Friday, April 29, 2011

Tom Tom

By Tom Kando

I just spent a month in Europe, mostly visiting my 98-year old mother who lives an hour North of Amsterdam, and helping her with this and that. I took my Garmin with me, with the Eurochip. Over there, they call GPS “Tom Tom.” Different brand, I guess.

This technology is miraculous and hilarious. For example, I took my mother down to Belgium for a couple of days. For the first time in my life, I drove around Europe without even a map in my car as a backup.

That the Garmin could accurately guide me down the major freeways and turnpikes to the large cities was expected. But what blew my mind is that it also knew every single back alley of every hamlet in every country! For instance, I once took the wrong exit off a major turnpike somewhere in Belgium. In order to get back on track, I had to meander through a maze of tiny rural streets. The Garmin knew every single one of them, guiding me accurately towards my destination.

Amazingly, the Garmin even knows specific addresses. For example, we approach my friend Wilfried’s house on 227 Lomburg Lane, in the tiny Belgian town of Herselt. And somehow the machine knows that this house is 550 feet from where we are driving!

I suspect that it would be the same in Calcutta or in Sao Paolo. I am usually not a fan of fancy technology, but this is truly impressive.

I also smile when I realize that the whole worldwide GPS system is in the hands of the US Army in Colorado. It runs on 36 satellites. So America is not entirely washed up, yet.

We call the lady who talks to us through the Garmin “Mary.” Mary is funny sometimes.

Of course, all the GPS jokes have already been made a thousand times, about arguing with your Garmin, telling her/him to go to hell when you deviate from her commands, when she “recalculates,” etc. I am usually a Johnny-come-lately to new technology. But here are a few funny things:

When we hit the road to Belgium and “Mary” began to talk to me, I replied something like:

“No Mary. That’s not the right way! You don’t know what you are talking about!”

My mother cautioned me to be polite and not to get into a fight, thinking that I was talking to a live woman.

Also, we have the machine set on English. In non-English places, Mary has trouble with pronunciation. For example, somewhere in Belgium, we had to drive down King Boudewijn Avenue. To Mary, this became King Boodahweejn Avenue. I had no idea what she was talking about, but fortunately, the screen also spells out street names.

And for some reason, even though Mary is English, she also mis-pronounces English names in foreign countries. I suppose she has to mispronounce consistently. For instance, we had to take Martin Luther King Boulevard somewhere in Holland, but to her this was Marteen Looder King.

Oh well, Mary is a lot of fun, and GPS is a miracle. leave comment here

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Unfounded Assumptions

by Tom Kando

Recently back from Europe, I’m still smarting from the declining dollar. The Euro now fetches $1.46, up from $1.25 four months ago.

The economy remains the central issue. It’s timid Obama (who was the first President ever to have to humiliate himself by publishing his birth certificate!) vs. rabid Republicans. The latter have successfully defined the problem as “the debt.” They claim that nothing is more important than debt reduction. Cleverly, they only focus on the government deficit, not the country’s balance of trade deficit. Maliciously, they only propose to cut government services to low-income and middle-income people, while refusing to tax the rich and the corporations at the higher and more reasonable rates which prevailed in the past. In fact, they want to further reduce those taxes.

Here are a few of the unfounded assumptions which the plutocracy has repeated so often that most people now accept them as dogma:

1. The Market Place has all the wisdom. Let the forces of the free market automatically solve our economic problems.

But in fact, today, the most capitalistic economies are sputtering, while mixed economies are thriving.

2. The rich are rich because they work harder. They deserve it. The poor are poor because they don’t work hard. It’s the little pig that built a straw hut vs. the little pig who built a brick house.

This is called Social Darwinism, and it’s BS.

3. Lowering taxes will create jobs.

The evidence is to the contrary. Just compare the Clinton years and the Bush years.

4. The military budget is sacrosanct. Any reduction in it would endanger the US.

But look at the April 25 issue of Time for a good rebuttal: Our military budget of $687 billion (excluding dozens of billions spent off-budget on our Middle-Eastern wars) represents half of the world’s military spending. It has nearly doubled over the past 9 years. We could save hundreds of billions and still be the world’s macho cop. We have a dozen aircraft carriers, while no other country has more than one. We are still building additional ones, for $15 billion a pop. We have 500 bases around the world, including 80,000 troops still in Europe, 70 years after World War Two. There are 17 spy agencies. Etc.

5. The economy will rebound if/when we maximize consumption and spend more money again. Consumption is the be-all and end-all.

