Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Doctor

by Madeleine Kando

I commiserate with a friend at my health club about all sorts of things. That’s one of the advantages of relating to someone on a ‘locally specific basis’. You know, someone you only meet at the supermarket, or when you get your coffee at Starbucks every morning at 9 am. It’s a safe way of letting off steam because you know you won’t see that person anywhere else that day.

My locally specific friend talks a lot about her ‘doctor’. She is so enamored with him that her choice of words borders on adoration. ‘He is very very famous, you know, MY doctor. He is in the paper and on t.v. He really likes me.’

I thought of her when I went to see MY doctor yesterday. Of course he is not MY doctor at all. He is so many people’s doctor that his three secretaries have to go through terrible contortions to try to cram the enormous amount of patients’ charts onto the shelves behind their neatly lined up workstations.

One of them was wearing a Micky Mouse hat with a big red ribbon that matched her red sweater stretched tight over her expansive bosom. It was Halloween, you see. As I was waiting, I was watching her step onto a wobbly stool, one hand holding a chart, the other holding onto a cabinet. She was engaging in her daily struggle to squeeze one more patient onto the already overstuffed shelf.

MY doctor is a very famous spine specialist. He doesn’t know my name and I doubt he remembers any of his patients’ names. To him, I am an L5 with a bulging disk.

I have been whisked into one of the many examination rooms, waiting for MY doctor to come in. My ‘friend’ at the club would be proud of me. He only made me wait an hour.

He comes in, shakes my hand without looking up from the sheet that he is holding in his hand. He asks ‘how are you?’ in a tone that does not expect an honest answer. So, when I answer him truthfully that I have seen better days, he looks up, a bit surprised.

He is very laconic, with a flat affect. I recognize this as a trick of the trade, a way to discourage patients from asking too many questions. That would risk extending our meeting and an L4 with narrowing disk space is waiting in the next examination room. I know how she must feel and with a guilty conscience I ask MY doctor to at least look at the expensive MRI that I brought with me.

Ten minutes later I am back in the hall, wondering what happened. I had a shitload of questions, but somehow the person that I was talking to in there did not seem very interested in me. I had the distinct feeling that my condition didn’t pose a special challenge. He was either thinking of his next patient or what he would eat for lunch.

I was really open to the possibility of getting to know him. I could have told my ‘friend’ at the club, that I too had a nice, famous doctor. But I think there is a point in some doctors’ career where the patient load reaches a critical mass, where there are just too many patients squeezed on a shelf. They must start blending together, like pureed potatoes.

I don’t feel terribly sorry for MY doctor. He has chosen the path of least resistance to fame and glory. But his secretaries… well, that’s different. I have a suspicion that my chart will start gathering dust. I can already hear the sigh of relief when, instead of stepping onto her wobbly stool, the big bosomed secretary will toss my chart in the wastebasket. Phew! One less potatoe to worry about. leave comment here

Friday, October 29, 2010


By Tom Kando

After our recent return from Europe, a friend asked, “Weren’t you afraid of terrorists?” My first impulse was to guffaw, but instead I explained patiently to the dear old woman that she was actually in greater danger driving to the supermarket than we were flying to Europe.

The irrationality of fear is all around us. And it is being stoked by the media, by homeland security, by politicians. When we were in Europe last month, the authorities announced a “red alert.” International travelers were supposed to be more vigilant. We were not given any hint as to what we should DO to make ourselves safer. Essentially, we were simply told to be more AFRAID. Read more...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Geopolitics: Why Aren’t we more with India?

By Tom Kando

I was thinking: We got sucked into a never-ending war in Afghanistan and a costly alliance with a very questionable ally - Pakistan.

But next door to Pakistan is a much bigger, more powerful and more benign country whose interests coincide with ours - India. The logic for an alliance with that country is inescapable:

1. Like America, India is the target of vicious terrorist attacks. The November 2008 Mumbai attacks killed 173 Indians and wounded another 308. This was just one of the many acts of violence that have pitted Indian Hindus against Muslims from India, Kashmir and Pakistan over the years.

