardless, this length became the French standard and was adopted by most of the rest of the world. So the polar circumference of the Earth is actually 40,008 kilometres, instead of 40,000. (Earth’s Circumference

Then there is the speed of light: Light travels at (nearly) 300,000 kilometers per second (in a vacuum). How convenient! I thought as a youngster. Like earth’s circumference, the speed of light is also a neat, simple and memorable quantity. 

Of course humans must deal with natural phenomena in order to survive, so we have developed measurement systems. These are arbitrary, but hopefully as practical and as scientifically usable as possible. We must measure everything - time, temperature, electricity, weight, distance, speed, you name it. A decimal system seems to be advantageous over alternative systems, as exemplified by temperature: water freezes at zero and boils at 100. Neat and easy. A liter of water weights a kilo, which is a thousand grams. Simple. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Story of a Decal Sticker

By Madeleine Kando

One sunny day, as the winter's snow began to melt, the bird decal on my window pondered why he was stuck there, his wings immobilized for eternity. 
He gazed out onto the yard, the late afternoon shadows growing longer, watching real birds fly by and feed at the bird feeders."Why am I sitting here, collecting dust? Is my sole purpose in life to prevent real birds from crashing into the glass? I long to be free! A strong hailstorm could dislodge me from this glass, and I could fly! Am I not a bird, after all?"
He wriggled and wriggled, but nothing happened. His back was firmly attached to the glass. All this wriggling tired him out, so he started to doze off and soon fell into a deep sleep. Decals dream, you know. They might be flat, but they dream of soaring in the blue sky. In his dream, he was looking down at houses with large windows with strange shapes stuck to them. Those shapes evoked something familiar, a past life, another world, stirring feelings of dread, mixed with relief.

A loud crash jolted him awake. Not a foot away, he saw a huge red-tailed hawk. He had seen those monsters before. A shiver went through his flat body.
The hawk's talons were kneading something on the ground. A pigeon had collided with the glass and lay on the ground, dazed and motionless. The hawk, perched on a branch, had swooped down, pinning the pigeon before it could escape. It was now slowly kneading the life out of him, patiently waiting until the pigeon's body gradually stopped moving. Then, it expanded its enormous wings and flew away with the dead pigeon dangling from its powerful claws.
The decal felt sorry for the pigeon but thought:"What good am I stuck here if I cannot even stop birds from crashing into the window?"

He sadly looked out on the falling snow, fearing that he would never fly, never hop on the bird feeder, or sing to attract a mate.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Weird Electorates

Tom Kando 

Recent poll numbers: In head-to-head matchups, Trump leads Biden by five points (49 to 44) and Haley leads Biden by thirteen points (52 to 39). 

I don’t get it. The electorate seems to have lost its senses. 

Not that Americans are alone. The wacky rightward political trend is taking place in many countries, We live in an age of reactionary nationalism and populism. This is clearest in Europe and in the US, where the former dominant group - white men, by and large - is panicking at the prospect of sharing power with the growing other groups. 

Coincidentally, several of the countries where the Far Right is on the march are places where I grew up: Hungary, where I was born, has been led by the extreme right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban for nearly two decades. Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, the extreme right has also gained force in France, where I spent much of my childhood. And Holland, the country where I spent my next ten years, has also recently elected a far-right majority. In several such countries, (Holland and France, among them), farmers are one of the most vocal and angry constituents of this conservative resurgence. Other examples of the trend include Italy, where prime minister Giorgia Meloni strongly opposes the influx of immigrants, and Britain which, under Brexit, decided eight years ago to withdraw from the European Union. 

