Tuesday, September 15, 2020

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF AMERICA



When I came to America in 1960, it towered over the rest of the world economically and politically. It played a dominant and generally benevolent role in the world. It had saved the world from fascism, rebuilt Europe and much of Asia, including its former enemies, and it was containing communism.
After the Vietnam debacle, the US was less sure of itself. By the late 1970s, during the Carter presidency, the country seemed to be in retreat, while the Soviet Union was still on the march. The dominoes seemed to be falling. After Cuba and Vietnam, next to go were Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, soon Afghanistan...
The Third World was more sympathetic to the USSR than to the US, which was frequently isolated in forums such as the United Nations. Despite generous foreign aid to dozens of countries, international anti-Americanism was widespread, as was US flag burning in many parts of the world.
While the US and its ubiquitous CIA did engage in some mischief, this country was not morally bankrupt, certainly not so in comparison with its great geo-political communist rival.
Today, of course, the Soviet Union no longer exists.

In the 1970s, America remained by far the richest country in the world. More importantly, the distribution of wealth was much more equitable than what it has become today. The average CEO’s compensation was 20 times that of his employees. Now the ratio is 300 to 1. Taxes were more progressive, Unions were far more powerful, the public sector was not being starved, the US resembled the Western European welfare states more than now.

As early as 1962, Michael Harrington’s Other America reminded us that not everything was perfect in this country. But by and large, most Americans enjoyed a quality of life unparalleled even in Western Europe. Public health, life expectancy, rates of home ownership and the standard of living were all higher here than in other major western countries, with the possible exception of a few small islands of wealth such as Switzerland (8 million people), Norway (5 million),or Luxembourg (600,000).

But During the past five decades, American inequality, homelessness and hunger have increased dramatically and the standard of living has stagnated or declined. The working class has lost enormous ground. Union membership has plummeted.

The nation’s public sector is being starved. Public assistance and services such as welfare, food stamps, unemployment compensation, sick leave and childcare have deteriorated. Home ownership has declined. Republicans aim to privatize social security, prisons and other public functions. Despite Obamacare, which barely survives on life-support, health insurance remains highly inadequate. Public health is deteriorating. America is one of the few countries on earth with a DECLINING life expectancy. Public schools are underfunded and the quality of secondary education is often dismal. Despite all this, the Republican plutocracy continues to brainwash the population and reduce taxes, especially those of the rich. “Socialism” is once again a convenient bogeyman, as was the epithet “Communism” during the McCarthy era.
 American Capitalism, once the envy of the world, has malfunctioned. As the multinationals have gone global and outsourced their economies, the country became de-industrialized. The American Dream is dead. The country is no longer the land of opportunity. There is now more upward mobility in Europe than in the US.

In the early 1970s, the country’s total prison population was 263,000, or 120 per 100,000. Today, it is 2,200,000 million or 700 per 100,000. A black man’s chance of going to prison is over five times that of a white man. His chance of being killed by a policeman is three times greater. American crime and violence have risen far above the levels in other Western countries.

What about civil rights and race relations? The conventional wisdom is that there has been much improvement in this regard. Perhaps. Certainly most de jure segregation is no longer the law of the land, as it still was in many states when I arrived in the US. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s had significant results. However, the criminal justice system and the relationship between law enforcement and the black community are as problematic as ever, if not worse than half a century ago. With the exception of one short decade (1965-1975), the economic position of blacks relative to whites has not improved. If the upper strata of many professions exhibit greater diversity now than fifty years ago, this reflects America’s demographic transition from a largely white society (88% white in 1960. 61% today).

When I moved to this country, it also dominated the world in science and technology. While many of the world’s great universities are still in this country, the US advantage is no longer clear-cut. In the 1960s, in my own field of Sociology, the bulk of the research and literature was produced in the US. And when it comes to the arts, the humanities, and popular culture, America’s preponderance was overwhelming, both quantitatively and often also qualitatively. Jazz and Hollywood flooded the world. America also had a rich and vibrant literature, the greatest classical orchestras in the world and museums featuring great classical art as well as modern domestic art. This is in contrast with the country’s cultural poverty today.

But it is in the political sphere that the worst deterioration has occurred. The country’s Right has been in the ascendancy for several decades, so much so in recent years that it is assuming fascist characteristics. The country is polarized. There is a resurgence of white supremacism and racism is arguably on the rise. The rise of the Right began with the neoconservative movement of the 1970s, it gained strength thanks to the Reagan and Bush administrations and the Tea Party, and it has culminated with Donald Trump.

It is not clear when America’s decay began, or when it became precipitous. At first, during the first few post-war decades, one could expect this country to lose some of its advantage, as the rest of the world recovered from the war.

Thereafter, the US continued to lead the world in many ways, albeit more and more tenuously. By the end of the millennium, the country’s internal contradictions were becoming blatant. Its claim to be a model democracy for the rest of the world became less and less plausible. Its government in fact became a “minority government.” That is, the federal government’s three branches were no longer representative of the people. Rich, white, Republican men were over-represented, at the expense of all other categories.

This became possible due to built-in, undemocratic devices: The electoral college, the undemocratic senate, the life-time Supreme Court, plus practices like gerrymandering, voter suppression and campaign financing practices. America ceased to be a democracy and became, instead, a plutocracy ruled by strongman Trump in alliance with Wall Street.

Government corruption and paralysis have reached a zenith just when the country faces a devastating pandemic . In a brilliant article in the September 9 issue of the Atlantic: America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral; Ed Yong compares America’s response to Covid-19 to the behavior of ants. Sometimes, ants get into a death spiral. They begin to walk in circles, each following the one in front, until they die. They are the victims of their own (faulty) instinct. This metaphor illustrates America’s response to Covid-19.
Unlike other countries, the US has reacted with a “serial monogamy of solutions,” focusing upon one solution at a time, thus making no headway in solving the problem. It has created false dichotomies (e.g. combating Covid-19 vs. opening the economy). It has fallen into the “normality trap.” That is, it glossed over the pandemic while attempting to “return” to a normal lifestyle. Led by President Trump, the country has descended into an “intuition death spiral,” relying on theatrics such as travel bans, magical thinking (heat and light, hydroxychloroquine, etc.) and blaming everyone (China, the WHO, governors, Barack Obama, etc.).

Most terrifying is Yong’s conclusion, titled The Habituation of Horror: “The US might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment,... and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.
The author points out that if ever there was a time for this country to shed its arrogant claim of “exceptionalism,” that moment is upon us. To which I'll add this: America is neither God’s gift to humanity, nor the opposite of that. Like the rest of the world, it struggles and makes mistakes. It is time for Americans to talk less and do more; to stop bragging and waving the flag and, instead, start fixing the country. Is Covid-19 the force that defeats America, once and for all?

