Monday, December 24, 2012

USA For Africa: We Are The World

A multitude of pop singers, called USA for Africa, perform "We are the World" for USA for Africa in 1985. The song, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, was produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian for the album of the same name. The names of all singers areall listed at the end of the video; all were huge pop performers in the 1980s. Happy Holidays to all, always hoping for the best and doing what we can to better the world. Despite the heavy odds against it, the yearnings for peace remain alive.


I wish everyone Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. Let's hope that 2013 is better than 2012. I will be not posting anything for a few weeks—as I rest, reflect and recharge—and return with more articles and music in mid-to-late January 2013.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gullible Americans & The Collapse of Democracy

The Modern Citizen

In this article, Lorna Salzman, an American, looks at her own nation and questions its current inability to think independently and its narrow focus instead of a wide lense on more urgent issues common to humanity, resulting in a raft of ill-conceived ideas and behaviors that defy logic and common sense. In her questioning, she might have already provided some answers. She writes: "Whatever happened to critical and analytical thinking? Whatever happened to that habit of doubt, of those demands for evidence that our courses in science and philosophy taught us? And what is the future for our country when so many minds of so many generations can be deflected away from intellectual rigor and into intellectual rigor mortis?"

by Lorna Salzman
Of all the democracies in the world, the American one has the honor of hosting the most gullible citizenry. One gropes for an explanation of this phenomenon that expands daily despite a free press, a huge higher education and academic infrastructure, a primary school system mandating education for twelve years, a system of secular democracy, and an estimable Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Nonetheless, Americans droop their tails and ears and willingly follow their chosen pack over the cliff. From cults like Scientology to Christian fundamentalist preachers to angry men dictating their doctrine to pregnant women to boilerplate Roman Catholic priests and pope encouraging overbreeding to Muslim imams preaching the sharia enslavement of women to New Age gurus collecting high tuition in exchange for platitudes about spirituality to fraudulent snake oil salesmen promoting herbal "cures" instead of vaccines to Democratic Party leaders promising fire and brimstone to those who don't vote for their anointed leader to hard-line leftists dedicated to annihilating Israel, this country has descended into a Bosch-like hell of false messiahs competing for human minds.

Like the Chinese menu, this one has columns with brain food choices from A to Z. The available food groups of irrationality are almost endless.This is the prototype of the American mall, where the consumer can find an endless assortment of mental madness.

Whatever happened to critical and analytical thinking? Whatever happened to that habit of doubt, of those demands for evidence that our courses in science and philosophy taught us? And what is the future for our country when so many minds of so many generations can be deflected away from intellectual rigor and into intellectual rigor mortis?

Well, all you have to do is look at the state of this country and realize that the future is already here. Raging armies whipped into frenzies of hate by demagogues; fuzzy college courses devised by post-modernists to brainwash the blank-slate minds of students; panicked parents refusing immunization and putting their children at risk of dying from epidemics; creeping Islamic doctrines used to subvert the law and civil society in the name of a global caliphate.....all of which have enriched irrational secular and religious doctrines and doctrinaires that are contributing to a rapid deterioration of citizenship and reason. Any historian would be hard put to conclude anything but that the collapse of the empire is nigh.

The assortment of excuses and rationalizations for these choices is, unlike the choices themselves, astute. These include self-improvement; compassion; dedication to human rights; ethnic and cultural self-determination; assertion of personal liberty and freedom of choice; resistance to "illegitimate" authority (rife on both the left and the right, though for different reasons); empathy with oppressed peoples; resistance to cruel tyrants, corporations or crooked politicians.

Each movement and campaign chooses what suits its political objectives best, depending on its potential audience. Muslim leaders home in on the civil liberties, legal system and tolerance of liberals and the left, claiming discrimination and victimization in their campaign to undermine secular democracy. The extreme authoritarian left plays on the heart strings of liberals by portraying "oppressed" Palestinians and distorting the history of territorial claims and treaties. The snake oil salesmen appeal to parents of sick children by casting doubt on science and medicine and accusing the government of foisting poisons on the public and causing their child's autism; leftist post-modernists, using selective cases of racism and sexism, portray the whole educational system as one corrupt in all its teachings and reliant on outdated methodologies and ancient prejudices (a system they would replace by one that is equally corrupt and far more intellectually prejudiced).

The voices of and for reason struggle to be heard in this Babel-esque clamor and power struggle. It is testimony to the strength of the human need for order, clarity and stability that so many people fall prey to these forces..which of course are causing the social instability we see around us. This conundrum is hard to understand for most of us. But an understanding of human evolution can help us explain it.

Before the scientific discoveries of the late 17th and 18th centuries, and before the Enlightenment that followed, which clarified the relationship of rational thought to social justice and civil liberties, humans in all societies sought non-scientific explanations for why things were the way they were. Religion, whether primitive, pagan , Christian, Judaic, oriental, provided answers that humans had no choice but to accept. (One wonders whether there were atheists in the old days; if there were, they kept their mouths shut). People had no means of either investigating natural phenomenon much less questioning official religious doctrine. The default position of humanity was Irrationality. The only mechanism—invisible and unknown of course—that distinguished between what was "good" or "bad" (i.e., what worked vs. what didn't work) was natural selection.

The appearance of universal moral codes of behavior was a result of observation of the RESULT of natural selection, though no one had any inkling of the mechanism of course. With regard to incest, before science understood the genetics of reproduction, no one knew that incest was biologically a bad idea. What they did know, by observation, was that those who had sexual relations with close relatives either had miscarriages, gave birth to deformed children who died early and didn't leave offspring, or didn't reproduce at all. Because all of these occurred, the result was that those to whom incest was repugnant were more successful breeders: they produced more and healthier children, all of whom retained the same repugnance toward breeding with relatives. Gradually this group outbred those less repulsed by incest, so today the incest taboo is essentially universal.

In other words, there was no INTELLECTUAL understanding of why incest was bad. An epigenetic rule had emerged that sufficed to suppress counteradaptive behavior. Similarly, the rest of human understanding about life was derived from experience and observation, and derived other epigenetic rules.

The default position was Irrationality. But this does not mean that the arrival of the Enlightenment and the later advances and discoveries of science erased Irrationality; not at all. It replaced them in most places because of the spread of the printed word, education, urbanization, travel, wider human interaction across continents, commerce and trade, onto which science and technology were grafted. When we open a textbook today we learn about evolution, the laws of physics, the elements, mathematics, biology. Because of their pertinence and validity, these became the basis for modern science and civilization (except in the Muslim world and some tribal societies which still practice shamanism and rely on trial and error).

But irrationality and the innate human need for explanations never disappeared. It was the genius of tyrants, both religious and secular, to understand and address these needs: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Chavez, Castro, Bin Laden, Nasrullah, Ahmadinejad, Pol Pot, Milosevic, Franco, and the pope. Today, thanks to modern communications and freedom of travel and association, new cults and tyrants are able to find new followers for every myth and fable they concoct.

