Sunday, September 30, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's Famous Song: Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin in the 1936 American film, Modern Times, in a well-known clip where he sings off-the-cuff in three languages: French, Italian and Spanish.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Coyotes Are Monogamous

Animal Science

An article in Scientific American says that contrary to earlier studies, coyotes are monogamous throughout their lives:
Beyond the ferocious jaws of the carnivorous coyote is a loving creature that scientists say is 100-percent monogamous. Researchers studied the mating patterns of two hundred thirty six coyotes in the Chicago area over a six-year period. They found that coyotes living in urban areas are faithful to their partners, and stay with them for life. The research is in the Journal of Mammalogy. [Cecilia A. Hennessy, Jean Dubach AND Stanley D. Gehrt, Long-term pair bonding and genetic evidence for monogamy among urban coyotes (Canis latrans)]
Scientists collected blood and tissue samples of coyotes and equipped some adults with radio-collars before releasing them all back into the wild. Genetic analyses showed no evidence of polygamy within the urban coyote population, and consequent studies of their movements showed that pairs stayed together through multiple breeding seasons.
This finding is noteworthy since it shows that not all animals, humans being one of the exception, are interested in sexual adventures. Coyotes are faithful, and the reasons why this is so requires further study. As Amy Kraft writes: "It was thought that coyotes would be more likely to stray from a mate in an urban environment where food and females are plentiful. Instead, the research provides evidence that not all species of canids are dirty dogs."

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

Aaron Lebedeff: A Yiddish Maidel Darf A Yiddischen Boy

Aaron Lebedeff sings "A Yiddish Maidel Darf  A Yiddischen Boy."

Title: A Yiddish Meydl Darf A Yidishn Boy: אַ ייִדיש מײדל דאַרף אַ ייַדישן בױ
Lyrics: Jacob Jacobs (born Yaakov Yakubovitsh):  זשאַקאָבס, זשאַקאָב
Composer: Alexander Olshanetsky:  אָלשאַנעצקי, אַלעקסאַנדער

Aaron Lebedeff [1873-1960], considered the Maurice Chevalier of the Yiddish stage, was one of the top song-and-dance men of the Yiddish theater. He was born in Homel, White Russia (present day Belarus), and moved to New York City in 1920. One Yiddish music site writes:
When he finally arrived in New York in 1920, he scored an immediate personal success at Boris Thomashcfsky's storied National Theatre in a play called Liovka Molodez. Thus began sixteen years on Second Avenue, during which he played a full season each year, never missing even a week. Ever gay, in his straw hat and faultlessly tailored clothes, he seemed to many the Maurice Chevalier of the Yiddish stage.
He became famous for roles like The Rumanian Litvak, and though after awhile his vehicles assumed a typed character, the audiences loved him. The New York Times in a review in October 1932 commented that he delighted the public in roles in which he was invariably "an ingratiating provincial who is always the victim of misfortune in the first act, only to shine forth resplendent with simoleons and a slick sennet in the closing act."
At sixty-one, when he was stilt playing romantic leads (albeit wearing a hat to hide a receding hair fine), he divulged to a reporter for the New York American his formula for perpetual youth: "Dress well, eat and drink what you like, and remain constantly in love." Though he was surrounded by adoring females wherever he went, he remained happily married to the actress Vera Lebedeff (Rebecca Shehtman).
Even the rise of talking pictures and the decline of the Yiddish stage dimmed his luster only slightly, for he went on to star m Yiddish vaudeville at the National and Clinton Theatres, where Yiddish talkies and eight live acts shared the bill. To list all the ephemeral Yiddish plays in which he appeared is almost impossible. Among his notable musicals were My Malkele (1937) and Bublitchki (1938) in which he co-starred with Molly Picon, Yankele Litvak,  Yoshke Chvat, Motke from Slobodke, Money Talks, (with Michael Michaclesko, 1952),  The Magic Melody (1953) and My Weekend Bride (1955). In 1953 he was one of the famous Yiddish stars honored at a special anniversary performance for Israel Bonds at the National Theatre (and the only one, true to his usual form, who was called back for several encores).

A Yiddish meydl darf a yidishn boy
S'iz sheyn in eydl
In es darf dokh azoy Zine
Nu, vus zhe toyg aykh tsures zichn
In aleyn in blotes krichhn
A yidish meydl darf a yidishn boy

**These lyrics below are only the chorus from original sheet music:

A Yidish meidel darf a Yidishen boy
Siz shein in aidl in es darf zein azoy
Vos zolt ihr zich tzures zichen
alain in blute krichen
A Yidish meidel darf a Yidishen boy
oi sis a mi-chi-a
oi sis on on-tick
far eich a velt a nei-ya
in far inz a glick

[English Translation]

A Yiddish girl needs to have a Yiddish boy
It's beautiful and noble
And it has to be that way
Now, what need have you to look for trouble,
And end up crawling into the mud
A Yiddish girl needs to have a Yidish boy

Friday, September 28, 2012

Politics Has No Place In Polio Eradication

Global Immunization Campaign In Final Stages

Having children made us look differently at all these things that we take for granted, like taking your child to get a vaccine against measles or polio.
Melinda Gates, co-chair of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A Child Receives An Oral Polio Vaccine, the most-efficient way to deliver the vaccine. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has been successful, says the World Health Organization. "Polio cases have decreased by over 99% since 1988, from an estimated 350 000 cases in more than 125 endemic countries then, to 1352 reported cases in 2010."
Photo Credit: USAID-Bangladesh, 2004
Source: Wikipedia

An article from Reuters published in the National Post shows the logistical and political difficulties in eradicating polio, a crippling disease that is still prevalent in a few nations, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is leading the efforts to completely eradicate polio by 2018.
When Bill Gates hears about children like Fahad Usman, a two-year-old Pakistani boy crippled by polio before he learned to walk, the billionaire philanthropist sounds frustrated and fired up. Fear and suspicion have prevented thousands of children like Fahad from being protected against the infectious and incurable disease. Now more than ever, it’s time that stopped, Gates says. Rumours that polio immunisation campaigns are “Western plots to sterilise Muslims” or that the vaccine is “George Bush’s urine” underline the need to take politics out of the fight to eradicate polio, he says.
If Gates, the most influential of global health advocates, gets his wish — and in an interview he’s pretty sure he will — the world won’t stop at the 99 percent reduction in cases so far, but will rid itself of polio completely by 2018.
Yet evidence from Pakistan and Afghanistan, two of only three countries where polio is still endemic, suggests a battle lies ahead to overcome Taliban opposition, vaccine refusals, security and funding gaps to beat out that last one percent.“We are working hard to depoliticise the whole thing,” said Gates, whose $35 billion Gates Foundation is spearheading international efforts to eradicate the disease.
He noted what he called “episodes of lack of communication” between those who want to rid the world of polio and some Taliban leaders, but was optimistic that working with new donors and using local knowledge would secure eventual success. He is eager to involve more donors from Muslim countries. “In no way should this campaign be associated with just the West,” he said. “This is the whole world working together to eradicate a disease.”
Such is a good and wonderful thing; and it is a testament to medical science, innovation and determination, and equally important on how goodwill can overcome both political and religious distrust. This is the type of news that doesn't get front-page headlines, but it should. You can read about the history of polio and of the development of the vaccine here; and about the global efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation here.