All countries face social problems, intermittently. Unlike other Western democracies, the US has become uniquely unwilling and unable to tackle its social problems. The country has reached a perfect storm. It is facing not one, not two, not three, not four but at least five catastrophic and simultaneous crises: Covid-19, the collapsed economy, the environmental crisis (California and the West are burning, the Gulf states face relentless hurricanes), race relations and “president” Trump. Add to these the following long-term problems: growing poverty and inequality, inadequate health care and deteriorating public health, gun violence, a decrepit infrastructure, deindustrialization and astronomical trade and government deficits.

Before a social problem can be tackled, it must be recognized. A vast segment of the American population is unwilling to face, recognize and understand the problems they face. We are politically paralyzed. The country is becoming ungovernable. In time, a country that is ungovernable becomes a failed state. There are countries in the world - Somalia, Honduras, etc - that are de facto only countries on paper, not in reality. Other countries’ degree of disintegration is less severe; they still function, although badly. Mexico is an example.

And then there is America. Here, the tragedy is not that the country is in imminent danger of total disintegration. It is the spectacular deterioration that has occurred over the past half century. The waste of a country that was once the envy of the world, and became a struggling and dysfunctional semi-democracy, in the same league as, say, Russia or Brazil. It is in comparison with what it was in the past that one wants to cry when looking at America. Once I was a young and idealistic immigrant, proud to become an American and eager to contribute to the welfare of my new country. Can one hope that the election on November 3 will be the beginning of a long and arduous recovery?

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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Friday, August 28, 2020

MEMORIES FROM WISCONSIN



On August 23, Jacob Blake was shot 7 times in the back by a cop in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This reminds me of some of my own experiences with racism in that state when I lived there: Nothing as horrific as the Blake case, but “interesting” even so:

In 1968-69, I had my first job as an assistant professor at a branch campus of the University of Wisconsin. - Stout, in the godforsaken town of Menomonie.

I had just gone through a nasty divorce. I was broke, miserable and lonely, renting an apartment in the snowbound college town. My girlfriend Nicole lived in Chicago. I tried to visit her most weekends and holidays.

To save money, I advertised for a roommate to share the rent. Several students applied. I ended up selecting Clark Dawson, a fine young black guy.

Clark dated a white girl. Her name was Sylvia and she was an attractive, intelligent, soft spoken, brown-haired, bespectacled girl. The first time Clark brought her back to the apartment, I recognized her immediately, because she had taken my introductory Sociology class.

At first I thought that Clark had brought her home for a study session, but my roommate promptly dispelled that misunderstanding by saying, “Hi Prof. Kando (he still didn’t call me by my first name), let me introduce you to my fiancĂ©e, Sylvia.”
To tell the truth, I was briefly taken aback. Not because I disapproved, to the contrary. All my life I have had the unswerving conviction that the future of mankind lies in the total integration of the races at all levels, social and biological. However, the percentage of interracial couples was still infinitesimal in 1969, certainly in the upper Midwest. I was just surprised by a statistical anomaly.

I liked both Clark and Sylvia a great deal and I only wished them the best. Soon, the three of us were close friends. When Sylvia came over to the apartment, we would have drinks and chat for a while, before going about our separate business.

One afternoon, Clark came home alone, visibly upset. He said, in an agitated voice, “Those motherfucking rednecks! I wish I could kill them!”

“Whoa! Calm down,” I said, “tell me what happened?”

“Shit man!” Clark began to explain, “I’m walking home, minding my own business, and this pickup truck corners me. Then, two guys jump out in front of me and block me. Then one of the assholes says, ‘Boy, you stop seeing that girl if you know what’s good for you, or else.’.”

“No shit?” I said, stunned. “They told you to stop dating Sylvia?” “Right,” Clark said, “and they meant business, too. One of the them grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘You see that shotgun in the pickup there boy? Think about it boy.’.”

“Fuck,” I said, getting angrier by the minute. “I didn’t know the KKK was big in Wisconsin. Tell you what, Clark. We are not gonna take this lying down. First tell me exactly what happened, what the motherfuckers looked like, the whole nine yards. I’m sending the whole sordid story to the university newspaper today. Once the shit hits the media fan, these assholes will crawl back under their rocks.” 

So Clark described the incident to me in detail. The two guys had accosted him right in front of Fritz’s hardware store. They were driving a Chevy pickup and wearing hunter caps and the red plaid winter coats worn by half the men in rural Wisconsin. Two shotguns were hanging in the back of the pickup.

Three days later, the Wisconsin State College paper printed the article. Clark and I wrote it together, and the byline said ‘Clark Dawson and Tom Kando’ The title read: KKK ALIVE AND WELL AT WISCONSIN STATE.

Of course, there was no proof that it was the KKK or that the yahoos had anything to do with the college. They were just as likely to be two local idiots. There were plenty of racists around.

* * * * * * *

Over Thanksgiving recess, I drove to Chicago to see Nicole. The windy city is about 350 miles away from Menomonie. Many of the students -most of whom came from all over Wisconsin - were going home to their families for the holiday. I gave rides to two of them in my beat up Volkswagen. One was a black guy from Kenosha and the other one a white girl whose parents lived in Madison. Madison and Kenosha were both on the way to Chicago, so this was no trouble.

So we get to Madison and drive to the girl’s home to drop her off. Her parents invite me in for a drink before I hit the road again, but they refuse to let the black student into their home! Astonished, I refuse to go in as well, of course.

Anyway, maybe the two men who had threatened Clark weren’t members of the KKK, but I didn’t care. It’s not like the KKK was likely to sue me for libel, was it?

As I predicted, the incident died down after the article appeared. Clark and Sylvia continued to date and they were never threatened or molested by any of the townspeople. Whoever the racists were, they ‘crawled back under their rocks’, as I had phrased it.

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

My Trip to the Stars




I have been traveling quite a bit over the past few weeks. In fact, I have never been as far away before. It all started with an innocent trip through the first few chapters of a book called ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson. I resigned myself to spend my evenings with a 600 page popular science companion instead of watching the boob tube, but I never made it to the last stop. I got stuck in the first few chapter of the book, where the author writes about Space.

The problem with reading about a subject you know nothing about, is that there are so many hurdles. I kept stubbing my toes against a new concept in just about every other sentence. I had to take detours to visit Wikipedia, which led me to You tube, which led me to an inventor’s site and so on. As you can imagine, I got completely lost on the back roads of my trip and I didn’t even have a GPS with me. It took mother nature to help me find my way back. There was this big storm that zapped my router and I was staring at black nothingness. No, it wasn’t interstellar space, it was my computer’s black screen.