2. Some ally, Pakistan! While American boys and girls are dying fighting the Taliban, the Pakistani Intelligence Agency (ISI) is known to actually control the Taliban and its leader Mullah Muhammad Omar (Sacramento Bee, October 20).

3. 27% of Pakistanis believe that the US government perpetrated the 9/11 attack, vs. 2% who believe that it was al Qaeda (most said they don’t know). (see Bret Stephens, European Wall Street Journal, September 29).

4. This is what $3 billion a year of US economic aid to Pakistan buys us! (In addition to the staggering cost of our Afghan war). Our alliance with Pakistan is an obscenity.

5. India is a huge and powerful country. Its culture is peaceful, it is democratic and (largely) capitalistic. It will also become increasingly important as a counterweight to the next superpower - China.

Granted, South Asia is a tinder box. Both India and Pakistan have nukes. The region could be the Balkan of the 21st century. It is where World War Three could be ignited, as World War One was ignited in Serajevo. I am not suggesting rash action by our government. But why we are aligned with a corrupt, weak, ungrateful and nearly failed state (Pakistan) instead of a much more powerful and benign country whose interests coincide with ours (India), is beyond me. leave comment here

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rightward Ho!

By Tom Kando

There is a race in the Western world today as to who can move to the political right farther and faster. I find it amusing that America can no longer be blamed for being exceptionally right-wing, conservative, racist, capitalist, etc. In other words: All those things which intellectuals and Europeans have so long enjoyed accusing us of.

I returned from Europe a week ago, and I can report that they are (also) moving to the right, big time! Here, we have the Tea Party, and a major right-wing electoral victory coming up. In Europe it’s the same, if not worse:

1. In the UK, of course, the Conservatives won the May election and Prime Minister David Cameron has taken over the government from Gordon Brown and the Labor Party.

2. In the Netherlands, the Balkenende government has fallen, and it is being replaced by a Center-Right coalition cabinet. The Socialists are now in the opposition, while the Christian Democrats and the Business Party rule, with the support of Geert Wilders’ “Freedom” Party. This party is the new kid on the block, a controversial but increasingly popular “anti-Islam” party.

3. In Sweden, the Center-Right Alliance has just won the election, while the far right also gained strength. There, too, immigration played a major role in pushing the electorate to the right. This is quite unprecedented, in a country which has always epitomized the extremely tolerant and liberal European social democracies which American conservatives demonize.

4. In France, President Sarkozy recently began evicting thousands of gypsies, a move which has gained him popularity in his country.

5. Italian authorities are also evicting some gypsies.

6. In Hungary, the right-center Fidesz party has just scored a major electoral victory, and the far-right neo-Nazis are now also in parliament.

These are just some of the examples which I have recently come across. But there is a silver lining to this: European intellectuals and liberals (of which there are plenty left, fortunately) can no longer wag their finger at evil, capitalist, racist, reactionary America. That would be the pot calling the kettle...leave comment here

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

Some ideas are so significant that it is impossible to ignore them. They are the bright stars in the vast firmament of ideas and they often affect all of humanity. One of these bright stars is the idea that questions related to morality (what is good and what is bad) can be answered rationally and scientifically. Sam Harris’ recent book “The Moral Landcape” makes an excellent contribution to this subject.

Many thinkers have tried to develop systems of morality that are absolute and not at the whim of individual ‘opinion’. The 16th century Enlightenment was such an effort. In the Constitution Thomas Jefferson says that Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are “self-evident.”

The concepts of good and evil are usually thought to be the domain of religion, but in his new book ‘The Moral Landscape’, Sam Harris argues that science can, and should approach morality as any other domain of inquiry. Not only should science study morality but it should shape it and contribute to our knowledge of what constitutes a good life.

