Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Last Post

Good-Bye For Now

After three years and more than 1,400 posts, it is now the right time to review what I have achieved during this period, and to do so with an intelligent and rational purpose of coming to a meaningful decision. First, I hope that I have made a small contribution to engaging and debating ideas that shape our human condition, and moreover have done so in a thoughtful and honest way. If this is the case, and you can be the judge, I have achieved something important. But all good things, as the saying goes, must eventually come to an end.

This decision was not an easy one to make but a necessary one. A contributing factor has been my neuropathy, chemo induced peripheral neuropathy, to be precise, which makes it difficult to write. If you have read my cancer blog, there is no need to explain further. I hope that this condition will improve, allowing me to continue my writing later on. I love writing, but I need to give my body time to heal, to recover. Such is my purpose.

Second, I would like to thank all the wonderful individuals who contributed articles, thus helping to make it a success: it recently reached 400,000 page-views. Many things come together to make something a success, and for blogs it’s the content, it’s the writing that engages readers. I am thankful to Prof. George Jochnowitz, Ms. Lorna Salzman, Mr. Salomon Benzimra and Prof. Gad Saad for their many well-written and thoughtful essays, and to Mr. S.L. Levy for his photo essays on humanity and to Mr. Jacob Greenbaum, for his short story.

I might not always agree with their arguments, points of view or how they interpret ideas, but I will always defend their right to say it, notably in a public forum. Such is one of the fundamentals of free speech and debate. Without thoughtful and rational countering points of views, how can individuals know, or test, the validity of their views? Echo chambers are hardly suitable for such things.

Third, I must also give due mention to my wife, Olga (Sarah), who has been a faithful, loving and constant supporter of my writing throughout the years. Thank you, Oggie, for being there for me, notably when my need was greatest and my morale weakest.

And, yet, as important as the writing is, it’s the readers that make writing and posting the articles and essays all the more rewarding. I am thankful that I have “met” many wonderful people around the world, simply by posting articles online. It has been a rewarding experience in ways that go beyond the monetary and financial; and I can say this since this blog has truly been a labour of love, done without any expectation of financial reward or remuneration.

Given its importance and dominance in my life (ask my wife), I might return to this blog in the future, adding to the many articles it contains. Yet, predicting the future is always an exercise in hopeful thinking. This decision is predicated on my ability to use the keyboard without pain or discomfort, which is currently not the case. All the best to you, my dear readers, be well and healthy, and keep on fighting the good fight.

In keeping with the spirit of Jewish New Year (Rosh HaShanah), 5774, which takes place after sundown on September 4th, I wish everyone l’Shanah Tovah.

London's Long Tradition With CoffeHouses

Public Discussion

Inside of a 17th Century Coffee-House: “A small body-colour drawing of the interior of a
London coffeehouse from c. 1705. Everything about this oozes warmth and welcome from
the bubbling coffee cauldron right down to the flickering candles and kind eyes of the coffee
drinkers,” Green points out.
Source: Wikimedia

An article, by Mathew Green, in the Public Domain Review says that London has had a long tradition with coffee and the coffee-houses where men congregated and discussed and vigorously debated the issues of the day.  It is interesting to note that while England is often associated with tea drinking (introduced around 1658), coffee gained a loyal clientele a decade or so before tea did—both replacing gin and ale as the public’s favourite beverages.

Coffee has been available on the European island since the mid-17th century, Green writes:
London’s coffee craze began in 1652 when Pasqua Rosée, the Greek servant of a coffee-loving British Levant merchant, opened London’s first coffeehouse (or rather, coffee shack) against the stone wall of St Michael’s churchyard in a labyrinth of alleys off Cornhill. Coffee was a smash hit; within a couple of years, Pasqua was selling over 600 dishes of coffee a day to the horror of the local tavern keepers. For anyone who’s ever tried seventeenth-century style coffee, this can come as something of a shock — unless, that is, you like your brew “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit. It’s not just that our tastebuds have grown more discerning accustomed as we are to silky-smooth Flat Whites; contemporaries found it disgusting too. 
One early sampler likened it to a “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes” while others were reminded of oil, ink, soot, mud, damp and shit. Nonetheless, people loved how the “bitter Mohammedan gruel”, as The London Spy described it in 1701, kindled conversations, fired debates, sparked ideas and, as Pasqua himself pointed out in his handbill The Virtue of the Coffee Drink (1652), made one “fit for business” — his stall was a stone’s throw from that great entrepôt of international commerce, the Royal Exchange. 
Remember — until the mid-seventeenth century, most people in England were either slightly — or very — drunk all of the time. Drink London’s fetid river water at your own peril; most people wisely favoured watered-down ale or beer (“small beer”). The arrival of coffee, then, triggered a dawn of sobriety that laid the foundations for truly spectacular economic growth in the decades that followed as people thought clearly for the first time. The stock exchange, insurance industry, and auctioneering: all burst into life in 17th-century coffeehouses — in Jonathan’s, Lloyd’s, and Garraway’s — spawning the credit, security, and markets that facilitated the dramatic expansion of Britain’s network of global trade in Asia, Africa and America.
That coffee has contributed to political debate and to the increase of democracy and commerce seems like a natural fit when examining its stimulating influence more than 200 years later. Today, coffee is everywhere, so fitted to our culture that it is almost not noticeable. It’s true that every so often a researcher publishes a scientific or medical study looking at coffee’s less than desirable benefits, but most people ignore them. The evidence is all around us; if you look you can see people today taking their morning coffee to work, and then there’s, of course, the ritualized coffee break.