But I was hooked. As soon as I rebooted, I found myself back in Youtube land, gorging on videos about space until my head started to spin.

I knew of course that space is BIG, but on this trip I realized how incomprehensibly big it is. Even physicists have a hard time coming up with new units of measurement to describe the incredible distances out there. The measly Astronomical Unit (AU: 92,955,000 miles), or even the light year (5,878,625,400,000 miles) fall short of measuring intergalactic space. We now have the parsec (3.27 light years), the kiloparsec (1000 parsecs) and megaparsec (1 million parsecs). The center of our galaxy, for example, is about 8 kiloparsecs away, which equals 8,000 parsecs, or 26,160 light years. Adding all the required zeros to convert it to an earthly measurement, only makes it more incomprehensible.

Not only are distances mind blowingly large, but the stuff in space, the stuff we are exploring, is by far the exception rather than the rule. That is why I am in such awe of what scientists have discovered. Looking for stuff and sending a probe to observe it, is like finding a pebble in the Pacific Ocean, sending a diver into shark infested waters and expect him to faithfully come back with important information without being shredded to pieces.

Take Pluto, for instance. It took the New Horizons space probe 9 years to reach this dwarf planet, which is smaller than our moon. It is inside the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut shaped region beyond Neptune. Pluto is a mere 3.67 billion miles from the sun, which is 40 times further than the earth!



I cannot decide which is more fascinating: the images that the probe sent back, or the probe itself. It was launched in 2006 and on its way to Pluto, New Horizons was put to sleep, to save energy, but not before it did a few gymnastics tricks called ‘gravitational slingshots’. Those are ingenious maneuvers to increase a space probe’s speed. The probe gets as close to the planet as possible without being sucked in and by using a planet’s orbital speed, it catapults away from it. It shaved 3 years off of New Horizons’ travel time. Read more...

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fake Problems and Real Problems



I recently read one of those rants about how we have lost our common sense, i.e. the old verities that served us so well in  the past. To quote some of this piece: We used to live by “simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you earn) and reliable parenting strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).  Then, well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. We hear that  a six-year-old boy  was  charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student...schools are  required to get parental consent to administer aspirin,  but they may not inform the parents when a student becomes pregnant and wants to have an abortion. The Ten Commandments have  become  contraband  and criminals  receive  better treatment than their victims. Nowadays. you can’t  defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar can sue you for assault.” The author goes on to argue that we must return to common-sense. “Let us get back to some basics and let common sense rule.”

This is precisely the sort of thinking that we don’t need.  It cherry picks a bunch of anecdotes and claims that they are real problems. Most of these stories have to do with political correctness. So there have been a few excesses here and there. Big deal.

I can guarantee  that  90% of the people who enthusiastically  embrace this sort of thinking are  the same folks who’ll vote  the wrong way and who’ll perpetuate the serious problems we are currently facing. They are the people who can only see value in past practices, past habits; people who long, in knee-jerk fashion, for a fictitious  past. People who can think of no other solution than  going  BACK, even if the past to which they wish to return never existed.

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Friday, August 21, 2020

The Unraveling of America?



I just read another article about America’s demise. This one is titled The Unraveling of America . It is written by the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis (RollingStone, August 6). There are many such articles. They all have to do with (1) America’s disastrous response to Covid-19, and (2) Donald Trump.

These doomsday scenarios about America’s future are usually written overseas, gloatingly, expressing profound anti-Americanism. You get to read about “pity” and contempt for America, about “America giving up” about America being “finished,” or at least the American century being finished. Any compassion, as our country’s death toll approaches 200,000, and perhaps half a million by next spring? Zero.

But this is not what I want to talk about today. What I wish to address is whether the point made in the title of this article has merit or not.
While I find gloating about America’s misfortune despicable, I do agree with most of the criticism voiced by these authors.

It is true that America’s response to Covid-19 has been THE most inept one in the world. Our country has the highest number of infections and deaths, both in absolute and in relative terms (apart from a few small city-states such as Bahrein, Qatar and San Marino). Make no mistake about it: We are number one.

Davis is not far from the truth in labeling us a failed state at this time. Items: (1) The country is incapable of controlling the epidemic. (2) It is ruled by a tin pot dictator who would be laughed out of office even in backward Third World countries. (3) The government cannot even pass emergency legislation to rescue the dozens of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, who are about to become homeless, who cannot access medical care, even in the middle of a pandemic, and who can no longer feed themselves and their children. (4) The criminal-in-chief is attempting to knee-cap the country’s postal service so as to steal the election, brazenly admitting what he is doing, destroying a service which delivers hundreds of millions of essential mail items to the people, including life-saving medication, paychecks and other essentials.. Is this not a failed state? Read more...

Friday, August 14, 2020

Wearing a Mask Makes us More Free

By Madeleine Kando

‘Why should I wear a mask?’ you might ask. Does it not infringe on my individual freedom? We live in a free country, and freedom is enshrined in the Constitution.

In a brilliant article in the Wall Street Journal entitled The True Face of Freedom Wears a Mask, professor Kwame Anthony Appiah concludes that having to wear a mask does NOT infringe on a person’s liberty. However, he comes to that conclusion after asking the more basic question: ‘what do we mean by freedom?’

According to philosopher Isaiah Berlin, there are 2 types of liberty: ‘negative liberty’ which is freedom from external restraint on one's actions, which he calls ‘ freedom from’ and ‘positive liberty’, which is having the power and resources to fulfill one's own potential. This he calls ‘freedom to’.

The seeds in my garden are a good examples of these 2 types of freedom: seeds have the potential to become wonderful plants. They need space to grow (negative liberty), but without care and food (positive liberties), they will die.

The problem with living in a free country, is that people forget how much we rely on positive freedoms to enjoy our negative freedoms. In Jack Kerouac’s famous novel ‘On the Road’, nobody stops Sal and Dean from barreling down the interstate highway. They enjoy their negative freedom. But they couldn’t have been free to do so if the Government hadn’t built the highway in the first place, giving Americans the resources to drive cross-country (positive liberty). Read more...

Thursday, August 13, 2020

What Should the Left Do?



I just read an article by Jan Sowa, titled “After Populism.” The gist of it is a certain ambivalence about “populism.”

Populism is the growing right-wing, anti-elitist movement currently under way in many countries. It expresses itself in support for strongmen and politicians  such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary, most prominently Donald Trump in the US, and several others.