Certain social systems are morally superior to others (Harris compares the Taliban with an open, democratic society). This is not a matter of opinion, but it is because the former is not as conducive to human well-being as the latter. And if you agree that morality is tied to humanity’s well-being, it is hard to disagree with Harris.

Why would a society believe that it is good for its citizens’ well-being to circumcise young girls? If it can be proven that it makes people happier, so be it. But it is probably closer to the truth that such a society is ignorant on the subject of morality. Just like people in the Middle Ages were ignorant on the subject of cosmology. They thought that the world was the center of the universe. They were wrong.

We are, Harris says, in a historical period of intellectual and moral emergency. We need a set of universal moral truths in order to move forward. Harris’ bold assertion that there are good moral ideas and bad moral ideas (a common sense assertion if you ask me) does not sit well with cultural relativists who are so afraid of being politically incorrect. Why was Ayan Hirshi Ali kicked out of Holland on a technicality? Why is there a lawsuit against Geert Wilders? Doesn’t that go against one of the basic principles of a free society, i.e. the right to free speech?

Harris argues that there is no conflict between facts and values. That a good set of values should withstand scientific factual scrutiny.

In my humble opinion there is a great advantage to opening up the moral landscape to rational investigation: if it does pass the test of rationality, we will add a clear and unambiguous moral code to human knowledge. There won’t be any turning back to barbarism in the name of religious fanaticism.

We have many intuitions about what is right and wrong. A good base for a new Golden Age of morality. Harris is right in saying that we live in an age of moral emergency. There were periods in history when morality created peaks on the moral landscape. One of those peaks was when the Greeks invented democracy. When the Age of Enlightenment invented reason. We saw another peak during the New Deal Era, when compassion mattered more than ‘the bottom line’. New Deal Era policies were more moral than policies advocated by either party today.

So good and bad moral ideas also flourish at certain times in history, not just at certain locations on the globe. What I think is the most important aspect of this new idea is that it removes morality from the clutches of religion. It provides an alternative, much more objective set of moral truths. It may give us a boost in the right direction, a much needed kick in the you know what, so we can step onto the next rung of the ladder towards moral enlightenment. leave comment here

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

My twin sister lives on the Costa del Sol. She lives in a house the size of the tool shed in my backyard. When I skype with her I can see how beautiful her shed is. All wood, beautifully furnished, immaculately clean. She is a proponent of a minimalist life style and is suspicious of anything extravagant.

My twin sister complements me in every way. She is what I am not. She trusts her instincts, she stays up late when she feels like it, she stays in bed when she wants to and she follows her desires. Because that’s what you are supposed to do with desires. You are supposed to fulfill them. Unless you are a neurotic, masochistic, insecure doubting Thomas like me.

We have been twins for a long time now, my twin sister and I. When I see her on my little skype screen, I realize that, aside from her long braided greying hair, she is still the young, indestructible, adventurous, ambiguous, irrational, tempestuous young woman that she was decades ago. Read more...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Are We Better Off Poor?

By Tom Kando

Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke has announced his intention to increase the money supply. This is called “quantitative easing.” Basically it means printing more money. The Fed is expected to pump $500 billion more into the financial system, on top of the $1.75 trillion already spent, trying to lift the economy (Sacramento Bee, Oct. 16, 2010).

The logic is simple, and well-known: (1) This will stimulate the economy. (2) It will continue to devalue the dollar, which people say is good, because it will improve our exports. (3) And it will bring bring back a “healthy” level of inflation, which is better than deflation.

But I agree with Yale historian Paul Kennedy that The dollar’s decline has been disastrous (See “Don’t’ Surrender U.S. Influence to Beijing” - New York Times, Sept. 29). When I came to this country in 1960, the dollar was worth FOUR times as much as the typical European currency, e.g. the Mark, the Dutch Guilder, the Swiss Frank, etc. We were 4 times richer than the Europeans. Now, the dollar can’t even keep up with the Euro. When that currency was introduced in 1999, it was worth less than a dollar. Today, it is worth $1.40, and rising. If a weak dollar benefits us, we should be real happy when the dollar declines to the value of the Mexican Peso.