And then we have the US. 2024 may well see the return of Donald Trump into the White House. I fail to see how replacing Biden with Trump (or Haley, for that matter) would be good for this country. Let me briefly re-state the obvious: 

We must re-elect Joe Biden. This is a no-brainer. You and I might prefer a younger candidate, for instance Gavin Newsom, but neither he nor any other viable young candidate is running. We are now left with two alternatives. Nikki Haley and Donald Trump. The latter is so abnormal psychologically as to place the country - indeed, the whole world - in danger. He is utterly incompetent in dealing with foreign countries, be they allies or adversaries. He alienates other heads of state by insulting them. He plays golf instead of running the country. Haley is not dangerous and incompetent in the same extreme way as Trump. However, her policies regarding most issues (abortion, immigration, the economy, foreign affairs, etc.) would be contrary to what most Americans need and desire.

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Importance of Voting Systems

By Madeleine Kando

Depending on where you live in the world, voting systems vary greatly. In some countries, people don’t vote at all. They live in dictatorships. In some other countries, voting is restricted to certain parts of the population (usually men). Universal suffrage is shockingly recent. Before World War II, women couldn’t vote in 155 of the 195 countries in the world. Whether you lived in beautiful France, Switzerland, or sunny Spain, women had no voice. Saudi Arabia allowed women to vote only 8 years ago!

Types of Voting Systems

There are two predominant electoral systems in the world: Plurality voting and Proportional Representation.

Plurality Voting (also called “first-past-the-post” or "winner-take-all") awards a seat to the candidate who receives the most votes. It need not be a majority (50%+), so long as the candidate has a larger number of votes than all other candidates. Plurality voting does not represent all (or even most) voters. Since a candidate needs only a plurality of votes, most voters may have voted against the winner. One attempt to improve this non-representation model is a system called Ranked Choice Voting or Instant Runoff.

Proportional Representation
makes the percentage of seats reflect the percentage of votes. It is the most widely used system in the world and can be found in almost every country. If a party wins 40% of the vote, it will receive 40% of the seats.

The Single Transferable Vote is an important form of proportional representation. It is used in Ireland, Australia, and Malta for national elections. Other countries use it in local elections, and even some communities in the United States (such as Cambridge, MA) use it today. According to the Democracy Index, the STV is the most democratic system in the world.


The whole point of a voting system is to allow citizens to decide who will govern them. The word democracy was first used in ancient Athens. It is a combination of two Greek words: demos (a citizen of a city-state) and kratos (meaning ‘power’ or ‘rule’). It means ‘the rule by the people’.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

I Disappeared from the Internet

Tom Kando 

The other day, I tried to log onto my website. First, I just Googled myself, typing in my name. Later, I typed in my website’s name. I got nowhere both ways. 

When I typed in my name, thousands of search results came up, as usual. Many of the first few start with my name followed by various things. Then, scrolling down the first few pages of search results, you encounter more and more slightly distorted entries, some sites with a middle initial, and further down an increasing number of websites with names that resemble mine but have nothing to do with me, many in Japan, Africa and elsewhere. 

So I start clicking on some of the first few entries, those that spell my name correctly, and you know what? Nothing comes up. Instead of opening the website that I click on, Google sends me a terse computerese message telling me that this website and this person do not exist.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Childhood Memories

Tom Kando 

As I mentioned in these pages before, I grew up during and after World War Two in Europe. My parents, my sisters and I were refugees who moved from Hungary to France and then to Holland. We were so poor that we had to hitch-hike to get around. By the time we moved to Holland, my mother was re-married to a Dutchman named Ed. 

We moved from Paris to Amsterdam in 1954. Early one summer morning Ed, my mother Ata, and my sisters Juliette and Madeleine grabbed our backpacks and took the Metro to the northern outskirts of Paris. We began to hitchhike, trying to look cute, hoping that some rich French motorist would take pity and give us a ride in the direction of the Netherlands. 

It took us four days to cover the five hundred kilometers from Paris to Amsterdam! Most French (and Belgian and Dutch) motorists were unwilling to pick up a family of five, including two males. Therefore we usually stood on the side of the road for hours before a kind soul finally found it in his heart to pick us up. 