Populism shares some of its conservative values with Fascism. These include nationalism, authoritarianism, the veneration of the military, a love of fire arms, traditional patriarchal family values, homophobia, denying women their reproductive choice, Christian religiosity, hostility towards intellectual and media elites, and a racist and xenophobic attitude that favors the white race over people of color, Jews, Muslims, other non-white people and all foreigners and immigrants.

 Sowa’s article is good. Unfortunately, he treats populism with velvet gloves. He equivocates, because he sees (correctly) that dozens of millions of white men have been taking it on the chin for several decades, certainly in the US. Year after year, inequality and poverty have been rising, affecting not only people of color but the entire population. Life expectancy of white American men is now declining, and their death and homelessness rates are skyrocketing. Sowa therefore feels that the resulting rage and the growth of populism are understandable. He does not claim that Populism is a desirable response to white suffering, but he urges us to understand it.
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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Super Hero or Wimp? The Staying Home Dilemma

Photo: Ed van der Elsken
By Madeleine Kando

Being on self-prescribed ‘lockdown’ since the pandemic began has not been very difficult for me. Why? In order of importance, I would rate my age, my life style, my expectations and my lack of social contacts.

My friend Jane, on the other hand is a social butterfly. She is only a few years younger than I, but I would qualify her as a ‘lockdown rebel’. When we first realized that there was this killer at our doorsteps, targeting the most vulnerable in the herd, Jane and I prepared ourselves for a Coronavirus long distance run. Time will tell if she is the hare and I the turtle, or vice versa.

While I am sitting at my desk, sweating profusely in the summer heat, reading New York Times articles that scare the bejesus out of me, Jane is running along the Charles River. She goes swimming across Spy Pond, flies to L.A. to see her sister and invites her many friends and neighbors over for social distancing dinners in her backyard.

I am sure Jane thinks I am a wuss. She keeps asking me over, but I always find an excuse so I won’t have to drive the 20 minutes to her house. Me, who in her younger years, hitchhiked across half of Europe, lived and worked in England, Holland and Spain, who most recently went deep sea diving in Belize and hiked in the jungle of Kauai where Jurassic Park was filmed. When did I turn into such a fraidy cat? Read more...

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

How to Win over an Anti-Masker



Why are some people so resistant to wearing face masks, even though there is ample scientific evidence that they prevent the Covid19 virus from spreading? It’s easy to say: ‘Well, they are misinformed. They are just plain stupid. They are selfish and not thinking of others.’ But covering your face to protect yourself from an enemy that you cannot see, smell, hear or feel is like trying to punch someone in the dark. Some of us have no problem following the recommendations of the medical experts, but to others, it seems pointless and not worth the inconvenience it creates.

The only ‘proof’ that this faceless, odorless, silent enemy exists at all, is the reported number of infected individuals and the many deaths, but even this horrible truth is not enough for some Americans.

These same Americans gladly don a gas mask when they see toxic fumes emanate from a chemical site. They don’t shout: “If God had wanted me to wear a gas mask, I would have been born with a gas mask.” They have no problem wearing a diving mask when they go deep sea diving in Belize (unless they are suicidal, of course). The welders among them do not invoke their ‘individual rights to choose’, when they are sent on a job, where highly concentrated ultraviolet and infrared rays would cost them their eyesight.

These same anti-maskers wear ski masks to prevent frost bite. Were they to visit Saudi Arabia, (which they never will, since it is Satan’s country) they would wear a Bedouin scarf to protect them from swallowing sand and coming back home the color of a cooked lobster. Their right to choose in those situations is as relevant as asking a starving person if they would rather eat now, or wait till next week.
To anti-maskers, the face mask has become the whipping boy of the Coronavirus, like the princes of yore, who had a whipping boy receive corporal punishment in their stead. They cannot tell the virus to take a hike so they refuse to wear a mask instead. Read more...

Thursday, July 9, 2020

America has become very Self-Destructive



A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece, “America.” It was a pep talk to this country: I argued that throughout its history, whenever the US has faced daunting obstacles, it has ended up overcoming them - often spectacularly,- even if often slow on the uptake.

Most of you liked what I said, if for no other reason because it’s good to try to be positive once in while. Some of you did accuse me of being a brown-nose immigrant, one of those who slavishly embrace their adoptive country.

Actually, I am only high on America part of the time. The other half of the time, I am enraged by what this country is doing to itself. Today is one of those days:

EVERY country in the world is doing a better job warding off the Coronavirus than we are. We have become the epicenter of the pandemic. Covid-19 is becoming an American disease.

Both our absolute and relative infection rates are the highest in the world (apart from a few city states such as Bahrein and Qatar). Brazil, which not coincidentally is also ruled by a strongman, is a distant second. All other major countries have managed to beat back the virus - Italy, Spain, Britain, France and all the other European countries that were once in deep trouble. Read more...

Friday, July 3, 2020

Being Serious



One of the Black Lives Matter movement’s goal is to remove offensive statues and symbols that remind one of slavery and racism. Many (but not all) of these symbols are located in the old Southern Confederacy. For example, John Calhoun’s statue in one of Charleston’s major squares was recently taken down.

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, protesters just brought down the statue of Ulysses Grant, the country’s 18th president. He, of course, led the Union forces which defeated the South and ended slavery. However, he married into a slave-owning family. The San Francisco action also brought down the statues of Father Junipero Serra, the 18th century Spanish missionary and that of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star Spangled Banner. He owned slaves.

In Washington, D. C., New York, Raleigh N. C., New Jersey, Sacramento and elsewhere, offending statues, symbols and names were removed. Some of these represented confederate leaders; some were historical figures who had mistreated native Americans (E. G. John Sutter); some were US Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

So far, so good. Some historical revisionism is in order. By all means, rename most places, monuments and institutions that bear the names of people like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. These men were traitors. Their statues are best kept and viewed in museums, as is done for instance in Berlin. There, Nazi paraphernalia can be viewed by museum visitors without offending holocaust survivors. I also laud removal of confederate flags from events such as NASCAR. I have always felt that the display of confederate flags is a bit as if Germans today were to wave swastikas. Read more...

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Tree Killers

By Madeleine Kando

My husband and I live in a quiet part of a suburban town in Massachusetts. Many moons ago, as two young immigrants from Northern Europe, we didn’t know where the wind would blow us. We could have ended up in Iowa or Texas, but we lucked out and settled in New England.

If there is one adjective to describe this part of the country, I would vote for the word ‘green’. The further up you go, traveling through New Hampshire or Vermont towards the Canadian border, you enter The Great North Woods, also known as the Northern Forest. It is spread across four northeastern states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York and collectively covers 26 million acres, about the size of Holland, Belgium and Denmark combined.