Railing against the federal budget deficit is the favorite pastime of Republicans, Tea-Partiers, conservatives, and everyone who hates “the government.” It is their chief campaign issue. True, the federal deficit is very large, and very scary.

But few bother to distinguish between the government deficit problem, and the much more intractable TRADE DEFICIT problem. The current federal deficit is temporary, and it is caused by unwarranted tax breaks for the wealthy.

On the other hand, the trade deficit is long-term, intractable, huge, and growing. Currently, America imports $600 billion more every year than it exports. This has been going on for DECADES. China has accumulated $2.65 trillion so far. Add to that what we owe to Middle-eastern sheikdoms, to Germany and to our other creditors.

While the two deficits are intertwined, I am flabbergasted that hardly anyone ever distinguishes between them, or recognizes that the trade deficit problem is the more serious of the two. Most of those brave “fiscal conservatives” aren’t even aware of the distinction! One of the few exceptions is economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. See his "Killer Trade Deficits," (New York Times, August 16).

What happens if you earn $100,000 and spends $120,000 every year, for 40 years? You end up devoting ever more of your income to financing your growing debt. There comes a point when you spend 100% of your money on finance charges, and 0% on groceries. You starve, or you borrow more and more. You are trapped in a vicious cycle. You have become a slave to your creditors. This is what America has become. We are owned.

The solution? Simple. Same as what any bankrupt household must do: work away the debt.
1. Tighten the belt. Consume less.
2. Sell more goods, import less.
3. Raise taxes - temporarily.

1. Tighten the Belt: When Greeks and other Europeans default, they tighten their belt. But for some reason, Americans are expected to consume MORE, not less, even though our debt-to-GDP ratio is approaching that of Greece’s (nearly 100%).

When Japan and Europe suffer heavy government deficits, they raise taxes, at least temporarily. But for some reason, our politicians advocate LOWERING taxes, under the mantra of job creation.

2. Export more, import less: This evokes the antique concept of “Mercantilism” and the loathed concept of “Protectionism.” I favor both: Historically, societies have become rich and powerful by exporting more and importing less. Louis XIV’s finance minister Colbert and the British Imperial government understood this. It is imperative that America resume producing and selling goods. If this takes tariffs, so be it. When a Honda costs twice what a Chevrolet costs, I’ll go back to buying Chevrolets.

3. Raise taxes for 10-15 years. Whittle away the government debt. Presently, the government spends $300 billion a year on financing its debt. As the debt declines, money will be freed up for other budget items, and taxes can be reduced - a virtuous cycle. leave comment here

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Clash of Civilizations, or Clash of Barbarians?

By Tom Kando

A recent article by Bret Stephens (European Wall Street Journal, September 29) contains some frightening information about the state of public opinion in the Middle East and elsewhere.

We all witnessed Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s UN speech, in which he aired three “theories” about the 9/11 attacks, essentially arguing that they were an inside job mounted by the US government.

Oh well, he is just a nutcase, you say, along with a few other extremists. Most of the world doesn’t listen to such idiocy.

Unfortunately, conspiracy lunacy has become a very widespread disease. According to the University of Maryland’s World Public opinion surveys, only 2% of Pakistan’s 200 million people believe that 9/11 was perpetrated by al Qaeda, while 27% believe that it was the US government (most said they don’t know).
Among Egyptians, 43% say that Israel was responsible, while 12% blame the US, and only 16% think that al Qaeda did it. In Turkey, 39% blame al Qaeda and 39% blame Israel and the US.
Even in Europe, 15% of Italians and 23% of Germans finger the US for the attack.

I just returned from Berlin, where I met a very nice and intelligent French lady. She tried to convince me that the 9/11 attack was a CIA operation.