Hundreds of cars drove by, some jalopies, some fancy Vedettes and Mercedes. Most motorists ignored the hitchhiking family. Some honked, waved and laughed. Once a sadist stopped his Renault hundred yards up ahead from where we stood. All five of us quickly grabbed our bags and started to run toward the car, counting our blessings. When we got close to the Renault, the driver took off laughing, his wheels spewing back dust and gravel in our faces. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Het Meisje

by Madeleine kando

Er was eens een meisje dat heel jong al heel triest was. Ze was steeds aan het dromen over mooie dingen, maar ze was altijd triest en stil als ze met andere mensen was. Ze was mooi, ze was triest en ze leefde in de wereld van gedachten en fantasieën.

Zo ging het een hele tijd. Ze werd steeds groter, ze begon af en toe om het hoekje te kijken van de werkelijkheid omdat ze zich toch wel een beetje eenzaam voelde in die mooie wereld waar ze helemaal alleen was. Maar iedere keer dat ze een blik wierp op de werkelijkheid schrok ze zo van dat vreemde reële gedoe dat ze gauw weer de deur dicht deed en nieuwe fantasieën opbouwde.

Toen was ze al een jonge vrouw en toen begon er iets heel ergs te gebeuren. Haar wereld werd aangevallen! Ze was er helemaal niet op verdacht en het gevolg was dat er een enorm slagveld plaatsvond. Het was verschrikkelijk! Alles wat ze al die jaren netjes gebouwd had, werd plotseling stukgemaakt. Die verschrikkelijke werkelijkheid was barbaars en wist van geen genade. Arm meisje, ze bevond zich plotseling midden in een vreemde vijandige werkelijkheid en ze wist niet hoe ze zich moest handhaven, ze had nog nooit iets geleerd over die werkelijkheid en het was een vreselijke strijd met alles wat om haar heen gebeurde.

Ze wist één ding en dat was vooral niet laten merken dat ze hier niet thuis hoorde, dat ze ergens anders vandaan kwam want dan zouden haar kansen op overleving nihil zijn. Dus ze stond op en begon te lopen en deed alles wat de werkelijkheid van haar verwachtte behalve dat ze niet werkelijk was. Maar alleen zij wist dat. En al gauw had ze zich aan die situatie aangepast, ze leefde zoals alle anderen en dacht steeds meer dat dat gewoon de manier was waarop iedereen leefde.

Maar het feit dat ze van binnen ergens anders thuis hoorde, dat ze ergens anders vandaan kwam, liet haar niet met rust. Ze kreeg een steeds groter gebrek aan werkelijkheidsgevoel, ze wist dat ze een rol speelde en dat het niet echt was en ze bleef triest, gesloten en op zichzelf gekeerd. Andere mensen vertrouwen kon ze niet, want die waren anders, die waren wel van deze wereld.

Eens kwam er een man die haar probeerde te helpen. Hij stak zijn hand uit en probeerde haar naar zich toe te halen, want hij wist dat ze triest en gesloten was en hij hield van haar, ook al was ze niet werkelijk. Maar het meisje schrok en verzon een list om zich te verstoppen. Ze kon die man toch ook niet vertrouwen, hij was niet van haar wereld, hij was een vreemde werkelijke man.

Ratio en allerlei verstoppertjes-spelletjes hebben het meisje steeds behouden van een grote catastrofe, maar ze is nog steeds triest en gesloten en hoewel ze nog altijd wel onbewust verlangt er naar haar rol te laten vallen en echt voorgoed in de werkelijkheid te stappen, blijft er niet veel anders voor haar over dan tussen twee werelden in het leven.

De wereld waar ze vandaan komt en de andere wereld van de werkelijkheid waar ze niet in thuis hoort, maar waar ze haar rol met steeds meer waarachtigheid speelt en binnenkort weet ze zelf niet meer dat ze een rol speelt, dan is de ‘werkelijkheid’ zo ‘onwerkelijk’ en zo ver weg en zo verwrongen dat ze als een kameleon voorgoed van kleur verandert en wie weet, is dat wat de meeste mensen doen.