You can read the rest of the article at [National Post]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Misha Marmar: Fiddler

Misha Marmar sings a Yiddish song, Fiddler from his CD "Jewish Songs and More.

Music: Ilya Slovesnik
Lyrics: B. Borovoj S.Kazanceva

Iranian President Ahmadinejad's Press Adviser Jailed

The Iran File

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York delivering a speech to the United Nations, his top press adviser was taken into custody to begin serving a six-month jail sentence; he was "convicted of publishing material deemed insulting to the country's supreme leader," an Associated Press report published in Haaretz says:
Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who is also the head of the state-run IRNA news agency, is one of dozens of Ahmadinejad's allies detained since April 2011 in the fallout from a political feud between the president and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran's hardline political establishment slapped down Ahmadinejad and his supporters after the president briefly challenged an order from the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the choice of intelligence chief.

An Iranian court convicted Javanfekr last November of "publishing materials contrary to Islamic norms," and also banned him from journalism activities for three years. The charges against him included insulting Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran. The semiofficial Fars news agency said judicial agents detained Javanfekr late Wednesday. IRNA said Javanfekr was arrested as Ahmadinejad, who had shielded his press adviser in the past from arrest, began his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
 The case against Javanfekr began after he wrote in an official publication that the practice of women wearing a head-to-toe black covering known as a chador was not originally an Iranian practice but was imported. This was considered offensive by hardline Iranian clerics.
His arrest comes on top of two others this week—the son and daughter of Iran's former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani were arrested for essentially protesting against the conservative regimeas the Islamic Republic attempts to quell dissent and send a signal to reformers.

And last week, Reporters Without Borders said that two women journalists were arrested, bringing the total to at least 57 women journalists and bloggers who have been arrested and given jail terms since the June 2009 elections. This is undoubtedly bad news for free speech and democracy. But there is a silver lining, namely, that moderates in Iran are speaking out against hard-line policies that the majority of Iranians do not want.

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Avinu Malkeinu: Gia Beshitaishvily

Gia Beshitaishvily, a tenor, sings Avinu Malkeinu with The Moscow Oratorio Society and the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella ("Hasidic Cappella") with Musica Viva Academic Chamber Orchestra, Alexander Tsaliuk at the podium, in Moscow, Russia. The concert, Jewish Liturgical Music and Folk Melodies, arranged by Igor Gorsky, took place on June 8, 2008.

Avinu Malkeinu (אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ‎;) translates from Hebrew into English as "Our Father Our King"; the prayer of supplication is sung during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to and including Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day. Tradition states that its insertion into the liturgy dates to the time of Rabbi Akiva [40-137 CE]


Avinu malkeinu sh'ma kolenu
Avinu malkeinu chatanu l'faneycha
Avinu malkeinu chamol aleynu
Ve'al olaleynu vetapeinu
Avinu malkeinu
Kaleh dever
vecherev vera'av mealeynu
Avinu malkeinu
kaleh chol tsar
Umastin mealeynu

Avinu malkeinu
Avinu malkeinu
Kat'veinu besefer chayim tovim
Avinu malkeinu chadesh aleynu
Chadesh aleynu shanah tovah

Sh'ma kolenu
Sh'ma kolenu
Sh'ma kolenu

Avinu malkeinu

Avinu malkeinu
Chadesh aleynu shanah tovah

Avinu malkeinu
Sh'ma kolenu
Sh'ma kolenu
Sh'ma kolenu
Sh'ma kolenu
Avinu Malkeinu, Chaneinu V'aneinu
ki ein banu ma'asim
Assei imanu ts'dakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu.

Our father our king, hear our voice
Our father our king, we have sinned before you
Our father our king, Have compassion upon us
and upon our children

Our father our king
Bring an end to pestilence,
war, and famine around us
Our father our king,
Bring an end to all trouble
and oppression around us

Our father our king,
Our father our king,
Inscribe us in the book of (good) life
Our father our king, renew upon us
Renew upon us a good year

Hear our voice
Hear our voice
Hear our voice

Our father our king,

Our father our king,
Renew upon us a good year

Our father our king,
Hear our voice
Hear our voice
Hear our voice
Hear our voice

On Yom Kippur: Moishe Oysher's Shema Koleinu

Cantor Moishe Oysher [1906-1958] sings Shema Koleinu ("Hear our Voice''), which forms part of the service during Yom Kippur. It is a cry from the heart and soul to God to display pity and compassion and accept, with compassion and favour, the prayers of the Jewish People. It is essentially a plaintive cry to God to remember the Jewish People, a reminder of his everlasting and eternal Covenant. Today is Yom Kippur ( יוֹם כִּפּוּר‎‎), also known as the Day of Atonement
(יום הכיפורים), the holiest day of the year for the Jewish People.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Odds Of Surviving Surgery Have Improved Greatly

Health & Wellness

The rates of surviving a surgical procedure have increased significantly in the last few decades, despite surgeries becoming more complicated and patients becoming older. The chances of dying in the operating room are about one-tenth that of what they were before 1970, the study's benchmark year. Before 1970, 357 people per million surgeries died from receiving anesthetic, the study said. That rate dropped to 34 people per million in the 1990s and 2000s. That's a 90 percent rate of improvement.

There are a number of reasons for the improvement, says an article in CTV News:
The lead author of the study said a variety of factors have contributed to the improvement in surgical survival. "You can't point to one thing," said Dr. Daniel Bainbridge, an anesthesiologist and associate professor in the department of anesthesiology and peri-operative medicine at the University of Western Ontario."I'm sure it's better drugs. It's better training of our residents. It's better operating room environments, cleaner environments. Better equipment. It's an understanding about safety and culture safety and avoiding drug errors."
The study, published in this week's issue of the journal The Lancet, was undertaken to see whether advances in the science of anesthetizing people and improved surgical safety procedures were actually translating into fewer deaths in operating rooms.With more than 230 million major surgeries occurring annually around the world, the stakes are high.
Bainbridge and his group explored the issue by amalgamating data from 87 studies other researchers had done to try to get a global picture of what had been happening over the past few decades to rates of deaths during or immediately after surgery. The patient pool in the combined studies represents 21.4 million times people were administered general anesthetic for surgery.
The findings ought to give comfort to persons undergoing surgical procedures, knowing that their chances of coming out of the procedure have increased significantly since 1970. This is indeed good news, both revealing and proving how advances in science and medicine contribute to our well-being.