Coffee-houses might still be the place to meet, but not in the same way; today’s places of a million kinds of coffees are clean, comfortable and often decorated without a sense of originality or individuality. But you know what to expect, and for many this is good. At the large, well-known coffee chains, for example, servers are young and keen to please. You get a decent cup of coffee and the freedom to sit ignored and unnoticed. The sounds and sights differ, as well—there’s less rowdy or spirited discussion, less of a diverse crowd and more the sound of tapping keyboards and glowing screens associated with the younger generation. So be it; it’s their world.

Sometimes a story can tell a tale. More than a decade ago, a friend of mine and I went to a café in Montreal’s Little Italy district; I believe it was called Café Dante and it was on the corner of that self-named street; how poetic, how perfect. We were there on a Saturday morning, where we were the only non-Italians in the place, and the only patrons under the age of 65. We were served by a charming middle-aged Italian woman, who I would guess was the owner.

In the midst of our speaking English and the men speaking Italian—discussing and debating and gesticulating with their hands—we spent an enjoyable few hours. We drank three cups of the finest cappuccino I have ever tasted, and at cost much cheaper than can be found at those well-known chains; I have not had as good a cup since then.

It’s not hard to say why.

You can read the rest of the article at [Public Domain Review]

Friday, August 30, 2013

Book Review: Saramago’s ‘Blindness’

Book Review

José Saramago [1922-2010]: “You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner on the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of  life, our lives.” 
Photo Credit: Poster, premiere in Argentina of the short film “La Flor mas grande del Mundo,” 
based on a story by the author; January 2008
Source: Wikipedia


Blindness by José Saramago; 
Trans by Giovanni Pontiero; 
Harcourt; 1997.

In José Saramago’s Blindness, losing sight is the universal theme running through this masterpiece of a literary work. The Portuguese writer describes with utter precision the thoughts, feelings and actions of a small number of individuals when a whole population of an unnamed town, save one individual, the wife of an ophthalmologist, become physically blind—struck by an epidemic of “white blindness.” This leads to an expected breakdown of social order, to chaos and to lawlessness.

The State reacts by taking the sightless to a mental institution, secured by armed guards, where they are quarantined, essentially as a way to restore law and order and keep the ill individuals out of sight, or at least isolate them and prevent them from contaminating the healthy population. Inside this hospital, criminals establish their own “laws,” where rape, theft and other common criminal activities take place without any retribution or punishment. How naturalistic. How tragic.

To a great degree, the novel is more about losing sight in a non-physical sense, and thus explains its focus on the many moral moral or ethical decisions that leaders make, which makes this novel appealing to those who see such things as the loss of morality and ethics as problematic today in western democracies. To a great degree this presents itself  as an indictment of policy-makers, lost in their darkness and delusions, who collectively have an inability to get out of it. It’s the blind leading the blind, to quote a biblical aphorism.

To his credit, Saramago’s novel has struck a deep chord that resonates as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago. After he published this work in Portuguese in 1995 and an English translation in 1997, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. I read the book in 1999, and re-read parts of it again this year. The language, textured and laden with symbolism, has the ability to not only evoke rich emotions but also thoughts. It is important to note that Saramago was both a declared communist and an atheist, and that such views had a clear influence on all his writings, including this novel.

His work touches on the human aspects of modern life, including urbanization, alienation and the need for humans to find a way to establish connections and relationships. It is also about the relationship between the state and its citizens, and how these often play out in times of crisis. Consider the following passage on how the State decides to manage its problem with “white blindness”:
The suggestion had come from the minister himself. It was, whichever way one looked at it, a fortunate not to say perfect idea, both from the point of view of the merely sanity aspects of the case and from that of the social implications and their political consequences. Until the causes were established, or, to use the appropriate terms, the etiology of the white evil, as, thanks to the inspiration of an imaginative assessor, this unpleasant-sounding blindness came to be called, until such time as treatment and cure might be found, and perhaps a vaccine that might prevent the appearance of any cases in the future, all the people who had turned blind, as well as those who had been in physical contact or in any way close to these patents, should be rounded up and isolated so as to avoid any further cases of contagion, which once confirmed, would multiply more or less according to what is mathematically referred to as a compound ration. (34)
No doubt, with such an argument it makes perfect mathematical sense to take a particular course of action. So, yes, they were rounded up and placed in an abandoned mental hospital, all for their own good, of course. That it was also good for the state is not denied in this tale of how states view public disorders.  The contagion, physical in this case, can also be applied to ideas that a state, for whatever reason, finds problematic and in disagreement with its stated aims and purposes.

The more authoritarian the state, the greater the need to monitor and control dissent. In the most extreme cases, the contagion takes on an anthropomorphic sense or shape, which is necessary to garner the assent of the people for future actions that some might otherwise find objectionable. Careful use of language is necessary, and the most skillful writers are typically employed.

To be sure, in  times of crisis, crisis-management is necessary to restore order and return a sense of confidence, of the government, in the public space. It’s a matter of using the right language to get its message across, one understood by the most illiterate amongst them. That the contagion need be eradicated, given its potential harm to the public health and order, then makes perfect sense to most people. Such is how modern genocides can take place, when people who, blinded by the light of safety and security, who would otherwise wince at harming a dog or cat, can find themselves so easily committing acts of evil, can so easily do irrevocable harm to another human.

