Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Nature-Nurture: Are we born Intelligent or Stupid?

 The September 13, 2021 issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article titled “Force of Nature” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. 
It describes the work of Kathryn Paige Harden, a University of Texas psychologist. Harden’s research is about the importance of genetic inheritability of intelligence. In other words, she addresses the age-old “nature-vs.- nurture” question: Are our behavior, our personality and our achievements the result of the environment and socialization (nurture), or are they the product of inborn and inherited genes (nature)? 

 As a sociologist, I have dealt with this issue in many of my classes. That nurture is more important than nature has always been axiomatic to sociologists. How successful you are in life depends much more on environment than on heredity. However, biological determinism (nature) has gained a lot of ground in recent years. Psychology’s holy grail is the identification of the PHYSICAL location of mental faculties, whether in the brain or in one’s genetic make-up. 

There appears every decade or so research that challenges the conventional wisdom that nurture counts for much more than nature. This research suggests that genetic inheritability of things like intelligence plays a much bigger role than we are willing to admit. 

For example, in 1969, Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen published an article in the Harvard Educational Review   in which he argued that there is an I.Q. gap between the races, and the reason for this is at least partly genetic. Nobel laureate William Shockley agreed with this, stating that “my research leads me inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the American Negro's intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin and, thus, not remediable... by practical improvements in the environment.”  Read more...

Friday, September 3, 2021


by Madeleine Kando

We are on Kauai, my husband Hans and I. It is the oldest and most beautiful island of the Hawaiian chain. If you could wave a magic wand and wish for a total sensory experience, you would certainly conjure up Kauai. The trade wind coming from the vast ocean, softens the harshness of the blazing sun. The sound of the surf is better than any lullaby. The foaming crests of the waves lapping on shore puts one in a trance.

Then, there are the clouds. They turn pink at sunset, slowly moving across the horizon, like slow motion ballerinas in pink tutus. The coral shines through the turquoise water while the feral chickens strut about, totally indifferent to the beauty around them, getting impertinently close to get fed. All of it is so intoxicating that our life back in Boston seems like it is on another planet.

Is it pathological to be infatuated with an island? Isn’t that feeling reserved for teens and film stars?  But I cannot help it. Since we first came here, almost 20 years ago, Kauai has captivated my heart.

Today, we are taking a helicopter ride. It takes us over the interior, the jungle where Jurassic Park was filmed. We approach the ‘five sisters’, a group of waterfalls on Mt. Waialeale, the second rainiest place on earth. The pilot is having fun with us. He flies straight into the huge vertical wall of jungle, but at the last minute, veers up to the top, to avoid a fatal crash. It is an exhilarating ride, plunging into the center of the volcano. It has been dead for millions of years and is now covered with green, a deep gaping hole, where all the rain from the swamp plateau above, accumulates.

Over 5 million years ago, Kauai was born, when magma spewed from a hot spot beneath the Pacific Tectonic Plate, creating a volcanic island. Like dragging the links of a chain away from the hotspot, the island moved away and Kauai’s volcano slowly became extinct. A new island moved in its place, creating another one of the Hawaiian Islands. A map of the ocean floor shows this long chain called the Emperor Sea Mount Chain, which reaches all the way to Alaska.

It is hard to imagine that for most of her life, this beautiful island was nothing but black rock. Everything that we see, blew in with the wind, on the waves, or in the belly of a bird that lost its way. Then, millions of years in the making, as if the island was ready for inhabitants, the Polynesians came in their canoes, fell in love and established a society.

The older Kauai gets, the more beautiful she becomes. But one day, she will sink into the ocean and only an atoll will remain, like a gravestone to mark the spot. How many of these gorgeous islands have sunk beneath the waves over the past millennia?

Kauai has only one road that hugs the coastline and does not connect to itself, which protects it from the worst damage that tourism creates. On the north shore, where we are staying, there are small, funky towns, like Kapa’a and Hanalei, reminiscent of the 60’s. There are shops that sell designer rash guards and other fancy beach attire, overpriced restaurants and shave ice stands. Read more...

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Best and the Worst States


I have ranked the world’s countries in terms of quality of life several times on this blog. Today, I want to do that   with America’s own fifty states. There is as much  chauvinism at this level as there is internationally. Just as most Europeans feel that they are better than Americans and vice versa, so Texans feel superior to Californians and vice-versa.

For the facts, I examined a recent USNews and World Report study: Best States Rankings

The study ranks the states on eight criteria:

Health Care





Fiscal stability

Crime and Corrections

Natural Environment

First, I wanted to compare blue states and red states, something which  USNews and World Report does not do. The country’s political climate is  extraordinarily polarized, and I was curious to see whether the data confirm one of my  preconceptions, namely that overall, blue states are better than red states. Well, they most certainly do:

According to 270towin, there are 18 blue states, 22 red states and  10 “mixed” states. They are located as follows:

West:   4 blue states: Washington, Oregon, California and  Hawaii.   1 red state: Alaska.

Midwest: 4 blue states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. 5 red states: Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri. 3 mixed states: Iowa, Indiana and Ohio

Rocky Mountains: 5 red states: Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Arizona. 3 mixed states: Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.  ZERO blue states.         

New England: 5 blue states: Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island. 1 Mixed state: New Hampshire. ZERO red states.   

The South: 11 red states: Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana. 3 mixed states: Virginia, Florida, North Carolina. ZERO blue states.

Atlantic Coast: 5:  blue states: Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania. ZERO red or mixed.

These six regions are those used by the US Census Bureau.


Thursday, August 19, 2021


This week, the crisis is Afghanistan. Last week it was the Haitian earthquake. For a year and a half, it’s been Covid. Things are not going well on planet Earth, or in the US. 
I don’t mean to trivialize what’s going on in Afghanistan. It’s a mess, a tragedy, and it was inevitable. 

First, let’s be clear about one thing: The Taliban are the equivalent of the barbarians that were held at bay for centuries by the ancient Romans. 

There are in the world, always, advanced civilizations that expand their sphere of influence and bring progress (as well as exploitation) to outlying regions. And then there are tribal societies that are several hundred years behind in their historical and moral development. Their treatment of women alone puts the Taliban somewhere at the beginning of Europe’s Middle Ages. 

The 14th century Arab sociologist  Ibn Khaldun  described the relationship and inherent conflict between advanced urban civilizations and more primitive nomadic groups, and the cycle of rise and fall of the former at the hand of the latter. 
>Now don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that the Taliban is about to take over the White House (although a Taliban-sponsored group did “take over” the New York World Trade Center in 2001). 
What Biden just did is the equivalent of decisions made two thousand years ago by intelligent Roman leaders such as the emperor Hadrian: He abandoned his predecessors’ expansionist policies. Instead, he invested in “defensible borders and the unification of the empire’s disparate peoples. He built Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the northern limit of Britannia.” As Voltaire said, one must cultivate one’s own garden.  Read more...

Monday, August 16, 2021


By Madeleine Kando

It’s really hard to be me. I slept for four hours and woke up wondering what came over me when I bought a $100 bathing suit. I am on Maui, and I see all these fancy bathing suits prance about on the beach, so I figured I need one too, instead of looking like a blue sausage in my racing suit.