Meanwhile, in the face of multiple social, economic and political crises, any person can find like-minded people with similar worries and concerns, thanks to the internet, telephone and printed communications. Every tiny personal crusade can become enlarged to the point where it becomes a singular all-consuming occupation, to the exclusion of the larger problems that face ALL of society, such as climate change, economic inequality, overpopulation, resource depletion, and collapse of global ecosystems.

This is America today, and it is not a pretty picture. We lack the vision and leadership that created our republic. We have shunted aside the very institutions and intellectual achievements that have supported secular democracy. We have abandoned citizenship in favor of consumerism. And instead we follow and worship false gods; in fact, if I recall correctly, wasn't there something in the Old Testament about that? Hmm, maybe the Bible does have something important to say.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.
She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2012. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Corruption Is A Nation's Cancer

Modern Civil Society

Transparency International recently came up with its latest edition of the least and most corrupt nations. There were no surprises. Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Sweden top the list as the least corrupt, most open, nations; Canada ranked ninth, the United Kingdom 17th and United States 19th—all admirable positions. At the bottom of the list were Somalia, North Korea and Afghanistan.

The title is an apt metaphor to describe the destructive powers of corruption and how it eats away at the institutions of democracy; corruption in all its forms—both small and large—does precisely what cancer does to the human body, and its effects are both wide-sweeping and all-encompassing. An individual, a society, a state that either ignores or abides corruption is a sick one, indeed. Corruption works best best when it is hidden; a free press is an enemy of corruption, and rightly so.

Corruption is theft by deceit and privilege; corruption is linked to poverty and unemployment; corruption aids no one save the few and some might argue not even them, since they earned it by dishonest means. In short, corruption is an offense to democracy and to all of its noble and outstanding principles.

Nations that abide by corruption turn a blind eye to bribery and to public officials who accept and often encourage the giving of bribes in a "business as usual approach" This  practice is not only against the intentions of public bidding on government projects, but it often leads to shoddy work for public-works projects. Why bother doing a good job if you don't have to? The evidence is there. The "winner" has not won on merit but on bribery, corruption and "greasing the palms" of the right officials, hardly a recipe for a well-working democracy. (Even highly transparent democracies are not immune to corruption; consider the case of the Canadian province of Quebec and its construction scandal, resulting in the mayor of Montreal resigning; see here, here and here.)

That the nations on the bottom of the list suffer from all of the above ills and more are some of the reasons why they have not yet prospered as a nation; and prosperity here is given the widest latitude and meaning in that the vast majority of its citizens are fairly employed and have a faith in their government institutions. When the citizens of such nations don't have confidence in their government institutions—and can you expect otherwise—then they will see no need to follow laws that do not protect them. It's hardly a winning recipe for advancement; and like the victim of the metaphorical cancer, it dies a slow and agonizing death.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Rule By Thieves

Law & Order

There is little doubt that China has embraced a form of capitalism, Marxist in nature, which shows that capitalism is an economic system and not a political one. What China has not embraced or considered yet is democracy, which it might consider one day. Here is an older article from 1995 that is instructive in that it shows how China had problems with corruption then, and it continues today, if you have followed recent stories about China. It is a nation that has become more prosperous but no less corrupt. Prof George Jochnowitz writes: "Only democracy can bring stability. Corruption and instability go together. Dictatorships resort to severe punishments because they have to."

by George Jochnowitz
Capital punishment has been imposed—at various times and places—for the offenses of murder, treason, or heresy, whether political or religious. What about cigarette smuggling? There are lots of smokers in China, and the manufacture and sale of cigarettes is a major source of revenue. Let us consider the following headline on page 1 of the May 30, 1994, issue of China Daily, an official English-language newspaper published in Beijing:
4 cigarette smugglers executed
Corruption and crime have been major issues in China for the past decade or so. On May 26, 1994, China Daily printed a related front-page story: "Government cracks down on financial corruption." Crackdowns will not work; not even capital punishment can stop corruption in China.

A year later, on June 26, 1995, cigarette smuggling had not yet been stamped out, according to a story in the Business Weekly Supplement of China Daily.Under the headline, "State raises checkpoints on the tobacco road," we read "Violators will face severe punishments." The nature of the punishments is not specified. Let us not think, however, that China may be getting soft. Another headline, the same day, announces, "34 drug traffickers executed."

After Communism comes kleptocracy—rule by thieves. China's wealth is increasing rapidly. The adjective most frequently used to describe the Chinese economy is "overheated." Yet China's booming surge toward prosperity is being threatened by corruption, which increases and increases despite draconian punishments.

Chairman Mao could not be corrupted. The greatest monsters in human history have been incorruptible. Hitler, in 1944, when faced with the choice between supplying his beleaguered soldiers or transporting Jews to death camps, chose to give priority to the Final Solution. Not even the possibility of victory could tempt him from doing what he thought right. Similarly, Chairman Mao was so committed to the insane policies of the Great Leap Forward that he allowed between 20 and 60 million people, most of them peasants, to die during the years 1959-61. Mao closed the universities during the Cultural Revolution despite the fact that he knew he needed scientists to build his atomic weapons. Mao's loyalty to the Marxist dream of equality, where people would "raise cattle in the morning [and] criticize after dinner," outweighed China's need to defend itself.

When Mao died, however, corruption took over. This always happens when the crazy, wicked leaders who create totalitarian states are followed by the sane, wicked leaders who inevitably succeed them. The Communist Party, which Mao had created, was in a position to monopolize corruption.

But what good is corruption in a world of poverty? China's leaders wanted to have a rich country to exploit, one that was worth exploiting. Deng Xiaoping therefore invented Marxist capitalism - a system where one worships Marx's teachings while ignoring them. The advantage of Marxist capitalism is that it provides a rationale for the continuing absolute power of the Communist Party while at the same time letting the country get rich.

As the economy becomes more capitalist, however, outsiders - those not in the Party - move into positions where they may participate in the corruption of the state. An honest society, unfortunately, is not available as an alternative. Chairman Mao destroyed traditional values, and there is no legal system apart from the Communist Party. There is no democracy, which could create a legitimate system that spoke with the authority of the people. There are no human rights, so there need be no human responsibilities. There is no liberty, so there can be no room for moral choices. Societies emerging from Communism are always corrupt because they have to be. The framework for a system based on law does not exist. Russia is no longer Communist; China is. Both, however, are kleptocracies.

China might have become an exception to this rule. During Beijing Spring, between April 15 and June 4, 1989, China became an honest and a responsible state. Trucks carrying food and beverages to Tiananmen Square kept passing by. Feeding the million demonstrators in Beijing was a task that required organization and a great deal of effort. A city-wide drop in crime, accidents and fires was reported. Had the Democracy Movement not been crushed, China would not have become a kleptocracy.