You can read the rest of the article at [CTV News]

In Praise Of Good Music

Musical Structure

We welcome a new contributor, Lorna Salzman, who offers a thought-provoking article on what defines good music. In her estimation too many individuals do not enjoy modern music, but do so without knowledge. Such lack of understanding might also make them miss out on some wonderful classical composers.  While this point is debatable—persons can protest that they know what they like, Salzman's article does raise a number of interesting questions, notably, what makes for good music. "All music has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is not a trivial statement. Putting aside bad structure and a paucity of musical ideas (Minimalism being the prime example), bad music lacks the meat of good music, the connective tissue, in other words, the middle."
by Lorna Salzman

Most contemporary music gets a bum rap but not for the right reasons. People find it puzzling, dissonant, disconnected, tuneless, shapeless, even ugly. Some of it is, of course. In fact, most of it is. But the real faults of bad contemporary music are not recognized by most listeners.

Why? Because I contend that most people don't even know the difference between bad CLASSICAL music and good classical music. Why not? Because they never learned how to listen to music in the first place. If you never learned to play an instrument or didn't grow up hearing music regularly in your house or at concerts, you probably still don't know how to listen to classical music, much less contemporary music. You probably are one of those millions of people who love the Estonian composer Aarvo Part but find John Adams unlistenable. You are probably one of those people who think Schoenberg and Stravinsky are "modern" composers. You are probably one of those people who love Tchaikowsky but hate Wagner. You are probably one of those people who love Bach, but can't sit through his Musical Offering or Goldberg Variations.

Hearing a short piece on the radio today by Aarvo Part suddenly gave me some insight into why people like his music. It isn't bad music compared to most other music being written today. Part goes out of his way to avoid being musically "in your face". There is nothing offensive about it; on the contrary, it is quite pleasant and soothing, a kind of upscale "New Age" music without the ethereal mindless doodles, the kind of music you hear when you are getting acupuncture or a massage. It is technically and instrumentally competent and professional. In other words, it's a crowd pleaser that pleases without being patronizing. The guy is probably the most successful and most remunerated "serious" composer alive, which is fine; I hate hearing about composers starving in attics. Composers deserve respect, though not quite as much as performers of music, the most self-sacrificing, hard-working and generous of all professions extant.

But his music is not good music. Those who still can't distinguish bad music from good music will take issue with this. So I will have to define what makes music good. And it was hearing Part that gave me the answer, or a part of it.

Putting aside opera for now, we shall focus on instrumental and orchestral music. These reached their peak of perfection in the 19th century, though preceded by some exemplary and complex baroque music by such composers as Purcell, Couperin and Rameau (as well as Bach and Handel, whose wonderful operas I have discovered late in life),and earlier composers like Monteverdi and Pergolesi. The Romantic period in music gave rise to the most complex musical expressions, which, through the works of Brahms and Wagner primarily, opened the door to even wilder, more imaginative creations of the early 20th century by Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Ravel, Ives, Weill, and later Varese, Cowell, Ruggles, Sessions and Copland. Thanks to two world wars, the best composers from Europe ended up in this country and left their mark on American music permanently.

But back to the romantics and the definition of Bad Music. All music has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is not a trivial statement. Putting aside bad structure and a paucity of musical ideas (Minimalism being the prime example), bad music lacks the meat of good music, the connective tissue, in other words, the middle. We tend to think of the middle as being the most important. But the middle has no meaning unless you have heard and remembered, to even a small degree, what came before it. And the end has no meaning unless you remember what preceded it.

Listening to classical music requires an important part of our brain: memory. The "persistence of memory" has relevance to all aspects of music: harmony, modulation (key changes), rhythmic patterns, melody. Anyone who has attended Peter Schickele's marvelous PDQ Bach concert series will instantly understand this; you can't laugh at these concerts unless you have a good musical memory for the traditional classics, especially those of the 18th century. But much contemporary music, especially the experimental kind, does not require memory because it lacks connective tissue....or maybe one could say that it is ALL connective tissue with no beginning or end. You can enter into it anywhere and you will not be puzzled by the music, because it is all in the here-and-now, with no before and after. It is an undifferentiated tissue with a single function and no structural or melodic complexity.

One would never dream of picking up a novel and starting it in the middle, or going to a movie an hour late. Similarly, one would never go to a classical music concert and take a seat in the middle of a symphony or piano piece. The composer is offering a whole piece with a beginning, middle and end. His expectation is that you not only have heard it from the start but that you will actually REMEMBER what you heard. He trusts you to connect the connective tissue to what preceded it and what comes after it. These are of course high expectations of an audience, but then again, so are great novels, plays, and films. Why should you listen to music any differently? The composer is trusting his audience to be attentive. In return he is presenting what he hopes will be an effective and moving experience, coherent, interesting, complex. He has a right to demand this, but in turn he will be judged as to whether he succeeded in his intention. Only a minority of composers succeed.

Possibly the most demanding—of himself as well as of his listeners—was Brahms, who was not only one of the greatest romantic composers but an inspiration to Schoenberg. Anyone who knows Schoenberg and his serialism will understand why he loved Brahms. A Brahms symphony is not only chock full of some of the most glorious musical ideas ever written but is tightly and methodically organized and unified in its motifs and overall form. It is hard to realize that Brahms refrained from writing his first symphony until his forties, possibly because of Beethoven's ghost. Brahms will take a simple melodic or rhythmic phrase, and then let his imagination run wild, inverting it, reversing it, modulating it, deconstructing it, with musical and rhythmic permutations that only a superior musical craftsman would dare to do. Brahms goes out on a narrow ledge, wedges himself into a tight corner, and then, when you wonder how he will get out of it, comes up with the solution, the exit from the musical and thematic maze he created, that makes you say out loud: of course that's right; that's the ONLY way it could have come out. The composer provides what seems to be the only POSSIBLE solution. This inevitability is a major determinant of musical greatness.

But while many people love Brahms, they probably are unaware of these complexities of structure and content. This is not to say that it is impossible to enjoy a Brahms symphony only by analyzing its structure, not at all. This is to say that the very complexities and permutations contribute to the greatness of the music. Brahms did not intend to dazzle us with his technical genius alone, however, because the connective tissue is so rich in musical blood supply, and because he has put his music together in a readily perceived way. When you return for the second or third hearing, or more— I never tire of his symphonies—you begin hearing all those things that hold the work together. And each time you hear more and more. You are listening to not just the middle but the whole piece. You are listening the way good composers intended you to listen. The bad composers will make no such demands.

Fast forward to Aarvo Part and the minimalists. While it is true that the minimalists (Glass, Reich, Riley) do write subtle changes into their repetitions, nonetheless you can enter into their pieces anywhere and still know what is going on. When I heard an Arvo Part piece, I was struck by the fact that wherever you listened, what came before it didn't matter a bit. It is music written for an isolated instant; you could listen to two minutes of the middle (or beginning or end) and understand the piece. The composer was making no demands on you. He was not saying: now listen to this whole piece or else you won't appreciate it. Any part of it can be appreciated on its own. Your musical memory is unnecessary. It is not good music. It is just music.