I saw one on a mannequin at the mall across our condo and I was sure it would make me look like a film star, but when I came home and put it on, I looked more like a flower pot with arms and legs.

So, I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. There is no stopping it, once I get the worrying bug. It’s like a virus, infecting every nook and cranny of my already neurotic mind. I worry about my daughter back home, about spending too much money, about the bags under my eyes from not sleeping because I worry about not sleeping.
Why some people don’t worry is a mystery to me. There must be something seriously wrong with them. People like that let the worriers do all the worrying for them. They get a free ride in this valley of tears, going about their business happy as clams, while us worriers do all the heavy lifting, leading us to an early grave.

They will say stupid things, like: ‘worrying does not do anything. It’s a useless, self-destructive habit.’ But they don’t really know, do they? Since they never worry. It’s like saying: ‘I know what it’s like to be poor. My grandfather was poor. He told me all about it’.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Which are the Best and the Worst Olympic Countries?

Halfway through the recent Olympic Games, I came across  an article by a Dan Wetzel, titled

Sorry, America: China’s leading the real Olympic medal count.

Dan complained  that most of our media  rank countries by their TOTAL number of medals, regardless of whether they are gold, silver or bronze. This puts  America on top and China second. However, Wetzel  felt that  countries should be ranked by the number of GOLD medals they win. He claimed that the entire rest of the world agrees with this.

As it turned out, America ended up with BOTH the largest number of total medals AND the largest number of gold medals. So Wetzel’s gripe is moot.

Nevertheless, I want to point out  that Wetzel was wrong. The differences between gold, silver and bronze performances are often in the milliseconds. It’s often absurd to dismiss   silver and bronze  performances as far inferior to  gold performances. The three  are often extremely close. So the total number of medals is more meaningful than just the number of golds.

Furthermore, I have long used a compromise between Wetzel’s position and mine, one which I think is reasonable and could satisfy both sides of the argument: We can WEIGH the three colors by awarding a country 3 points for every gold medal, 2 points for every silver and 1 point for every bronze.  Then, rank countries by their total  number of points.


Friday, August 6, 2021

America Needs a Strong Socialist Party

We have been brainwashed to believe that Socialism   is bad. 

You can get a good flavor of this by Googling words such as “Socialism,” “Socialism USA” or “Democratic Socialism.” 

While the search results include some factual definitions such as Wikipedia’s, by far most of what comes up consists of scathing critiques of “Socialism.” You get articles with titles like “Democratic Socialism Failures - Prosperity to Poverty,” “Real Socialism, Real Suffering - Real Socialism Failed,” “Venezuela Socialism” and “The Dishonesty of Real Socialism.” What is so nauseating is that this multitude of anti-Socialist diatribes is not counter-balanced by positive search results. The anti-socialist bias revealed on the Internet is overwhelming. 

I cannot do justice to all the nuances of socialism. Suffice it to say that the kind of socialism which I favor is “democratic socialism” or “social democracy.” By this I mean a robust degree of government involvement and regulation of the economy, albeit not outright government ownership of the means of production. I mean the sort of “mixed” capitalist/socialist system which exists in the rest of the Western world. I mean a society where taxation is progressive, where the government’s policies are redistributive, so as to reduce poverty and inequality, and where the public sector makes up a large segment of the economy, as much as 50%. 

In other words, I favor a higher degree of socialism than what we currently have. Obviously, this country is by no means free of socialism. Income taxes, Social Security, Medicare and innumerable other governmental functions are “socialism.” “Socialism” is a matter of degree.  Read more...

Saturday, July 31, 2021

My Floppy Eyelids

By Madeleine Kando

My left eye is irritated. I wanted to make sure it is not a sign that I am slowly turning blind, so I paid an emergency visit to the eye doctor, before I embark on a month long trip to Hawaii.

She was short and masked. She asked for my age, although it said it right there, on my chart. She probably wanted to make sure that my porch lights were still on at my age.

She looked over the notes that her assistant just jotted down before her majesty walked in.

‘You should drink more’ she said. ‘I already drink too much’, I thought. ‘Look at the bags under my eyes’. She meant water of course, that substance I detest with a vengeance. Unless I am in the middle of the desert of course, which is never.

‘I drink a lot of tea, some coffee and orange juice’, I said in a defensive tone. ‘Coffee and tea don’t count’ she said.’

She started to type vigorously, so she wouldn’t have to make eye contact. I am sure, in her profession, limiting eye contact with the hundreds of eye balls that roll into her office every day is essential. Until she is stuck to them like a siamese twin during the exam. Safer to type and talk to the screen.

‘You are dehydrated. Drinking is good for you. Stops wrinkles. 6 cups a day, at least.’

A long telegraph style conversation followed:

‘Do you have pets?’
‘Yes, I have a cat.’
‘Where does he sleep?’
‘I have had my cat for 10 years.’
She repeated curtly:‘Where does he sleep?’
‘She sleeps where she wants’, I said cheekily.
‘Do you wear make-up?’
‘You shouldn’t come to an exam with make-up on’.
‘Who do you see?'
‘Xcuse me?'
‘Who is your regular eye doctor?'
‘I don’t remember her name’.
She reads on the chart. ‘Dr. Rankin’.
(Inaudibly)‘So why do you ask me?’
‘Why do you take doxycycline?’
‘Never heard of it.’ 
'It says here you take doxycycline.’
‘Does it go by another name?’
‘Is it related to tick bites?’
‘I only took it once. For a tick bite’.
‘Do you have dry mouth in the morning?’ 
‘That’s because you don’t drink enough.’ 
‘Could it be because of my medication?' 
… silence …
‘It’s important that you drink at least 12 ½ cups a day. Tea doesn’t count.’

She wheels her stool adroitly to that insanely complicated piece of equipment called a phoropter and taps on the chin rest. For some reason, she has decided to switch from speaking to gesturing. The previous eyeballs must have belonged to a midget, so I have to hunch over to follow her command. Her finger points up, I look up. She taps impatiently to the left of the lens, I look left. Her finger points down, I look down.

She opens my eye vigorously, pulls on my eye lid and (gasp) folds it over. She then presses on my eye lids with great force. She makes a shooing gesture, as if I was a fly, meaning I can sit back.

‘You have occular rosacea. Very common with people who don’t drink enough.’ I want to ask her how much she drinks and how many times a day she has to pee, but then she says:

‘You also suffer from floppy eyelids. When you sleep your lids flop and let stuff in that irritates your eyes. You should massage and use warm compress.’

I am speechless. How can they be floppy? Do they flop about like dog ears in the wind? Or is it a misnomer, like so many other medical terms ? Floppy usually means that something is so flexible that it flops about, like a flag in the wind. Should I do eye lid strengthening exercises?

‘And chia.’ She said, without interruption.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

On Language… Yet Again

I have a thought which I want to convey to my Dutch husband. English is my language of choice, but then he asks me to write my thought in Dutch. I grew up in Holland, so you would think it wouldn't be such a difficult task. I find myself grappling for words, trying to construct logical sentences that mirrors what I think. I feel like an arthritic contortionist. It doesn't meet my expectations but that's the best I can do. 'I could say this a lot better in English, you know' I tell him.