In a country with no politics there is no way for ordinary people to make their views known and no avenue for change from the bottom. There is no possible connection between talking about politics and doing something about it. All innovations come from the top and are transmitted and enforced through the hierarchical structure of the Party. New directives coming from the Party leaders can change life quite abruptly, which makes Chinese society extremely unstable.

After World War II, victorious Americans forced democracy down the throats of West Germany and Japan. That was a very undemocratic thing to do, but Germany and Japan now enjoy the stability and prosperity that only democracy can bring. The world is a safer place because they are democratic.

Stalin and Mao brought nothing but instability to their people. No one knew when the laws would change retroactively, since the law in a totalitarian state is unknowable. No one knew when a new campaign would be launched against some unsuspecting and harmless group, like land-owning peasants or teachers. No one knew when violent fighting would break out, as happened during Mao's Cultural Revolution, when rival groups of Red Guards killed each other for the greater glory of Chairman Mao.

Stability means that governments can change legally and in an orderly fashion. It means that disagreement is viewed as a constructive way to exchange ideas. Only democracy can bring stability. Corruption and instability go together. Dictatorships resort to severe punishments because they have to. Sooner or later, the dictator falls, and chaos surfaces. There is no legal process to choose a new leader.

Perhaps trade, wealth and openness will lead China to create an orderly, stable society after the death of Deng Xiaoping. Perhaps. But the execution of four cigarette smugglers is not a sign of order.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This essay appeared in The Weekly Standard, Volume 1, Number 1, September 18, 1995. This post can be found on George Jochnowitz. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

Monday, December 17, 2012

It's A Dangerous World, But Not For Everyone

Modern InSecurity

The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it. 
Albert Einstein

Danger Ahead: The coyote's persistent,yet ill-advised, attempts to capture the roadrunner is similar to what is taking place in many parts of the world, where resources are poorly allocated and the end result in destruction and mayhem—eventually falling on the pursuer. No doubt, the coyote is obsessed with capturing the roadrunner; it would make more sense if he would buy a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant to meet his dietary needs. The best example of such irrational singular thinking in the political stage, of course, is the American gun lobby's obsession with both protecting and promoting the right to own lots of guns.
Perceptions can easily influence the way we view the world; and today it seems like a dangerous place. But is it really? I am not questioning about individuals who reside in the world's most dangerous nations or territories, including Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name the leading hot-spots for personal insecurity and instability, according to the 2012 Global Peace Index put together by the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney, Australia.

It's obvious that individuals residing in nations which received the lowest ranking for peace have every good reason to take personal security more seriously. In such places one can never be sure of one's safety; one can never take it for granted. So in a type of paradox, citizens residing in such places might not be happier but they might enjoy life with more gusto and enthusiasm than those of us residing in safer cities and communities. It might be Carpe diem, or pluck the day of its offerings. [From the Greek poet Horace's Odes Book I, and made popular by Byron.]

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (2011) Steven Pinker notes that violence is decreasing over-all in the world. Now, this is not an obvious conclusion, notably if one's only source of information is the daily news. Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian writes in a book review, in November 2011, shortly after the book was published:
One of the most contentious is the claim that the decline is in part the outcome of a unique European enlightenment, which extended the scope of human reason. Equally contentious, he seems to suggest that the decline of violence is evidence for a concept of human progress – although Pinker concedes that progress could be fragile and reversible. Whatever else this book is about, it is raising a kind of intellectual standard for liberal humanism at a time when it imagines itself besieged by doubters and critics.
 This is what the philosopher John Gray disagrees with and in his review he argued that Pinker was stuck in a contradiction that "afflicts anyone who tries to combine rigorous Darwinism with a belief in moral progress".
There is no doubt that Pinker is on a sort of crusade here and he makes clear his target: "a large swath of our intellectual culture is loath to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity and western society." His response is this massive tome, a counterblast against the pessimism of our age, which is so full of gloom at the possibility of climate wars, global warming and nuclear proliferation.
Prof. Pinker is right on the mark when he defines our age as marked by pessimism. There is much to be critical about modern civilization, particularly if you reside on the other side of the divide. Small wonder, Prof Pinker's book has met with criticism. Even so, his conclusion has to be viewed in the broader canvas of history—from biblical times until the modern age. In relative terms, that is compared to other more brutal ages, ours is an age of civilized individuals and nations. In personal terms, depending on where you reside, including if you reside in a poor, urban area in inner-city America, your sense of security might be no different than the teenage boy residing in Mogadishu or Juárez or Kinshasha. There is no decrease in violence. None at all.

There are a number of factors that contribute to making a place dangerous, most notably lawlessness, a weak judiciary, corruption and lack of economic opportunity. When individuals have nothing to eat and can't find the legal means to obtain sustenance, through work and employment, many will resort to crime for survival as a means to feed their families. Many others don't and they live lives of quiet desperation.

One of the chief roles of governments is to ensure societal security, which leads to personal security and confidence among its citizens. If that is lacking, so is the confidence in the international community to invest in business and other commercial ventures, both which raise the socio-economic levels of a society and create jobs and other opportunities for a better life. In other words, business creates jobs and opportunities, which employ persons,and thus make urban areas safer and more productive. Dangerous places often do not do that.

It must also be said that, despite having much to be concerned about, there is much to be optimistic about our age. There is a good blueprint, so to speak, of how to model peaceful societies. If you look at the 2012 Global Peace Index once again, you will note which nations are at the top of the list: the top seven nations are Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Austria and Ireland. Now, there are a number of things that one can point to as why these nations are relatively peaceful, including rule of law, lack of corruption and economic prosperity. Most either went through the European Enlightenment or benefited from a close relationship with Great Britain. Another is that these nations have social peace, arranged through its social and economic policies. In such liberal democracies, the needs of the many are given somewhat more weight than the needs of the few.

Some might be surprised to find that the United States ranks 88th on the list, one ahead of China. Not so, when one considers the high level of violent crime found in too many major cities, or suburban towns,  including almost weekly reports of shootings at schools, shopping malls, places of work and other public places—the question on why this has become normative is not seriously asked by American legislators. As is the need for greater impartial research on the connection between violence on TV, films, videos and on-line games and its influence on the surrounding culture. Evens so, the United States is one of those anomalies that give researchers and scholars work, and increase the level of extreme rhetoric on political websites. It well might be that America's myths of Individualism, Exceptionalism, the Wild West, Manifest Destiny and the Gun Culture of Violence have all, if not unequally, contributed to the political decisions that influenced the nation's social and economic policies.

As a Canadian who has lived in the U.S., I could never understand why so many otherwise intelligent individuals place so much emotional energy into defending the need to own a handgun, a weapon whose only design and purpose is to kill; I sense that such Americans, numbering in the tens of millions, don't trust their government, and hence the reference to the Second Amendment. Even so, for those who agree with America's culture in most if not all respects and reside on the good side of the Divide, there is no better place in the world to live than America.