When language is used to reduce individuals to “parasites” and “contagions” the public becomes easily complicit in their eradication. Resistance is thus reduced to levels necessary to act in accordance with the wishes of the state; the desire to please, to serve the interests of the nation, to feel a part of something greater and nobler can undercut any current of resistance in many humans. As can the need for personal safety.

Individual freedom is a wonderful idea, but not easily understood or accepted, let alone attained. This is particularly made more difficult if you have not been free, but under bondage.
Say to a blind man, you’re free, open the door that was separating you from the world. Go, you are free, we tell him once more, and he does not go, he has remained motionless there in the middle of the road, he and the others, they are terrified, they do not know where to go, the fact is that there is no comparison between living in a national labyrinth, which is, by definition, a mental asylum and venturing forth, without a guiding hand, or a dog-leash, into the demented labyrinth of the city, where memory will serve no purpose, for it will merely be able to recall the images of places but not the paths whereby we might get there. (195)
It’s been shown that when individuals live for years, if not decades, under an authoritarian regime, whether religious or secular, they have a difficult time making decisions when freed from its many restrictions. People become helpless and dependent, like little children, expecting someone to tell them what to do and where to go. Igor Kon, a Russian scientist who studied the “New Soviet Man,” named this acquired helplessness syndrome. Some, however, courageous in their convictions and with an understanding, however dim, of what is at stake, will take the necessary steps to become and remain free.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Banking For The Poor: Pawnshops

Money Matters
Pawnbroking has changed little since its origins in fifth-century China and medieval Europe: small loans are advanced against personal possessions of the borrower held as collateral. Though they existed in premodern society, pawnshops did not become a ubiquitous presence until the early years of industrial capitalism. Pawnshops were common in eighteenth-century British cities like London and Manchester—the cradle of the industrial revolution—but New York’s first pawnshop was not founded until 1822, and they did not proliferate in American cities until the middle of the next century. Pawnbrokers everywhere strove to make themselves instantly recognizable to persons, including illiterate ones, desperate for quick cash. In China, pawnbrokers hung a distinctive decorative staff from their storefronts; in Europe and the United States, the universally recognized symbol was three golden balls.
—“The Secondary Credit Market,”
Buy Now Pay Later: A History of Personal Credit,

An article, by Stephanire Clifford & Jessica Silver-Greenberg in The New York Times says as traditional banks tighten their services to the poor, to the less affluent, the poor are turning to pawn shops for financial services like cheque cashing and bill paying.

Clifford & Silver-Greenberg write:
As banks zero in on more affluent customers who promise twice the revenue of their lower-income counterparts, close branches in poor areas and remain stingy with credit, pawnshops are revamping their image and stepping into the void to offer financial services.“The way the banks have tightened up so much on making small loans and making equity loans, we’ve kind of evolved into, I like to call it the poor man’s bank,” said Robbie Whitten, chief executive of Money Mizer Pawn and Jewelry of Columbus, Ga.
There are, however, plenty of potential drawbacks, consumer advocates say.Some loans from pawnshops can come with interest rates as high as 25 percent. And fringe financial operations, the consumer advocates say, can imperil lower-income customers’ ability to save for the future. Without a traditional checking or savings account, borrowers often pay more for basic financial transactions like cashing checks, paying bills and wiring money, financial counselors say. And because pawnshops do not seek or report matters affecting credit scores, pawnshop banking makes it hard for customers to build credit history.
“Consumers need to be aware that the products don’t always carry the same protections as those you would get from a bank,” said Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.
This is true, as is the evidence that pawnshops cannot offer the same level or sophisticated package of financial services that banks do. Even so, they fill a need, a space that banks have vacated. At the very least pawn shops offer the less-affluent some level of service that they would not otherwise obtain. As for credit scores, this speaks of a future event, when poorer individuals and those with bad credit will eventually have the financial means to make major purchases like homes, cars and other durable goods. In other words, human consumption.

In an insecure economy, however, where good full-time jobs are scarce—and becoming scarcer—such abstract mathematical numbers like credit scores matter little, especially when individuals are looking to survive daily in a heartless money-driven world. A credit score—and the lengths that individuals will go to maintain it— represents how financial institutions, and the people that set its policies, are so far removed from the rest of humanity. The growth of pawn shops, however some might bemoan that situation, represents a new normal in America.

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Human Benefits Of Gaining Life Experiences

The Human Factor

“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”
Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau [1817-1862]: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have 
not stood up to live.”
Creditcirca 1855; Illustration from the book, American Men of Letters: Henry D. Thoreau by F.B. Sanborn. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884.
One of the few benefits of becoming older is that advanced age suggests that you have collected decades of life experiences; some good, some less so. And yet the experiences are there, sorted and counted, often remembered in some fashion and discussed, notably with friends and family. Their importance cannot be denied, often emphasized in a humane and humane manner by individuals who have both made many mistakes and learned many lessons.

Experience is one of the many things that cannot be purchased—for any price by any person; experience is not for the young; it can never be. It is for those individuals who have lived life and through the living have gained (some) knowledge on how to live further.

