Monday, December 28, 2009

Aphorisms and Provocations - Part Two

By Tom Kando

Two weeks ago I treated you to some provocative aphorisms. I explained that such concise statements generally contain both truth and falsehood, and that they are meant to rile up the reader, to make him/her think. Several of you sent me back humorous examples, for example this:

“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.” That’s a good one.
I now offer you some additional provocations. These are about the social “sciences” and the helping professions. That has been my world for the past 40 years, a world about which I had plenty of opportunity to become cynical. Here are some aphorisms I came up with:

1) The result of Psychiatry is mental illness, which requires more psychiatric services.

2) The result of medical intervention is illness - which necessitates further medical intervention. (This is what some of my friends, sociology professor Howard Becker and radical believers in holistic medicine believe)

3 ) The result of Marriage Counseling is Divorce.

4) The function of the legal system is to protect white-collar criminals and the elite’s privileges. (This is the radical/Marxist criminological perspective).

5) The role of the police is to brutalize and to intimidate harmless citizens. (This is the perspective of some African Americans)

6) The result of formal education is to subtract from understanding, especially in such higher education programs as Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies and other so-called Social Sciences. (This paraphrases a 5/21/02 syndicated column by George Will)

7) Schools destroy students’ minds. (This paraphrases sociologist Howard Becker, and child psychologists such as Bruno Bettelheim and Benjamin Spock).

8) Most professors hate teaching and they despise their students.

9) Most doctors hate sick people.

One of the big subjects within sociology is gender and sex roles. Here are some of the man-hating and family-hating thoughts I sometimes heard from my ardently feminist colleagues:

1) Men are rabid dogs. They should be either muzzled or destroyed.

2) All heterosexual sex is rape.

3) All married women are whores.

4) Parenthood is torture.

5) Frankenstein is a metaphor for having children: You create life, but it grows into a monster and turns against you.

But let’s give equal time to the opposite perspective - that of the misogynist. I have heard some men say, for instance after a painful divorce, things like:

1) Man needs woman because he is a masochist.

2) There are only two kinds of women - those who need help and those who cannot be helped.

I’ll stop for now. Something for everybody. I bet you everyone among you agrees with at least one/some of these, while being outraged by many. As Terrence said, veritas odium parit (truth engenders hatred). leave comment here

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Milly The Wug

by Madeleine Kando

Milly the wug was very ordinary looking. She wasn’t one of those fancy wugs, with curly cues int their hair and stiff collars to hold up their necks. No, Milly was unpretentious. True, she had a tendency towards being snappy sometimes. Especially when her father came into her room without knocking. Her parents often couldn’t tell where her wugging started and theirs ended. But on the whole, she was a well-adjusted, soft-spoken, cuddly little wug that most other wugs her age liked.

On Tuesday she received a letter from her aunt Mildred (she was named after her as you might have guessed). This is what the letter said: ‘Dear Milly. This is your aunt Mildred. I wanted to come over to visit you on Friday to give you a present. Please respond a.s.a.p, as I am waitressing all week at the ‘Wugger’s delight’ and need to ask my boss if I can take the evening off. Yours sincerely, Aunt Mildred’.

Milly liked presents so she replied in an email. ‘Dear aunt Mildred. Yes, please come over. I will be waiting in my room. The secret knock on the door is the following: ‘two short taps followed by one long one’.

Milly could hardly wait for Friday to come. She had received presents before. They all had had cards on them: ‘to Milly-the-wug’. Just so they wouldn’t be given to whom exactly? ‘Milly-the-bee’? ‘Milly-the-bear?’ No-one else was named Milly in her neighborhood, so it was somewhat superfluous in her opinion. But as I said before, Milly was ordinary and unpretentious, so she kept her criticism to herself.

On Wednesday, on her way to school, she met up with Barnaby. Barnaby secretly liked Milly. That’s why he sometimes pushed her and punched her on the shoulder. So Milly crossed the street so she wouldn’t have to talk to him. In school they learnt about the famous twelfth century ‘Batlle of the Wugs’ when Wug the Magnificent had defeated his enemies.

On Thursday, after she had done her chores and her homework, she took Poodles for a walk. She saw a crawn stuck in the tree where Poodles was doing his business. She carefully untangled his right leg and placed him on the ground. Crawns are unpredictable you see, so Milly quickly stepped back before the crawn would have a chance to take a bite out of her helping hand.

Finally it was Friday. Milly had put out chips and lemonade, crackers and napkins. And now she was waiting for the secret knock. And sure enough: she heard the two short taps followed by one long one. ‘Please come in’ said Milly.

The door opened slowly and Milly, who hadn’t seen her aunt Mildred for quite some time, was surprised to see a beautiful, tall and slender wug stand in the doorway. ‘Hello Milly’ said Mildred with a beautiful, melodious voice, unlike any other wug voice Milly had every heard. ‘I have come to give you a present. Would you like to open it?’

Millly was very curious but also very polite, so she first offered Mildred some lemonade and crackers. As the tension built inside her, she inched her way closer to the box and finally couldn’t resist. ‘May I?’ she said. The box was easily opened. A flat, square looking object was wrapped in tissue paper. She had never seen anything like it before. Inside a dark brown looking frame was a shiny silver colored glass surface with the letters ‘U’ and ‘G’ on it. As Milly slowly turned it towards her she saw buttons with letters, like a telephone pad on the side of the frame. She pressed the letter ‘W’. Whoosh! An odd looking creature was looking back at her. It had eyes, ears, a nose.. ‘what is that?’ asked Milly. It looks like a picture of someone familiar. I sort of like it. Who is it?’

Mildred leaned towards her and as she caressed her cheeks with an ever so tender touch, she said: ‘that is YOU, my darling. A wug. Why don’t you press the letter ‘B’?’ Instantly she was transformed into a B-U-G inside the frame. As she started to press the different letters, her reflection metamorphosed into a M-U-G, then a R-U-G and also a SL-U-G. ‘What a wonderful present’, said Milly. I can be anything I want!’

So from that day on, when she didn’t feel like doing her homework she changed herself into a bug. And when her father got upset she could become a ‘hug’ and make him feel better. And when her feet were cold she could become a ‘rug’.

I bet you can think of many other things Milly could change herself into. Wouldn’t it be great to be a wug? leave comment here

Monday, December 14, 2009

Aphorisms and Provocations

By Tom Kando

An aphorism is a "a concise statement containing a subjective truth or observation cleverly and pithily written." (Wikipedia). A provocation is a statement meant to rile up the reader, to make him/her think. For example the well-know statement (attributed to George Bernard Shaw ?): "Those who can, do, and those can’t, teach." Or French Utopian Socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's famous dictum: "Property is Theft."Perhaps the key characteristic of a provocative aphorism is that it is both true and false. How true it is, depends on its degree of generalization. But the beauty of such zingers is precisely that they are terse and categorical. The sophomoric reply, "well, it depends" is silly. No duh! Of course, everything depends. Are some teachers incompetent? Yes, some are and some aren’t. Is some property stolen? Yes, and some isn’t.

But "it depends" isn’t the point of provocative aphorisms. They have a different value. A provocateur can be largely wrong, but his insight can be an eye opener. He is expressing a perspective. You may not share that perspective, but to him, based on his experience, that is how things look.

Here are some examples - some are mine (at least the formulations), some are not: Take bureaucracy for instance. The last person to praise bureaucracy was probably Max Weber. Today, the word has a bad connotation, right? Here are two aphorisms which capture the badness of bureaucracy succinctly and wittily. The well-known Parkinson’s Law, and Peter Principle:

1) The function of bureaucracies is to create useless work so as to fill employees’ time.

2) Bureaucracies maximize inefficiency and incompetence: Employees who excel are promoted, while those who do not are maintained in their positions. Thus, everyone is promoted until they reach their level of mediocrity/incompetence.