But is language in general the best conduit for the multi-dimensionality of our mental world? I have to transpose something that is happening on multiple levels into one linear dimension. A thought is not just verbal, it has colors, a shape, a smell, a taste, speed and much more.

Wouldn’t it be truer to reality if we had a means of communication that includes all these dimensions in one package? I know what you are going to say: ‘that’s why we have art, music, dance, mathematics, etc.’ But aren’t those also limited by their own range? Can I do justice to quantum mechanics when I express it in music? Can I express the beauty of a sunrise using mathematics?

Couldn’t all these forms of expression be rolled into one super-language. This reminds me of ‘More than Human’, a science fiction story by Theodore Sturgeon. Even though Sturgeon’s story is about several ‘freaks’ (with telepathic, telekinetic and superhuman intelligence) that join forces to create a ‘Gestalt’, i.e. the next evolutionary step in mankind, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to artificially create a ‘language’ that would do more justice to our multi-dimensional ability to form thoughts.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Isle of Wight Music Festival,1970

 In the summer of 1970, I was twenty-nine. My life was going in the right direction. I had received my PhD from the University of Minnesota the previous year and I was in my second year as an assistant professor at Cal State. 

I had also become a US citizen a year earlier. I was ecstatic. I had waited ten years to be naturalized. Before that, I was a stateless United Nations refugee, ever since my family fled from Hungary during my early childhood. My legal status was a monumental pain. It made international travel almost impossible. My family and I had settled in Holland, but even a foray into neighboring Belgium required a visa and other paperwork. I had been admitted to the US on a Fulbright student visa after waiting five years, followed by another five years on a green card. 

To celebrate my new status and all the things it made possible, I went back to Europe for the summer. I had not seen my family in five years. 

By then, my sister Juliette had moved from Amsterdam to London, so after seeing my mother in Holland I went to Juliette in England. Madeleine, my other sister, was also visiting there. 

As it so happens, the Isle of Wight Music Festival was scheduled to take place between August 26 and 31 of that year, and my brother-in-law Iain had secured tickets for the four of us. 

So we grabbed our sleeping bags, a tent and some supplies, drove down to Portsmouth, crossed over to the Isle of Wight and made our way to the festival site. The 1970 Isle of Wight festival turned out to be a Woodstock repeat a year later, a Woodstock on steroids. It became the largest rock festival of all times, with an estimated attendance of 700,000. It was a surrealistic experience. 

It took nearly a day just to get in and settle down on the grass somewhere in the middle of the field. The seven hundred thousand other hippies around us could only be described as an OCEAN of people. The population was almost as large as San Francisco’s. It temporarily increased the Isle of Wight ‘s population sixfold. The field was a rolling hill, so that you couldn’t see the end of the crowd. It literally stretched to the horizon. The stage was half a mile away and you needed binoculars to recognize the musicians, although loudspeakers broadcast their sounds loud and clear to the farthest corners of the enclosure.  Read more...

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Leaving: A Bittersweet Affair

By Madeleine Kando

Leaving has played a constant role in my life. I got my first taste of leaving when I was four, when my parents left Hungary, the country where I was born, to settle in Paris.

Back then, I already considered leaving a place as something positive, like a soldier who adds stars to his uniform. The more places you leave, the higher you rise in the ranks. It was exciting and my age safeguarded me from seeing the risks that are always attached to leaving the familiar.

In a poem ‘le Rondel de l’adieu’, French poet Edmond Haraucourt writes the famous phrase ‘partir c’est mourir un peu’ (leaving is dying a little). It best describes the true meaning of farewell. Each time we say farewell, it is as if we die a little.

For me, even leaving on vacation feels a bit like dying. My old self is dying to make room for my new, yet undiscovered self. The thought of going shopping for a new self always brings a smile to my face, even at my age.

After moving from Hungary to France in my toddler years and from France to Holland when I was 11, I gave a much-needed new self another go when I turned 18. I lived in England for a while and I liked my new English self a lot, but like a run-away train, I couldn’t stop. Off to Spain I went.

The Mediterranean Madeleine didn’t appeal to me all that much, since I couldn’t really chop off some of my height, so my Spanish self never really took shape..

So, you see, I already had a lot of practice leaving. But compared to my previous little hops from one European country to another, moving to the New World felt like jumping off a high cliff, not knowing whether I would land on my two feet or my derriere.

Friday, July 16, 2021

The Madness of Anti-Vaxxers

I have to write about Covid again. I have to say the obvious.

Anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the past few weeks should already know this: The pandemic is gaining steam again. We are blowing it. And this time, there is no excuse. It’s not the virus. It’s those people who are not vaccinated who are causing this.
All the numbers are going in the wrong direction again. I’ll spare you the exact figures, you can check them out yourself. But here is a summary of the sad story: Daily number of infections worldwide: rising again Daily number of deaths worldwide: rising again Daily number of infections in the US: rising again Daily number of deaths in the US: rising again Daily number of infections in California:: rising again Daily number of deaths in California: rising again Daily number of infections in Sacramento: rising again Daily number of deaths in Sacramento: rising again  We all know about the new, more virulent variant(s), etc.
But here is the thing: Variant or no variant, we HAVE THE SOLUTION IN HAND, but some people refuse to use it! What lunacy is this? 

Six months ago, we started a massive vaccination campaign which promised the speedy end of the pandemic. And then, for some unfathomable reason, half the population began to drag its feet, dilly-dallying or outright refusing to take the vaccine.
HALF the population remains unvaccinated! That is, only 48.4% of the population has been fully vaccinated, while 55.9% has received one dose. The daily number of vaccinations has declined by 80% over the past three months!  Read more...

Friday, July 9, 2021

In Defense of Abortion

Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson

For most of history abortion was regarded as a necessary evil, but not as an illegal act. The old philosophers believed that a fetus does not begin to have ‘life’ until the 4th month of pregnancy and even the Old Testament refers to the fetus as ‘property’, but not necessarily ‘endowed with the sanctity of life’.

In the Western world, abortion was accepted if it was carried out before ‘quickening’, i.e. once the fetus moved in the womb. Until then it was regarded as part of the mother, so an abortion was not considered unethical. It was performed by trained midwives who specialized in female anatomy.

By 1880, the Church and the medical establishment decided that abortions should be illegal. Under the pretext that it was unsafe (which it was not, since midwives were highly skilled practitioners), they pushed for legislation that would criminalize abortion under any circumstance, except to save the mother’s life.

Thus, for an entire century (until Roe vs. Wade (1973), women had to turn to illegal means. The mortality rate jumped up and figures from the late 1920s show that some 15,000 women a year died from illegal abortion procedures. (Abortion in American History)

These days, the topic of abortion has become so politicized that it is almost impossible to say anything sensible about it without rousing the ire of anyone with an opposing view. The debate is mostly fueled by the question of how ‘moral’ it is to have or perform an abortion. Does that mean that we have become more moral as human beings? Or is the whole morality argument a smoke-screen for less lofty motivations?

The Pro-abortion argument goes like this: 1) making abortions laws more restrictive has terrible consequences for women (illegal abortions), and 2) denying access to abortion is to deprive a woman’s right to control her own body.