But here it is equally green. Our property is nothing special, a little piece of land, about an acre, including a very modest ranch house. But at this time of year, our yard is bursting with life. An amazing array of birds, gold finches, chickadees, bright red cardinals and noisy blue birds all flock to our bird feeders, patiently waiting their turn to feed.

Many little creatures share our property. Chipmunks race back and forth, their cheeks stuffed with treasures, grey squirrels chase each other for fun or love, jack rabbits munch on clover, their jaws working overtime, and we see the occasional fox or deer come by to pay us an early morning visit.

There are Norwegian maples, lilac trees and dogwoods growing out of the unusually tall grass, since we don’t believe in giving our lawn a crew cut. But what I cherish the most, are the majestic white pines that have lived here for much longer than any of us. New England is the opposite of the vast expanses of the prairies of the mid west. Here, trees are king and the king of kings is the white pine. Read more...

Saturday, June 20, 2020

America



The world is going through one crisis - the pandemic.

America is going through three: the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump.

I come across a lot of negativity about America’s response, both from a domestic and from an overseas perspective:

We are the pandemic’s epicenter. The number of American Covid-19 patients is approaching a staggering two and a half million, and it continues to increase by twenty to thirty thousand PER DAY. Meanwhile, most other major nations - in Europe, Asia, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere - have turned the corner, their case numbers declining rapidly. All the same, the US is eagerly re-opening its economy and holding mass rallies, come what may. When I drive somewhere in the city, NOT ONE in twenty pedestrians I see in the streets wears a mask.

No wonder that some overseas observers are saying that “America has given up.” This was the title of a recent Atlantic article, as well as the words of the prime minister of New Zealand.

One thing I find little of, is any sort of compassion for this country. Read more...

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Is Tyranny Winning?



I recently read Timothy Snyder’s ‘On Tyranny’ (2016), a short but very rousing book. It made me realize, that I spent my entire life, which is quite long by now, under a system of government whose values I have always taken for granted. It is called Democracy.

But nothing about it should be taken for granted. Since Trump became our President, I realize how ‘unnatural’ this order really is. It is ‘unnatural’ in the sense that were it up to nature, things would be arranged quite differently.

Nature doesn’t give a fig about the ‘rule of law’, about ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’. You won’t see a gazelle stop dead in her tracks while fleeing from a cheetah and say: ‘Hey, stop right there! I have my rights too, you know!’ We made up those rules and those concepts because it made living together a lot safer, freer and ultimately more enjoyable.

I was born and fled a country that had a tyrannical regime. Hungary was part of the Communist block for almost 60 years and, even though I was a child when I left, there was enough talk in our family about the dangers of totalitarianism. I should have recognized what was happening in the US a lot sooner than I did. Besides, being a septuagenarian, I have had enough time to learn how to recognize rot when I see it. But I didn’t. Like many of us, I suffer from complacency and a sense of entitlement.

Snyder meant to write On Tyranny as a manifesto, a wakeup call for people like me, who are asleep while walking around. People who say things like ‘It will work out’, ‘It is just temporary’ and ‘This cannot happen here’. But there is nothing ‘exceptional’ about America. Even though the country was founded on democratic principles to fight tyranny, nothing prevents a tyrant from taking over that system. The only advantage America has, Snyder says in his Prologue, is that we can learn from Europe’s past mistakes. Read more...

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Social Change



My question, today, is: How is our world going to change in the near future, as a result of the unprecedented turbulence caused by the dual whammy of pandemic and social unrest?

Now is an excellent time to listen to sociologists. A major subdivision of Sociology is Social Change/Social Theory. The classical literature in this field includes Emile Durkheim, Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Marx, Max Weber and many others. It would be interesting to discover what these people might say about current events.

The immediate trigger for the current global crisis is an inadvertent event - the Covid-19 pandemic. Then, on top of this, and on top of the consequent economic crisis, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis in a gruesome and graphic way captured on video and witnessed by the entire world.

In and of themselves, pandemics may not lead to massive social change. I am not familiar with what happened during and in the wake of the 1918 pandemic, or the 14th century Black Death, or other plagues. By most accounts, the 1918 pandemic was soon curiously forgotten.

Logically, one could expect such events to have profound consequences - good and/or bad. These consequences may be demographic, environmental, economic, political, social, psychological and cultural. Read more...

Monday, June 1, 2020

What is going to Happen?



First came Donald Trump. Then the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by economic collapse. Then George Floyd’s unspeakable murder, followed by mass demonstrations and civil unrest across the entire country (and even internationally).

The list of crises afflicting this country never stops. Are we cursed?

I have always felt that I am able to put major events in some sort of perspective, able to give them some meaning. But right now, I am unable to do this. My mind is buzzing with questions, but I have zero answers, zero predictions. The only thing which I do see is that America is facing mounting challenges.

Until George Floyd’s murder on May 25, this country was “only” facing the triple threat of the pandemic, economic collapse, and “Rightism.” This triad is discussed brilliantly by Abram de Swaan in the Dutch weekly De Groene (May 6, 2020). The author assesses the three major crises faced by the Western democracies at this time: The pandemic, the ensuing economic collapse, and the emergence of right-wing, authoritarian, populism in many countries. (See Abram de Swaan)

Then, a new crisis took over. The massive nationwide protest against police brutality and institutional racism - the “Black Lives Matter” movement - literally replaced the Covid-19 crisis. Since May 25, you can channel surf the news and look for the latest on the pandemic in vain, as MSNBC, CNN and the other media focus almost exclusively on the mass demonstrations. It is as if the pandemic were over. Very strange. Read more...

Monday, May 18, 2020

How Speaking Can Spread the Virus



When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the benefits of wearing face masks to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, he said that “they are helpful in that they protect others from you “breathing or speaking moistly on them.”

The word ‘moistly’ caused a universal uproar. Comedians had a field day as usual, but Trudeau was actually giving an appropriate and descriptive name to one of the major avenues of infection, which is our own speech.

One of the reasons COVID-19 spreads so quickly is that it is transmitted from people who are asymptomatic. But if they don’t sneeze or cough on you, how are they actually infecting you?

Research is now showing that coughing and sneezing are small potatoes compared to the amount of aerosols people emit while they speak. Coughing and sneezing are like brief but potent rain showers, whereas speaking is a day long drizzle, with smaller drop sizes that can penetrate deeper into the lungs of the unfortunate recipient. They also remain airborne longer, since they are smaller.

It is not just speaking that releases more particles than coughing or sneezing. A person who decides to declare their love by bursting into a serenade, is actually emitting 6 times more airborne droplets than if they were merely reciting a poem.