I, on the other hand, prefer Canada.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Boredom Has A Long History

Human Activity

An article by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie in Smithsonian looks at the history of boredom.
“Boredom” first became a word in 1852, with the publication of Charles Dickens’ convoluted (and sometimes boring) serial, Bleak House; as an emotional state, it obviously dates back a lot further. Roman philosopher Seneca talks about boredom as a kind of nausea, while Greek historian Plutarch notes that Pyrrhus (he of the “Pyrrhic victory”) became desperately bored in his retirement. Dr. Peter Toohey, a Classics professor at the University of Calgary, traced the path of being bored in 2011 in Boredom: A Lively History.
Among the stories he uncovered was one from the 2nd century AD in which one Roman official was memorialized with a public inscription for rescuing an entire town from boredom (the Latin taedia), though exactly how is lost to the ages. And the vast amount of ancient graffiti on Roman walls is a testament to the fact that teenagers in every era deface property when they have nothing else to do.
In Christian tradition, chronic boredom was “acedia”, a sin that’s sort of a proto-sloth. The “noonday demon”, as one of its early chroniclers called it, refers to a state of being simultaneously listless and restless and was often ascribed to monks and other people who led cloistered lives. By the Renaissance, it had morphed from a demon-induced sin into melancholia, a depression brought on by too aggressive study of maths and sciences; later, it was the French ennui.
In the 18th century, boredom became a punitive tool, although the Quakers who built the first “penitentiary” probably didn’t see it that way. In 1790, they constructed a prison in Philadelphia in which inmates were kept in isolation at all hours of the day. The idea was that the silence would help them to seek forgiveness from God. In reality, it just drove them insane.

We all have been bored at one time or another, but there are degrees of boredom; some, if not many, industrialized societies scorn that the idea of boredom, equating it with slothfulness and a decided lack of motivation. Yet, boredom is real and can lead to a host of problems. It's more than having nothing to do, but a condition in which humans have no or little interest in activity.

The article says: "A host of studies have found that people who are easily bored may also be at greater risk for depression, anxiety disorders, gambling addictions, eating disorders, aggression and other psychosocial issues. Boredom can also exacerbate existing mental illness. And, according to at least one 2010 study, people who are more easily bored are two-and-a-half times more likely to die of heart disease than people who are not."

And, yet, the argument is made that a state of boredom can also lead to a state of activity and, yes, creativity. That is, if the individual is bored enough, he might find something more important, creative to do.

You can read the rest of the article at [Smithsonian]

Andrews Sisters: Sleepy Serenade

In the Hollywood film Hold That Ghost (1941), Ted Lewis introduces the Andrew Sisters, who sing "Sleepy Serenade." You can view the Andrew Sisters sing "Gimme Some Skin, My Friend" and here Glenn Miller's "In the Mood."


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Getting Rid Of Homework Makes Some Sense

Today's Schools

If there is one area in which parents and children can agree is over homework's benefits, and whether it is necessary at all for academic achievement. An article by Louis Menard in The New Yorker says that the president of France, François Hollande, who has the power to do just that, is thinking about abolishing homework.
The French President’s emancipation proclamation regarding homework may give heart not only to les enfants de la patrie but to the many opponents of homework in this country as well—the parents and the progressive educators who have long insisted that compelling children to draw parallelograms, conjugate irregular verbs, and outline chapters from their textbooks after school hours is (the reasons vary) mindless, unrelated to academic achievement, negatively related to academic achievement, and a major contributor to the great modern evil, stress. M. Hollande, however, is not a progressive educator. He is a socialist. His reason for exercising his powers in this area is to address an inequity. He thinks that homework gives children whose parents are able to help them with it—more educated and affluent parents, presumably—an advantage over children whose parents are not. The President wants to give everyone an equal chance.
Homework is an institution roundly disliked by all who participate in it. Children hate it for healthy and obvious reasons; parents hate it because it makes their children unhappy, but God forbid they should get a check-minus or other less-than-perfect grade on it; and teachers hate it because they have to grade it. Grading homework is teachers’ never-ending homework. Compared to that, Sisyphus lucked out.
Does this mean that we would be better off getting rid of it? Two counts in the standard argument against homework don’t appear to stand up. The first is that homework is busywork, with no effect on academic achievement. According to the leading authority in the field, Harris Cooper, of Duke University, homework correlates positively—although the effect is not large—with success in school. Professor Cooper says that this is more true in middle school and high school than in primary school, since younger children get distracted more easily. He also thinks that there is such a thing as homework overload—he recommends no more than ten minutes per grade a night. But his conclusion that homework matters is based on a synthesis of forty years’ worth of research.
Leaving aside the political or economic arguments, which have some validity, there are other issues with homework. It might also be the poor quality of the homework that children today receive; as the parent of school-aged children over the years, I would have to agree that that much of what is considered homework today has dubious academic or learning value; much of it is just a waste of time and the kids know it. If the idea of schools or education is to teach academic subjects and societal values and skills, it becomes imperative that the homework assignments reflect that. Many do not.

Then there's the matter of boredom; children bore easily. Not surprising, children would rather be spending their time on fun, enriching activities than on rote learning.  We are living in a digital age, where much information is at our fingertips. Some homework is necessary to reinforce certain ideas it seems, but probably not as much as some pedagogues think. There has to be a happy balance between the two, one that intimately understands that children today are not the same as twenty or even ten years ago.

You can read the rest of the article at [New Yorker]

America Mourns Over School Shooting In Connecticut

Guns In America

On Friday, a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 young children, at a U.S. school where his mother worked; it was another needless gun crime in America, but this might be a new low in that young children were targeted. 

There have been too many such murders in the U.S., not only in schools, but also in shopping malls, movie theatres and public spaces. I thought that U.S. President Obama gave a thoughtful and compassionate speech after the elementary-school shooting in  Newtown, Connecticut; I too as a parent had tears in my eyes.

An article in  The National Post gives the full text of the speech that President Obama eloquently delivered, often pausing to wipe away tears from his eyes; you can view and hear it here:
This afternoon, I spoke with Governor Malloy and FBI Director Mueller. I offered Governor Malloy my condolences on behalf of the nation and made it clear he will have every single resource that he needs to investigate this heinous crime, care for the victims, counsel their families.
We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And each time I learn the news, I react not as a president, but as anybody else would as a parent. And that was especially true today. I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.
The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.
So our hearts are broken today for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost.
Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors, as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early and there are no words that will ease their pain.
As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.
This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight, and they need all of us right now. In the hard days to come, that community needs us to be at our best as Americans, and I will do everything in my power as president to help, because while nothing can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need, to remind them that we are there for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their memories, but also in ours.
May God bless the memory of the victims and, in the words of Scripture, heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.
Yes, I hugged my children a little tighter and told them I love them. But there's more to be done. In the best of cases, our grief ought to to lead us to action. To make things better. To rid society of its polluting evil. Yes, in the days to come there will be all kinds of media stories on what motivated the gunman, and the media will bring in all kinds of psychiatrists and other mental-health experts  to try to explain this abnormal act, as if it were such an immensely rare act in America. It's not. So it's easy to conclude that the panel discussions analysing motives will not change anything about America's violent gun culture. (Some will argue for more guns, including inside the classrooms— a ludicrous if not delusional idea.) It's only a needless distraction from the real problem.