That most of this heightened consumption benefits China and the other countries which still produce things, is conveniently forgotten.

6. We must grow our way out of the recession. Grow the economy. Growth is the solution to everything.

Until when? Until we have paved over and desertified the planet?

7. Work and money are primary, leisure is secondary. Of course, Brecht was right: Erst komt das Fressen, dan komt die Moral.” One has to eat.

But that’s not what I am talking about. What I mean is, why do so many college students pursue boring but lucrative careers such as business and Wall Street, instead of interesting but lowly paid ones such as biology, history and teaching? Is modest comfort not enough? Does everyone have to try to be filthy rich? Are art, music and the outdoors a waste of time?

8. Socialism is a cuss word.

Call the alternative to unbridled Capitalism what you will. Keynesianism (Paul Krugman), Democracy (Michael Moore), “Mixed economy” or something else. One thing is clear: The current “debate” about our economic plight is one-sided propaganda, not a debate. A true alternative that would provide greater equity and a return to a prosperous, middle-class based society is not in sight. Instead, due to such widely accepted assumptions, a majority seems to want to increase the pain and suffering of the many, for the benefit of the few. leave comment here

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lost in the Ardennes

by Madeleine Kando

I took a trip to Belgium this week with my very old mom. We spent hours inching our way through miles and miles of traffic jammed small, shiny Mercedez-Benzes, BMW's and Alfa Romeos. Everyone seems to drive expensive cars here. An occasional sign that says 'bad road surface' on stretches of impeccably smooth asphalt makes me wonder what kind of standard the Dutch attach to a 'bad road surface'. How would they call the potholed, frost-cracked highways back in good old Boston?

We finally left clean, organized Holland and made it to Belgium. At least I think we entered Belgium because there are no signs that tell you whether you have crossed the border. I knew we were no longer in Holland because of the road conditions. They started to look more like the familiar wrecks in the US.

You see, compared to America, those small Northern European countries are all very 'high-context' cultures. Their inhabitants expect foreigners to know things without it being spelled out. You are supposed to 'smell' in which country you are driving through. They don't believe in old fashioned signs that say 'Bienvenue a la Belgique'. Back in the good old dark ages you had to cross not one, but two borders: one to leave Holland, after which you were in no-man's land for a bit, until you reached the actual Belgian border where they thoroughly inspected your car for contraband.

That IS a problem around here because some of these Northern European countries are the size of peanuts and if you get distracted for a second by the gorgeous scenery, you end up in Germany, or Luxemburg.

Americans live in a low-context cutlure. They expect everyone else to be foreign, so they have the decency to spell out things for you. It doesn't matter that you have crossed the entire Atlantic Ocean to get there, as soon as you arrive, a sign says: 'Y-O-U  A-R-E  N-O-W   I-N  T-H-E  U-S'. Now that's polite.

So here I am, trying to stay in Belgium. But no luck. Something tells me I am in the wrong country. I see a lady that looks like a native and stop to ask for directions. In French, because that's what I spoke ten minutes ago in a café: 'Madame, dans quelle direction est Monschau?'

'Nein, nur Deutsch'. (no, only German). She goes to her car and brings back a map, the same map that I am holding in my hand. She shows me on the map where Monschau is. 'Well, duh, I know where Monschau is on the map too, Fraulein, I am nicht blind.'

'Danke schon' I say and drive off. Getting directions didn't work out but at least I know I am in Germany. After many involuntary detours we finally make it to this amazing place called Monschau. A village so old that I expect knights to come charging out of the old castle on the hill. The tiny cobblestoned streets are swarming with people of every imaginable nationality. On the village square, surrounded by old timber-framed German houses, we settle for a well-deserved drink. It's crowded. Tourists have gathered here to enjoy this gorgeous spring day. I hear Dutch, French, German, Italian and some languages that I don't understand (Russian? Romanian?). The waitress is dressed in a Mädel costume with her bussom pushed high with a black laced up ribbon. What is amazing is that she only speaks German. With all these nationalities drinking her coffee she has maintained her high-context culture to a tee. If you don't speak German you have to rely on sign language. So I gesticulate and try to make her understand that I want 'black' tea with lemon.

This place feels like the Tower of Babel. The waitress cannot communicate with her customers. The Belgians don't speak German, the Germans don't speak French and the notoriously high-context French don't WANT to speak anything but French, even if they can.