If things weren’t bad enough, it turns out that people with loud voices emit an inordinate amount of particles. Not only are they a danger to your ear drums but they actually are equivalent to the fire breathers of yore.

Although the louder you speak the more particles you emit, the study also found that certain units of speech generate more aerosols than others. For example, the "E" sound in "need" produces more particles than the "A" in "saw." Read more...

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Science Fiction Becomes Rality




It finally happened. Armageddon has arrived. For over a century, we have been treated to various forms of science fiction. A large portion of this genre’s books and movies has always been apocalyptic - presenting one scenario or another about the end of the world, or at least the end of humanity.

I grew up devouring the works of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip Dick, Robert Heinlein, H.G. Wells and many others.

Wells’ The War of the Worlds came out as a radio adaptation in 1938 and as a classic film in 1953. Other classics that mesmerized me as a child include The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Television added a flood of Science Fiction, including Star Trek (the original series, 1965-1969, still my favorite, followed by multiple subsequent “generations”).

Meanwhile, by the end of the 20th century, Hollywood was inundating the market with mega productions of questionable quality - such films as Independence Day (1996), Mars Attacks (1996), Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998) and many others.

Even I tried my hand at the genre: (See my Humanity’s Future: The Next 25,000 Years). At least, my book is not apocalyptic. It goes more along the optimistic prognoses found in many episodes of Star Trek - predicting humanity’s progress rather than downfall.
Read more...

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Hot Spots, Soft Spots and Bald Spots



The English language is really good at turning words into versatile tools that can be used for many purposes, like a Swiss army knife. Take the humble little word spot, for instance. With a snap of our fingers, we can make a spot become hot, sweet, tight, bald, cold, dead, soft or blind. And those are just the noun words. We can ‘be spot on’, an adjective, ‘hit the spot’, a direct object, or ‘spot something a mile off’, a verb. We have a knack for breathing life into language by dressing up simple words and send them out into the world to work their magic.

But why stop there? A single one of these ‘compound nouns’ can, itself, take on different meanings. A spot can be hot, but a hotspot can be a place of unusual popularity, a spot where volcanic magma rises through the earth’s crust, an area of political or civil unrest, a place where a wireless Internet connection is available and more recently a place where the Coronavirus is particularly active.

When I drove down dreary Route 9 in Newton the other day, I didn’t think it was unusually popular and there was no magma in sight. My phone didn’t detect a wireless connection and since I didn’t have a dog in the car, I couldn’t check for its infected skin rash.

But I knew I was entering a hotspot. This is the spot where the month before my car had been rear-ended. As I was waiting at the traffic light, I could feel the heat through the floor of the car. I breathed a sigh of relief when the light turned green, but a while later on the highway, my knuckles around the steering wheel turned white. I was approaching another hot spot where not too long ago, I almost flipped my car, when I collided with a ladder that had fallen off the back of a truck.

So you see, as time goes on, it gets harder to find any spots on my way home that are not marred with bad memories. Some spots are so hot, that driving through them is too painful. Many years ago, I found my daughter in a diabetic coma, unconscious on the floor of her dorm. I have tried to rub that spot off, but it just won’t come out, even after all these years. That is definitely a dead zone, in my book. Read more...

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Looking Back on the Coronavirus Pandemic - An Imaginary, Revisionist History



This is a satire based on an article entitled ‘The Deadly
Polio Epidemic and Why It Matters for Coronavirus’

The current 2050 Nipah pandemic may feel new to many of us, but it is strangely familiar to those who lived through the Coronavirus epidemic of the early 21st century.

The Coronavirus virus a.k.a. Covid19, arrived each winter, striking without warning. We knew how the virus was transmitted but there was uncertainty about its origin. There were wild theories that the virus had been purposely released from a lab in China. At the time, there was no known cure or vaccine.

Parents stopped sending their children to school for fear they would “catch coronavirus.” Swimming pools and movie theaters, beaches and shops were closed.

Because of a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), health workers would work without protection to save many a person’s life. The elderly, who seemed to be most at risk from the disease, were isolated in nursing homes and sometimes left to die without treatment.

The number of Covid19 cases in the U.S. peaked at 2 million, resulting in 103,000 deaths. Those who were critically ill with this highly infectious disease ended up intubated and were often left with permanent lung damage.

Ultimately, the coronavirus was conquered in 2022 by a vaccine. Donald Trump, who was our President at the time, signed an executive order forbidding the inventor from patenting his work, saying the vaccine belonged to the people and that to patent it would be like “patenting the sun.” Read more...

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Are there more Crazy People in some Countries than in Others?



Can it be said that there are more crazy/mentally ill people in one society than in another - for example in America than in the Netherlands?

With all the bad news from America these days - mass shootings, Donald Trump suggesting that we try Lysol to cure the coronavirus, etc. - some of my European friends are beginning to wonder whether this country has lost its senses. 

It’s clear that our president is mentally ill. But what about the society at large? Can one society be more mentally ill than another? I have a PhD in Social Psychology (U. Of Minnesota). So this question interests me.

To begin with, we need to recognize that “mental illness” is both physical and cultural.

Going by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) of the American Psychiatric Association, it is obvious that many of the listed mental disorders are rooted in neuro-chemical imbalances and/or damage to the nervous system. These are organic disorders, for example organic psychosis and dementia.
However, many “mental illnesses” are functional. For example bipolarity, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. These have no demonstrable physiological basis. Read more...

Sunday, March 29, 2020

From my Coronavirus Diary

by Madeleine Kando

March 20, 2020 (1 week into self-isolation)

Today is a beautiful, crisp and sunny day. My husband and I decide to go for a stroll on the beach, to breathe in some coronavirus-free air. An hour’s drive is worth it. It is wonderful. The white foamy crests on the waves, as they fold themselves over like shy bearded giants, repeat themselves over and over again. It’s not like you miss anything if you look away. They perform for free, all day long. The fresh ocean air fills our lungs. We walk, hand in hand, flaunting our noses to the 6 feet distance rule. Aren’t we one and the same body after all these years?

I hold my puffy, sleepless face in the wind, squinting to protect my eyes from so much sunlight. Are we really living a nightmare? Or did I just dream it? Why are the clouds and the dunes, the sand and the seagulls so clueless? Don’t they know what’s happening? Where is the panic, the stress, the heart palpitations?

As I follow a trail of child foot prints vanishing in the distance, the moist sand under my feet sparkles with millions of glittering mica particles, like a universe filled with stars. It is mesmerizing. Just like the pictures I saw of the Corona virus floating in the air after a sneeze. Floating in the air, everywhere, invading our lungs and killing us one by one.

‘Stop it right now!’ a voice tells me. ‘Stop with this OCD nonsense. Enjoy the beach!Read more...