It’s interesting to note that the primary function of the human organism is to first survive and live on; in our daily movements, including work, family and community, we can forget that survival is key and that our lives as humans are closely connected to this necessity. And, yet, survival itself is only the beginning of the human experience; living and experiencing our surroundings is what we do to attain full individual lives.  It is a full life that we desire; or I suspect that many of us do.

Yet, you can’t really understand life until you have lived it a great deal, which makes the 50s the age when one begins to put life’s experience in perspective. (I am 55) The later decades of life are when one begins to understand and then practice the real purpose of life: enjoying human relationships chief among them.

Such explains the importance of experience, which is two-fold; 1) as a way to learn to live life for enjoyment and pleasure, that is to experience life’s offerings with understanding and emotion; and 2) as a way to learn, to interpret and to understand, as rational knowledge, life’s lessons, so to speak. The first is personal and individual; the second is more universal and rational, where some of it can be imparted to others, notably to a younger generation open to receiving. This is not always the case, and moreover many confuse the second purpose with the first.

While knowledge acquisition, as it is often called today, is important, it is not the focus of the first reason. The first is to enjoy life; such is the only purpose. I suspect that many people have a hard time doing this, seeing it necessary to do the second. Take, for example, a family going on a trip to Europe to see some of the world’s heritage sites; for some this becomes a reason to have a check-list of things to see, including museums, historic buildings and monuments. In the process of meeting the dictatorial requirements of the self-imposed vacation check-list, the experience of leisurely enjoying the sites is diminished. One even wonders if there is even any knowledge gained.

There is a remarkable difference between collecting, collating and curating a series of life events and actually listening, learning and laughing from them; one is harder to attain than the other. It’s not that one is superior but rather of a different order. It depends on how one views the purpose of living life. For some, its purpose is to chiefly collect experiences, as one would collect art, as a proof to others that their life has been full, complete, if you will. And there are the supporting photos.

In such cases, is the time wasted? No, but the experience differs from someone who views such trips in a more personal manner. I would prefer a generally unplanned vacation and decide what to do when I arrive at a destination, making such trips more eventful and surprising. Planning has its purposes but not for vacations and trips of leisure. One of the purposes of such trips is to experience the local culture, which includes meeting the local people; such might be at least equal to seeing historical sights.

I always enjoy chance encounters with people sitting at cafés and restaurants, and striking up a conversation. I have made a number of acquaintances and friends in this manner. Yes, the human factor. It might be that such an approach to living is more directed at people; such encounters have enriched my life over the years and have given me added knowledge and experiences in which to shape my thoughts and views. These I cherish and count among my many fond memories.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What Comes First: Talent Or Success?

The Creative Life

An article, by Meg Wolitzer, in the Financial Times says that talent does not necessarily lead to success, and it might be that only the successful are considered talented. In other words, the understood order of success following talent has now been reversed.

Wolitzer gives the example of a famous violinist who played unnoticed in a Washington subway station.
When Joshua Bell, one of the world’s pre-eminent violinists, stood playing in the subway in Washington DC in 2007 as part of a now-famous social experiment in perception, most commuters hurried past, unaware of who he was or how much better – freakishly better – his offering was than the usual busker fare. Without that red arrow of success, Joshua Bell’s talent could easily be overlooked, rushed past, drowned out by the pressing thought: must … get … to ... work.
Experiencing something unusual and especially great can remind you of the absurdity of the often-floated idea that virtually anyone can just become creatively brilliant. Of course practice is essential; and, arguably, certain aspects of artistic achievement can be taught. But when you come upon a rare and indisputable talent, you hear and see and feel things that were previously unimaginable. People say “That’s the real thing”, as though implicitly making a comparison with everything else out there that’s been revealed as a distraction, thin or false.
Of course it’s better to be talented and successful than talented and obscure. Not only is life far easier, and not only does the money allow you the opportunity to keep doing what you love, but finding an appreciative audience – whether listeners, readers or whoever else – can be a relief to someone used to working in a vacuum, or a hovel. But more than ever now, talent and success are confused or spoken of as interchangeable. We profess to love talent, and yet what we sometimes love more is the anointing that follows the revelation of talent.
This is not to say that there aren't some talented individuals who become successful; a few are and deserve the accolades and money they receive and gain. But most are already successful people, in other fields, who capitalize on their popularity and known name to become successful as, say, writers. I have written about this effect in a previous post, “Sucess Breeds (More) Success.”

The best modern example are the many politicians who write their memoirs after leaving office; since few have the writing abilities of Churchill, they turn to ghost-writers to complete the book. Even so, most are boring and hard to read, filled with  facts of meetings with other world leaders—such is my view after having read a few such memoirs. Hardly memorable, yet financially successful.

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

Implications Of Reversing The Earth's Magnetic Poles

Earth Sciences

Polarity Reversal: Schematic illustration of Earth’s magnetic field. 
Photo Credit: Peter Reid, The University of Edinburgh
Source: NASA

The earth’s magnetic poles are moving; this is a regular occurrence and it has happened a number of times since the earth’s formation as a planet. Continuous measurements have been made of the earth’s magnetic field since about 1840, with some stand-alone measurements dating to the 1500s—one being at Greenwich in London. The earth has revered its magnetic field about 170 times over the last 100 million years; the last time was about 780,00 years ago:

NASA writes about this phenomena:
Reversals are the rule, not the exception. Earth has settled in the last 20 million years into a pattern of a pole reversal about every 200,000 to 300,000 years, although it has been more than twice that long since the last reversal. A reversal happens over hundreds or thousands of years, and it is not exactly a clean back flip. Magnetic fields morph and push and pull at one another, with multiple poles emerging at odd latitudes throughout the process. Scientists estimate reversals have happened at least hundreds of times over the past three billion years. And while reversals have happened more frequently in "recent" years, when dinosaurs walked Earth a reversal was more likely to happen only about every one million years.
This is noteworthy; the earth’s magnetic field is weakening, which suggests to some scientists that we might eventually see a reversal, where soon is less than 2,000 years, a short period in cosmological time. The British Geological Survey says the earth might be in the early stages of such a reversal, which would take at least a few hundred years to take full effect;
If we look at the trend in the strength of the magnetic field over this time (for example the so-called 'dipole moment' shown in the graph below) we can see a downward trend. Indeed projecting this forward in time would suggest zero dipole moment in about 1500-1600 years time. This is one reason why some people believe the field may be in the early stages of a reversal. We also know from studies of the magnetisation of minerals in ancient clay pots that the Earth's magnetic field was approximately twice as strong in Roman times as it is now.
So, what are the implications of a weakening magnetic field and a possible reversal of its polarity? Nothing dramatic, really; no doomsday scenario to offer you, NASA says:
Many doomsday theorists have tried to take this natural geological occurrence and suggest it could lead to Earth's destruction. But would there be any dramatic effects? The answer, from the geologic and fossil records we have from hundreds of past magnetic polarity reversals, seems to be 'no.'
This is important to point out for the reason that ancient man viewed such phenomena, a change of some magnitude, as a “work of the gods.” Now that we know more about the natural order of things—through the use of scientific observations and record-keeping—and how nature operates, we can view such changes as a pattern of events that take place in some predictable fashion. This kind of knowledge makes us less fearful as human beings. And, perhaps, less superstitious.

Monday, August 26, 2013

My Love Affair With Languages

Language & Culture

Some persons are good at learning new languages; others not. It has little or nothing to do with intelligence or willingness to learn, but an ability that some persons have. George Jochnowitz says; “Adults have to be taught grammar. You can guess the rule if you are acquiring a closely related language, as I could when I learned Italian. It is much more difficult, however, to generalize about grammatical categories that don’t exist in your own language. We adults are already in the habit of thinking in our own languages. Explaining a rule is simple and comprehensible; figuring it out is impossible, unless you have been presented with contrasting sets of sentences. In that case, of course, the selection of examples is in itself an explanation.”

by George Jochnowitz

I have always loved languages. I want to speak them and to know how they work. That is why I studied linguistics.

My mother told me that I was bilingual in Yiddish and English until I started kindergarten at the age of five. I don’t think I could have been. My maternal grandparents, who lived about a 15-minute walk from our apartment in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, had come to America when they were middle-aged. They spoke Yiddish to me; my parents spoke Yiddish to them even though they used only English at home. All the same, as far back as I can remember—I know that the memories of being a three- or four- or five-year-old child are few and far between—I always thought in English. When I spoke Yiddish, I was conscious of trying to find the right words. It was an effort, even though my pronunciation was perfect. The same is true today.

My pronunciation has often misled people. I speak Chinese badly and Polish almost not at all. Yet when I say a few words, I pronounce them well. Listeners think I can really communicate in Polish or Chinese and are mystified when I don't understand what they are saying. I suspect that even my own mother did not realize how inadequate my childhood command of Yiddish was.

Hebrew was the first foreign language I studied formally, starting at age 7. A friend of my grandfather's came to the house every Wednesday, and I took lessons in saying the prayers and reading the Bible. We never quite made it through Genesis. There was a missing element in my instruction: conversation. Learning vocabulary and grammar is both pleasurable and useful, but practice in the spoken language is needed as well. Although Biblical Hebrew is closer to the spoken language of Israel than Chaucer’s language (and maybe even Shakespeare’s) is to ours, no one quite speaks the ancient language. Theory and practice are both essential to language learning, except for a child, who can pick up languages through mere exposure.

My study of Hebrew led to an unexpected fringe benefit: I learned to read Yiddish. If you can read one language and speak another, you can learn to read the second without much effort. If a new alphabet is involved, learning it is a minor problem. Having been taught Hebrew letters, I could read Yiddish as soon as the rules relating the writing system to the sound system were explained to me. I suspect that a great many Yiddish speakers were never taught to read Yiddish but simply figured it out after they took a few Hebrew lessons.

Alphabets are very easy and logical. English spelling is somewhat unpredictable in terms of sounds. When I was about seven years old, I decided to remedy this flaw, by devising a new way to write English based entirely on pronunciation. I abandoned my project after a while when I saw that nobody wanted it. But when I reached the age of 13, I found something in my junior high school textbook that renewed my confidence in the value of what had been my fantasy as a seven-year-old.

The textbook in question was called Parlez-vous français? lt used strange characters within brackets to indicate the pronunciation of each word. My teachers ignored them. These funny symbols were the International Phonetic Alphabet (lPA), and they were explained in the appendix at the end of the book. Reading the appendix showed me that I was not the first person to invent a phonetic alphabet. My idle thoughts about sounds had not been so idle after all. I read about “high front rounded vowels” and learned how to pronounce the French u. My French teacher was dazzled. Years later, when I reached graduate school and studied phonetics, I rediscovered IPA, an old friend.