The Anti-abortion arguments are: 1) A fetus is a human being and has the right to life. Therefore abortion is murder, regardless of the consequences of restricting its access. 2) Mere ownership of your body does not give you the right to kill an innocent person inside your body. Read more...

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Somogy Döröcske: My Escape From Hell

I was born in Budapest at the beginning of World War Two, and I spent my first seven years in Hungary. 

By the end of the war, much of Budapest was reduced to rubble - like Dresden and other cities. The battle for Hungary’s capital between the Soviet Red Army and the Germans lasted from December 1944 to February 1945, and it cost 100,000 lives, including those of some of my relatives.. 

My parents had been good patriots in the struggle against the Nazis, so the post-war government rewarded them. And guess what the reward was? A “farm” of some sort, way out in the boondocks! 

My mom and dad knew less about farming than most Americans know about Hungarian poetry - Nothing. My mother was a photographer and my father was a painter. They were through-and-through urban intellectuals who could probably not distinguish between a horse and a mule. 

But bureaucracies being what they are, plus the end-of-war pandemonium, resulted in this surrealistic scenario: The government allocated a farm to my parents. 

Instead of politely turning down the offer, my parents accepted. They assumed, rightly, that we might be safer in the countryside, and also less likely to starve to death. 
And the countryside it was - with a vengeance! The “farm” consisted of a small vineyard plus an enclosure with two pigs. 

The village was called Somogy Döröcske. It was so small and tucked away in the most backward part of rural Hungary that it wasn’t on any map available at that time. It is somewhere halfway between Budapest and the Croatian border. I recently Googled it. Today, it has a population of 133. Wikipedia says that in the early 18th century the area was listed as “uninhabited,” and later owned by a noble family. 
My parents, my sisters Madeleine and Juliette and I moved there in the summer of 1946. I was five and a half.

Somogy Döröcske is located at the edge of the great Eastern European plain called the Alföld. The summers are long, hot and muggy. Fields of maize and green beans stretch to the horizon in all directions. Flocks of cranes fly in formation in the cloudless skies, and one can see in the distance those unique Eastern European landmarks: Wells, topped by long, slanted wooden arms sticking skyward, each with a a bucket dangling from the top. 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Thomas Nagel: Is the Mind just a Piece of Flesh?

I just reread a classic: Thomas Nagel’s 1979 anthology Mortal Questions. This book consists of fourteen amazing articles by that author. Each raises a fundamental philosophical issue. Nagel’s fourteen articles can be bunched into two major areas, plus a couple of other disparate topics: 1. Articles 11, 12, 13 and 14 are about the Mind and Consciousness. 2. Articles 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 are about Morality, Ethics, Values and Judgment. 3. Article 1 is about Death and article 2 is about the Absurd. 

Some may say that much of what Nagel (and all other philosophers) write(s) is just so much verbiage. That in the end, nothing they write makes any difference. Such an accusation applies to someone such as Nagel a fortiori, as his writing is extremely convoluted and esoteric, peppered with expressions such as Sub specie aeternitatis (meaning: “what is universally and eternally true"). But I have chosen to take this in stride, and to join his game. I enjoy it. Who knows, some of you may do so as well. 

Nagel’s Preface: Labels and Philosophical Schools 

Nagel is classified as belonging to the school of Analytic Philosophy. This is the dominant orientation in the Anglo world. Its adherents include Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. It emphasizes language, as well as math and science. It is distinct from continental European orientations such as Existentialism and Phenomenology. 

I first thought that Nagel might be labeled a “phenomenologist,” because his central preoccupation is Consciousness, which he describes as subjective experience. However, I was wrong. Phenomenology, founded by the German Edmund Husserl, is a method for the investigation of phenomena as consciously experienced. It is an epistemology, a theory of knowledge. Nagel’s quest is ontological and metaphysical: He asks questions about the fundamental nature of reality, for example the relationship between mind and matter.  Read more...

Sunday, June 20, 2021

My Little Viking

June 9, 2021

It is early here in San Francisco, the sound of a bus drumming by, slightly shaking my laptop. Hans, my husband, is snoring away next to me. My 9 year-old grandson Marshall is still deep asleep under his Star Wars comforter. All his stuffed animals are neatly lined up at the foot of his bed. It takes him a while to arrange them just so, before he is ready to say good night. They all have names, Avoman is the most recent addition to this family, a little stuffed avocado with a chain, so you can hang it from a belt loop. And Boba.

Boba almost didn’t make it to Marshalls bed. My grandson had to put on his charm suit while we were walking down Pier 39, saying how 10 dollars would not break Oma’s bank account. When that didn’t work, he pushed his superpower charm button and skipped over to Opa, to try his luck there. And of course, it immediately worked. After all, isn’t it the sole job of grandparents to spoil their grandchildren?

Last night, after we read a story, we both lie on his bed, looking at each other while he puts his little index finger on the tip of my nose and says ‘beep’. He asks me why there are black lines in the crease of my eyelids. I tell him about badly applied eye shadow. He has now developed an all-consuming interest in make-up, something foreign to him, since his mother doesn’t wear make-up. So I get my make-up kit, which is now transformed into a treasure pouch. Everything has to be tested and applied, including lipstick. He looks like a doll. Applying it was fun, but taking it off turns out to be a struggle. He doesn’t like the feel of cotton balls on his skin. Read more...

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

France, the US and Germany: Old Friends, New Friends

This is a timely post, as President Biden is in Europe, repairing our ties with our major allies. 

Several of the books I read recently are about history and war (the two sometimes seem to be almost synonymous). They include Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell, The Kaiser’s Web, by Steve Berry, and The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn.
The first of these books involves France’s role in America’s war of independence. The second book is about Germany in World War Two and thereafter. The third one is about France and Germany during World Wars One and Two. 
I grew up in France, and I remain an inveterate Francophile. France has played a huge role in the history of the Western world during the past two and a half centuries. However, Anglo-Saxon culture - beginning with its language - still dominates the world, and Germany is viewed as the primary European country, certainly in economic terms. For France, there also remains the stain of its prompt defeat by Germany at the outset of World War Two. There are those who enjoy reminding us of this, poking fun at the supposedly cowardly French. An example is Bill Bryson, who wrote in his otherwise delightful travel book, “Let’s face it, the French Army couldn’t beat a girls hockey team.” And of course, we are often reminded how indebted France is to the US for liberating it from the Nazis in 1944-45.  Read more...

Wednesday, May 26, 2021


The winter is finally over in this little corner of the world I call home. As May turns into June, I look out on a deep green backyard. The traffic to our bird feeders is so dense, that the cacophony of bird calls sounds like an orchestra warming up before a concert. Actually, birds are quite civilized about bird feeder etiquette - as long as they are from different species. But a warbler's nephew will have to fight his uncle beak and claw, while a complete stranger will be allowed to feed right next to him.
At the crack of dawn, I put on my garden boots, and walk through the French doors into the morning dew. A small red squirrel hops out from under the hydrangea bush. He is making a run for the bird feeder. He stops, grabs a seed and rapidly turns it around in his paws, spits out the hull and stuffs the rest in his mouth. With jerky, quick movements, he buries more nuts, but in the course of the day, he forgets where he put them and will frantically search for the lost treasure. 
Two tom turkeys appear, tails fanned out, the iridescent color of their feathers reminiscent of knights in shining armor. They puff themselves up to the point of bursting, vying for a female’s attention. She is busy picking seeds out of the ground, indifferent to their extravagant display.