Monday, March 23, 2020

“Mother Nature”?



Let me try this: A good word to describe the coronavirus crisis is “biblical.”

Now I don’t want you to misunderstand: I don’t believe in God. A biblical interpretation of this crisis goes against everything my rationalist mind and education have taught me.

But the paradigm, or the metaphor, seems so apt. This is Sodom and Gomorrah all over again. God’s revenge, punishment for our sins, for our descent into greed and selfishness, for raping the planet, for excessive hedonism and materialism, for Wall Street, etc.

Okay, convert the term “God” into “Nature.” Then, the metaphor works better already: We are destroying the planet. Even so, a near unanimity of economists - left and right - still agrees that the solution to poverty, inequality and all other economic problems is GROWTH. It is almost universally agreed that a 1% growth rate is bad (that’s often Europe’s rate), a 3% rate is pretty good (something the US achieves occasionally) and that 6% to 10% annual growth, which China has often achieved in recent decades, is the envy of the world. Read more...

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Tried and True: The Best Travel Experiences in Europe



Dear People:

This is to let you know that I have just published a new book, with the following title: Tried and True: The Best Travel Experiences in Europe.

Here is a description:

Tom Kando has visited over thirty European countries and spent many years living in half a dozen of them. He has crossed the Atlantic a hundred times. In this travel guide and travel memoir, he shares eventful and often hilarious experiences in Europe, from Iceland to Russia and from Scotland’s Hebrides Islands to the Riviera and Sicily: Amusing, true stories about staving off pickpockets, braving chaotic Parisian and Roman traffic, dealing with train, airplane and hotel snafus. Secondly, Kando offers a wealth of practical information about errors to avoid, what to do and not to do, and what to see.
Read more...

Monday, March 9, 2020

Confessions of a Googleholic




Googling has become my middle name. I am Googling every thought that comes into my head. It’s a disease. ‘Why is my iphone almost the same size as my reading glasses container?’ ‘Why does my sister not like me as much as before?’ ‘Will we ever travel to another star?’ As if Google were my psychiatrist, my mother and my best friend, all rolled into one. I know. It’s a clear sign of either having too much time on my hands, or not enough human contact.

I have replaced my brain with a digital monster. Not too long ago I was a normal person. I wondered and pondered about things, accepted the inevitability of not knowing the answer. That’s what’s fun about wondering and pondering. If there were an answer to everything, it would be the end of thinking, period. If I really really wanted to know the answer to something, I read a book, went to the library, or talked to a flesh and blood person.

I envy my mother. Ata was a natural ponderer. Until her dying day at the age of 103, she had questions, wondering about life after death, why birds can fly and humans cannot. She was almost blind, had been deaf for decades, but her mind was brimming with curiosity. She was not what you call a learned person. She had an artist’s soul that wanted to discover, like a 103 year old Magellan. Once she had a question in her head, she wouldn’t let go and urged everyone to participate in her quest, be it her children, her numerous friends, her orthopedist and the unfortunate handyman who was trying to fix the leak in her bathroom. Deep down, she knew she wouldn’t find a definitive answer, but the exploration was what made her tick. Googling was as foreign to her as a rotary phone to a Gen Zer. Read more...

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Coronavirus



I have been monitoring the corona virus’ spread,  and I also just communicated with some friends  in Holland.  

As of March 5, 88 countries have been contaminated  by the pandemic. Of these, only 18 have experienced deaths. In 70 of these countries, no one has died yet. To be sure, a majority of these 70 countries are just beginning to be infected: In 21 of them, only  one case has been  identified  so far. Half of the zero-death countries (35) have only reported between 1 and 5 cases until now.

However, some of the zero-death countries already have significant numbers of cases, so we can start asking: What are they doing right? How do they differ from countries where the death rate is significantly higher? Can we learn from them?

I have listed  the countries which combine a zero-death rate with an already fairly widespread epidemic within their borders. The first table below shows the ten most notable such countries, and I compare their numbers with ours: Read more...

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Our Mighty Sun



The Oort Cloud is believed by astronomers to surround the solar system. It is the ultimate outer boundary of our sun’s domain. This cloud is believed to consist of icy planetesimals - cosmic dust/grains. It was named in 1950 after the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, who worked on this hypothesis.

According to astronomers, the Oort Cloud is a belt which surrounds the sun and the solar system at a distance which begins at about 2,000 Astronomical Units (AUs) and may go as far out as 200,000 AUs.

This is an astounding size. If the Oort Cloud hypothesis is correct, it means that the domain of the solar system is enormous.

Consider this:
One Astronomical Unit is the distance between earth and the sun, which is 150 million kilometers, or 93 million miles. If the Oort Cloud’s outer edge reaches all the way out to 200,000 Astronomical Units from the center of the solar system (the sun) then its diameter is 400,000 AUs.

It takes light 8 minutes to cover one AU (to travel from earth to the sun). As mentioned, the inner rim of the Oort Cloud is 2,000 AUs away from us. So it takes light 16,000 minutes to travel that far, i.e. 11.1 days. The OUTER rim of the Oort Cloud is 200,000 AUs far, i.e. one hundred times further. So for light to travel to the Oort Cloud’s outer edge takes 100 times longer, i.e. 1,111 days or over 3 years. The sun reaches three light years out into space! Read more...

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Decline of Instrumental Music



I was working out on a treadmill at my health spa.

The sound blaring out from the sound system was the usual “Muzak.” i.e. the typical nondescript elevator music, all vocal, all consisting of songs, almost invariably dealing with the vicissitudes of “love.”

I was thinking: How out of touch I have become, in old age: Today, all popular music sounds the same to me.

I have been an avid amateur of music all my life. As a listener, a concert attendant, a records collector, an amateur flute player. I grew up with classical music and modern jazz in Europe. Then, after I moved to America in the nineteen sixties, I became a fervent fan of popular music (as well): The Beatles and the Rolling Stones of course, and all the other fantastic groups of that era - Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Doors, Elton John, the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Simon and Garfunkel and innumerable others.

Then, adult life being what it is - career, children, etc. - popular music went by the wayside. For a while, I tried to stay in touch via my children. I tried to listen to some of the music they liked. But eventually I lost track. Today, I have no idea what’s going on in the world of popular music.

But here is an impression I have: Nowadays, practically ALL popular music is vocal, not instrumental. Think of the currently most prominent idols: Adele, Beyoncé, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and dozens of others (far more women than men, by the way, which is fine with me). Read more...

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Liberals and Conservatives; Kind or not, Smart or Not?