In high school, my friend Jimmy Brown and I learned to love opera. When we were 15, we went to a performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Amato Opera Theater, which used to be located on Bleecker Street. The performance was in English, and neither of us knew the story. All the surprises worked for us; we saw the opera as it was meant to be seen.

I bought a recording of the opera, in Italian, of course. I listened to it every day for a year. The following year, my daily listening was Cavalleria Rusticana. I followed the libretto enclosed in the album: Italian on one side, English on the other. Italian is extremely similar to French. In college, I went to the head of the Italian Department and told him that I had never studied Italian, but that I probably could enter the second-semester course. He gave me a grammar book and told me to come back in two weeks. We spoke in Italian for a few minutes before he placed me in a second-year class.

Let me skip over some 20-odd years. I was 46, and I had been invited to teach at Hebei University in Baoding, China. I took a six-week intensive summer course in Mandarin Chinese before I left New York. I wondered whether I would be able to learn the difference between ma on a high tone, meaning “Mommy,” and maon, a low, falling-rising tone, meaning “horse.” I found that I could learn to say the tones easily, but I had to be told which tone I was hearing, at least for a while. The tones turned out to be a minor problem. The fact that relative clauses precede the nouns they modify was a slightly bigger problem; by the time I realized that there was a relative clause in the sentence, the speaker had gone on and I was lost.

Living in China should have made it easy for me to pick up new vocabulary, but it was harder than I had ever expected. The problem was that I could never really learn to read. There are just too many Chinese characters, and I was just too hooked on alphabets. If you can read, you see a new word one day and hear it the next. Reading and speaking always reinforce each other. Reading Chinese is just plain hard. It’s even hard for Chinese children, who don’t learn to read as quickly as children whose language is written in an alphabet. Besides, I was in my forties. Although I could learn grammar and pronunciation as quickly as ever, I had no experience in learning to read ideograms. As you get older, the things you have learned how to learn can be acquired with greater and greater ease. The things you haven’t learned how to learn, on the other hand, are quite hard to crack.

Grammars don't frighten me. When I took Chinese in class, I learned as well as when I had started French at the age of 12, if not better. When I lived in China, however, I came across grammatical constructions I couldn’t figure out. There was a past tense formed by adding le and another formed by adding de. Whenever someone corrected me, I asked why. “It doesn't sound good,” I was told. They both sounded equally good and equally Chinese to me. What I needed was someone who could express the rules verbally in addition to knowing them instinctively. I couldn’t get an answer until I got back to the United States, where I was able to find a teacher who was experienced in teaching Chinese to Americans. She was able to tell me that le was used to establish past time, after which de was used to discuss time or place in the past. I couldn’t figure it out for myself because it hadn’t occurred to me that a language needed to make a distinction of this sort between two different past tenses.

Adults have to be taught grammar. You can guess the rule if you are acquiring a closely related language, as I could when I learned Italian. It is much more difficult, however, to generalize about grammatical categories that don’t exist in your own language. We adults are already in the habit of thinking in our own languages. Explaining a rule is simple and comprehensible; figuring it out is impossible, unless you have been presented with contrasting sets of sentences. In that case, of course, the selection of examples is in itself an explanation.

Distinctions must be pointed out to those learning a new language. This is true for both grammar and sounds. Just as I didn’t know to expect an extra Chinese past tense, Spanish students and Chinese students don’t know that they should listen for the difference in the vowels of fit and feet. Their ears are just as good as those of English speakers, but they have not learned to pay attention to this difference. Similarly, English speakers do not expect a change in the pitch of a syllable to mean that an entirely different word has been said. To cite my previous example, when you say ma on a high tone it means “mommy”; on a low falling-rising tone it means “horse.”

Hearing and using a language are essential. So is theoretical knowledge. Using a single approach is not enough when dealing with a structure as immense and as complicated as a language.

Explaining a rule is very simple if you have learned just what the rule is. Discovering a rule, even if it is a rule you use every day, is much more difficult. Discovering a rule in a language you hardly know is next to impossible, especially if the rule refers to a distinction you had never imagined. How many English speakers can explain what is wrong with “l have eaten breakfast at 7:15 this morning,” or why you can't say “The truck delivered 14 furnitures”? (The answers are that a present perfect tense like “have eaten”can never be used with an expression of definite time, and that “furniture” is not a member of the class of countable nouns in English.) Children can make these generalizations; adults can’t. Practice doesn't help if you practice mistakes.

Chinese was not the last language I studied. I went to visit Poland in 1990 and took six Polish lessons before my trip. They turned out to be surprisingly useful, not only in Poland but in New York. I would like to end this memoir with an account of a taxi ride:

I got into the cab and said “First Avenue and 62nd Street.”

The driver, Wlodzimierz, turned to me saying, “No speak.”

We were heading east, and he drove straight ahead, showing no sign of turning left at First Avenue.

“W lewo” (to the left), I said.

He turned left and proceeded up First Avenue.

“You Jew?” he inquired politely.

I said, “Yes.”

After arriving at my destination and paying him, I said, “Do widzenia” (goodbye).

“Shalom,” he answered.