A red tailed hawk, so still, until he swoops down to catch a pigeon in mid-flight. He stomps on its prey with its powerful claws, feathers flying, blood gushing, He waits patiently, until slowly, the convulsions begin to subside and the pigeon is finally motionless. Then, his beak still dripping blood, he opens his enormous wings and soars up in the sky with a piece of dead flesh dangling from his claws.

In my raised beds the beans and peas have grown tentacles that are trying to reach to the sky. The tomato plants crowd each other out, competing for sunshine. As I slowly walk by them, like a captain reviewing the troops, I pick off the suckers, caress the cucumber leaves to encourage them to grow. Read more...

Sunday, May 23, 2021

On Differences and Inequalities between People

Human beings differ from one another. Groups differ, social classes and cultures differ, and individuals differ. 

The question I want to bring up today is that of different OUTCOMES for different individuals. I.o.w.: different degrees of “success” in some field or other. 

The number of areas in which individual outcomes differ is practically infinite. Maybe most prominently, since today’s world culture is so materialistic, are different degrees of WEALTH. 

We have individuals such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Their net worths are, respectively, $151 billion and $177 billion. At the other end of the spectrum are starving people. The world’s adult median net worth is about $7,000, That of Africans is $1,200. (List of Countries by Wealth)
So the differences are as follows: Jeff Bezos = 25 million times the world’s median wealth, and 150 million times that of the median African wealth. 
The behavioral sciences have long been studying “differences.” Anthropology documents the world’s cultural diversity. Psychology helps us understand individual differences. Explaining the causes of differentiation in wealth, success and power has long been the province of such social sciences as economics and political science. My own discipline, Sociology, practically owns the field of “Social Stratification,” at least since Karl Marx.  Read more...

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Refugees after World War Two, but Fine in the End

 This post is a reminder that immigrants are a positive force in the world. This is a small part of my story and that of my immigrant family. At first, we lived in misery, but we overcame the challenges. In the end we succeeded both for ourselves, and for the good of the countries that received us. This is not a sob story, but a success story. 

We fled from Hungary to France in 1947, two years after the end of World War Two. 

Both countries were still war-torn, but Hungary was in far worse shape than France. It was occupied by the Soviet Army, and in the process of turning Communist. Budapest looked the same as Dresden - a devastated, flattened, pulverized graveyard with over one hundred thousand dead, including some of my relatives. In comparison, Paris was more livable. My parents somehow found the means to take the train to Paris. In late 1947, they and I made the move. It took us five days to get there. I was nearly seven years old.

Our official status in France was “apatride,” meaning “stateless.” I remember my main identity paper: It was a card with the United Nations logo.  Read more...

Monday, May 17, 2021

The God Particle

In the Middle Ages people weren’t very interested in things that didn’t affect their daily lives. If religion didn’t have an explanation for something, it meant that it wasn’t important. End of story.

Today, people are interested in things that don’t directly affect their daily life, but up to a point. How many of us are truly interested in finding out about quantum mechanics, dark matter, the uncertainty principle and other esoteric concepts that only a fraction of humanity truly understands? Even famous physicist Richard Feinman said: ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics’.

I belong to the category of humans that suffers from what is called “The Dunning-Kruger Effect”, which means that the stupider you are, the smarter you think you are, (and vice versa). I think I understand something only because I am too stupid to realize that I don’t understand it.

Do particle physicists tackle the problems of world hunger or poverty? Do they make the world a better place? Or is it all a gigantic waste of human capital and resources? Why should we care if a sub-atomic particle has a half spin or a whole spin, why it decays in a billionth of a second? Whether it is a Fermion, a Gluon or a Boson?

Well, I’ll tell you why. Because without quantum mechanics, we wouldn’t have smart phones, x-ray machines or laser surgery, just to name a few. Without particle physics, we wouldn’t have discovered the Higgs field and without the Higgs field, an energy field that permeates all of space, I wouldn’t be sitting here, trying to write about something that is way beyond my pay grade.

Once you embark on the road to the infinetisimally small, you enter a realm that borders on the incomprehensible and in my case, it has turned into an addiction. How can it not, when you read headlines like ‘Science discovers the God Particle’, or ‘the Particle at the End of the Universe’. Read more...

Tuesday, May 4, 2021


I’m thinking about vaccine resistance. 

There are millions of people who don’t want to get the Covid vaccine. The friendly way to refer to many of these people is to say that they suffer from “ vaccine hesitancy.” However, many of them are not just hesitant; they are adamant Covid deniers and vaccine resisters. There are vicious anti-vaxxers. According to recent polls reported by CNN, 26% of all Americans and 41% of Republicans said that they plan NOT to get the vaccine. 

I grew up in a sane world. When I was in primary school and in high school in France, we all got our diphtheria, measles, tetanus, polio, rubella and a few other vaccines. Mandatory, period. Prevents contagion and epidemics, saves lives. 
But now that we are going through the deadliest pandemic in a century, there is a “debate” as to whether the Covid vaccine represents an unacceptable infringement of human rights. Nuts. 
Keep in mind that America remains by far the top country in the world in terms of its number of Covid infections, both in absolute and in per capita terms. There is half a dozen micro-countries such as Andorra, Gibraltar and Luxembourg that have higher rates of Covid infection than we do, but not a single “regular sized” country exceeds our rate. There are still seven times more people per million infected with Covid in America than in India. Check it out. 
Also, the anti-vaxxer movement is mixed with right-wing extremist movements such as QAnon and fascist white supremacists such as the Proud Boys. For example, there is a group in California, and expanding into other states, called “Freedom Angels” (See Sacramento Bee, May 2, 2021). It is a heavily armed, largely female survivalist militia. It shares its agenda with other right-wing extremist and conspiracy groups. They all see vaccines as a common enemy.  Read more...

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Good Country Index

If you are like me, you don’t associate the word ‘good’ with a nation. That word is usually reserved to qualify people, or food or the weather. Some countries are considered ‘good to live in’ because of the weather or quality of life, but Simon Anholt, the creator of ‘the Good Country Index’ has something completely different in mind when he brands a country as ‘good’.

What makes a country rise to the top of the ‘Good Country Index’, is how much it contributes to the welfare of the entire planet. Conversely a ‘bad’ country does the opposite. The Index measures how much each of the 163 countries on the list contributes to the planet, and to the human race, through their policies and behaviors.

Most governments feel that their responsibility is to their own citizens, not the planet. ‘Make my country great again!’ is what many leaders hear from the people who voted for them. But often, this means that other countries, including the planet itself, are getting worse in the process. Anholt advocates for a new ‘culture of governance’, which he calls ‘the Dual Mandate’.

