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