There are of course bad classical composers who write music with a beginning, middle and and end. My bête noire is Tchaikovsky, a composer of bluff and bluster surrounding a "plentiful lack" of good musical ideas, but there are other Russians (mainly of the 20th century) who give Tchaikovsky's lack of talent a run for his money...surprising since there were Russian precedents of great instrumental and orchestral works, such as Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as Borodin and Glazunov. The worst piece of music that I have ever heard, bar none, was a Paderewski piano concerto, perhaps the patriarch of today's New Age music. I once suggested to Peter Schickele, when he was still doing music programs for NPR, that he do a special program of Bad Music, with the Paderewski concerto as the prime suspect. Then there is the beloved Rachmaninoff.....and Prokoviev.......add your own. (Second and Third Place in the Worst Music Ever Written category are the Yellow River Concerto and Richard Strauss' Burlesk.)

How do you learn to listen to music? By listening to music. By listening to all kinds of music, of all origins and all composers. Bring your memory along. Listen to entire compositions, not parts. Listen to pieces you never heard before. Turn on your radio to a classical music station like WQXR [in New York City] and listen to whatever is being broadcast. You will hear some tedious repetitions, some war horses, some cliches. That's fine. You will also hear lots of good music you never heard before. I do, all the time. I discovered some of the wonderful Liszt piano transcriptions of musical classics, the piano arrangement of Ravel's La Valse, which is usually broadcast in its orchestral version, and the Ravel orchestral arrangement of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. You will hear glorious period instruments playing Couperin and Bieber. And they all have beginnings, middles and ends. Soon you will know which music is good and which is bad.

In time, you will enjoy more "modern" music too. Try John Adams' chamber piece, John's Alleged Dances, for starters. It's terrific.

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

Monday, September 24, 2012

Business Humour: The Work Ethic

Monday Humour


This week's humour is focused on The Work Ethic:

A man walks into a pet shop in Cambridge, our very own "Silicon Valley", and is browsing around the cages on display. While he's there, another customer walks in and says to the shopkeeper, "I'll have a C monkey, please".

The shopkeeper nods, goes over to a cage at the side of the shop and takes out a monkey. He fits a collar and leash and hands it to the customer, saying "That will be £5,000". The customer pays and walks out with his monkey.

Startled, the man goes over to the shopkeeper and says, "That was a very expensive monkey, most of them are only a few hundred pounds. Why did it cost so much?"

"Oh", says the shopkeeper, "that monkey can program in C very fast, tight code, no bugs, well worth the money."

The man starts to look at the monkeys in the cage. He says to the shop keeper, "That one is even more expensive, £10,000! What does it do?"

"Oh", says the shopkeeper, "that one's a C++ monkey; it can manage object-oriented programming, Visual C++, even some Java, all the really useful stuff."

The man looks around a little longer and sees a third monkey in a cage on its own. The price tag round its neck says £50,000.

He gasps to the shop keeper, "That one costs more than all the others put together! What on earth does it do?"

"Well," says the shopkeeper, "I don't know if it actually does anything, but says it's a Consultant."

I thought the word "service" meant "the act of doing things for others." But when I heard the terms:

Internal Revenue Service
Postal Service
Telephone Service
Civil Service
Public Service
Customer Service
Service Stations

I became confused. Then I overheard a farmer say that he was having a bull over to "service" a few of his cows. Instantly it all came into perspective. Now I understand what all those "service" agencies are doing to us.

I hope you are now as enlightened as I am.

For a couple years I've been blaming it on lack of sleep and too much pressure from my job, but now I found out the real reason: I'm tired because I'm overworked.

The population of this country is 237 million. 104 million are retired. That leaves 133 million to do the work. There are 85 million in school, which leaves 48 million to do the work.

Of this there are 29 million employed by the federal government, leaving 19 million to do the work.
2.8 million are in the Armed Forces, which leaves 16.2 million to do the work. Take from the total the 14,800,000 people who work for State and City Governments and that leaves 1.4 million to do the work.

At any given time there are 188,000 people in hospitals, leaving 1,212,000 to do the work.
Now, there are 1,211,998 people in prisons.

That leaves just two people to do the work—you and me—and you're sitting at your computer reading jokes.

A Moon Program For Cancer

Annals of Medicine

In an article by Meredith Wadman in Nature, the president of the United States' largest cancer-treatment centre has a made a bold statement, reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy's moon challenge fifty years ago.
At a news conference on 21 September, Ronald DePinho, the president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told reporters his institution would spend up to $3 billion over ten years to attack eight cancers in a new “moon shots” programme.
The goal: to dramatically accelerate discoveries that will reduce mortality from the following eight cancers: acute myeloid leukemia/myelodysplastic syndrome; chronic lymphocytic leukemia; melanoma; lung cancer; prostate cancer, and triple-negative breast and ovarian cancers.
These ”inaugural” moon shots DePinho said, were chosen by a panel of 25 experts led by Frank McCormick, the president of the American Association for Cancer Research. They looked at numerous proposals put forward by MD Anderson researchers in the time since DePinho took the job at the helm of MD Anderson one year ago.
It's a bold initiative, but a good one; I was wondering when such an initiative would happen. Undoubtedly, knowledgeable skeptics point out that cancer is a complicated and intelligent disease. Even so, there are always skeptics before every breakthrough, as there were during the early years of the Moon Program.

Yet, such skeptics, although well meaning (or not), never are the individuals at the forefront of innovation and discovery; they lack the imagination and courage. Such is the historical record of innovation. You need money, commitment, hard work and imagination to succeed. Bravo to Dr. DePinho, the MD Anderson Cancer Center and the many benefactors; we wish them well in their great initiative.

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

Quiet Please: Mathematicians Hard At Work

Pure Sciences

Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős, although an atheist, spoke of an imaginary book, in which God has written down all the most beautiful mathematical proofs. When Erdős wanted to express particular appreciation of a proof, he would exclaim "This one's from the Book!". This viewpoint expresses the idea that mathematics, as the intrinsically true foundation on which the laws of our universe are built, is a natural candidate for what has been personified as God by different religious mystics.
John Francis, Philosophy of Mathematics (2008), p. 51

Paul Erdős [1913–1996]: At a student seminar in Budapest in the Fall of 1992. "It is not enough to be in the right place at the right time. You should also have an open mind at the right time."
Source: Wikipedia

When I was young I was fairly good at mathematics, a branch of pure science, but not good enough to become a mathematician. My abilities were limited to the level of math needed to solve engineering equations, which included basic calculus, partial differential equations, boundary value problems (BVP) and finite elemental analysis (FEA).

I was of the generation, the last cohort, to have learned the use of a slide rule in high school; this instrument, along with trigonometry tables, helped to do calculations, including multiplication, division, square roots, trigonometric and exponential functions. By the time I had reached university and the engineering school, we were all using scientific calculators made by Hewlett-Packard (HPs), starting with the HP-35, then considered the best model for our purposes. (We soon evolved to later models like the HP-45, HP-55 and HP-65.)

The calculators were a great help; and we soon were wondering how we had lived without them. While we could use scientific calculators, programmable ones were not allowed during examinations. So, we solved all of our problems with pen and paper. Needless to say, we worked hard on the problems assigned to us, all mathematical-based, but we often did our work in groups, making the time pass away in good camaraderie and competition to see who could solve the problem the fastest; it was both challenging and exhilarating.