“One day soon, the casual nationalism that characterizes almost all political and economic discussions will seem as outdated and offensive as sexism and racism do today. Leaders must realize that they're responsible not only for their own people, but for every man, woman, child and animal on the planet; not just responsible for their own slice of territory, but for every square inch of the earth's surface and the atmosphere above it.” (From the Good Country website).

This, in fact, makes Anholt’s Index the first global ‘watchdog’ of its kind.

It really makes a lot of sense, since the most important challenges facing humanity right now are global in nature: Problems like global warming, migration, human rights and poverty, do not recognize borders; they cannot be solved on a national level, no matter how well-off a country is. The Good Country Index is interested in how MUCH countries are doing, not how WELL countries are doing. Read more...

Monday, April 19, 2021

A review of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions

In his latest book, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal continues to show beyond any doubt, that animals are not only sentient and intelligent creatures, but have an emotional life that is as complex as ours.

The book opens with a heart wrenching description of a dying chimpanzee called Mama, the matriarch of the colony at the Royal Berger Zoo in Holland.

She receives a visit from Jan Van Hooff, an 80 year old Professor whom she has known for 40 years. As she recognizes him, her whole face turns into a huge smile. She strokes his grey hair, puts her large hand on his shoulder and makes yelping sounds to show how happy she is to see him. Then, like my own 100 year old mother did, when I went to see her before she died, Mama curls up again into a ball. The brief visit took all the strength she could muster at that moment.

De Waal doesn’t leave any stone unturned when it comes to debunking false beliefs about primates and humans. The fact that we descend from an ‘apelike’ ancestor, does not mean that the primates of today are a more primitive version of us. The evolutionary history of the bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas goes as far back in time as our own. They are not our evolutionary parents, a more primitive version of us, but have separately evolved for as long as we have.


What made Mama the Alpha Female of the Colony? In one of his famous Ted Talks: ‘The Surprising Science of Alpha Males’, de Waal explains that the qualities that make a good leader are not strength and bullying, but traits like generosity, peacekeeping and empathy. Mama had those traits in abundance. She was what de Waal calls ‘the consoler in chief’. She was the boss because she broke up fights, knew how to compromise and make coalitions.  Not only was Mama the boss, she was also the focus of intense male attention. By describing the colony’s sexual habits, de Waal shows us that we are not the only species capable of impulse control. Mama’s admirers did not openly fight to have 'a go at it': they knew that by allowing one of them that privilege, the price was to receive a grooming session afterward. If one of them broke the rule, there was hell to pay. Read more...

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Do we need more Religion?

I recently came across an article by Andres Oppenheimer titled “Churches, Religion Losing Followers Around the World” (Sacramento Bee and Miami Herald, April 13 ‘21). He, in turn, quotes Shadi Hamid’s article titled “America Without God” in the April 2021 issue of The Atlantic
Neither of these pieces is earth-shattering, but I will use them as a prompt for some comments about religion. 
To quote Oppenheimer and Hamid: “The decline of religions in the western world is leaving a huge vacuum.... Human beings by their very nature are searching for meaning...and that won’t change....The danger now is that religions will be replaced by secular political fanaticism....If religions aren’t around to teach us basic values - you shall not lie, you shall not be indifferent to oppression, etc. who will do it instead? Christianity, Islam and Judaism (should) reinvent themselves... (They) offer us ancient tales of wisdom....they can serve as a much-needed moral guide...(if) they adapt to modern times. (Otherwise,) their decline will continue and dangerous secular radicalism will take their place.” 
The only thing which Oppenheimer and Hamid got right is that “human beings by their very nature are searching for meaning,” and truth, I should add. That is what philosophers and scientists have been doing for thousands of years - from Plato’s Idealism and Aristotle’s Metaphysics to Darwin’s theory of evolution, Twentieth Century Existentialism, Socialism and Einstein’s Relativity Theory.  Read more...

Monday, April 5, 2021

US Presidents Ranked

by Tom Kando

So we have a new president (thank God!). 

As an inveterate list addict, one of the numerous lists with which I have often played is that of US presidents. I look up rankings done by experts such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and I also try my own rankings based on a bit of knowledge, some research and a lot of ignorance. 

Joe Biden is our 46th president. His predecessor, Donald Trump, can unequivocally be ranked as the worst president we have ever had. 

Beyond that, I divided our forty-five past presidents into four groups: 1) The twelve best presidents. 2) A group of eleven “pretty good” presidents. 3) A group of eleven not very good presidents. 4) The eleven worst presidents. I then ranked all forty-five men: 

Group 1: The Twelve Best Presidents: 
Tied for 1st place: Lincoln (1861-65) and FDR (1933-45) 
3rd place: Washington (1789-97) 
4th Jefferson (1801-09) 
5th Madison (1809-17) 
6th Eisenhower (1953-61) 
7th Clinton (1993-2001) 
8th Obama ` (2009-17) 9th Kennedy (1961-63) 10th Truman (1945-53) 
11th John Adams (1797-1801) 
12th Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) 

You may ask: What are my criteria? It is impossible to get into that, of writing a twelve-volume encyclopedia. 
Just a few comments: Note the large presence of the Founding Fathers in this first and most excellent group. (Washington, Jefferson, Madison and John Adams). Lincoln’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s prominent positions go without saying. Theodore Roosevelt does not rank as highly as his distant cousin Franklin. However, his legacy, as the leader of the progressive movement, is respectable. Eisenhower and Clinton benefitted from presiding over the country during prosperous times, to which they themselves contributed. Obama and Truman inherited problems which they handled extremely deftly. Kennedy’s role is largely inspirational, as his promise was tragically cut short.  Read more...

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

King Aleph of the Alphabet

Once upon a time, there was a mighty king named Aleph. He was of a strong and sturdy lineage. Just by looking at his physique, one could see how he was built to withstand adversity of any kind. Over many generations, his ancestors had developed two unusually prominent legs, which were always planted firmly wide apart. The evolutionary process had worked in mysterious ways, making his waist narrower and his shoulders narrower still, until it went to work on his head, which was the smallest part of his body. In fact, if one didn’t know that he was a king, he very much looked like the first letter of the alphabet.

But what he gained in strength, he lacked in flexibility. No matter how many yoga classes he took, he just couldn’t bend over in the slightest. Being a king, he had to spend a lot of time on his throne, which he could only manage to sit on by straddling it, his short legs dangling in the air on each side.

There were other noble families with a similar defect. His cousins from the house of Ache (pronounced H) and his uncle from the house of Arr (pronounced R), were equally afflicted by this inability to bend. Was it a result of too much royal inbreeding? ‘If it’s not good for rabbits, it cannot be good for kings’, his great grandfather from the House of Ey (pronounced A), used to say.

Hence King Aleph, as mighty as he was, could not manage to get dressed, tie his shoes or even go to the bathroom without a great deal of assistance. As everyone knows, relieving yourself without bending is well nigh impossible without creating a serious problem. We will refrain from giving a detailed description here and leave it up to the reader’s imagination.

But King Aleph knew that without the help of many of his subjects, he couldn’t maintain his ruling position. He was as shrewd as he was rigid, so he forged a strong alliance with the House of Aaow (pronounced O). What King Aleph lacked, the Aaows possessed in abundance. Which was not flexibility, as you might think. Evolution, always working its mysterious ways, had omitted to provide this side of the royal family with any legs at all. Hence, they propelled themselves by rolling. And boy, did they roll! Many a distinguished member at the Royal Court ended up flat on their face as one of these Aaows came rolling down the garden paths at high speed. Read more...