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 ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article was originally published in the book, Language Crossings: Negotiating the Self in a Multicultural World, edited by Karen L. Ogulnick. Teachers College Press, 2000. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Housing the World's Most Precise Clock

Keeping Time

Precision Timepiece: NIST Boulder’s Ytterbium atomic clock is the most-precise clock in
the world, an article in PopSci says. “The NIST clocks are optical lattice clocks, which means 

they have an intense laser field that holds about 10,000 ytterbium atoms in place. Another laser
excites the atoms, the movement of which is how the clock measures time. Exciting the atoms with
a laser makes them vibrate at higher frequencies than atoms in cesium atomic clocks do. So optical 

lattice clocks tick faster and are able to tick off more precise units of time. Having so many atoms 
in the clock helps average out the uncertainties from any one atom.”
Photo CreditBurrus; NIST
Source: PopSci

An article, by Francie Diep, in Popular Science says that the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Co., has made the world’s most precise clock using atoms of ytterbium, a rare Earth element. These clocks are part of a latter-day technology called optical-lattice clocks, which are about 100 times more stable than the previous standard, cesium atomic clocks.

Diep writes
It’s so precise that, because it outstrips other atomic clocks, its creators weren't able to measure its precision until recently, when they built a second version of it. Now, with the two available to compare with one another, they've come up with a number for the clocks’ precision, which clock physicists call the clocks’ stability.
“Clock stability is a term we use in the field that basically refers to—if you look at the ticking rate of the clock, how much does that ticking rate change over time?” Andrew Ludlow, a NIST Boulder physicist who works on improving the lab's atomic clocks, tells Popular Science. “Ideally, you want every tick to be exactly the same as the other.”
The NIST Boulder clocks have an instability of one part in 10-18. That's about 100 times more stable than the best cesium atomic clocks that international governments use to define the perfect second. And it’s about 10 billion times more stable than quartz wristwatches.

The NIST Boulder clocks are made with technology a generation beyond that used in cesium atomic clocks. They happen to use atoms of ytterbium, a rare Earth element, but other next-generation clocks around the world use other elements, such as strontium and mercury. These next-generation clocks could be used to measure some pretty cool effects in fundamental physics.
For example, Einstein's theory of relativity has been devilishly difficult to prove experimentally. A NASA satellite measured the warping of space and time around Earth just in 2011. Next-generation atomic clocks, however, could measure the effects of relativity right here on Earth.
The theory of relativity says that in the presence of a strong gravitational field, time should slow; this makes a highly precise clock all the more necessary to test and validate this theory. The current NIST clock is too large and too fragile to be used for this purpose, and thus NIST, with the funds it has has received from the U.S. government, has plans to build such a portable clock.

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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Long & Cognitive Life: The SuperAgers

Long Life

Making Sandwiches: Don Tenbrunsel, 85, volunteers at a soup kitchen at St. Josaphat’s Church
in Chicago. Tenbrunsel is among the handful of super agers participating in a study of individuals
in their 80s and 90s with sharp memories now being conducted at Northwestern University.
Photo Credit: M. Spencer Green; AP; 2013
Source: AP

An AP article, by Lindsey Tanner, published in The Washington Post says researchers are looking at a small cohort of individuals who retain their sharp mental abilities well into their 90s; they are referred to as super agers.

Tanner writes:
They’re called “super agers” — men and women who are in their 80s and 90s, but with brains and memories that seem far younger. Researchers are looking at this rare group in the hope that they may find ways to help protect others from memory loss. And they’ve had some tantalizing findings: Imaging tests have found unusually low amounts of age-related plaques along with more brain mass related to attention and memory in these elite seniors.
“We’re living long but we’re not necessarily living well in our older years and so we hope that the SuperAging study can find factors that are modifiable and that we’ll be able to use those to help people live long and live well,” said study leader Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University’s cognitive neurology and Alzheimer’s disease center in Chicago.
The study is still seeking volunteers, but chances are you don’t qualify: Fewer than 10 percent of would-be participants have met study criteria. “We’ve screened over 400 people at this point and only about 35 of them have been eligible for this study, so it really represents a rare portion of the population,” Rogalski said.They include an octogenarian attorney, a 96-year-old retired neuroscientist, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor and an 81-year-old pack-a-day smoker who drinks a nightly martini.
The only common thing shared by these super agers might be good genetics, where their brains have not deteriorated as fast as the general population. Good health in old age is relatively rare, and so it might explain the positive attitude. Or it might be the other way around, that their positive attitude, and any and all personal victories over adversity, might have had a beneficial effect on the brain.

I suspect that it’s not only a matter of genetics, namely, on how our brains are hard-wired, but a combination of important genetic and environmental factors (including our mental attitude) that all contribute to how we age and how we live. In other words, as mature adults we are far past the stage where we can influence how our brains form their neural connections, the complex inner workings; we can, however, control, to some degree, how we view our lives and our place in the world.

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

Friday, August 23, 2013

No Money+ No Options = More Stress

Personal Fortunes & MisFortunes

“Poverty makes you sad as well as wise.”
Bertolt Brecht

One of the most enduring clichés in western mythology is that “everyone has problems” — both the powerful and the weak, both the privileged and the commoner, both the wealthy and the poor. Such a view is put forward to promote equality and social cohesion, but it’s one of those half-truths that lead to the acceptance of false ideas.

Here’s what is missing from the equation, so to speak, of how problems affect personal happiness. Not all problems are equal in nature, and it thus follows that not all the effects of the problem are also equal. Here’s a real-life example that I read about a number of years ago: A multi-millionaire—I have forgotten his name—was sad and bothered, even angry, at knowing that he had not yet made the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest, the club of billionaires, like many of his friends and peers. To him and his spouse, this presented itself as a real problem that needed solving.