President Obama hit the right tone when he said "meaningful action." Getting to the heart of the matter, I would say that there has to be a serious adult discussion in America about easy access to handguns, a weapon whose design and purpose is to kill. Too many persons invest too much energy in defending the indefensible, using the Second Amendment itself as a weapon, which says too much about what currently ails America. It is hard for me to understand America's irrational love affair of guns, and the concomitant need to silence all dissenting voices on that matter. Has the Second Amendment become more important than the First Amendment?

No, and the First Amendment need be used for its chief purpose: to speak truth and dismantle falsehood. For too long, there has been a false line drawn between democracy and gun ownership; between freedom and loosening gun laws; between free speech and increasingly violent films, TV shows, videos and games aimed at the young; this all needs to be erased; education is the key and government needs to play a large role, as they successfully did with the dangers of cigarette smoking. If the will is there it can be done, and parents can take the lead.

Forget the politics; forgot the narrow interests of the gun advocates (i.e.,the NRA); forget the fallacious arguments that "guns don't kill, people do." Handguns kill and do so with greater effect and efficiency than than any other similar-sized weapon; that's its only purpose. It's not primarily a weapon of self-defence, but of self-offence. To say otherwise is simply to perpetuate a lie, and a big one too.

Personally, I would like to all handguns banned. Completely. Irrevocably. I doubt that it will ever be considered by any political party; even so, it would solve a lot and make America safer. Measurably safer. Is anyone listening?

The Carol Burnett Show: Fancy Restaurant

Here is a clip from The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78): Fancy Restaurant. The comedy is self-explanatory and stands the test of time. It is America at its best, or its worst, depending on your view and where you sit, which includes the freedom to act foolish in the face of the unfamiliar.


Friday, December 14, 2012

6 World Powers Draft Proposal For Iran

The Iran File

The United States and five other world powers working on the Iran Nuclear File have agreed on the proposal that they will soon submit to Iran to encourage it to curtail its nuclear ambitions. Indira A.R. Lakshmanan of Bloomberg writes:
The amended proposal, agreed to in recent days by the six world powers involved in the negotiations, would be put on the table at the next round of talks with Iran, according to a U.S. official who spoke yesterday on condition of anonymity because Iran hasn’t yet seen the plan. The official described it as an updated proposal from the one discussed in Baghdad in May, and not a dramatic new plan or grand bargain to address all of the international community’s concerns at once.
The U.S. and its partners—France, Britain, China, Russia and Germanyare seeking to restart nuclear talks in a push to persuade the Persian Gulf state to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent levels, a potential intermediate step toward bomb-grade fissile material.
The revived negotiations are seen as the best hope for avoiding a military confrontation over Iran’s disputed program as soon as next year. The U.S., European allies and Israel accuse the Iranians of pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran says its program is for civilian energy and medical research. Several U.S. officials said the time is ripe for restarting talks in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s re-election and several months before Iran’s presidential elections next June.
These talks are in addition to ones between the IAEA and Iran over access to particular sites, in particular Parchin, the military complex. That the six major powers have agreed to the proposal is a good sign, and a major victory to show Iran that a united coalition of nations all agree on what has to be done. That Iran will view things in the same way is hard to predict. My optimistic side is inclined to believe that Iran will find a way to step back from its nuclear ambitions, while saving face, and the world, most notably the Israeli and the Iranian people, will breathe a collective sigh of relief.

You can read the rest of the article at [Bloomberg].

London Symphony: Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet

The London Symphony Orchestra,under the baton of Valery Gergiev, perform P.I. Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet at BBC Proms 2007. Tchaikovsky, who used Shakespeare's play as the basis for this orchestral piece, worked on and reworked the piece for more than a decade; this version is similar to the one that premièred in Tbilisi, Georgia,on May 1, 1886.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Jellyfish Stings Might Be Best Treated With Zinc

Aquatic Life

The deadly Chironex fleckeri; even mild stings are painful.

Jellyfish stings are painful and can be life-threatening. An article by Chritie Wilcox in Scientific American shows how one scientist, Angel Yanagiharabitten by jellyfish in 1997, looked to find not only how the venom within the jellyfish (Chironex ) releases its toxins,but also whether she could find an effective antidote for such painful attacks.

Wilcox writes:
When human flesh brushes up against a jellyfish tentacle, the tiny stinging cells jellies carry, called cnidocytes, can discharge their painful venom in as little as 700 nanoseconds. During the winter months, Australian waters are home to an abundance of the deadliest jellyfish in the world, the box jelly Chironex fleckeri, which has been known to kill a person in less than five minutes.
Chironex even looks scary, with a bell that can be large as a basketball and tentacles up to ten feet long carrying millions upon millions of stinging cells. But Chironex didn’t earn its title as the deadliest jellyifish in the world based on looks. Anyone who has come in contact with Chironex knows its fearsome reputation is justified, as even mild stings are excruciating. Yet despite decades of research, exactly how Chironex and other jellies deal their sometimes-fatal blows has remained a fearsome mystery.
“For over 60 years researchers have sought to understand the horrifying speed and potency of the venom of the Australian box jellyfish, arguably the most venomous animal in the world,” explains Yanagihara. It’s not that scientists have been unable to isolate any toxins. Yanagihara’s initial work discovered pore-forming toxins called porins in a related species, Carybdea alata, capable of tearing holes in blood cells, and since scientists have found similar porins in every jellyfish species they’ve looked at. The conundrum is that severe sting victims don’t suffer from profound destruction of red blood cells, seemingly counting out the porins as the cause of fatal stings. But if it’s not the porins, what in jellyfish venom is to blame? How does it act so quickly, leading to such sudden cardiovascular collapse? And is there anything we can do to slow or stop its deadly activity?
Now, in a new paper published today in PLOS ONE, Yanagihara and her colleagues from the University of Hawaii have revealed the key mechanism by which Chironexvenom—and, specifically, the overlooked porins—quickly dismantle the cardiovascular system. Armed with physiology, the team was able to find a safe treatment that could be used to improve survival in sting victims.
This treatment is zinc gluconate, which is more effective than the commercially available antivenom; in animal studies,it was twice as effective as what is now used. The article adds:
Zinc gluconate isn’t a cure-all; it won’t stop all of the excruciating pain associated with severe stings, and victims are still at risk of going into shock and cardiovascular failure. But, Yanagihara is hopeful that treatment with zinc gluconate might be effective enough at prolonging survival in severe sting victims long enough to get them to medical professionals that can save their lives, and may provide welcome relief to mild sting victims.