I have some of my own aphorisms about bureaucracies. Obviously, these are not original thoughts. I just wrote them down:

3) The goal of bureaucracies is to fail, for only then will their budgets be augmented.

4) Failure leads to reward and success leads to punishment, for failure is interpreted as the result of under-funding.

6) An important budgetary goal is to waste money: Unless you spend the maximum budgeted for a given year, the next year’s base-line budget gets reduced.

Or how about the helping professions and the social sciences? Here are some of the things I have said to my criminology students at one time or another, so as to provoke them (again, these are obviously not my ideas):

1) Society needs its deviants

2) Psychiatrists need their patients more than the patients need their psychiatrists.

3) the more laws there are, the higher the crime rate is.

4) The result of prisons is to increase criminality.

5) The function of the criminal justice system is to create jobs in corrections, in the courts and in law enforcement.

6) The result of social services (Child Protective Services, Social Work, Probation, Parole, Counseling, Juvenile Reformatories, Rehabilitative Services, etc.) is an increase in family dysfunction, delinquency and maladjustment, which increases the need for those services.

Well, you get my drift. What most of these aphorisms have in common is that they reverse the conventional wisdom. And each is both true and false. For example, do prisons protect society against criminals? Of course they do. Do they also criminalize people? Absolutely.

I invite you to send me some of your favorite aphorisms. If we get a bunch, maybe we can compare them, and even recognize and acknowledge the best one(s)... leave comment here

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Bird’s Eye View

by Madeleine Kando

I woke up this morning all refreshed and glad to be alive. It was a gorgeous sunny day and I got ready for my customary morning flight. Where should I go today I pondered. Should I go my usual route: over the little houses that form a circle, or should I go more west, towards the town forest? I liked the little houses so I decided to fly that way today. As I was breathing the fresh air and feeling the breeze on my wings, I looked down and watched a human walk down the street.

He was dragging himself slowly down the road. I sometimes wondered what it would be like to always be in contact with the earth. Would it feel safer? Smaller?

As I watched him struggle trying to fight gravity with each step he took, there appeared another person in front of him. They both stopped. Oh, they are going to sing to each other I thought for a brief moment.

Suddenly the smaller person’s nose came in contact with the other man’s knee and they touched briefly. I could see that his nose started to drip a dark red fluid. Now the man’s chin came in contact with the larger man’s curled up hand and I heard a faint cracking noise, as if a branch was breaking. He tipped backwards, and lay down. The larger man approached him and his foot quickly came in contact with the man’s stomach after which the tall man walked away. What a strange way these creatures communicate with each other, I thought.

I veered towards the town forest. I usually encounter other early risers in this area. Yellow throated warblers, little chickedees and an occasional woodpecker. I flew over a large open area covered with what looked like long golden colored stalks. As I watched the wind dance over the stalks, moving them to and fro, a human appeared with a long instrument in his hand. He started to pull out large tufts of these stalks and fed them into a container, its gaping mouth wide open waiting for nourishment.

He must be preparing a nest, I thought. Where is his female? He hasn’t called out to her. Ah, there she is, all dolled up with a colorful wrapping around her waist. The human tilted the loaded container and pushed it in front of him, towards his mate.

They faced each other and it looked like they were going to do a mating dance. And sure enough, she put her hands on her hips, pushed out her chest and opened her beak. Is she going to sing? The sound was not pleasant, high pitched and very loud. The man lifted his open hand quickly and touched her cheek. Little dew droplets fell from her eyes.

A little befuddled I continued my morning flight over the busier section of town. I was maneuvering my way through the tall buildings when I saw a group of humans gathered together seemingly preparing for some event. ‘Ah! I bet they are ready to migrate’, I thought. Many of them carried stones in their hands, others long branches, probably to build a shelter on their way south. I watched their slow progress along the street as they gathered speed. For a moment I thought they might take flight, but then remembered that these unfortunate creatures don’t possess wings.

They abruptly stopped. Suddenly stones and branches were flying through the air. One of the building’s see-through front broke into a million pieces. The group dispersed in an instant.

I returned to the comfort of my nest and watched my brood still sleeping peacefully. I opened my beak and started my morning song. All I could feel was immense gratitude that I had been born as a bird. I felt great pity for those wingless creatures that act so mysteriously and sing so badly. leave comment here

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Little Corner of the World

by Madeleine Kando

One of my favorite places to visit around Thanksgiving time is an obscure little town called Colebrook in New Hampshire. It is buried in the northern most corner of the state, only 10 miles from the Canadian border. You know you are approaching Canada because suddenly the radio sounds ‘foreign’ and the names of the stores all have a ‘le’ or ‘la’: ‘La Perle’, ‘La Verderie’..
The radio is picking up French rock music, which is not exactly the best in the world and the announcer is now talking in French. If you can call it that. Personally I am of the opinion that French Canadian should never have been allowed to exist. If you want to hear a language being butchered, listen to French Canadian. It literally gives me goose pimples, like someone scraping their nails over a blackboard.

But the countryside up there in the ‘North Country’ more than makes up for these small irritations. It is a blend of pasture and pine forest, of manicured hayfields and dark ominous trees. The occasional moose adds to the sense that there is still hope in the world. There is such a place where moose and bear can roam in peace.

As always we were hoping for snow during our visit. Snow makes everything beautiful. It is like taking a bath in milk after a long year of mud, heat and rain. And my friend Janice, who lives up there on 300 acres of this beautiful countryside always prays for snow at that time of year.

Surrounded by her horses, her dogs and her trees she lives the perfect ‘country’ life. With her husband Marty they have created a little private kingdom. They built a house, soon to be followed by a horsebarn. A loft over the barn has been added as well as a swimming pool and an outdoors hottub. They remind me of the pioneers who went out west. Starting out with nothing, they staked out their territory and began to build and build and build. They carved out a little paradise with their bare hands. It helps somewhat that Marty is a psychiatrist. He is not exactly on a day laborer’s wage and can afford this kind of life style.

This year we all sat around the turkey wishing for snow to fall. And sure enough, the next morning it started to snow. Janice jumped for joy, we all went out and stuck out our tongue to taste the first flakes of the year. And it snowed. And snowed. Until the branches outside their beautiful large windows started to hang ominuously low and move closer and closer to the glass, like in a poltergeist movie.

Not to worry. We were protected from the elements in their warm, cozy house with the smell of a delicious thanksgiving dinner still in the air. Marty started to light candles. Not too soon we found out. A few minutes later everything went dark.

It was a good time for us to take our leave so we walked to our car stepping in snow up to our knees. Snow is a way of life up there. No one was too worried. But as Marty realized how heavy, wet and deep the snow really was he said: ‘uh, we might have a problem. I better go ahead of you in my truck.’

Up in Northern New Hampshire the 3 most important words in winter time are ‘four-wheel-drive'. Which we didn’t have. This is when the fun started. We are very proud of our Camry, but that kind of vehicle doesn’t cut it in a foot of snow. It’s like putting a race horse in front of an overloaded hay cart. You need a Clydesdale for that.

Of course we got stuck on the first 100 yards of their very long drive way. Wheels spinning. Engine revving. Passengers panicking. There is nothing more stressful than the prospect of being stranded in a snow blizzard at night with nothing around except wolves and coyotes and bears and who knows what else watching you from behind those snow covered trees.

We managed a few more yards while we were burning our engine but an oversized branch was blocking the way. Marty is not stupid. He went back for a chain saw and while we were sitting in our car, teeth chattering from angst he cut the branch. He hooked a cable to our car and towed us to the main road. We were all cursing our bad judgement that we didn’t opt to rent a 4-wheel drive.