After a long week, on Fridays we would go to the university pub for a few beers and a couple of game of pool, and then take our heavy briefcases full of books home for a weekend full of problem solving. Yes, it's also true that some of us in engineering school wore thick glasses—not me— and had pocket protectors, which also held various coloured pens, mechanical pencils, small screwdrivers and small rulers. (Even then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of the top students were Asians, a point that will soon become important.)

Since engineering is essentially a discipline dedicated to problem solving, that is the application of mathematics to solving real-world problems, like energy consumption, heat transfer and mechanical systems design, in my younger years I often wondered of what use was pure mathematics and how mathematical prodigies came about. One of the twentieth century's greatest mathematicians was Paul Erdős, a Jew from Budapest, Hungary, a nation that produced Leó Szilárd, John von Neumann and Edward Teller—all phenomenal scientists whose contributions to math and physics are well known and well regarded.

And, yet, Erdős might have surpassed them all in his love, devotion and contribution to pure mathematics. In My Brain is Open: The Mathematical Journey of Paul Erdős (1998), Bruce Schechter, who holds a PhD from M.I.T., writes:
Paul Erdős's brain, when open, was one of the wonders of the world, an Ali Baba's cave, glittering with mathematical treasures, gems of the most intricate cut and surpassing beauty. Unlike Ali Baba's cave, which was hidden behind a huge stone in a remote desert, Erdős and his brain were in perpetual motion. He moved between mathematical meetings, universities, and corporate think tanks, logging hundreds of thousands of miles. "Another roof, another proof," as he liked to say. "Want to meet Erdős?" mathematicians would ask. "Just stay here and wait. He'll show up." Along the way, in borrowed offices, guest bedrooms, and airplane cabins, Erdős wrote in excess of 1,500 papers, books, and articles, more than any mathematician who ever lived. Among them are some of the great classics of the twentieth century, papers that opened up entire new fields and became the obsession and inspiration of generations of mathematicians. (14)
For most of his productive life as a mathematician, Erdős lived as a peripatetic: he had no place on earth to call home; no wife or children; no family in the traditional sense; and no permanent job. And, yet, he was productive in the truest sense of the word, that few today can emulate. The man who loved proof and conjecture had all that he needed to do mathematics: paper, pencil and his brain, always open. Any mathematician in the world might hear a knock on the front door and open it, Schechter writes, "to find a short, frail man wearing thick eyeglasses and rumpled suit, carrying a suitcase containing all his belongings in one hand and a bag full of papers in the other, who would announce, 'My brain is open.' "

By age four, Erdős was a mathematical prodigy, Schecter writes, but this is not necessarily a precondition for greatness:
Not all mathematicians start life as prodigies. Many, including some of the greatest, led fairly ordinary childhoods and one day stumble over a fascinating problem, or book, or meet an inspirational teacher and become incurably hooked. Others, like Erdős, or the greatest mathematical prodigy of all time, Kark Friedrich Gauss, seem to have been born with memories of the ideal Platinic realm of numbers that only need refreshing. (26)
Mathematicians have often been looked at as eccentric individuals; and there is some truth to that claim, but it should not at all be given any undue notice or importance. Many mathematicians never marry and raise children, but this does not mean they dislike children or the traditions of marriage. Such conventions never enter their calculus; their desires and passions, so to speak, lay elsewhere, in the world of proof and conjecture, Schechter writes:
The activities of mathematics are obscure to outsiders. One frequent guess people hazard is that mathematicians spend their days thinking about numbers. Many, but by no means all, do. More generally—a phrase of which mathematicians are especiually fond—mathematicians investigate the properties and relationships of "mathematical objects." (30)
One of the questions often asked is why some cultures are better at math than others. Apart from particular mathematical prodigies, a rarity, the ability to figure out mathematical problems is not based on evolution. and certainly less so for higher-level math, Schechter says:
"On evolutionary grounds it would be surprising if children were mentally equipped for school mathematics,"  Steven Pinker writes [in his book How The Mind Works]. The reason is that modern mathematics, developed for modern education, is too recent to have had the time to encode on our DNA. School mathematics, a product of cultural evolution, required the development of such tools as language, reading, and writing to expand the abilities of the unaided human mind. Learning mathematics beyond the first intuitive steps is, therefore, largely a matter of hard work. "Without the esteem for hard-won mathematical skills that is common in other cultures," Pinker says, "the mastery is unlikely to blossom." (29)
In other words, cultures and societies that place an importance on hard work will do well mathematically, and elsewhere. Such was the case in Hungary when Erdős was young. The United States, a beacon for immigrants, was fortunate to have attracted a number of great scientists before and after the Second World War; it still continues to do so, but perhaps less than previously. One measure of performance is the international standardized test of 15-year-olds administered every three years in 65 OECD nations, which includes the U.S., Canada and South Korea. In general, Asian and Nordic nations placed near the top; Canada placed sixth after China, South Korea and Finland, and the U.S. ranked 25th, below the OECD average. [see here, here here for more on the latest 2009 results.]

These tests show precisely what they are meant to measure: how one nation of high-school kids compares to another, a snapshot in time. It doesn't show which nation has any mathematical prodigies, since these are always rare, but a general sense of how well Grade 9 students fare on math tests. Generally, the Asians, led by China, are doing well in preparing their students for a scientific career; the students put in long days at school and at home studying, learning and integrating knowledge; leisure time is secondary. Simply put, they work hard, perhaps harder than others.

This is to their credit, since math is essential to science and scientific innovation; the U.S. doesn't require child prodigies as much as it requires a sense, a firm belief if you will, that math is important, more important than developing and playing video games. It can rely on immigration, to some degree, to attract top mathematicians and scientists, but it also has to develop an idea that hard work is the key to success. This is not always apparent.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gustav Mahler: Autopsie d'un Genie

Here is a clip from the 2011 French documentary, Autopsie d'un Genie "Autopsy of a Genius"), on Gustav Mahler, who straddled many worlds, and whose music reflects that struggle of identity and integration. The film was directed by by Andy Sommer and written with Catherine Sauvat.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

James Joyce: Reading From Ulysses—'Aeolus'

Literature & Reason
James Joyce [1882-1941]: The author James Joyce photographed with Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in 1920. 
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Source: Wikipedia

In this Public Domain Review article, you can listen to James Joyce read from his novel, Ulysses, first published by Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1922; this recording is from 1924. Aeolus is the ruler of the winds in Greek mythology; Aeolus is episode seven in Joyce's novel, and it takes place in the Freeman newspaper offices.