That would be a good thing since dozens of persons in Australia and the Philippines die each year from such jellyfish stings.

You can read the rest of the article at [Scientific American]

The Russian Fur Hat & The Totalitarian

Personal Story

At times, strange things happen during unexpected moments or places. Yesterday, while waiting at the checkout line at a drug store, was one of such times. On top of my head I was proudly wearing my Russian-made fox fur hat (ushanka), a birthday present that my wife gave me some years ago. It is not only extremely warm, as only fur can be, but also stylish.

A woman, I would say in her late sixties or early seventies, asked if my hat was "real fur." To her question, I replied a gleeful "yes." That was not the response she liked,and began to unleash a short public lecture on animal cruelty, the fur industry and my heartlessness to animals. I decided it was better not to respond or engage her, since I saw no need to defend my position, and she, apart from her need to scold, was otherwise harmless. She walked away muttering to herself while she wheeled her carriage full of goods out the door.

The persons in line, both behind and in front of me, thought her position and lecture were outrageous and egregious, offering words like "no one asked for her opinion" and "people have the freedom to wear what they want." One person added that "it's lucky she didn't throw paint on your fur hat."  To which I added, "I would call the police and press charges." Wearing fur is neither illegal nor immoral. Destroying private property, however, is against the law and individuals who do so ought to bear the legal consequences.

Yet, for individuals who hold totalitarian views, such as many pet activists (think PETA), it's more reprehensible to hold a differing opinion than it is to break the law. Conformity is necessary and the end justifies the means, even if it leads to destruction; and yet many animal activists and animal liberation organizations fit such descriptions, Marxian in views and in practices. No allowance is made for other views, for other ways of thinking and acting.

The issue here is not about animal cruelty—a subject in itself—but about how cultic thinking can influence and lead to both unfiltered opinions and unlawful acts. Freedom within the wide boundaries of democracy allows multiple and diverging opinions and views; this includes the wearing of fur hats. Such is the strength and beauty of liberal democracy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

North Korea Launches Rocket; Sends Satellite Into Orbit

Weapons of War

The North Korean regime went ahead with its announced rocket launch, says a report in the New York Times, defying the wishes of the international community. Choe Sang-Hun and David E. Sanger of the Times write:
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, said it had detected the launching and tracked the missile — a Galaxy-3 rocket, called the Unha-3 by the North — as its first stage appeared to fall into the Yellow Sea and the second stage into the Philippine Sea.
“Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” Norad said. “At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America.”
But the timing of the launching appeared to take American officials by surprise. Just an hour or two before blastoff from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri on North Korea’s western coast, near China, American officials at a holiday reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Washington said they thought the North Koreans had run into technical problems that could take them weeks to resolve.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the rocket succeeded in the ostensible goal of putting an earth-observation satellite named Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3, into orbit, and celebrations by members of the North Korean media were reported.
Although the launching was driven in part by domestic considerations, analysts said it carried far-reaching foreign relations implications, coming as leaders in Washington and Beijing — as well as those soon to be chosen in Tokyo and Seoul — try to form a new way of coping with North Korea after two decades of largely fruitless attempts to end its nuclear and missile ambitions. 
The launch was an important test and victory of sorts for Kim Jong-un, North Korea's young leader, who has now achieved some credibility with his military and has also shown the international community that North Korea's plans to build an intercontinental ballistic missile are real. Then there's the symbolism; the successful launch came five days before the one-year anniversary of the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il. Its significance cannot be denied.

But more important, the missile launch and advancing warfare technology will do little to feed the millions of North Koreans who are impoverished and starving.

You can read the rest of the article at [NYT]

Seduced By Peace

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
Psalm 34:14

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind,
a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.
Baruch Spinoza

Many people want peace in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab neighbors; many think, however, that it can only come about through war and vanquishing the "enemy"; and some think only by the appearance of the Moshiach among Jews, or the Messiah among Christians. It seems the few persons in Israel, and elsewhere, today think that peace can come about the conventional way, through talking and dialogue with your enemies. Such was the way it was done in the past, and quite effectively, might I add.

A recent poll among Israelis puts doubt into the conventional thinking. After Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egypt-brokered ceasefire, the majority of Israelis voiced dissent with the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu's government, considered right-wing by most accounts. The majority of Isrealis wanted a ground invasion, a full-blown military assault in Gaza. Capturing the sentiment is Caroline Glick of The Jerusalem Post, who writes ("The Trap That Arik Built") in a November 22 column with emotionally charged language about the many failures of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon`s policies regarding Gaza:
The millions of Israelis who opposed the withdrawal from Gaza do not seek personal vindication for being right. They didn’t warn against the withdrawal to advance their careers or make their lives easier. Indeed, their careers were uniformly harmed.
They did it because they were patriots. They felt it was their duty to warn their countrymen of the danger, hoping to avert the disaster we now face. They should be listened to now. And their voices should be empowered by those who shunned them, because only by listening to them will we develop the arguments and the legitimacy to do what needs to be done and stop fighting to lose, again and again and again.
Ariel Sharon, once a war hero, is now one of the chief the reason for Israel's security problems— in the end he was weak. Patriotism. Tribalism, Nationalism. Such are the ideologies ruling the hearts of men (and women) today. Now, for such individuals, well-meaning in their strong language, peace is not really possible other than through the instrument of war and violence. The Orwellian language that "war is peace" has become frightingly normative, so much so that disagreement or holding dissenting views is not possible. A nation under siege has to always fight for peace, and cannot find the time to work toward peace. But what is the end result of such thinking?of such actions? We see some of it today in Israel.

Or, perhaps, peace will come through the Messiah. For such individuals, perhaps unaware of their inner religious reasoning, all man-made peace initiatives are false. And, accordingly, a dangerous seduction.

Alas, some of us are seduced by peace.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Should Doctors Alone Decide On Human End-Of-Life?

Societal Ethics

The Question on whether doctors alone ought to decide the level of care an individual receives, notably in cases that are both costly and offer little hope of recovery, is what seven Supreme Court of Canada justices must now decide. At the heart of it all is deciding the rules and regulations for end-of-life decisions for patients that physicians deem as hopeless. An article in CBC News reports:
The case is about Hassan Rasouli, who has been on a ventilator and feeding tube for the past two years at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, after bacterial meningitis destroyed parts of his brain following surgery for a brain tumour. Rasouli, at first in a coma, was deemed to be in a persistent vegetative state, but that diagnosis was changed to one of "minimal consciousness" after he seemed to wake up and could occasionally give a thumbs-up sign, or grasp a ball.
Nevertheless, Rasouli's doctors at Sunnybrook didn't change their minds that he should be taken off hydration and feeding systems and moved into palliative care. Rasouli's family sought an injunction to prevent removal of the tubes, and then argued successfully at two lower court levels that the doctors did not have to right to halt use of the life-preserving equipment. The doctors appealed those decisions to the highest court.
Outside the court in Ottawa Monday, Rasouli's daughter Mozhgan said, "My father represents the value of life … I know that he wants to be alive." She continued, "It is unfair, it is unfair — he should be treated like anyone else."
When modern medical technology can help better the lives of individual, as countless medical advances have done over the years, society lauds and applauds its efforts. And rightly so. When the technology, however, is used to prolong life but one where the individual is kept alive artificially, the medical profession considers it both futile and a poor use of resources: To wit: money.