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Our Lives in the 21st Century

 What is the main change over the last several decades - let’s say the difference between life in the 21st century vs. life in the 20th century? 
The widespread belief is that we have progressed, that we are much better off in the present century than we were in the previous one. This is widely attributed to communication technology, primarily through computers and other forms of electronic technology. What a crock! 
The opposite is true: today’s technology is unbelievably intrusive and invasive. It assaults us and hounds us 24/7: 
Most of the “communication” we receive consists of telephonic Robocalls, most e-mail is spam, most of the Internet consists of advertisements. 
We receive threatening messages alleging fraudulent charges to our accounts, we have to change passwords to protect ourselves, we get daily pop-ups demanding that we update or upgrade our programs and download new apps. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and all the others hound us relentlessly. We have to delete hundreds of e-mails, texts and phone messages daily. 90% of our snail mail consists of ads. Our privacy disappeared years ago. And then there are the even more serious problems, such as malware and other nefarious invasions of our machines.  Read more...

Sunday, February 28, 2021

What is the Mind, what is Consciousness?


1. What is Consciousness? Nagel
2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology
3. The Hard problem of Consciousness
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
5. Zombies6. The Self
7. Free Will and Agency
8. Humanity’s Future


6. The Self
As I just mentioned, a discussion of consciousness also requires us to delve into the concepts of Self and Free Will or Agency.

In Chapter 4 (“The Nature of Consciousness”), Sam Harris and Thomas Metzinger discuss the Self. In a 700-page long book titled Being No One, Metzinger explains that there is no such thing as a “self.”

It is a common misconception to conflate self-consciousness and consciousness. Metzinger explains that the self is an illusion or a hallucination. It is the sense we all have “that there is a subject in our head, a thinker of thoughts, an experiencer of experience.... We have this robust misrepresentation of trans-temporal identity” (pp.170-171). There is no such thing as a self, any more than there is a soul. There is, in our brain, no thinker behind our thoughts.

How this sense of selfhood emerges is a question for another day. Metzinger mentions all sorts of factors at work in this regard, for example gut feelings, perceptions, heart beat, breath, etc. (p. 171). Also, this human “self-model” is a product of evolution” p179).

Harris notes that believing and experiencing the absence or dissolution of the self can be achieved via psychedelics, meditation, and other Buddhist practices. The two scholars contrast the Western and Eastern scientific and cultural perspectives regarding the self: The Western scientific approach is third-person empiricism that objectifies the world. The great Asian contribution is its first-person, subjective point of view (p. 179).

Furthermore, these two authors note that the Western self model contains some “nasty inventions, such as this (odd) sense of self-worth...” Certainly wiser cultural values are conceivable and desirable.

Monday, February 15, 2021

What is the Mind, What is Consciousness?


1. What is Consciousness? Nagel 
2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology 
3. The Hard problem of Consciousness 
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) 
5. Zombies 
6. The Self 
7. Free Will and Agency 
8. Humanity’s Future 


4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Consciousness Chapter 10 in Harris’ book “Complexity and Stupidity,” is an interview with David Krakauer, a mathematical biologist. Harris and his guest stress that intelligence must not be confused with consciousness. 
Humans have managed to build highly intelligent machines. However, throughout the book, Harris repeatedly warns against the potential danger of creating machines that are more intelligent than us, and then they get out of control - sort of a Frankenstein monster. 
In chapter two, titled “Finding Our Way,” where Harris interviews David Deutsch, the Oxford University quantum physicist, he expresses his misgivings about this possibility (misgivings which Deutsch does not share). 
For one thing, Harris argues, once machines become more intelligent than humans, they may take over even if they do not have consciousness. This might then be the end of consciousness. These future machines could be incredibly intelligent, they would be able to do just about everything, but without consciousness they would be zombies. “The lights would not be on.” They would not have experiences. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

What is the Mind, What is Consciousness?

by Tom Kando

 This three -part article is a “magnum opus.” I struggled writing it, and you will probably struggle reading it, but it is well worth it. 

Introduction: 1. What is Consciousness? Nagel 2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology 3. The Hard problem of Consciousness 4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) 
5. Zombies 
6. The Self 
7. Free Will and Agency 
8. Humanity’s Future 
I just read a fascinating book: Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity by Sam Harris (2020). 
Harris is a widely published neuroscientist and philosopher. In his podcast and this book, he interviews eleven eminent scientific experts. Most of the interviews are about consciousness, the mind, the self and morality. His guests are high-powered neuroscientists and philosophers (David Chalmers, Anil Seth, Thomas Metzinger and Robert Sapolsky), quantum and theoretical physicists (David Deutsch, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegmark), and biological and behavioral scientists (Timothy Snyder, Glenn Loury, Daniel Kahneman and David Krakauer). The group includes Nobel laureates. All these people have rich interdisciplinary backgrounds and experiences. So you are in a select company when you read this book. 

The main themes of the book are: (1) What is consciousness, what is the mind, is there something unique about us humans? (2) Artificial Intelligence; (3) Morality, politics and history; (4) Humanity’s future; (5) Knowledge; (6) Racism and the criminal justice system. 
My focus in this article will be primarily on the first one of these topics. I want to share with you some of the fascinating insights provided by Harris and his luminary guests regarding Consciousness - with forays into topics #2 (Artificial Intelligence) and #4 (Humanity’s Future). . 
1. What is Consciousness? Nagel Harris’ first chapter is a conversation with David Chalmers, an Australian-born cognitive scientist/philosopher. It is titled “The Light of the Mind.” The central question which the two scholars address is: What is consciousness? They agree that the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous formulation is still the most “attractive.” Nagel first offered it in 1974 in a now widely quoted paper titled “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?”  Read more...

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

My Vaccine Adventure

I got my first Covid19 vaccine yesterday at Gilette Stadium in Foxboro, home of the New England Patriots. It is an enormous structure visible from the highway, long before the turn-off. Impressive as it is, Gilette is one of the smaller stadiums in the country. There are 30 of them, all ideal candidates to be converted into mass vaccination sites.

The huge parking lot was half empty that day, since it was after one of those Nor’easters that dump vast amounts of snow on New England. A gigantic electronic board showed which appointments were being admitted. Masked and with my appointment confirmation in hand, I was led to a booth where they checked my ID, gave me a fresh mask and asked me to answer a bunch of questions. I was told to follow a blue line to an escalator, at the top of which a nice uniformed and masked gentleman made sure I didn’t deviate from the footprints on the carpet. After a mere 5 minutes at a large ‘wait here’ sign, a vaccinator waved me over. Another brief ID verification, a short chit chat while I got unobtrusively jabbed in the shoulder and boom, done. 20 minutes total.

Outside, in the cold air, it struck me how much organizational skill is required to pull off such a mass vaccination effort. And this is just one location in one state in just one country. Who put the footmarks on the floor? Who placed the guard rails up? Who made the signs? Why this entrance and not another one? Is there a vaccination God somewhere that said ‘let there be vaccination sites: and there were vaccination sites’?