Earlier, Ahmadinejad had already frequently advocated another “theory” - the denial of the Holocaust. More recently, other interesting theories have surfaced:

- The recent floods in Pakistan were caused by a secret US military project called HAARP, based in Alaska, which controls the weather through electromagnetic waves. HAARP is also responsible for recent tsunamis and earthquakes.

- The US invaded Iraq not only for its oil, but to harvest the organs of dead Iraqis.

- Faisal Shazad was not the perpetrator of the May 1 Times Square bombing. It was orchestrated by an American think tank.

We also have our share of conspiracy buffs, stateside: The birthers, for one, who continue to believe that President Obama is not US-born, that he is a Muslim, and/or that he is a plant to make America non-American (Socialist, Muslim, full of illegal immigrants, take your pick). What is worrisome here, again, is not the existence of such beliefs, but their astonishing popularity: Between one fourth and one third of all Republicans subscribe to them.

I do not believe that the two sides are mirror images of each other. I am sure that the irrationality of the other guys greatly exceeds that of such misguided Americans as the “birthers.”
But irrationality it is! And the scary part is that it cannot be blamed on lack of education. In the Middle East and elsewhere, these theories are spread primarily by the media and by religious and educational elites.

In recent years, the world’s economic problems have occupied center stage. No doubt, economic conditions influence people’s ideas. It was largely because the German economy went down the toilet during the 1920s and 1930s, that the German people went berserk - half of them becoming Nazis and the other half Communists. Whatever its cause may be, the current global retreat from reason is frightening. leave comment here

Friday, October 8, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

I went to see my doctor today. I made sure to dress in my best suit, put on my most expensive perfume and, in general, look expensive and important. Why, you may ask. Who would want to dress up to go see a doctor?

Well, I always want to look good when I have an encounter with someone who has the upper hand in a face to face meeting. Someone that I want something from and who does not necessarily want something from me. When I go for a job interview, I want someone to give me a job. So I dress up. What the interviewer gets out of it is a potential employee, but during that initial interview, the parties involved are not on an equal footing.

The interviewer has the upper hand. That is also the case when I go to the doctor. What I want is successful treatment for my ailment. What the doctor wants, (aside from getting paid), is potential healing of my body. I am not even sure if all doctors want this, because that means that you won’t have to come back.

Come to think of it, I can find this one-upmanship in places that, at first sight, look very egalitarian. I have a twin sister with whom I have had a one-upmanship relationship ever since we were born. When there is more than one of you, people’s energy is spent on trying to figure out who they are talking to. By the time they think they know, they already forgot what the were going to say. Competing with a doppleganger might have colored the glasses with which I view social relationships.

What about friendships? My brother Tom likes to point out that friendships are very much subject to the one-upmanship rule. He talks about his ‘I have a bigger car, so I am better than you’ kind of friends. Or the type of friend that insists on picking up the tab, not because they are generous, but because they want to show they are better off.

Celebrities and politicians love to play the one-upmanship game. It is as if they have gone through ‘upmanship’ training school. The semi-condescending pat on the shoulder. The subtle ‘I am not looking you in the eye while I talk to you’ trick. The ‘I am asking the questions here, not you’ technique. Asking questions is a very effective way of showing you are superior. You put your opponent in the position of giving up information, while you are on the receiving end. Who wants to be interrogated, anyway?

I don’t know if there is any area of human interaction that is completely devoid of one-upmanship. Maybe the mother-child relationship comes closest to being a purely altruistic, egalitarian relationship. Although many mothers compete with their daughters once the daughters have reached a critical mass of beauty and womanhood. Then, they have metamorphosed from daughter into female competitors.

Do we compete with pets? You bet your sweet bottom we do. We assume that, just because we are human, we automatically have the upper hand. Not so. My dog’s life revolves daily around gaining control of our ‘pack’. He blocks doorways by sprawling his big furry body out so we have to step over him. He paws my arm so I will pet him. He leans his heavy body against my legs until I have to move to the side. I could go on and on.