I am a bit nervous about the trip back home. We are only a few hundred kilometers away from Bergen, but I will have to find my way through three or maybe four countries, depending if I take a wrong turn into Luxemburg. Oh, look! A group of bikers with Dutch letterings on their shirts. I walk over and ask them if they have encountered a country called Belgium on their trip and if so, in which direction that would be, please. They point to a sign that says 'Malmedy'. So, off we go, hoping that in a few hours we will be driving on some unblemished road surface. That will be a clear sign that we are in Holland again.

It will be a relief to be back in Boston. At least I won't have the problem of finding myself in the wrong country, even if I drive for days in a straight line. I bet these nice 'low-context' Californians have signs posted that read: 'You are now about to drive into the Pacific Ocean'. leave comment here

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What Makes you Happy?

By Tom Kando

An excellent Dutch monthly magazine I was just reading is Maarten! - named after its editor-in-chief. It is entertaining and provocative.

The issue I picked up recently (April 17) had Happiness (Geluk) as its main cover story, including interviews with some prominent Dutch people.

For example, there is an article by Alies Pegtel based on an interview with former Minister and Parliament member Rita Verdonk. I am not sure, but I believe that this lady has been controversial as the leader of a political party named Proud of the Netherlands, a somewhat nativist party.

Be that as it may, the now retired Minister ponders what makes her happy. Her list is predictable, and sensible: For one thing, she has always felt happiest pouring much energy into her work. Good. But small things are also important, she says. For example, a beautifully sunlit flower vase, or her blossoming garden. Quite.

She is also a lot happier now that she has retired from Parliament. There, she couldn’t stand the lack of collegiality, the gossip, the backstabbing and the opportunism.

Amen! I, too, spent 40 years in the bureaucracy - academia in my case - and I still remember the pain more clearly than the pleasure.

Ms. Verdonk adds that the greatest cost she paid, while in politics, was the violence she did to her body and to her health. Again, I strongly empathize - the stress, the headaches, the power contests, the nitpicking. I too, experienced these very onerous things while surviving the bureaucracy for 40 years, and I am sure they aged me.

On the positive side, again, Ms. Verdonk was always happy when she was able to achieve concrete results, solve problems, contribute to the betterment of society.

This article made me think: I find Ms. Verdonk’s list quite reasonable. But as I look around me - in Europe or in America, doesn’t matter - I see lots of people who find happiness in things which leave me entirely indifferent, and in some cases things which I find downright repulsive.

For one thing, the whole world seems to have become enamored with machines. Cars have made men happy for generations, but now, it’s more the electronic machines which make many people orgasmic - computers, I-phones, digital this and digital that. Both cars and electronics leave me utterly indifferent.

Money is, of course, a perennial. From Wall Street to Main street, the love of money reigns supreme. Many people love money more than the things money buys.

Closely related are possessions. Often, it is the ownership of something which makes people ecstatic, not its use - think of the motor homes and boats parked in many driveways, and hardly ever used, because the owners don’t have the time to use them.

The sensual pleasures are important. Good food, good wine, etc. I’ll go along with this. I enjoy sensual pleasures.

Unfortunately, there are also the pathological sources of happiness: it begins with power over others, which is vastly more common than you might think. Then there is the pleasure many derive out of inflicting pain - teasing, pestering, humiliating, demeaning someone in front of others. This, too, is extremely widespread.

Less sinister is a desire to be popular, successful, admired. I say less sinister, because I confess that I suffer from this need. Additional pathological sources of happiness include gun ownership (“I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands”) , substance abuse, gambling.

The only supremely true sources of happiness are love and beauty (as in Mozart). leave comment here

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reminiscing the Past

by Madeleine Kando

Another visit to beautiful Holland, visiting my very very old mother Ata, my past, my buried emotions. It's here that I am able to touch the parts of me that are easily neglected in my daily life.

I look out on fields covered with tulips of every imaginable color as far as the eye can see. Giant windmills with enormous turbines dot the horizon and the smell of grass and cow manure fills the air. The sound of bird song on this fresh early morning and the muffled hum of an airplane flying high in the clear blue sky has ignited the inextricable circuitry of a past life, buried deep inside me, rarely explored but always present.

A past life filled with sensory pleasures, which is the privilege of youth. Have my senses grown dull with age? Or does youth have more time to indulge in the sights and sounds of the world around us? Does the caress of a soft breeze on a young cheek feel different than on mine as I lie here reminiscing on my no longer existing Dutch life?