This rubs against religious and societal ethics that says life is sacred and worth prolonging "at all costs"; and the argument is made that a miracle might happen, and the individual might recover. It's possible. Again, there are valid arguments on both sides to which people agree,which reveals much. How one views such human of cases says much about how one views many such things human. The Supreme Court justices will need the wisdom of Solomon to arrive at their decision. Its ramifications will be felt across Canada for generations.

You can read the rest of the article at [CBC]

National Chamber Orchestra Of Armenia: Vivaldi's 'Gloria'

National Chamber Orchestra Of Armenia, under the baton of R. Mlkeyan, performs Antonio Vivaldi's Gloria, RV 589; the singers are soprano M. Galoyan, soprano H. Harutyunova and mezzo-soprano N. Ananikyan. 


Antonio Vivaldi's piece is one of the most-known pieces of sacred music written; for almost two centuries after the composer's death it remained forgotten and not performed. Peter Carey of the British Royal Free Singers writes in its programme notes some of its compelling history:
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi composed this Gloria in Venice, probably in 1715, for the choir of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls (or more probably a home, generously endowed by the girls' "anonymous" fathers, for the illegitimate daughters of Venetian noblemen and their mistresses). The Ospedale prided itself on the quality of its musical education and the excellence of its choir and orchestra. Vivaldi, a priest, music teacher and virtuoso violinist, composed many sacred works for the Ospedale, where he spent most of his career, as well as hundreds of instrumental concertos to be played by the girls’ orchestra. This, his most famous choral piece, presents the traditional Gloria from the Latin Mass in twelve varied cantata-like sections.
The wonderfully sunny nature of the Gloria, with its distinctive melodies and rhythms, is characteristic of all of Vivaldi’s music, giving it an immediate and universal appeal. The opening movement is a joyous chorus, with trumpet and oboe obligato. The extensive orchestral introduction establishes two simple motives, one of octave leaps, the orher a quicker, quaver - semiquaver figure, that function as the ritornello. The choir enters in chorale-like fashion, syllabically declaiming the text in regular rhythms, contrasting with the orchestral ritornello, which contains most of the melodic interest of the movement.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bobby McFerrin & Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

Bobby McFerrin & Israel Philharmonic Orchestra perform a number of wonderful pieces, which shows there is a benefit to cross-over music and what it brings; this wonderful concert took place in 1995.  Mr. McFerrin does on stage what many of us do at home, thereby giving us permission to enjoy and appreciate the music.


Math Museum To Open In New York

Public Knowledge

A museum dedicated to mathematics, the most fundamental of sciences, is scheduled to open on December 15th in New York City's Madison Square Park; its goal is to make math both meaningful and fun, particularly for kids.  Lisa Grossman for New Scientist writes:
"We want to show a different side of mathematics," says museum co-founder Cindy Lawrence. "Our goal is to get kids excited, and show them the math they're doing in school is just one tree in a whole huge forest."
To this end, mathematics pervades every aspect of the design, sometimes in surprising places. Take the museum's Enigma Café. At first glance, it looks like any other trendy, modern Manhattan cafe. But instead of coffee, puzzles will be served. And a careful look reveals that the floor is a 6-by-6 grid, the walls are made of Tetris-like puzzle shapes called pentominoes, and the tables are arranged as a knight would progress across a chessboard. "We try to hide math everywhere," says Lawrence.
The inspiration for MoMath came shortly after a beloved but dated museum on Long Island closed down in 2006. MoMath co-founder Glen Whitney, a former hedge fund analyst specialising in algorithms, got a group together to fill the void, but for months all they did was talk—until they were offered a booth at the 2009 World Science Festival in New York.
"There was a bit of a debate amongst the group about whether we should accept that offer because, in fact, we didn't really have anything to put in a booth," Lawrence says. But accept it they did, and the deluge of ideas they had for the booth overflowed into a travelling exhibit called the Math Midway. The Midway in its turn laid the groundwork for the full-scale museum, scheduled to open on 15 December in Madison Square Park.
This is one of those wonderful initiatives that has great potential to enrich the lives of children. A good grasp of math is a necessity to success in many fields, not only in the hard sciences, but also in law, medicine and high finance, to name a few. The list is long where having an understanding and a comfort with math is important. That the United States requires more mathematicians is well-known. Making math interesting is an excellent way to engage children at a young age and keep them engaged as adults; I wish the museum much success.

You can read the rest of the article at [New Scientist].

No, Virginia

The Holiday Spirit

Christmas is two weeks away and many young children are anticipating presents from Santa Claus; the myth remains. Is there any harm in parents perpetuating a story that has been around for generations? Prof George Jochnowitz thinks so: "The business of children is learning about the world. It is a job that can never be completed. The business of a parent is helping a child to grow up— to learn what reality is and how to deal with it. When a parent lies to a child, the essential role of parenthood is subverted."

by George Jochnowitz
Christmas is a beautiful holiday. One aspect of its beauty is the custom of exchanging gifts. It is wonderful to have an excuse to give presents to those we love—generosity is something we find embarrassing if there is no occasion for it. It is especially pleasurable for parents to give Christmas presents to their children and for children to receive them.

Yet parents, almost universally, lie to their young children about Christmas. They say the gifts come from Santa Claus, who lives in a cold climate but has a warm heart. I cannot imagine why parents choose to depersonalize Christmas in this way. Isn't it better get presents from Mommy and Daddy instead of from some remote philanthropist whose benevolence extends to millions of children? Or is it benevolence? Our popular music tells us that "he's making a list and checking it twice. He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice." The gifts are not gifts at all; they are positive reinforcement. And who is this man who "knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake"? A walking data bank!

Children, like all human beings, should be treated with respect. When we consider their ignorance adorable, we are using them as playthings and depriving them of their dignity. The business of children is learning about the world. It is a job that can never be completed. The business of a parent is helping a child to grow up— to learn what reality is and how to deal with it. When a parent lies to a child, the essential role of parenthood is subverted.

Sooner or later, the truth must come out. No one can grow up and still believe in Santa Claus. Finding out that there is no Santa Claus is not only disappointing but destructive. The child learns that the parents are morally flawed—guilty of pointless falsehood. Perhaps our society would be less cynical if parents were more honest.