The novel, an important work in modernist literature and one of the greatest in the twentieth century, is a carefully structured stream-of-consciousness narrative, divided into 18 episodes, which considers the thoughts and actions of Leopold Bloom in Dublin during one day, June 16, 1904, which was the day that Joyce had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle:
Joyce made this recording in Paris at the HMV studios at the insistence of Sylvia Beach (the woman behind Shakespeare and Company, the publisher’s of Ulysses), although HMV would only loan out their equipment at a cost and would have as little to do with the recording as possible. Beach recounts:
Joyce himself was anxious to have this record made, but the day I took him in a taxi to the factory in Billancourt, quite a distance from town, he was suffering with his eyes and very nervous. Luckily, he and Coppola were soon quite at home with each other, bursting into Italian to discuss music. But the recording was an ordeal for Joyce, and the first attempt was a failure. We went back and began again, and I think the Ulysses record is a wonderful performance. I never hear it without being deeply moved. Joyce had chosen the speech in the Aeolus episode, the only passage that could be lifted out of Ulysses, he said, and the only one that was “declamatory” and therefore suitable for recital. I have an idea that it was not for declamatory reasons alone that he chose this passage from Aeolus. I believe that it expressed something he wanted said and preserved in his own voice. As it rings out – ‘he lifted his voice above it boldly’ – it is more, one feels, than mere oratory.


He began:
      —Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: Great was my admiration in listening to the remarks addressed to the youth of Ireland a moment since by my learned friend. It seemed to me that I had been transported into a country far away from this country, into an age remote from this age, that I stood in ancient Egypt and that I was listening to the speech of some highpriest of that land addressed to the youthful Moses.
      His listeners held their cigarettes poised to hear, their smokes ascending in frail stalks that flowered with his speech. And let our crooked smokes. Noble words coming. Look out. Could you try your hand at it yourself?
      —And it seemed to me that I heard the voice of that Egyptian highpriest raised in a tone of like haughtiness and like pride. I heard his words and their meaning was revealed to me.
It was revealed to me that those things are good which yet are corrupted which neither if they were supremely good nor unless they were good could be corrupted. Ah, curse you! That’s saint Augustine.
      —Why will you jews not accept our culture, our religion and our language? You are a tribe of nomad herdsmen: we are a mighty people. You have no cities nor no wealth: our cities are hives of humanity and our galleys, trireme and quadrireme, laden with all manner merchandise furrow the waters of the known globe. You have but emerged from primitive conditions: we have a literature, a priesthood, an agelong history and a polity.
      Child, man, effigy. By the Nilebank the babemaries kneel, cradle of bulrushes: a man supple in combat: stonehorned, stonebearded, heart of stone.
      —You pray to a local and obscure idol: our temples, majestic and mysterious, are the abodes of Isis and Osiris, of Horus and Ammon Ra. Yours serfdom, awe and humbleness: ours thunder and the seas. Israel is weak and few are her children: Egypt is an host and terrible are her arms. Vagrants and daylabourers are you called: the world trembles at our name.
      A dumb belch of hunger cleft his speech. He lifted his voice above it boldly:
      —But, ladies and gentlemen, had the youthful Moses listened to and accepted that view of life, had he bowed his head and bowed his will and bowed his spirit before that arrogant admonition he would never have brought the chosen people out of their house of bondage, nor followed the pillar of the cloud by day. He would never have spoken with the Eternal amid lightnings on Sinai’s mountaintop nor ever have come down with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance and bearing in his arms the tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw.

You can read the rest of the article and listen to the 1924 recording of Joyce himself at [The Public Domain Review]

Shlomo Mintz: Vivaldi's Four Seasons—'Autumn'

Shlomo Mintz performs from the third movement ("Allegro") of Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons ("L'autunno"), Concerto No. 3 in F major, opus 8, RV 293, accompanied by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta conducting. Autumn (The Fall Equinox) begins in the northern hemisphere today at 10:49 a.m. (EDT).


Friday, September 21, 2012

Chen Kaige's 'Sacrifice': Based on 'Orphan of Zhao'

This is the official trailer from the Chinese film, Sacrifice (2010), written and directed by Chen Kaige, who is responsible for bring stage works, Farewell, My Concubine and Forever Enthralled, to the big screen. Sacrifice is about misused power and the desire for revenge and retribution; it contains elements of both Shakespeare and the Jewish Bible (i,e, story of Moses). The film is based on thirteenth-century dramatist Ji Junxiang's "Orphan of Zhao," the first Chinese play made popular in Europe.

The film has a number of complicated turns and twists; The Hollywood Reporter writes:
The film is set in the Kingdom of Jun in 583 B.C. Prime minster Zhao Tun presides over his ancient and illustrious 300-member clan. His son Shuo is a war hero who married the King’s sister Zhuangji, and they are expecting a child. Such perfect bliss is simply intolerable for their court rival Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi).
Tu’s scheme to cause the Zhao clan’s downfall is so elaborate it makes one’s head spin. It involves a mad dog, a killer mosquito fed on poison, a horse-tripping rope, a chariot with its wheels sawed off, and wine supposed to distill political magnanimity to a ruler. All this unfolds within 20 minutes without a narrative hitch.
And that’s just the prelude to the prologue. There’s an even more twisty yarn of how Zhuangji’s infant son is rescued with the joint efforts of Zhuangji’s gynecologist Cheng Ying (Ge You); Han Jue, a general sent to kill Zhao (Huang Xiaoming); and the Zhao’s longtime ally Gongsun (Zhang Fengyi). The most crucial point here being: Cheng’s newborn son dies in the orphan’s place. So Cheng names the boy Bo and raises him to avenge Tu. He enters Tu’s household as a retainer, and Bo becomes Tu’s godson.

The Church, The State & The Jews: Post-Soviet Russia

The Jews & Christianity

There are very good historical reasons, both political and religious, to explain the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church in a post-Soviet Russia. Much of it is centered on a need for meaning in a society that has changed too quickly for too many persons. The return to familiar roots has brought comfort to many Russians; perhaps more surprising, it has attracted some Jews from the intelligentsia. There is the famous case of Father Alexander Men, a Jew by birth, who was murdered at age 55 in suspicious circumstances in 1990; the case remains unsolved.

Russia's history is no stranger to turmoil; and such national tumults that turn and twist and distort the natural order of things have the consequence of leading some individuals to seek comforting if not comfortable answers to existential questions; secular ideologies are one path; religion is a far older and tested path. Why does the former prove appealing? In Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism (1997), Masha Gessen, a Jew from Russia, poses the same question upon meeting with another Jew, who later on in his life turned to the Russian Orthodox Church, for answers:
The question I had so wanted Father Vladimir to answer, then, lay in a reality he had left behind. The reasons  he chose to devote himself to religion were of the same paradoxical set that any educated middle-aged man or woman anywhere in the world might cite abandoning the familiar framework of rational godlessness. The desperate need for meaning and commonality did not simply overpower the intelligentsia's concepts of honor and moral action—it rendered them irrelevant. (69)
Perhaps so. Yet, for Jews it's always more complicated. There are also the practical reasons, such as the fact that before he became Father Vladimir—he came from a family of dissidents— he had married a Russian woman, a poet, in the 1970s; she was interested in mysticism and Christianity, their two children were baptized and the couple traveled uneasily between the world of intellectual writers and the Orthodox church. That is, until he reached middle-aged and had his proverbial crisis of meaning; he couldn't turn to Judaism for a number of reasons, least of which was that his wife was not Jewish, nor were his children.