But we weren’t out of the woods yet (no pun intended). The main road was not plowed and was going up hill. We tried to get the car to go uphill, all making rocking motions as if that would help the car somehow. We must have looked like fools. After many heart stopping attempts we finally made it to the part of the road that was drivable. We let out a collective sigh of relief as a plow truck came our way. Finally! We were saved.

Suddenly a big branch fell out of the dark sky right onto the plow truck’s roof. Boom. Another snapping sound and a black telephone cable slithered right across the road, like a giant anaconda. I was petrified watching all this from my warm car cubicle, afraid of even opening the door. It took the ‘guys’ an hour to cut the cable, saw the branch into pieces and clear the road.

We finally made it to civilization. We left our car in a parking lot and had Marty drive us to our Bed and Breakfast in his truck. Wet, cold and exhausted we didn’t even mind the lack of heat, light or hot water. We groped our way in the dark and were grateful for our beds and a dry place to rest our weary bones.

That kind of excitement will more than carry me over till our next thanksgiving visit. When something else unexpected will happen. Don’t believe it when people tell you that country life is boring. Nothing is further from the truth. leave comment here

Does the Government do Everything Badly?

By Tom Kando

Yesterday, I had to see Glenn Beck again on TV - It was in the locker room of my club, which is full of Republicans, so I had no choice. Beck was at it again: “The government is the problem, not the solution. If you want to solve America’s problems, just unleash free enterprise,” etc., ad nauseam. And I am afraid that the message is taking hold among the American people. Wherever I turn, I hear people repeating the same clichés: “The government can’t do anything right. Washington is the problem. All politicians are crooks,” etc.
What about the perception that most politicians are corrupt? The group Transparency International ranks annually most of the world’s countries in terms of their CPI - the Corruption Perception Index: Out of nearly 200 countries, we are the 19th least corrupt. This is not stellar, but neither is it terrible. We are right behind Japan and England, who are tied for 17th place. France is #24, Italy #63, China: #79, Russia: #146. Most of Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and the rest of the world is more corrupt than we are. The 18 less corrupt countries are in Northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. So we shouldn’t get carried away with the mea culpa that always blames America, or the American government.

Furthermore, America’s Corruption Index would be lower if it didn’t include the private sector practices associated with Wall Street, the trade in junk bonds, hedge funds, derivatives, toxic loans, insider trading and all the other shenanigans which have brought the economy to its knees.

Does the government do everything badly? Here are just some anecdotes to refute this:

(1) When I first traveled across America in the 1960s, I was struck by the contrast between two kinds of tourist spots - public and private: On the one hand, we visited Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other magnificent national parks. They were all fantastically clean; the environment was pristine, protected, kept inviolate. Services were excellent and cheap. And then there were those dinosaur-land and alligator-farm types of amusement parks in various parts of the Dakotas, Wyoming, Arizona. They offered vulgar, paper mache giant dinosaurs, they were littered with junked cars and rusty farm equipment. The prairie and the desert wore the scars of “free enterprise.” This left an indelible impression on me, strengthening my belief in social democracy, i.e. a system in which the government protects the collective patrimony against plunder motivated by the search for individual profit.

(2) Recently, my wife and I received our H1N1 flu shots. We stood in line with 5000 others. It took us less than two hours. There were volunteers serving coffee and providing chairs for the elderly. The shots were free to everybody. I know, I know, it was the taxpayer who paid the bill, ultimately. But wasn’t this well-spent money?

3) Come to think of it, I can’t think of many programs than are more efficient and work better and more fairly than Medicare and Social Security. The benefits are reasonable and well-deserved by the millions of people who paid in many thousands of dollars over their lifetime.

4) State Universities are frustrating bureaucracies, you say? After years of devastating cutbacks, California’s public universities continue valiantly to provide an excellent education to ten times more students than do the private colleges, which are prohibitively expensive for most people.

5) You don’t like the US Postal Service, or the Department of Motor Vehicles? Well, try to access Intel for information, for assistance, or to find one of their employees. Last time I tried (by phone) they threatened to arrest me. I could go on, and ask you how you like the services of the airlines, or the banks, or any other major corporation, whether you like talking to someone in India every time you need assistance. But you get my drift.

The bottom line is this: Bureaucracy, laziness, corruption and inefficiency are found everywhere. But on balance, the government is no more inefficient - and it may often be more efficient - than private companies.

Of course, if we keep cutting back funding for the public sector, there’ll be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it will begin to unravel. But the increasingly widespread belief that the public non-profit sector does things more badly and less efficiently than the private for-profit sector is hogwash. leave comment here

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Dual Deficit Problem

By Tom Kando

Nowadays, everyone is raving about “the” deficit, especially conservatives, and the consensus is that the fault lies with Obama’s irresponsible fiscal policies.

Because the conversation about “the” deficit is so poorly informed, I begin with a few basic facts:
“The” deficit problem is a dual problem: (1) There is the federal government’s increasing debt, caused by the fact that it spends more than it takes in through taxes. (2) There is America’s growing debt to the world, caused primarily by our balance of trade deficit. That is, the fact that you, I and the other 310 million Americans spend/buy more than we make/sell.

(1) The federal government’s debt is now 13 trillion, three times larger than it was ten years ago. Next year it will reach 14.5 trillion, up 1.5 trillion in one year. During the Bush years, it grew by nearly half a trillion in some years.

(2) The trade deficit has grown, during the past decade, by 700-800 billion per year. Because of the recession, 2009 is a little bit better: this year, we are only 300 billion short. Warren Buffet has estimated that by 2006, the rest of the world already owned 3 trillion more of America than America owned of the rest of the world. By now, the figure is probably around 5 trillion. Who owns us? China & Co. (Japan, Korea, Singapore. Etc), the Middle East, Europe.

Why is suddenly everyone turning into a fiscal conservative and an economic expert? Nowadays, aunt Mabel knows all about the federal budget deficit, and its dire consequences.

True, the fed deficit is getting huge, and it’s a real problem. But keep in mind that federal spending has been out of control for many years. President Obama didn’t start it. Conservatives were okay with deficit spending under Bush, as long as it was for war and tax cuts for the rich. But now that it’s for health care and jobs, they are against it. Such priorities are warped.

Granted, the deficit has gotten a lot worse recently. But it had to. The Obama administration inherited the worst recession in 70 years. Stimulus spending was essential. We need more of it.

The sudden public awareness of the deficit problem is fed by the conservative propaganda machine. Aunt Mabel and all the other new experts are only mouthing off what they heard from people like Glenn Beck. Proof of this is that very few people worry about the other deficit, the trade deficit. According to Warren Buffet, in the long run the trade deficit is a bigger problem than the government deficit. This deficit has nothing to do with the policies of the Obama administration, which is in fact trying to reduce it.

There is a simple solution to the federal budget deficit: Raise taxes. The mantra that lower taxes increase business activity and therefore tax receipts (the Laffer Curve) is an act of faith and a smokescreen, not science. Germany, Canada and many other countries combine higher tax rates and greater business productivity.

There is no solution to the trade deficit, as long as you and I are determined to spend more than we make. leave comment here

Friday, November 27, 2009

Why do most People Hate their Work and their Clients?

By Tom Kando

Warning: take the following piece with a grain of salt, i.e. not too seriously:

I recently had a negative experience with a physician - neither my first nor my last, I’m sure. He clearly disliked sick people, and he had a superiority complex. In other words, he had an attitude problem. (In a pretty good movie called Malice, Alec Baldwin says that physicians have a God complex. Well, I wouldn’t go that far).
But doctors are not unique. It is fair to say that most people dislike what they do for a living.

Take my own profession - university professors: A lot of them hate teaching and they despise students. They’ll do anything to get release time for committee work and for “research.” At department meetings, I heard colleagues say, “I’ll do whatever it takes to get out of teaching,” and “I don’t want teaching to interfere with my work.”