This is a game: I take 3 variables, I cross-tab them, and I formulate some hypotheses about their correlation (or lack thereof).
The variables are:
1. Conservatism vs. Liberalism
2. Kindness or not
3. Being well-informed or not

In other words, an individual can be conservative or liberal; he/she can be a by and large  nice person or what we could call an a...hole; and she/he can be well-educated and intelligently informed or not.

For the sake of simplicity, the three variables are dichotomous. Also, let’s not quibble about the true meaning and nature of being ”nice” as opposed to being an “a...hole”  This is just an experiment, maybe  a fun one, and most of us know an a...hole when we meet one... Also, for the purposes of this experiment, I use a total sample of 200.

If we cross tab these 3 variables, we get 2 x 2 x 2 = 8 possibilities Read more...

New York, New York!

By Madeleine Kando

I have no business writing about New York. Not only do I not live in New York, worse, I live in Boston, which in the eyes of most New Yorkers, is the most stupid thing one can do. They have as low an opinion of Boston as the Dutch have of Belgians. Why be Belgian if you can be Dutch? Why live in Boston if you can live in New York?

I completely disagree of course. Being Dutch myself, I am guilty of an unwarranted sense of superiority over the Belgians, but Boston is perfectly fine. I like living in the Hub, Beantown, the Athens of America. I’ll take the Patriots over the Giants any day. I mean, look at Tom Brady! What’s there not to like?

But since the Dutch closed down their consulate in my hometown, thinking that New England was no longer important enough to spend consulate euros on, my husband and I had to travel to New York to extend our Dutch passports, a good excuse, we thought, to spend a few days in the Big Apple.

Entering the heart of Manhattan from the West side is like boarding a vast ship over one of its gangways. We followed 56thStreet and were immediately swallowed up by a stream of cars, limousines, yellow cabs and trucks, honking their horns, swerving from lane to lane, trying to gain a few inches at traffic lights. We were surrounded by an ocean of enormous, shiny skyscrapers, all competing for the tallest spot in the firmament. As we approached Columbus Circle, the smell of manure preceded the appearance of a row of sad looking horses hitched to colorful carriages.

Three days are not enough to do justice to this incredible city, but just being there, inhaling the perfect mix of car fumes and the smell of the subway already made it an exciting experience. Having grown up in Paris, that smell spells home for me, like the smell of hay for someone who grew up on a farm. Read more...

Monday, January 27, 2020

Sanders’ Single Payer Utopia



This is not a new essay, but after rereading it, I found it so appropriate that I couldn't help but republish it.

Like many of us, I am confused by the ‘single payer’ health plan that Bernie Sanders proposes. Health care is confusing to begin with unless you live somewhere where there is no health care at all. In fact, out of the 200 countries or so in the world, only 40 provide some form of health insurance to their citizens.

The countries that do offer health care all have a different system in place. Some have a single payer system, funded through taxes, just like the police force or public libraries. These systems tend to have low costs, because the government controls what doctors can do and what they can charge. Great Britain, Spain, most of Scandinavia and New Zealand, Hong Kong and Cuba have a single payer system. This system is what Sanders proposes.

Other countries have an employer/employee funded system, familiar to Americans. It uses an insurance system that covers everybody, is tightly regulated by government to control cost and provides bargaining power. Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, Switzerland and Latin America has this type of system. Read more...

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Scentimental Journey



I drove to Paris yesterday. It took me only 25 minutes because it was Saturday and traffic wasn’t so bad. The radio announced that a snow storm would start at around 5 pm. It was getting dark and the snow gusts were starting to twirl across the surface of the highway, but my urge to get to Paris overrode my fear of getting stuck.

I didn’t really drive to Paris. How could I? I live in the suburbs of Boston. And I didn’t key in Paris in my GPS, just the name of a boutique in the next town over, that supposedly sells fancy perfumes.

As the road slowly turned white, I had to drive through a section of Watertown where the majority of signs pointed to auto body shops, liquor stores and car washes. ‘Not exactly the exotic French landscape’, I thought.

'You have reached your destination', my GPS told me. I parked in front of a small, brightly colored store with a sign that said ‘Colonial Drug Store’. Ok, I get it. It’s one of those CVS type stores where they sell cheap perfumes for a dime a dozen. I was about to drive back home, but the snow and the cold told me to go in and at least warm my poor frozen feet, buy a candy bar and then drive back home with my tail between my legs.

There were two odd looking, life sized statues guarding the door. They were clad in bright red tailcoats, knee breeches and tricorn hats, colonial era style. A homey sounding bell rang when I opened the door and once inside, the smell of freshly polished wood greeted me. Read more...

Sunday, January 5, 2020

European Traffic



I am looking forward to our next European trip, this spring. Due to illness, we didn’t get to travel much in 2019. As we get older, international travel becomes more challenging. However, my wife and I haven’t thrown in the towel yet. Unlike many of our friends, we still tough it out driving, taking trains, sleeping at small hotels and walking around foreign cities as much as we are able to, rather than going on cruises.

This year, though, we will not rent a car. We’ll spend a week each in Amsterdam, Paris and Rome, and only a suicidal imbecile would rent a car to circulate in those cities, where public transportation is cheap and efficient, and vehicular traffic is nerve-racking.

Many American drivers find driving in Europe challenging, and many American pedestrians find crossing streets in foreign cities scary.

Actually the single greatest traffic problem overseas is not that Europeans and other foreigners are wild and dangerous drivers. No. By far the greatest risk to your life exists in those countries that still drive on the wrong side of the road, namely on the left. These countries include Australia, Britain, most of the Caribbeans, India and South Africa, courtesy of the former British Empire. They also include Ireland and Japan, and a few other countries that refuse to come to their senses. Read more...

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Insomnia



I spend a lot of time in my head these days. I always have, because I am an insomniac. There is nowhere else to go when you are lying flat on your back, waiting for sleep to honor you with a visit. I could spend time in my toes or my elbows, but there is really not much going on at those locations, except the occasional itch or involuntary twitching.

My head at least, is a place where things happen, most of them beyond my control. I am always a bit apprehensive before I enter because it’s such a mess. There is a big sign hanging over the entrance that says ‘organizing strictly prohibited beyond this point’.

As I walk about in that chaotic place, I stub my toes against remnants of my day scattered on the floor. Did I turn the stove off? Did I put the left-over food in the fridge? Did I close my car windows? Usually, those nasty little buggers cross my mental path when I am almost asleep and with a jolt I am wide awake again, heart pounding. I am back to square one.

Us insomniacs are advised to establish what is called sleep hygiene. You couldn’t come up with a more distasteful term if you tried. No, it doesn’t mean washing the mud off your feet before going to bed, it is more on par with mental hygiene. Read more...