It's now easy to apply psychological terms to such decisions, particularly as it applies to such men as Father Vladimir ("Volodia"), a Jew by birth if not by choice, coming from a family of dissidents, now joining an institution that were the oppressors of his family. 
Moreover, with known KGB agents at the helm of the Church, Volodia was now employed by some of the same people who had persecuted his mother, a writer who was guilty before the state in two ways; she was Jewish and she had published a book abroad. Volodia had been raised in an environemnt where one would not shake the hand of someone known to cooperate with the KGB, much less go to work for a collaborator.  (62)
To join a church, an institution, with very close ties to a repressive state, speaks unkindly, yet understandably, about the lengths that Jews will go to free themselves from persecution; some will call this a form of self-denial, others a form of self-abnegation; and yet others the need for self-preservation. If the Soviet Union was good at anything, it was masterful in its application of Marxist-Stalinist ideology to eliminate all traces of  foreign religion and foreign culture, including Jewish religion, culture and identity in its aim to fashion or, better still, to create "The New Soviet Man," which like all mass social engineering programs has had unintended consequences. [There is also an excellent 2007 article by Slava Gerovitch of MIT on how the cosmonaut was positioned as the epitome of the New Soviet Man.]

To be sure, the effects of such policies are still resonating in a post-Soviet Russia, and perhaps more so today than twenty years ago as deep-set cynicism and nihilism has set in. So, in order for men like Father Vladimir to find community, to gain acceptance, he doesn't have to work hard to subvert a Jewish identity; it was never really born; it was never really allowed to take shape and mature, and at best it was always a negative identity, associated in the minds of the majority of Russians as having distinct negative qualities.

By joining the Russian Orthodox Church, all such matters as Jewish identity, ethnicity, rational arguments and individual rights and freedoms are secondary to serving the "higher" needs of the state. The burdens of identity and politics are no longer present, considered unimportant; dismissing such thoughts might even be considered freedom. Yet, for others, myself included, the cost of such "freedom" would be too great.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jesus' Wife Named Mary, Ancient Fragment Says

Judaism's Second Temple Period

There has always been quiet internal debate within some sects of Christianity on whether the biblical Jesus was married; the official canon says that he was not and remained celibate until his death, aged 33. A small fragment of papyrus, written in ancient Egyptian Coptic, however, might prove otherwise. As an article in Time says:
On Tuesday, Harvard historian Karen L. King presented to the world a small papyrus fragment, which she calls The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. It could suggest Jesus was indeed married: “Jesus said to them, my wife … she will be able to be my disciple” reads a part of the fragment of a Coptic codex dating back to the fourth century A.D. “ This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife,” King, who is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard’s Divinity School, wrote in a draft paper presented at a conference in Rome.
“It’s not evidence for us historically that Jesus had a wife,” King stresses in a video posted on YouTube. “It’s clear evidence that some Christians, probably in the second half of the second century, thought that Jesus had a wife.” The text is written in a dialect of the Coptic language, which today survives only in the liturgy of the Egyptian Coptic Christian church. The text should be considered part of the “vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage” among early Christians, as King was quoted as saying in a Harvard press release—debates that still persist nearly two millennia later. “Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married,” she said. “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise.”
Whatever one thinks or knows about the "Christian" Jesus, and we know very little apart from what is written in the biblical texts, this finding might help to place him into a historical Jewish context. If one takes into consideration that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew and was referred to as a rabbi ("teacher"), it would conform to the traditions of the time if he were married; and Mary Magdalene is the most likely choice. The fact that the traditional Christian canon, aided in large part by Paul of Tarsus and then confirmed by the Church Fathers centuries later, says that Jesus was celibate, flies in the face of Jewish tradition during the Second Temple Period. 

Jesus might have been exception, of course, which would explain one of the reasons why he was on the margins of Jewish society. But I have my doubts. This is the type of exciting scholarship that places giant religious figures like Jesus of Nazareth into their proper historical context—as a Jewish rabbi and possibly a Pharisee.  For most of the world's Christians, however, tradition will supersede scientific discovery, no matter what historians point out as possibly true.

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

What Humans Want


Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves. 
Abraham Lincoln

There have been a number of books and films centred on what women want, a nod to modernity where the needs of women become as important (or moreso in some circles) as those of men, whose needs, anyway, have been considered supreme for ages. The status of women's rights, although singularly important, is a good indicator of the health of human rights in general, and act as a fairly accurate barometer of the state of humanity in general. So, the central question of our age—Sustaining Humanity—ought to take in a more broader audience of individuals that encompass both men and women.

In other words, here are some things that humans in general want; the list is doubtless not exhaustive but serves as a good starting point:
  1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
  2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
  3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
  5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
  7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Astute readers will note these needs conform precisely to the first seven articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on December 10, 1948, almost 65 years ago, when the memory of the Second World War was still current. While the United Nations, in its current form, has become weakened and diluted as an international body, hijacked by special and narrow interests, this document has great merit—despite its poor application in many, if not the majority, of the 193 nations that comprise the U.N.

In the West, when humanity breaks into distinct and narrow groups, an understandable human need for like-minded affiliation, it weakens the need for broader understanding of what humanity needs. It becomes a battle for what gay men want; a battle for what feminists want; a battle for what transgender persons want; a battle for what unions want, and so on. In a continuum of special needs and privileges, it becomes a battle for attention among the many special interest and aggrieved groups.

While all, or more likely, some, of these particular groups have grievances against the state, few are legitimate human-rights issues, and thus raising them up constantly reduces the spotlight on individuals, both men and women, who in various parts of the globe truly have highly legitimate human rights needs. In such cases, their very existence as free human beings are in peril. The list of such nations are well-known. [see Freedom House "Freedom in the World 2012"]
The number of countries designated by Freedom in the World as Free in 2011 stood at 87, representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and 3,016,566,100 people—43 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries did not change from the previous year’s survey.
Without a doubt, freedom is the central issue of the day, and encapsulates and symbolizes what humans both want and need. Consider. It might be a good idea for special-interest groups in the West who cherish their hard-won freedoms, which took generations to achieve, to consider how today religious and ideological extremism undermines and erodes our deserved freedoms. They might consider the importance of helping those in non-free nations through NGOs, for example, to strengthen the fragile institutions of democracy and civil society in nations like Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran.