How about other professions? Police, for instance. To be sure, there are lots of problems with the police. They see themselves as an elite fraternity, apart from and above the population. In general, they enjoy their work until burn-out sets in. I can attest to that.

Do most psychiatrists hate and despise mental patients? I’m not sure. Nor do I have a fix on lawyers.

Of course, there are mitigating circumstances. For example, teachers may argue that they wouldn’t hate their job so much if it weren’t for all the bureaucratic impediments, the paperwork, the BS.

Physicians, same thing: They often complain about the heavy burdens of having to deal with Insurance companies, HMO, PPO and hospital administrators, etc. This is an aspect of medicine that is particularly pronounced in the US, whose medical system is so costly and complicated.

But the excuse does not wash entirely. For one thing, in my experience, some European doctors also seem to have a burr up their ass.

Furthermore, doctors make a lot of $$$$ in the US. So they should be willing to put up with some crap. Maybe Leon Festinger’ Cognitive Dissonance is at work here: He discovered in his laboratory experiments that the subjects who were paid the most hated the task the most. Festinger summed up his findings as follows: “People and rats learn to appreciate the things for which they suffer.” Maybe we should pay physicians less, and they’d become happier!

Anyway, why do so many people dislike their work?

Well, you don’t have to have a PhD in Sociology to answer this: (1)Work, by definition, is obligatory. (2) everything becomes boring after a few decades, even a vocation you chose because it first turned you on. (3) work is reimbursed.

So here is the solution: (1) people’s jobs should be voluntary (Think of Doctors without Borders). (2) People should not hold the same job for longer than a few years. (3) People shouldn’t be paid (very much) for what they do. This last point goes back to Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory. See, it’s like me and my writing: Far from making me money, my writing actually costs me money. That’s why I enjoy it so much (Can you believe such BS?). leave comment here

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

2012 - The Movie

By Tom Kando

I just saw the new blockbuster 2012 - the one about the end of the world caused by solar flares, as predicted by the Mayan calendar. Here are the good parts:
1) It’s very entertaining. The special effects are over the top. Emmerich is good at this - he did Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow, etc. This is his best, so far.
2) The usual suspension of judgment is required - John Cusack can stay underwater for 5 minutes, Gordon knows how to fly the giant Antonov without any training, etc. No problem. It wouldn’t be fun without such liberties.

Also, the science and the geography are not too terribly laughable: The sun is bombarding the earth’s inner core with neutrinos? Sounds plausible to me. Central China is suddenly seashore property because of shifting tectonic plates? That’s okay, too. South Africa becomes the highest place on earth? Why not.

3) I also liked some of the humor and references to reality: Danny Glover is obviously Obama, we hear Schwartzenegger and his accent, Woody Harrelson is a hilarious hippie radio show host and conspiracy buff. And the movie’s main bad guy, the white house chief of staff, is Carl Anheuser (= Bush, get it?)

4) Also, the movie is nicely Afrocentric: The President, the hero Adrian-the-scientist, the prettiest woman, are all black, and at the end, the rebirth of humanity takes place in Africa. (Of course, this is nothing new, since we all came out of Africa in the first place. Remember Olduvai Gorge 3 or 4 million years ago?)

But here are the stupid parts:
1) The movie is sooooo wrong on its main premises:
First, a no duh observation: Earth’s destruction will not come from the sun (or from an asteroid, or from aliens) but from humanity itself. That’s a no-brainer.

2) The arguments between the good guy - idealistic scientist Adrian Helmsley - and the bad guy - white house chief of staff Carl Anheuser/Bush are preposterous: According to the movie, (which rubs this into the audience not too subtly), Adrian is oh-so-right and Anheuser is oh-so-evil. But in fact, Anheuser is totally right and Adrian is totally wrong: If saving our species is the goal, then Adrian’s humanitarian decisions are catastrophic and Anheuser’s hard-nosed ones are correct. For example. re-opening the arks’ gates to save a few hundred more people should surely result in the total extinction of humanity.

3) The greatest fantasy in the movie is this: scientists discover the earth’s imminent destruction, and 2 or 3 years later the major governments of the world have built a fleet of gigantic high-tech arks that make Star Trek' s Enterprise look like a dingy. Everything is ready to save human and animal life on earth.

Now I know that such films are all about fantasies, and that’s okay. But when Hollywood presents us with images of America’s (and man’s) limitless resources and ingenuity, I am always painfully reminded of a stark opposite reality: What is most visible to me as I look around, is our growing ineptitude, our growing inability to solve national and global problems, our growing paralysis, despite ever larger expenditures on technology and bureaucracy.

It took 3 years to build the Oakland Bay bridge in the 1930s, at the time the largest on earth. But the damage caused by the Loma Prieta earthquake was 20 years ago, and they have been trying to fix it for that long, so far with no completion date in sight.

Ground Zero? Eight years after 9/11, there is no monument. The ground remains an open scar.
It took the same amount of time for project Apollo to move from conception to completion, landing a man on the moon eight years after President Kennedy declared America’s intention to do so!
The New deal, vast projects such as the TVA, Hoover Dam and many others were conceived and completed rapidly, efficiently and cost-effectively.

Today, we handle crises the way we did Katrina.
Health care reform? Attempts began during President Truman’s presidency - more than 60 years ago. God knows whether we’ll ever reach closure on that one.
Mexico is collapsing into drug wars and anarchy, but never fear: the US and the Mexican authorities are working together to develop state-of-the art computer programs to track down the malfeasants. That’s supposed to make us feel better?

Well, you get my drift. 40 years ago, we had some capabilities. Today? A Noah-style rescue to save human and animal life on the planet? LOL! Today, I doubt that we would be up to the Apollo project. Today, the world can’t agree on how to fight a bunch of Somali pirates.

4) Equally ridiculous is the social drama which is supposed to bring tears to our eyes. I suppose it’s an obligatory part of the formula - Bruce Willis, Gene Hackman, some hero has to die, while his beloved ones cry out that they love him. Fine.
But such displays are even more ridiculous this time. For example, our sensitive scientist Adrian cries out that the callous military failed to pick up his Indian scientist friend, who thus died in vain, and this is supposed to make us cry. At the same time, eight billion other people have just perished. But the Indian scientist friend, that’s the tragedy we are expected to focus on.

Overall Grade: B- leave comment here

Monday, November 23, 2009

Collections of Travel and Language Stories


Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Ugliness about Beauty

by Madeleine Kando

I was born with a twin sister. She is 15 minutes younger than I and we always joke in our family that I did the pushing and she just went along for the ride. Like on a tobogan with me in front.

She is cute, my little sister. I call her that to get her goat because, of course, we are the same age. But she always did act like the ‘younger’ one. Always crying out ‘Mommy, Madeleine is hitting me!’ And since I was bigger and stronger I always held the short end of the stick in our fights.
I was also dubbed the ‘beautiful’ one. She was the ‘popular’one. As we matured, she morphed into a blond sex bomb. She was funny. Made everybody laugh. She was like the honey that attracted all the worker bees in our neighborhood and even though I was ‘beautiful’, it didn’t do me any good. She ended up with all the boys. I was too shy and awkward. Never much of a talker either.

I liked to pretend that I didn’t exist. I had fantasies of making myself invisible. That I could turn myself into a little pebble that could hide behind the wallpaper and from my safe hiding place, I could observe the world and not have to interact.

As I slowly became a young woman in body if not in soul, I suddenly realized that I WAS beautiful. The mirror told me so one day, as I was changing in front of it. I saw my breasts, my hips, my long legs… I thought: ‘wow, who IS this gorgeous aphrodite looking back at me?’

And that was the beginning of my downfall. The seeds of narcissism had been sown and I became obsessed with my looks. It didn’t help much that both my parents were photographers. And I often had to pose as a surrogate model because they couldn’t afford to hire a professional.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is President Obama the Problem or the Solution?