Van kleur veranderen en er niet meer over nadenken wat hun oorspronkelijke kleur was. Misschien als ze heel oud zijn en helemaal niets meer te verliezen en te verwachten hebben, dat ze dan denken: maar ik ben eigenlijk helemaal niet rood, ik ben geel en dat heb ik al die tijd vergeten en nu is het te laat om het te veranderen.

Friday, December 22, 2023

The Truth About Santa's Helpers (A bonus story for our faithful readers)

The Truth About Santa's Helpersby Madeleine Kando


Friday, December 15, 2023

Variations in Rates of Homicide and Gun Ownership


On December 6, there was another mass shooting  in the US.  We have become so inured to such events   that we hardly pay attention to them any more. In Sacramento, rarely a week goes by without one or two people shot to death. I sometimes feel that  I live in  a twenty-first century  version of Tombstone or Dodge City.  The country experiences  more than one  mass shooting per day. No other country  comes even close to this. This is one sort of American “exceptionalism.”

As every time, the mass murder is followed by hand-wringing and endless questions about the perpetrator’s motives and mental condition. We hear, again and again, that the cause of our mass murder epidemic is mental illness, that the solution is to identify those who are dangerously mentally ill and to prevent them from acquiring  fire arms. This is  nonsense, of course. The rate of mental illness is not higher in the US than elsewhere.  I have always argued for one simple point: It’s   all about the guns. The more guns there are, the more people  die from guns. Period.

But I have yet to come across data documenting the  simple proposition that there is a strong correlation between a place’s homicide rate and its rate of gun ownership. Logic is on my side, but what about  data?

Last year, I tried to test this  hypothesis myself. I used countries as my units of analysis. My results were inconclusive. They did not show that countries with  high rates of gun ownership also had higher homicide rates.

I just   repeated my effort.  But instead  of comparing countries,  I now  compared the fifty US states. My source is  States’ gun ownership rates.

I entered the data   into  a two-by-two table with the following four categories:

             1. States with high homicide rates and high gun ownership rates

            2. States with low homicide rates and high gun rates

            3. States with high homicide rates and low gun ownership rates

            4. States with low homicide rates and low gun ownership rates


Saturday, December 9, 2023

My Return to the True Faith

by Madeleine Kando

Like most children, I believed in Santa while I was growing up. How could I not? He was a sweet, jovial, warm kind of fellow and I always wondered what would happen if I would catch him in the act of coming down the chimney. Would he wink at me, say ‘ho, ho, ho’, put lots and lots of presents under the tree and climb back up on his way to another family’s chimney? Or would he get upset and do an about-face to teach me a lesson?

As Christmas approached I was always a much nicer person because I knew that Santa was paying close attention to what I was doing. In fact, closer to Christmas, every move I made was scrutinized by this little inner voice in my head that said: ‘What would Santa think of what you are doing?’

I don’t remember when exactly I lost the faith. Maybe it was after I saw my father sneak downstairs on Christmas Eve with lots of boxes in his arms. I didn’t observe any noticeable deterioration in my post-Santa existence, so he slowly slipped into the box marked ‘useless beliefs for the gullible me’, which I stored away in the recesses of my increasingly critical mind.

We still held on to the Christmas tradition, even after I discovered that the Santa I had believed in for so many years was the creation of a cartoonist by the name of Thomas Nast. This mere mortal had been commissioned to create the Santa character as a ploy to keep Union soldiers motivated in their grueling campaigns during the Civil War!

When we moved to a new town and a new house without a chimney, it was clear proof that being good around Christmas time was a waste of my time.

On a cold but sunny December afternoon, we went on our annual Christmas shopping bonanza. Perfectly trimmed Christmas trees were lining the wide and clean streets. There was not a chimney in sight. According to our map, downtown housed a celebrated statue marked as ‘Our Savior’. We approached it from the back, a gigantic construction, and we could see that it was primarily red in color. Soon we could distinguish its features and to our amazement, we recognized the familiar features: long white beard, red hat with a white pompon and the baggy red pants of none other than Santa!