It’s easy for you to be impressed, I hear you say. You get first dibs. What about the rest of us? What about the slow roll-out, the lack of staff to get the vaccine into people’s arms? What about all the vaccine batches sitting on shelves going bad?

True, the US, the giant that it is, is slow to wake up, but once it had its first cup of coffee, it rapidly gains speed. As of this writing, 11% of Americans have been vaccinated. The EU is at 3.9%. Still, at this speed it will take a hell of a long time to get to herd immunity. So why not use every available large structure as a mass vaccination site? Why not use military barracks, large box stores, churches, airplane hangars and warehouse storage facilities? Gilette stadium could rev up its vaccination capacity 10 fold within weeks. Read more...

Monday, February 1, 2021

Confessions of a Grizzly Groupie

It all started with an innocent article about France’s efforts to repopulate the Pyrenees with brown bears. After the last female, Cannelle, was shot dead by hunters in 2004, an attempt was made to atone for hundreds of years of bear genocide. In 1994, the French authorities decided to introduce four female brown bears and a powerhouse of a male called Piros from Slovenia into the Pyrenees. This quickly resulted in many little bears, but since there was only one papa bear in the harem, there were concerns about inbreeding.

There was talk of catching Piros and snipping off the family jewels, but since Piros was already a geriatric bear, a new male was introduced in the area to create a more varied gene pool. This new bear’s name was Goiat, which means bachelor in Catalan.

All these efforts to bring back the rightful inhabitants of the Pyrenees didn’t go without a fight. The local sheep farmers didn’t see kindly to these large, furry immigrants that liked to eat their sheep for lunch, but there are now 50 bears in the Pyrenees, thanks mostly to Piros’ virility.

My fascination with bears didn’t end there, I am afraid. Since the closest I can get to anything resembling wildness in my daily life are the squirrels and rabbits in my backyard, I got completely addicted to watching the largest carnivore in the northern hemisphere amble across my screen at the touch of a key. We do have black bears here in New England, but they look like pretend bears compared to ‘ursus arctos horribilis’, which is the real name for brown bears a.k.a. grizzlies.

Instead of spending my time mopping the floor or cleaning the toilet, I have turned in to a virtual grizzly groupie. It actually goes beyond voyeurism. I am learning that for many large carnivores, the only thing that will save them from extinction is our willingness to share our space with them. We took most of what was theirs from them, basically telling them that their life is not worth living. Now it is our responsibility to become their stewards.

The bear was once considered the king of the animal world. It was and still is the largest and strongest animal in Europe and was feared to the point where even his real name ‘Arctos’ became taboo. If you mention the "true" name of a ferocious animal, you are likely to call it forth. So, they called it ‘the brown one’. (Norse ‘björn’, Dutch ‘beer’, German ‘Bär’). The original word completely disappeared from our language. This kind of linguistic tour de force is called ‘taboo deformation’.**

In its effort to combat paganism, the Catholic Church began demonizing the bear. It portrayed it as an oversexed animal and turned it into a symbol for gluttony, anger and lust (Ursus Diabolus). This most feared and respected creature of the wild, emblazoned on coats of arms and emulated by warriors and kings, was used for entertainment at town fairs, chained and muzzled. It was made to ‘dance’ over burning ambers, torn to shreds by dogs in ‘bear baiting’ and underwent its final transformation as A.A. Milne's lovable idiot, Winnie the Pooh, a bear so dumb, that it needs to be set straight by a donkey. (See: The History of a Fallen King)

Bears have been on our planet for around 33 million years. They had a great time until we came on the scene, about 7 million years ago. Here in North America, Grizzlies once lived across much of West, until the Europeans arrived and soon shot and killed most of them. In the past 100 years, 91 humans have been killed by grizzlies and more than 200,000 grizzly bears have been killed by man. There are now approximately 200,000 bears worldwide, most of them in Russia.

On my groupie adventure, I met several fascinating ‘naturalists’, who have dedicated their life to learn about bears by living in the wild. I call them bear whisperers. Some are well known, like Timothy Treadwell, made famous by film maker Werner Herzog in his ‘Grizzly Man’. With its tragic and gruesome ending, Timothy’s story has added to the perception that grizzly’s are ferocious, dangerous and unpredictable creatures.*

But there are others who show another side of these magnificent creatures. My favorite and most admirable bear whisperer is Charlie Russell. He lived amongst bears for 30 years on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, about as far east and as close to Alaska as you can get. The beauty of the scenery in the Documentary The Bear Man of Kamchatka is breath taking and so is the footage of the furry brown subjects.

Charlie, who died recently, was not only a bear whisperer, he was also a surrogate mama bear. He rehabilitated many orphaned cubs over the years, teaching them how to fish, how to find the right plants to eat and protected them from predator males who are known to kill cubs. If you have some spare time, I highly recommend you watch The Bear Man of Kamchatka,

in which you see Charlie stand between the cubs and an enormous alpha bear. Armed with a camera, his voice and a pepper spray (which he only uses at the very last minute), he convinces the male to move out of the way. Read more...

Monday, January 11, 2021

Staring Down the Ugly Throat of Anarchy

Boston, 1/6/2021

Today, the State of Georgia votes for their 2 US Senators in a run-off election. If they vote Democratic, they win the US Senate. I am glued to my computer screen, checking every 10 minutes, to see where the numbers are. They are! One of them is in the bag. The other candidate’s numbers are going up too. Up enough to prevent a recount? Is it finally time to say goodbye and good luck to Mitch McConnell?

Today is also the day when Congress officially counts the Electoral Votes certified by each state. But some lawmakers have decided to object to the results, hinged on baseless allegations of election fraud. Those debates would start at 12:30 pm.

The line behind candidate Osoff turns a solid blue. Yes! We won the Senate! I step away from my desk to make coffee. When I return, the screen is filled with images of smoke and screams. I am looking at the coverage of the MAGA insurrection in DC. The elation is gone, from high to low, like a bowling ball dropped on my foot. 
Now things are getting worse. The announcer’s voice rises to a pitch: ‘They are storming the capitol building!’ A close up of people breaking windows, climbing walls, waiving giant flags on the scaffolding that have been raised in preparation of inauguration day. Then, inside the building, an endless line of rioters, walking across the ‘Great Rotunda’, like a group of tourists. Some are taking pictures of the ceiling. One is taking a selfie with a guard. No one is even trying to stop them.

I cannot make sense of this surreal moment: For me, life has been put on hold for almost a whole year now. I only venture out to go food shopping once or twice a week. On my daily walk in the woods, I step into the underbrush every time I cross path with another human. I put on my mask, my glasses fog up and I cannot see where I am going. But that’s better than risking infection.

In which alternate world do these hundreds of unmasked, yelling, chanting MAGA hat wearing rioters live? Is there no virus in their world? Are there no free and fair elections? Are there no laws that prevent them from entering and vandalizing government buildings? This live footage must be from another country and the announcer will soon apologize for his error. ‘Sorry, folks, this footage was taken in Somalia (or another failed state). We apologize for making you think that it was happening in the Capital of the United States’. Read more...