I look at the shimmer of a spider web caught trembling in this unique Dutch light. Ata's porch has become a refuge from my hectic, cold Boston life. A butterfly is fluttering by in search of his twenty-four hour life and I am in search of my slowly fading past life, like an old black and white photograph, until I cannot see the details any more. Soon only a blank sheet will be left, floating away on the current of the millions of past lives.

Now that I have time to rest, I look back on the road I have traveled and instinctively search for the meaning of my wanderlust, why life has taken me so far from this porch in Bergen.

It helps in a way, to have left. It allows me to distinguish between what happened and what could have been. I could have stayed. I could have never experienced the adventure of living in the New World. Never have been exposed to the cultural confusion that is part of emigrating.

I am glad I nipped my Dutch life in the bud. I know that now. It was the right thing to do. Although a Dutch unwrinkled Madeleine is always standing there, looking over my shoulder as I lead my real American life. I wonder what she would have become had I not pushed her out of the way. Would she have reached a ripe old age, her mind filled with memories of a Dutch past? Would she have been a good wife, a good mother, a good teacher? Would she have wondered, like I do, what the American Madeleine would have been like?

But there would not be an American Madeleine. Not even a potential one. Just like there is no Chinese or Portuguese Madeleine in MY life. So, is it only the people who move away that walk hand in hand with a doppelganger? Or does everyone wonder about the 'what could have beens' when they visit old, familiar places? Does my mother wonder what her non-existent Hungarian self would have been like, had she stayed in Hungary?

She is ready to say good-bye to all the lives she could have had and the one she carved out for herself. She says she does not belong here any more. For her, the die is cast and things have become very simple. That is the advantage of very old age, you can take a step back and know that it is someone else's problem now. She has done her share of wanting. But unlike me, she knows that what you DO have is far more precious than all the wanting in the world. leave comment here

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Some More Thoughts on 'Individualism'

by Madeleine Kando

I have been racking my brain to try to understand why there is such venom spouting in this country against anything to do with 'government'. I do not presume to be an expert on these matters, but trying to clarify some key concepts might shed some light on this question.

The concepts of private versus public and its close connection with 'individual' versus 'collective' keep cropping up. There are certain aspects of life that are called 'private' for a reason. Sex is one of them. Sexual preference is another. Deciding if, when and by whom you want to have a child is a third.

Even deciding if you want to be treated for a fatal disease, for how long and when you want to put an end to it is a private matter, in my opinion.

Much of what I read and hear in this context has caused confusion in my mind. so I looked up the definition of 'individual' versus 'collective'.

Individualism: 'The belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence. A doctrine holding that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the interests of the state or social group.'

Collectivism: 'Any philosophic, political, economic or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human in some collective group and the priority of group goals over individual goals.'

Privately and temperamentally I consider myself an individualist. I believe in my own ability to take care of myself, whether it be my health, my education or my spiritual well-being. I practice natural healing methods for a common cold and bouts of sciatica. I educate myself by reading books, searching the internet, reading papers, etc. I go for long walks in the woods, do yoga, meditate etc.

But I am intelligent enough to realize that my freedom to act 'individualistically' on a personal level is only possible because the society I live in supports this. If there were no health insurance, schools to educate the scholars on which I rely for my knowledge, if the society to which I belong would not take care of people like me 'collectively', none of this would be possible.

In an anarchistic society without public institutions I would not be able to flourish as an individual. I would have to travel to a neighboring country where they do have hospitals, schools and libraries, all supported by the group.

Ironically, the image of ‘the rugged, self-reliant, individual’, not wanting to be told what to do, wanting less government and more individual freedom, which is the hallmark of many right wing conservatives, especially the Tea Party, is in conflict with the roots of American individualism. American individualism is based on a voluntary allegiance to the group, as opposed to one’s historically determined place in a ‘collective’ society. If anything, Americans are more conformist than many Northern European societies. Religious affiliation, marriage vows, being part of a social club, all these allegiances are taken very seriously by Americans.

The misplaced slogans of Republicans chanting ‘less government, more individual freedom’ will lead us to a place where no one will gain ANY freedom.

I agree, my individual rights should be protected by the group (i.e. government). But the rights of the group to which I belong also should be protected by me as an individual. The park where I walk my dog is public, but it can only be so because I, as an individual, pay taxes to maintain it. By deliberately dismantling all the ‘public’ institutions in this country in the name of individual freedom, everyone will suffer from the atrophy of the ‘public’ good. leave comment here