By Tom Kando

President Obama’s visit to China prompts me to write this:

By far the most important topic of discussion between the two governments is the trade relationship between China and the US. It’s simple: America has gone into hock to sustain a living standard far beyond its means. China now owns nearly two trillion US dollars, and its surplus continues to grow by a quarter of a trillion a year.
Soon, Americans - the taxpayers, the consumers, the government, i.e. all of us - will only have money left for one thing: to finance our debt. Just like what would happen to you if you owed so much on your credit card that you’d have to spend your entire paycheck on the finance charge.

Of course, China is also in a fix. Lender and borrower are inseparably joined at the hips, like Siamese twins. The devaluation of the dollar is bad for both sides. As the value of the dollar declines, Americans become poorer and inflation is soon to follow. At the same time, China’s investment in the US loses much of its value. So both sides lose, just like the banks who recently made all those bad sub-prime loans and the borrowers who shouldn’t have borrowed. The borrowers lose their homes and the banks don’t get their money back. Everyone is screwed.

I have no idea how President Obama, the Chinese leadership and the rest of the world are planning to fix things, i.e. to change course from the catastrophic direction in which the world economy is headed. But catastrophe is the only word which aptly describes the situation which President Obama inherited.

And that is what I want to emphasize: Every one of the staggering problems which are threatening our very survival were created by decades of economic mis-management and societal breakdown.

President Obama has inherited the worst conditions ever handed down to a newly elected US President: The worst economic recession in three quarters of a century; two wars; out-of-control deficits at all levels of government and in our trade with nearly every country; a collapsing dollar; a rapidly growing number of uninsured, unemployed, uneducated, unhoused; a seemingly irreversible polarization of income, with both poverty and opulent wealth still skyrocketing, while the middle-class vanishes; a brainwashed population which renders even the discussion of the only remedy - raising taxes - anathema, and which has put it its head that somehow the government, and not Wall Street, is the problem.

I am not so simple-minded as to blame the Bushites for everything (although they sure didn’t help). I understand that the seeds of our undoing were sown over a much longer period of time than the eight years of neo-conservative mismanagement. Maybe the problem is cultural. Maybe we are like ancient Rome. Maybe we are failing as a society. But I don’t want to believe this.

All I know is that it is obscene to blame the new President for these problems. His, and his team’s, efforts so far are nothing short of heroic. I don’t know whether they will succeed, but the problems they are facing are so daunting that it is miraculous to even see them try.

My French friend Paul said this to me, in a joking way, immediately after Obama’s election last fall: “You Americans drove your country into a ditch, so now of course you turn to a black man to bail you out. Figures.” leave comment here

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why do the Europeans get it so often wrong?

By Tom Kando

See, I told you that I would switch sides next time. So here I go. Now everyone can be mad at me: If there is a way for Europeans to misunderstand America, they’ll find it. Here are some examples:

1. This week, Elsevier Magazine (The Dutch Time or Newsweek) has a major story about American politics. In it, there is a great deal of emphasis on the popularity of people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and Fox News. The Dutch (and other Europeans) have the impression that most Americans are mesmerized and brainwashed by these right-wing demagogues.

To be sure, millions of Americans are. But what most Europeans don’t understand is that more Americans are not. I estimate that three-quarters of the American people find these demagogues unattractive, and one-third finds them positively repulsive - as I do. Certainly the vast majority of people on the East Coast and on the West Coast, in the major cosmopolitan centers, find people like Glenn Beck a bad joke, convinced (as I am) that ignorant, vulgar, dishonest and self-inflated people like that eventually end up in the ditch, as Joe McCarthy did. But most Europeans believe that these people represent America. That’s wrong. We elected Obama, remember?
Besides, we have our Glenn Becks, but they have their Geert Wilders, their Le Pens, their Jorg Haider, their Istvan Csurka and many other cuckoos.

2. A recent dialogue with some Dutch friends went like this: The American visitor says: “Why are Europeans so ungrateful? Don’t they remember that Americans fought and died by the hundreds of thousands to free them from Fascism?”

The European replies:“Ha! It’s not the Americans who freed us, it was the Canadians.”

Apparently, some Europeans will deny America credit for anything. Yes, yes, I know, technically, it was the Canadians who played the major role in Holland’s liberation in 1945. But for crying out loud, everybody knows that the Normandy invasion and the entire defeat of Hitler in Western Europe was an overwhelmingly American affair!

3. The Swine flu? Some of my European friends like to call it the “American flu.” When I first heard them use that label, I questioned this, and they replied:

“Well, it comes from your country.”
“I thought it came from Mexico,” was my surprised answer.
But they insisted that it originated in the US.
“Well, let’s just call it the H1N1 flu,” I suggested graciously. That way, no one gets blamed. But they kept calling it the “American flu.”

4. There is this guy Maarten, who publishes a provocative Magazine called Maarten! I picked up a recent issue totally dedicated to America, under the title “Maarten Goes America.” It contains political and cultural analyses of the US by many Dutch authors. There is some sympathy, some understanding and some refreshing thinking. Maarten questions some of the stereotypes which Europeans hold about us - things like the “superficial” American (p. 3). Good. He points out that we handle immigration better than they do (p. 62). Thank you, Maarten!

But there are also some stupid things: One article lists America’s ten most important films. Number One, as most representative of American culture, is The Godfather, followed by movies like Dr. Strangelove, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, JFK and Wall Street (p. 82). Apparently, only conspiracy movies made the list. This is neither good film history nor good sociology.

Maarten also avers that Baseball and American Football are “lame,” i.e. boring. Now that gives a whole new meaning to the words “pot” and “kettle”!
I can’t think of anything more boring than European soccer - sitting through a dreadful hour and a half to see a bunch of men run up and down a field and score one or zero points, usually by penalty! Contrast this with the rich, mathematical and psychological strategies required in baseball and American football - games comparable to chess in their intellectual complexity - not to mention the awesome organized,controlled, violence of American football - magnificent sports! leave comment here

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Power of Language

by Madeleine Kando

I teach French. And sometime Spanish but only when I can get away with it. I teach very little people. They are so young in fact that they barely understand the concept of another language. But that’s ok. We all like the way French sounds, me and my students, and that is a good start.

I try to teach my young brood that French has two genders.
‘Yes’ I tell them. ‘In French every word is either a boy word or a girl word. The moon is a girl word and the sun is a boy word’. So we play a game with animal beanbags. I put down two boxes. One for the boy beanbags and one for the girl beanbags. I tell them that an elephant is a boy word and a turtle is a girl word. Five year old Marty asks: ‘what if the turtle is a boy?’ ‘Aha!’ I say. ‘Very good question! Well, the poor boy turtle still would be called ‘la tortue’. He would still have a girl name.’ Marty’s face shows great confusion but eventually he accepts this as a fact of life. Kids are good at that. They accept things.

Then I realize that maybe explaining this to a 5 year old is counterproductive. After all, French babies don’t know about gender, yet they never make a mistake by saying ‘le tortue’ instead of ‘la tortue’. To them the animal’s name is ‘latortue’, period. Eventually they will learn that the ‘la’ part is the article and the ‘tortue’ part is the noun. The trick is then to avoid saying something like: ‘Maman, il y a une latortue dans l’eau!’ (Mom, there is a ‘theturtle’ in the water).

In my older classes I tell my students that words put together the wrong way can create havoc if you are not totally familiar with a language. Like a sign in Norway that reads: “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar”. And I warn them never to ask ‘Ou est la salle de bain’ (Where is the bathroom) in a Paris café or they might be mistaken for a vagrant in dire need of a bath.

These young students of mine should become aware that words are so powerful that they can shape the course of history. As an example I tell them about George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2003 when he said: ‘The British government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.’ (Which meant that Saddam was developing a nuclear weapon).