If Freedom itself is under attack, and I sense that it is in many nations and societies, the special needs and privileges granted to the few will become a victim of freedom's loss as well. At times like this, we have to step back from our particular narrow needs, perhaps temporarily, and to use a cliché appropriate for the times, "Look at the Bigger Picture."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Demand For Ivory Leads To Slaughtering Of Elephants

Ritual Sacrifice

The demand for ivory is so high that tens of thousands of elephants are killed each year for their tusks, which are carved into religious artifacts, says an article in National Geographic by Oliver Payne; this is taking place despite an international ban that has been in place since 1990. Ivory's veneration crosses religious boundaries and is revered among Catholics in the Philippines, among Muslims in Egypt and among Buddhists in China, the nation with the greatest demand:
The elephant is revered in Buddhism and is a symbol of Thailand. Monks there give out ivory amulets in return for donations. Kruba Dharmamuni, a prominent monk known as the Elephant Monk, wears an ivory elephant-head pendant suspended from ivory prayer beads representing the 108 human passions.
"Ivory removes bad spirits," Dharmamuni told National Geographic. Ivory also earns him money. The Elephant Monk takes in thousands of dollars a month from amulets of ivory and other materials sold in his temple gift shop.
In China, religious themes are common in carved ivory pieces. Newly rich Chinese are snapping up ivory in the form of Buddhist and Taoist gods and goddesses. Prices can be astronomical: Christy reports seeing a carved ivory Guanyin on sale for the equivalent of U.S. $215,000. Guanyin is the Buddhist goddess of mercy, a Madonna-like figure who doubles as a fertility goddess.
Buddhist monks in China perform a ceremony called kai guang, the opening of light, to consecrate religious icons, just as some Filipino priests will bless Catholic images made of illegal ivory for their followers. "To be respectful of the Buddha," the report quotes a Chinese collector, "one should use precious material. If not ivory then gold. But ivory is more precious."
For those who complain about Jewish ritual slaughter of cows, which is done humanely for human consumption, here is something to think about. Tens of thousands of African elephants are slaughtered each year, many en masse with automatic weapons like AK47s, in such nations as Chad, Cameroon, Kenya and Tanzania. It's a killing field and is not a pretty sight. This illegal practice will, sadly, continue as long as the demand is there, and as long as the world remains silent about it.

You can read the full article, "Blood Ivory," by Bryan Christy at [National Geographic]


Irrational Behaviour

In this article, George Jochnowitz examines irrational behaviour and hatreds, a common occurrence today. Irrational behaviour, part of our human psychology, can drive stock markets and economies both upward and downward. Politically, it can lay bare hatreds and the need to kill. We can learn a lot from art and literature, Prof Jochnowitz writes: "Eugene Ionesco explores the question of mass hysteria in his 1959 play Rhinoceros. He apparently was inspired by the rise and spread of Nazi sentiment before World War II, but the play is not realistic and not overtly political. Every character in the play except one decides to turn into a rhinoceros. It is the thing to do. The characters cannot resist the temptation to change into rough, rampaging animals. Ionesco gives us no answers, but he recognizes that sometimes a whole community becomes psychotic. He named this phenomenon “rhinoceritis.”

by George Jochnowitz
Stock market crashes and depressions are not ordinarily caused by floods, droughts, transportation failures, earthquakes or other such tangible problems. The most important reasons for economic crises are psychological. Buying and selling stock reflects people’s views and hopes. One sudden drop leads to many others. Mass hysteria follows.

Mass hysteria has never been understood. We have seen murderous reactions to the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed in countries as far from each other as Pakistan and Nigeria. Violence has taken place between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip. For years we have seen destructive violence in Iraq, where Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims killed each other. There is a long history of conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, and there is added hostility concerning issues of power under Iraq’s new constitution and the al-Maliki government, but the intensity of their emotions seemed to be connected to an unrelated issue: many radical Iraqis feel hatred towards America and Israel. Hatred is hatred. If you feel you have to kill somebody and if the somebody is not there waiting to be killed, you kill whoever is available.

Eugene Ionesco explores the question of mass hysteria in his 1959 play Rhinoceros. He apparently was inspired by the rise and spread of Nazi sentiment before World War II, but the play is not realistic and not overtly political. Every character in the play except one decides to turn into a rhinoceros. It is the thing to do. The characters cannot resist the temptation to change into rough, rampaging animals. Ionesco gives us no answers, but he recognizes that sometimes a whole community becomes psychotic. He named this phenomenon “rhinoceritis.”

The rise of the Nazi Party, the inspiration for Ionesco’s play, may have been the result of the fusion between two different but irrational movements: anti-Semitism and fascism. The word “anti-Semitism” was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, who wanted a movement that would continue to hate Jews even if they had lost their religion or converted to Christianity. Before Marr, the words used to justify hating Jews—whatever the underlying motives might have been—were based on interpretations of the Bible, in particular Matthew 27:25, where we read the following verse about the Jews: “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.” Marr wanted Jews to be hated because of their genes, not their religion. His movement grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It had no connection, at first, with fascism, an irrationally nationalist party that Mussolini created in 1919 and which took power in 1922. Hatreds apparently seek other hatreds and unite with them, creating new hatreds exponentially more powerful than either hatred was alone.

Selling stock is very different from hatred. Economics is very different from prejudice. Nevertheless, mass hysteria can occur in all sorts of different situations. Why did the Dow-Jones average drop? Rhinoceritis.

Literature may point to a psychological problem before it has been recognized as such. That’s what Ionesco’s Rhinoceros did. Today people are choosing to turn into rhinoceroses all over the world. We have to fight them, of course. We also have to try to learn what made them go crazy.

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 post, in a somewhat different version, it does not mention the Dow Jones average at all, was originally published in Volume 22, No. 1 (2008) of the New Zealand-based journal Mentalities/Mentalités; it can also be found on George Jochnowitz.   It is republished here with the author's permission.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

China and Japan Dispute Gas-Rich Islands

Chinese-Japanese Relations

A territorial dispute between Japan and China over a chain of unoccupied islands has become more tense lately, The Guardian reports. The decision by Japan to nationalize the disputed, gas-rich islands in the East China Sea that it purchased from its Japanese owner has led to violent protests in China and reopened old wounds; the incident is a reminder of the painful history between these two Asian economic powers, a history that predate the Second World War.
The sharpening dispute over the Senkaku islands, known as Diaoyu in China, is the most recent product of this old narrative of violence, hatred, fear and grief that continues, sporadically, to obstruct both nations in their efforts to forge a more stable, trusting relationship. But understanding its roots does not render it less potent. The Americans, who still view themselves as the Asia-Pacific's leading power, are increasingly nervous.
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, currently visiting Japan, pointedly warned that "provocative behaviour" by either side could lead to misjudgments, violence and, potentially, open warfare. "It is in everybody's interest … for Japan and China to maintain good relations and to find a way to avoid further escalation," Panetta said. In this he echoed Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who this month stressed the need for restraint and dialogue between China and several south-east Asian countries with which Beijing has territorial disputes.
China's unhappy legacy of foreign occupation and its sense that an unrepentant Japan is party to a US-orchestrated geo-strategic conspiracy to contain or limit its development as a great power also form part of the backdrop to the Senkakus standoff. While claiming he was not taking sides, Panetta confirmed in Tokyo that the islands were covered by the Japan-US security and defence treaty. That means, in theory at least, that Washington is bound to help Japan defend territory that China says has been illegally seized.
Today marks the anniversary of The Mukden, or Manchurian Incident, of September 18, 1931; this became the pretext for Imperial Japan's invasion of northern China and a subsequent occupation by Japanese forces. Chinese commentators continue to note that Japan has "never fully come to terms with its wartime actions, let alone shown genuine remorse." On Monday, a flotilla of 1,000 Chinese fishing boats set sail for the islands. The dispute threatens to undermine trade relations between the world's second (China) and third (Japan) largest economies valued at $340 billion a year.

You can read the rest of the article at [The Guardian]