Do we compete with our spouses? One of my husband’s idiosyncrasies is that he likes to be ‘self-sufficient’ when it comes to his health. Going to see a doctor would be a sign of weakness and poor health, so he plays the one-upmanship game with me every time I have to see a doctor.

I won’t even start on the job front. Thank God I am self-employed, but I am sure the work place is one of the most fertile grounds for the one-upmanship game.

Do we compete with plants? I have tried to stare down my hibiscus the other day, to see if it would retreat or lower its leaves in submission, but nothing happened. I think I can safely say that plants have no need to feel superior OR inferior. They just are. So I never dress up when I go out into my garden.

In ancient China doctors only got paid as long as their patients were healthy, not when they got sick. That would be one sure way of leveling the playing field in our system. It would also allow me to save money of my wardrobe. leave comment here

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The More You Know the Less You Know

by Madeleine Kando

We often hear the term ‘the haves and the have-nots’ used in the context of economic welfare. It is less common to hear the term applied to ‘knowledge’. One area of knowledge where the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots is extremely wide is physics. I belong to the group of the have-nots.

It is not for want of trying. I have many books on ‘popular’ physics on my book shelf.

The most recent acquisition is a book called ‘The Grand Design’, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. The thing I like the most about the book is that it doesn’t contain one single mathematical equation.

In this book the authors ask three basic questions:

1) why is there something instead of nothing?
2) why do we exist?
3) why does this particular set of laws govern our universe and not some other set?

They answer the first question ‘why is there something instead of nothing’, by saying that it is possible that something comes into existence out of nothing because of quantum fluctuations.

I think a quantum fluctuation is when a particle and an anti-particle find each other and then immediately knock each other out of existence. Except, once in a while, there is no time for that process and poof, something appears instead of gets annihilated. So there you go, a new something. And because of the inflation theory, it grows into an entire universe.

It sounds pretty weird to me, but who am I to argue? The thing I find almost more puzzling than this revelation (that the universe has created itself), is the reaction to this new hypothesis.

Although Hawking’s book contains many incredibly important and fascinating chapters, 99% of the reviews of the book focus on this one particular statement. It is as if the world at large can not accept the possibility that the universe has no creator. The God debate overshadows everything related to this new masterpiece and it is easy to get sucked into it. I, for one, am totally happy with the notion that the universe created itself. It sounds a lot simpler than trying to prove the existence of a creator.

He also says that philosophy is dead, that it has been replaced by science. That I find hard to swallow. It means that only physicists are able to understand the world. Philosophers and the rest of us, whose nature it is to speculate, philosophize, ask ‘what if’ questions, we are all doomed to stupidity and ignorance.

We don’t need a God, we don’t need philosophy… all we need is gravity, according to Hawking. ‘Given the existence of gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason why the universe and humanity exist.'

‘Why DO we exist?’ Well, we just happen to live in one of an infinite number of universes where the laws of the cosmos allow the appearance of life. Not only that, but we also happen to live in the Goldilocks zone of OUR universe, a small band where the conditions are ‘just right’, so that life can develop.

There is also the possibility, according to John Gribbin, that our universe was created in a particle accelerator by a more advanced civilization in another universe. Universes are not hard to jump-start, he says, since the required mass-energy is equal to zero. So we might just be the result of an extraterrestrial’s high-school science project.

The bottom line is that no-one knows the answer to these questions. Still, we have progressed. When people thought the world was flat the question of the day was: ‘what is at the edge of the flat world?’ Then it was discovered that the world was round, so the question became irrelevant.

Now we ask the question: what was before the Big Bang? What if there was no ‘before’? Hawking says that you can compare the history of the universe to a ball, like the earth. If you go down from the equator, back in time, towards the south pole, you eventually reach a point. That’s the Big Bang. The question ‘what is south of the south pole’ becomes meaningless: there is nothing south of the south pole. leave comment here