‘What if Bush had said: ‘The British government believes that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.’ 'Would the word ‘believes’ have qualified as a reason to go to war?’ I ask them? (It turns out that the British government only ‘believed’ Saddam had bought yellow cake since we never did find WMD’s, but that’s just a small detail in hindsight).

‘Even your own name is important' I tell them, 'and depends a lot on when you were born. How many parents, do you think, named their baby boy ‘Adolf’ after the second world War? Even though ‘Adolf’ means ‘Noble Wolf’, there was nothing noble about Adolf Hitler.’

Words have many degrees of strength, from neutral to inflammatory to offensive. They can stir up strong emotions. To illustrate we play a game by ‘conjugating’ verbs that increase in negative intensity like this: I am uninformed, you are ignorant, he is stupid’. Or: ‘I am slim, you are skinny, he is emaciated. And: I am laid-back, you are inactive, he is lazy. And so on.

Computer related terms can be quite a mouthful in French. Instead of ‘spam’ the French say:‘J’ai recu du courrier indésirable d’origine inconnue’. (I received undesirable email of unknown origin). There is a bug in my program is ‘le programme souffre d’un défault du logiciel’ (The program suffers from a logical mistake). ‘You can always substitute the English word and put a ‘le’ in front of it (le spam, le web)' I tell them. 'Just remember that it is officially verboten!'

The French, purists as they are, seem to be under the illusion that they can censure their language. But it's a lost battle, like prohibition. You cannot tell a language what to do. It is one of the most organic processes of human life. That is the power of language!
leave comment here

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Student and the Teacher

By Tom Kando

The other day, I wrote that Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, despite what his venomous detractors were saying and writing. It wasn’t just Limbaugh, Beck and other rabid right-wingers who ridiculed the President for receiving the prestigious award. He was also made fun of by all the PC crowd - Saturday Night Live, Letterman, Conan O’Brien, you name it. But here is a thought - an analogy if you will (which will aggravate many of you):

When the Nobel Committee gave our President the Nobel Prize, it was the equivalent of giving him an "A" for his firs midterm.

You see, Europe is the teacher, and America is the student. Europe is the parent. America is the child. So what the teacher is saying is that President Obama has passed his first midterm with flying colors. He is a brilliant and promising student. (His predecessor flunked out of school).

The analogy continues: Europe is old and wise. America is young and less experienced. It is learning.

How dare you! Some of you will say. Europe has f... up more than anyone else - as recently as six decades ago, it tried to commit mass suicide. It gave us Fascism, Communism, Colonialism and Racism. And they are supposed to teach us? Don’t make me laugh!

But wait. That’s also part of the analogy: The older folks (teachers, parents) whose job it is to teach the younger folks always have a lifetime of trials and errors behind them. It’s called experience. And that is why they should be our teachers. Isn’t the best AA counselor a reformed alcoholic? The best psychologist someone who has undergone psychotherapy?
For example, it is because of its catastrophic experience that Europe knows, with absolute certitude, that war is not the way to go. War is not only immoral, but it is also stupid.
I can’t get into a debate here as to whether or not some wars are just and necessary. There is always that one prototype of the just war: the one against Hitler. Yes, that one had to be fought. But by and large, most wars were stupid and unnecessary. The world (that is, all sides) would have been better off without most of the wars which have been fought, including World War One, the Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, you name it.

Another lesson we should learn from Europe is that universal, publically funded health care is good. They have had it for the better part of a century, and they are the better for it. It works. People are healthier while spending less on medicine, and the government isn’t broke (at least, no more than here). Everyone wins. Again, experience.

Tomorrow, I might turn around and say that Europe has a lot to learn from America - our country’s youthful idealism, optimism, elan vital, creativity, freedom. But today, this is my insight.
leave comment here

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why are we in Pakistan - and Everywhere else?

By Tom Kando

Day after day, we read how much the Pakistanis hate us, and how they blame us for all their woes. Some believe that car bombings, such as the one that killed 150 people last week, are carried out by Americans. Sure. And the World Trade Center was blown up by George W. Bush, right? Why on earth does America behave this way? We just increased our aid package to Pakistan by $8 billion. That’s over and beyond the annual billions we have already been spending on that country for God knows how many years. When two married people hate each other, they get a divorce. Why are we even there? Oh yes, I forgot - Al Qaeda, the Taliban, terrorism.

If that’s the reason, then we should also be in all the other potential havens for terrorists, including Somalia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Iran, North Korea, Chechnya, practically every other Middle Eastern country, half of Africa, and don’t forget the narco-terrorists in Latin America. We should be "nation building" not just in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in dozens of other countries.
Is there a quicker way for America to bleed and to spend itself into oblivion? Nuts!
leave comment here

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My Hairdresser

by Madeleine Kando

You might think that the best place to get information these days is the internet but I would rate my hairdresser as a close second. That’s where I find out who recently had a tummy tuck, whose kids are on ritalin for ADD, how much my neighbor’s husband makes per year and so on.

Hairdressers are so many things rolled into one you see. They not only take care of our looks, they are our therapist, our business adviser and our personal gossip columnist.

Some hairdressers are better at listening than others. Especially the ones that don’t really understand English that well. As you confess your sins of the month, they nod a lot and once in a while respond with an empathic ‘da’ or ‘si, si’. It’s very therapeutic.

In a well staffed salon, the sharing can become a little overwhelming. As I am listening to my hairdresser’s weight loss advise, the woman next to me is engaged in a sinister conversation about the gory details of a bikini wax gone sour which left her looking like a plucked chicken down there.

I have known my hairdresser for a long time. She started out as a trainee in a large hairdresser salon and eventually started her own business. Since then, her reputation as a hair stylist and, more importantly, as confessionalist has spread and she is now fully booked. While I am whisked to a hairdryer, she is already fully engaged in the next client’s confession and I feel completely forgotten and abandoned.

Eavesdropping onto the next client's confession and my hairdresser's total engagement, I console myself with the thought that MY confession, of course, was a lot more interesting.

If I was more coordinated with my hands I probably would want to become a hairdresser. What a wealth of material I would gather to write about. But I am not confident enough. It takes a lot of guts to pick up a pair of scissors and slice through someone’s hair. Haircuts are so irreversible you see. And being confronted with that kind of decision making on a daily basis is only for the brave hearted. Not me. leave comment here

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sociology as bs: Deconstructing Michael Jackson

By Tom Kando

Hi Folks: While I love Sociology, I must also recognize that my discipline is sometimes full of bs. So I thought I’d illustrate - as a joke - the style of some of my "post-modern" colleagues. For this, I use the current post-mortem cult and economic exploitation of the late great Michael Jackson. Be aware: the paragraph is basically meaningless verbiage (= bs), not unlike some of the things which some sociologists write. At the end, I try to help you with an interpretation of this spoof:
The subtext of the narrative which celebrates Michael Jackson as perhaps our greatest cultural icon is a social construction as well as an intersubjective symbolic reproduction. The bureaucratization (or even bureaucretinization) of our post-modern culture must be deconstructed along gender, ethnic and other diversity motives rather than through a totalizing and essentializing Weberian, Parsonian or even Perrowian perspective. A corporate culture grounded in post-modern chaos theory reveals that both the performative and the totalizing narratives are sublimating gender-specific and race-specific heterosexist motives into the larger text of a constructivist throwback to value rationality. Kohlberg's moral stages drive the social reproduction of interpretive schemes used as moral categories denoting or even connoting a Eurocentric labeling process. Thus, sociologists' interpretations are not, as Irving Louis Horowitz recently argued, in a state of decomposition but they represent, rather, a fertile and aromatic compost

1st sentence: This says nothing; just that there is a lot of talk about Michael Jackson...
2nd sentence: This says nothing; it just drops some sociological words and names.
3rd sentence: same.
4th sentence: same
last sentence: an inside joke - Horowitz was unhappy with the way Sociology was going.
leave comment here

Saturday, October 24, 2009

My success story

by Madeleine Kando

I first started loosing weight when I was 13. I had to bike 5 miles each way to school and I was 110 pounds but had other things to think about than worry about loosing a measly 5 pounds.