Once there was a little girl named Virginia who asked, "Is there a Santa Claus?" (New York Sun, Sept 21, 1897). It was a simple, touching question. She wanted a simple, honest answer. Nobody could give it to her.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This essay appeared in And Then, Volume 1, 1987.  This post can be found on George Jochnowitz. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Is Japan Leaning Right?

Post-War Politics

An article in the New York Times sheds some light on Japan and the rise of right-wing patriotism or nationalism, long shunned by a population after the Second World War. Of great concern is the politics of Shintaro Ishihara, a populist:
Now, at 80, Mr. Ishihara is leading a newly formed populist party and has emerged as a contender for prime minister, vowing to turn Japan into a more independent, possibly nuclear-armed nation. While political analysts deem him a long shot, they say the fact that he has gotten this far after decades of pushing what was seen as a fringe agenda is a worrying sign of how desperate this nation is for strong leadership after years of cascading troubles.
With his promises to restore Japan’s battered national pride, Mr. Ishihara has staked out an even more stridently nationalistic position than the current front-runner, Shinzo Abe, the leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, who has called for revising Japan’s pacifist constitution. Analysts worry that if Mr. Ishihara succeeds in his bid to become prime minister, he could weaken relations with the United States, yank Japan to the right and damage ties with China, which is already angered by his almost single-handedly rekindling a territorial dispute over an island chain.
But even if in the likely event that Mr. Ishihara loses, they say, his campaign could still have a lasting effect, bringing patriotic populism into the political mainstream of a nation that has shunned such open jingoism since its devastating defeat in World War II.
Politicians like Ishihara likely appeal to younger persons who have little knowledge of the past, or older persons who do and are resentful; in general, inflammatory language appeals to nationalistic and tribal sentiments. That Japan is considering moving right-ward is troubling both for it and for its allies. Nothing good can come out of it.

You can read the rest of the article at [NYT].

Arthur Rubinstein: Liszt's Liebestraum No. 3

Arthur Rubinstein performs Franz Liszt's Liebestraum ("Dreams of Love") No. 3 in A flat major; it was published in 1850 and has remained a popular work played by most major pianists since then. It's not hard to understand why this is so.


Happy Chanukkah to all those who are celebrating this holiday; and do not indulge in too many latkes.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Unexpected Joy Of Second-Hand Bookshops

Dusty Shelves

 An article in The Telegraph by  Theodore Dalrymple says much about the love some individuals, including this writer, have for second-hand bookshops and about their decline in the face of a public who like only new objects of acquisition, which includes, of course, books. Yet, there remain a few stalwarts who resist modern convention for reasons that only such species will understand.

Dalrymple  writes:
How many hours, among the happiest of my life, have I spent in the dusty, damp or dismal purlieus of second-hand bookshops, where mummified silverfish, faded pressed flowers and very occasionally love letters are to be found in books long undisturbed on their shelves. With what delight do I find the word ''scarce’’ pencilled in on the flyleaf by the bookseller, though the fact that the book has remained unsold for years, possibly decades, suggests that purchasers are scarcer still.
Alas, second-hand bookshops are closing daily, driven out of business by the combination of a general decline in reading, the internet and that most characteristic of all modern British institutions, the charity shop. Booksellers tell me that 90 per cent of their overheads arise from their shops, and 90 per cent of their sales from the internet. Except for the true antiquarian dealers, whose customers are aficionados of the first state and the misprint on page 287, second-hand bookshops make less and less economic sense.
Second-hand booksellers are not in it for the money, of course: it is probably easier to make a good living on social security. The booksellers love books, though not necessarily their purchasers, and in their way are learned men. When they have been in the trade for many years they know everything about books except, possibly, their content. Possessed of astonishing memories, they say things like “I haven’t seen another copy since 1978”. Some of them seem destined to be mummified among their books like the silverfish, and probably cannot conceive of a better way to die.
A good part of my collection has come from such shops; and I have met my share of cantankerous, if not helpful, book-shop owners. I have always made it a point when visiting a new city to find a few second-hand shops. I have rarely been disappointed. Part of the joy is to find the unexpected, to sit in the stacks and find a book that you normally would not have initially purchased. You read a few pages, including the previous owners' scribbles. A second-hand book that can be had for a few dollars makes such acquisitions painless and fun.
You can read the rest of the article at [The Telegraph]

John Lennon: Beautiful Boy

John Lennon sings "Beautiful Boy," from Double Fantasy, a song  for all the young children out there who are just being themselves.


Friday, December 7, 2012

A Scientific Model For Urban Design

Urban Living

One of the chief aims of all urban designers is to make cities both functional and liveable, both attractive for business and for residents. Yet, an insightful article by Sarah Fecht in Scientific American questions whether urban planners ought to use more scientific models for planning as a necessity to shed its image as a "pseudoscience."

In 1961 urbanist Jane Jacobs didn't pull any punches when she called city planning a pseudoscience. "Years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense," she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years later the field is still plagued by unscientific thought, according to urban theorist Stephen Marshall of University College London. In a recent paper in Urban Design International, Marshall restated Jacobs's observation that urban design theory is pseudoscientific and called for a more scientific framework for the field.
Although urban design theory is unscientific, Marshall wrote, it is not because the ideas are based on nonsense—many of the classic urban thinkers used observations and small pilot studies to describe how cities work. Jane Jacobs, for example, proposed that a city needs four ingredients to be exuberant: mixed uses, short blocks, buildings that vary in age and condition, and a dense concentration of people. "At the core of this book is a four-part hypothesis that is demanding to be tested," Marshall says. "But when I went to look to see if it had been tested, there was virtually nothing." The problem with urban design, he adds, is that its theories are untested, yet accepted as fact. Marshall proposes to overhaul the way that urban design incorporates science into its fabric, calling for more and better urban science, and for the theories to be challenged with alternative hypotheses and rigorously tested.
Some researchers are already studying cities in scientifically valid ways, but much of this work is being done by physicists and mathematicians who have little use for urban design theory.
Science by definition and function required scrupulous  devotion to equations and models as well as testing and predictability. It's true that science can be used to help urban planners in their decision-making process, such as how much trash collection is necessary, how much water is needed per individual and the ideal size of the police, fire and municipal forces to keep a city functioning. As important as that information is, urban planners are also artists and visionaries—much like the best architects or physicians.

It's a matter of professional human judgement, Fecht writes: "How can these two viewpoints—of science and design—be reconciled? Mehaffy suggests that urban design theory and urban design practice could have a relationship like that of life science research and medicine. A doctor doesn't spend all of his time in a research lab, but he relies on scientific knowledge to guide his decisions on a case-by-case basis. The art comes in the form of tailoring diagnoses and prescriptions for each individual patient."

You can read the rest of the article at [Scientific American]