The trouble continued after I went through a physical fitness program and started my first job at a roller skating rink where I spent about 3 nights per week on roller skates. Hello, the next 5 pounds came off!

When I was 21 I lived in Spain for a while with a French roommate, Michelle. She was small and I admired her physique and it wasn’t too long before I shed another 5 pounds trying to emulate her petite stature.

So when I moved back to Holland I decided to shape up and started my first diet by following the typical Dutch milk/eggs/cheese/herring thing and cutting out every bit of vegetables I could. I got up to 140 pounds...for like a week! But I just couldn’t keep it up. I just couldn’t say no to those damn vegetables.

Of course, I knew that the key was to stay on the couch and watch tv. I locked the doors, threw away my health club membership card, drove everywhere I could and gave away my bike. But my weight went up and down like a yo-yo. Vegetables and fruits kept luring me back!

By the time I turned 30 I had had it. I surfed the internet for some weight gain motivation. And by pure chance I found this gem of a site: ‘STAYPUT’. This is one of the best things that has happened to me. I spent the better part of two days sitting (the site’s first recommendation) and reading the articles. I had hit the jackpot. I was going to gain every last bit of weight and keep it! I started with STAYPUT’S 4-day challenge, a balance of meats, milk, cheese, cookies and ice cream at every meal.

Since then I read labels religiously and many times decide the item isn’t worth the price if it doesn’t contain enough calories. I also finish everything that’s on my plate. After a couple of minor mis-steps along the way I am now 32 pounds heavier at my goal weight of 170 pounds!

So, STAYPUT, thank you so very much! You have changed my life. It can be done. leave comment here

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Will we ever travel to the stars?

By Tom Kando

I just read that astronomers have discovered another thirty extra-solar planets. Altogether, we have now identified over 400 such bodies, circling near-by and not-so near-by stars. This raises the wishful thought of traveling to those planets, some day. If we are ever going to find extra-terrestrial life, that’s where we must look for it.The effort to establish radio contact with extra-terrestrials on some of those planets is worthwhile. We could get a message to some of them in 5 to 10 years, and vice-versa. So we’d only need to wait a decade to 20 years to get a reply. However, traveling there ourselves, or expecting them to land here, that’s another matter.

Now that we have landed on the moon and probed the outer limits of the solar system with our machines, we often assume that Star Trek-like interstellar travel is just around the corner. Forget it. Not in a million years. It's one thing to cross the solar system and perhaps land on Mars or even circle Jupiter. It is quite something else to reach even the closest star.

The closest star, Alpha Centauri, is 1.3 parsecs away, or 4.3 light-years. Since light travels at over 186,000 miles per second and there are 31.5 million seconds in a year, light covers nearly 6 trillion miles in a year. Alpha Centauri is over four times farther than that, i.e. over 25 trillion miles away.

Assume that we somehow manage to double the speed of our currently most advanced space vehicles. Some of our satellites and rockets can now circle the earth twice in an hour, so let's assume that we can speed them up to 100,000 miles per hour. At that speed, it would take an astronaut 29,000 years to reach the closest star. That's about as much time as has lapsed since Cro-Magnon man!

Now let's assume, fantastically, that we can speed up space travel to one-tenth of the speed of light. Our rockets would now travel at 67 million mph (faster than any conceivable Indy car, right?). We could reach the sun in two hours. How long would it take to get to Alpha Centauri? 43 years, i.e. the better part of a lifetime. Note that such a fantastic vehicle would travel one thousand times faster than our fastest space ships (e.g. the space shuttle) are currently capable of. (Today, our fastest space vehicles reach one-ten thousandth of the speed of light, which is the same difference as that between a man walking and the speed of the space shuttle itself).

Were we to use our current state-of-the-art vehicles for interstellar travel, we would reach the closest star in 58,000 years, i.e. fifteen times longer than the time elapsed since the construction of the ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Let's face it: We may not be completely earth-bound, but we are certainly the prisoners of the solar system - forever. And from what we have learned about our sister planets in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is becoming apparent that earth is the only livable, lovable and life-filled body in our planetary system. The moral of this story? We better learn to do things right here at home, because there is nowhere else to escape to - there is no exit! leave comment here

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Are Identity Politics and Culture Wars Necessary?

By Tom Kando

Although I was on the progressive Left like everybody else when I was in college, there were some things on the Left which turned me off, even then: For one thing, in the aftermath of the Counterculture, "progressive" at times turned into sinister, drug-crazed, Charles Manson-like beliefs and behaviors. Also, the Left became so powerful on University campuses that it stifled dissent and often became a mirror image of the traditional, bigoted Right. One of the things which bothered me about campus politics was the emergence of the "New Left.":The New Left was a term coined during the sixties. In contrast to the Old Left, it focused more on Identity Politics than purely on bread-and-butter issues. It added to the Old Left’s Socialist goals a whole new agenda, focusing on race, gender and sexual preference. It is on that front that the nastiest battles were fought. I was astounded to find that in some deranged minds, I was guilty just for being a white, heterosexual male.

I never really shed my moderately social-democratic views. For example, I deplored the decline of trade unions in America. I was one of the founders of the California University Professors Union. But identity politics were something else. People - including me and members of my family - were sometimes attacked and ridiculed not because of anything we had done, but because we belonged to the wrong demographic category. Old-fashioned white-male-sexist-heterosexual bigotry was being reciprocated in the opposite direction. Affirmative action, sexual harassment charges, grievances and law suits were flying all over the place. Things were very uncomfortable.

Of course, the only sane and intelligent political position is a progressive one. Social Justice is the most important goal. Still, I am convinced that a mature and progressive perspective requires one to distinguish between essential goals and more frivolous goals. President Obama’s genius is that he is able to make that distinction - as was President Clinton, who ran under the slogan, "it’s the economy, stupid." Indeed.

In an odd twist, it is now the Right which focuses on "Culture Wars." School prayer, gay marriage, the right to teach creationism side by side with evolution, abortion, crosses, creches and other religious symbolism in public locations, the right to bear arms, etc.

There is a similarity between the Right’s emphasis on Cultural Politics and The Left’s Identity Politics. They both move politics away from bread-and-butter issues.
Obviously, the Right couldn’t come out overtly in favor of economic inequality and the accumulation of wealth in fewer a fewer pockets. It has done that in a veiled way, and with some success, by trying to indoctrinate the populace into believing that labels such as "socialism" and "redistribution" are evil. In America, being called a socialist is now the kiss of death. Still, the Right’s economic agenda is hard to sell, since it basically says that "inequality is good."

So what does the Right do? It draws the gullible public’s attention to "cultural" issues. Hence, the "culture wars" fought by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Issues such as gay marriage and school prayer are excellent smoke screens. You get the people to huff and puff about such issues, so they won’t pay attention to their growing poverty, while Goldman Sachs continues to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.

But my point is that the Left’s Identity politics function somewhat the same way: They divert the population’s attention from the essential economic issue - growing inequality. Instead, subgroups are all up in arms over their ethnic and sexual identities. Should Columbus Day be a national holiday, or should we have Leif Erickson day instead? Is this important?

So you see, Identity politics turn me off for the same reason that the Culture wars turn me off. Maybe I am forever an "Old Leftist," and I will never feel comfortable with Identity politics. Gays? Lesbians? Transgendereds? African-Americans? Hispanics? Kablinesians (Tiger Woods)? Women? Men? The young? The old? Absolutely: ALL must be included, all must enjoy fully equal rights.

But most of what we are after can be subsumed under economic equality. In the end, it all boils down to a reasonable level of economic equality for all. For the rest, let there be diversity, live-and-let-live. It is not necessary for every group to march and to demonstrate in a quest to be loved by all others.

I am a grubby Hungarian Jew. I know that most people don’t love me, and that most people couldn’t care less about Hungarian Jews or Hungarian identity. But you know what? As long as I and my children are not arrested, or denied a job or a school or service in a restaurant because we are of Hungarian Jewish descent, I don’t really give a damn what other people think about our demographic origins. I don’t care, because we lead comfortable and happy lives. And that is the only essential goal progressive politics must pursue for all. leave comment here

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Public or Private?

By Tom Kando

The current debate about health care makes me think: Which services belong in the public realm and which ones should remain private? In other words, which ones are government responsibilities, and which ones are not? Many goods and services are produced and delivered for profit. Homo Economicus. But there are also services which can never be profitable, and therefore must be provided at a loss, i.e. at the taxpayer’s expense. Homo Publicus. Here is a list of services, with notes on how they are usually delivered - in the US and elsewhere:
1. Education: There are public schools and private schools, both in the US and overseas.
2. Health: Medical insurance, medical services and hospitals are largely private in the US, more public but sometimes private overseas.
3. Public Safety: Law enforcement, the correctional system and the courts are almost always public, both in the US and overseas, although America has privatized some of its prisons and some of its juvenile correctional facilities, which are run for profit. Fire protection is usually a public service everywhere.
4. Defense: Almost always a public service, both here and overseas, although in the past, mercenaries for hire played a big role in wars, and even today the US uses some private "security" personnel in Iraq.
5. Welfare: This is the "total loss" segment of the economy: welfare, AFDC, unemployment and disability benefits, etc. In past ages, charity was largely private, and religious and other private charities continue to exist, especially in the US. However, modern societies provide most of these benefits at the public’s expense. They are the most resented government expenses because they are so totally born by the taxpayers.
6. Child services, receiving homes, orphanages, group homes, and convalescent homes.: In the US, many of these facilities are private for-profit businesses. Elsewhere much less so.
7. Transportation: In the US, passenger trains are run by a semi-private-public corporation (Amtrak), while freight trains are fully private. Elsewhere railways are largely public. Municipal bus systems are almost always public, both in the US and overseas, while the US has one major private national bus company - Greyhound. Other urban mass transit systems - trams, subways, etc. - are public, both in the US and elsewhere. Of course, Americans use private cars more than anyone else. Road construction and maintenance are a public responsibility everywhere. Airports are largely public in most countries, at least the major international ones. Airlines are private in the US, public and private elsewhere.
8. Communication: Postal service in the US is both public and private (UPS, FedEx). Elsewhere it is largely public. Telephone service is entirely private in the US, but public and private elsewhere.
9.Housing: mostly private everywhere, although there is some public housing in the US and in other countries.
10. Recreation: largely private everywhere, except for local, state and national parks.
11. Consumer goods and food. This is the 800 pound gorilla in the economy. It is overwhelmingly the realm of the private economy in most countries. The notable exception is the defunct Soviet Union.

Any conclusions? Well, (1) for one thing, the US is much more private than most others. (2) What is best? Should products and services be part of the private or the public economy? This depends on what items we are talking about. (3) In general, services which are inherently more costly than profitable MUST be public (i.e paid for with taxes). In this regard, the US errs on the private side, as Communism erred in the opposite direction. (4) This raises the fundamental question as to what the good society is. A society which fails to provide services that are inherently unprofitable, yet essential to human well-being, is not a good society.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Did Obama Deserve the Nobel Prize?

By Tom Kando

I just sent this letter to the Sacramento Bee, in response to a whole slew of letters very critical of Obama's receipt of the Nobel Prize:

You recently published an amazing amount of vitriol about President Obama’s Nobel Prize. Even on the "Left Coast," many hate the man - viscerally, irrationally, moronically.True, the Nobel Committee was motivated to encourage the beleaguered President, in the face of the hateful opposition illustrated by such letters as Gonzalez, McPherson, Dupree, Moore, Bogetich, and Labahn.

But let’s not overlook the President’s real accomplishments: (1) His stimulus program has pulled us back from the abyss where decades of Republican and Wall Street greed and mismanagement had brought us. He has canceled wasteful military programs, including (2) the Eastern European missile shield and (3) a military airplane. He is improving relations (4) in the Middle East, (5) with Iran, (6) Russia and (7) North Korea. (8)He is engaged in a titanic effort to reform health care, and (9) his environmental policies are bringing America back to a position of leadership in that area as well.

Most importantly, he has fundamentally altered the planet’s political climate, from confrontation and contempt for America, to respect and cooperation. All these steps are tangible progress, not vague hopes. They can be taken to the bank.
This is a miraculous list of achievements, after nine months. This presidency is truly transformational. It richly deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
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Monday, October 12, 2009

Is Being Evil also a Medical Illness?

By Tom Kando

I have always been a humanistic psychologist. For years, I have argued that the medicalization of human behavior is, in my view, an error - an error of which psychology is increasingly guilty. Because of the great success of the natural sciences and their unrivaled prestige, the behavioral disciplines - sociology, psychology - feel compelled to emulate them. This is called "Positivism," and it requires physical reductionism. Human beings no longer decide to mis-behave; they are just ill. When I came across one more instance of this in the media, I wrote the following rebuttal:

Here we go again. The neuro-psychological reductionists are at it again. According to an article in the Sacramento Bee (March 22), "part of our moral behavior is grounded in a specific part of our brains... It is hard-wired." Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, recently researched this. He concluded that moral behavior is controlled by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is a small region in the forehead. His findings are based on submitting a number of moral questions to 6 subjects whose ventromedial prefrontal cortex was damaged, to 12 people without brain damage, and to 12 patients with other forms of brain damage. The subjects with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were found to be more willing to sacrifice one person for the greater good of many, than the comparison groups. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is said to house " feelings of empathy, shame, compassion and guilt."

I will not quibble about the study’s ridiculously small sample - 6 experimental subjects. What bothers me much more is the ever stronger belief of psychologists that human decisions and behavior are rooted in specific locations in our nervous system. The psychologists’ holy grail is a map of the human brain which will indicate the precise physical locations of all our emotions. This is as futile and idiotic as the pseudo-science of alchemy was, during the Dark Ages. Why?

Because our responses to stimuli (our decisions) are the result of our perceptions and our interpretations of the stimuli, and these interpretations are socially arrived at. Of course we already know that some areas of the brain play a major role in cognition, and that other areas experience certain chemical states under certain stimuli, states to which we then apply such socio-cultural labels as "fear," "anger," "love," "happiness," "pride," etc. In and of themselves, without the labels, these are only chemical states. It is obvious that many forms of brain damage reduce cognitive ability, i.e. the ability to understand, i.e. intelligence. Equally obvious is the fact that various forms of brain damage alter the chemical reaction triggered by stimuli.

However, words such as "fear," "shame," "guilt, "empathy," and "compassion" are cultural concepts, similar to "love" and "pride." They are not physiological states or processes. These neuro-scientists are committing the error of reification. They endow words with physical reality. They should hear themselves talk! They are looking to find - under a microscope perhaps - "shame" or "pride" in a patient’s brain. Please tell me, doctor: What are the size and color of the patient’s "shame," which you have just located. Is it one centimeter in size? Is it green? The Japanese are known to experience more shame than Americans do. Is this because their brains are different? In wars and disasters, the decision is sometimes made to sacrifice one or a few for the greater good of many. This is sometimes called leadership or heroism. These people presumably suffer from a damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex?
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