For the rest of us normal humans, this is narcissism and a over-weaning sense of entitlement. Compare that to a family of four who has not taken a vacation in almost ten years, who are driving a car even older than that and who have to carefully consider what they buy at the supermarket. They don’t needs billions, or millions, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to enjoy life without such financial worries; their needs can be met with a few thousand a month, at most. Which problem has the most effect, causing the most stress? I think the answer is clear, except for the narcissistic sociopath, of course, who values his needs far above anyone else’s.

One of the worst personal conditions one can face is to be stuck in a bad and terrible situation with no options. Money is usually the limiting or deciding factor of why this is often the case; without much of it, choices are thus limited—often leaving no other than the status quo. Brecht’s quote above does not apply to everyone; the life of penury and struggle for existence can drown you under a pile of misery, and leave little time for the type of reflection and consideration that leads to making good decisions.

This lack of control can also add more stress and shorten one’s life, says a recent article by Moises Velasquez-Manoff in the New York Times (“Status and Stress”; July 27th, 2013):
That sense of control tends to decline as one descends the socioeconomic ladder, with potentially grave consequences. Those on the bottom are more than three times as likely to die prematurely as those at the top. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and diabetes. Perhaps most devastating, the stress of poverty early in life can have consequences that last into adulthood.
Yet, those that can find the necessary time and energy might conceivably achieve a level and understanding and wisdom that evades the contented individual. Or the wealthy one.

Money makes life easier, no doubt, but not everyone has to means or ability to achieve some level of personal financial security, some degree of autonomy, some personal freedom. Lack of money does generally lead to less options, but as much as that is a limiting effect in our consumer society, having less can also mean choosing less. In an ironic way, this lack can make life easier, simpler, if that is the path can accept. Or another way to look at it is that the path has already been chosen for you by life’s often-unpredictable (and often-harsh) events—admittedly, not always a comforting thought when human individuality and free will are at stake. Some will accept their position and others will fight against it.

Although the comparisons are not perfect—as is often the case with such things—the similarities between the Great Recession today and the Great Depression of the 1930s are striking, noteworthy for their stories of individuals and families struggling to make ends meet. Few writers are better at describing such societal conditions in a story-telling way than John Steinbeck. In the introduction to his novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), published in the midst of the Depression, Thomas Fensch writes what has always captivated the American public in times like these:
And who, during the years of the Great Depression, couldn't be enchanted by Tortilla Flat? For many during the Great Depression, reading and the movies were escape, pure and simple, Escape from grinding poverty, escape from worrying about how to pay the rent, escape from worrying about how to find a job (or keep a menial one), even escape from worrying about where money for the next week’s groceries would come from. (viii)
Does this sound familiar today? It might in the face of news that American law-makers have voted to effectively reduce its long-standing Food Stamp Program (a pilot program dating to 1939 and becoming permanent in 1964), which aids the poor, some 47 million Americans. For such affluent legislators, the reduction of such programs sends a disconcerting signal.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Identifying Elephants In Nature; Enumerating Their Numbers; Giving Them Voice & Protecting Their Lives

Animal Nomenclature

Kenya's Masai Mara Elephants: “Through research, education, conservation and advocacy we promote the protection and kinder treatment of elephants wherever they may be. As acknowledged experts on the natural behavior of elephants we offer insight to protect them and the authority to speak on their behalf,” ElephantVoices, the elephant-advocacy group says.
Photo Credit: ElephantVoices 
Source: NatGeo 

An article, by Christy Ulrich, in National Geographic says that there are now ways to identity particular elephants in the wild. The important thing to look at defining characteristics, which is is similar to what you would consider as important in any animal, including humans.These include, the article says, “sex, body size and shape, tusk configuration, and ear patterns.”

The elephant registry was started by biologist and National Geographic Explorer Joyce Poole and her husband, Peter Granli.

Ulrich writes:
Poole and her husband, ElephantVoices co-director Petter Granli, created the first online digital ID registry of elephants, which features Kenya’s Masai Mara elephant population. “Instead of having just a couple of scientists and research assistants monitor elephants,” Poole said, “we thought, well, why couldn’t you include everybody in on this?”
In 2011 they started Elephant Partners, a project that approaches conservation through citizen science and web technology. The database enables non-scientists visiting the reserve to help monitor and protect elephants by adding their observations via mobile app or website. (See “Elephants Communicate in Sophisticated Sign Language, Researchers Say.”)
Funded in part by National Geographic’s Northern European Fund, as well as the JRS Biodiversity Foundation and others, the project includes the Mara Elephant Who’s Whodatabase, containing 1,046 registered elephants, and the Mara Elephant Whereaboutsdatabase, which keeps track of all the sightings of elephants.
Elephant lovers visiting the Mara can assist the project by downloading the Mara EleApp, an Android-based app that automatically records the date, time, and location of an elephant sighting. Users can then respond to a series of queries about the sighting, such as: How many elephants? Is it in a family group or is it a bull? The app allows you to take a photo and asks you to enter the names of the elephants, if you know them. Registered users can upload their photographs and observations to the databases.
Elephants are not only beautiful and majestic creatures, but also highly intelligent and social animals. The database acts as an accounting system, giving scientists information on the number of elephants there are in the geographic region, but also other important data, such as the number that die, notably those killed illegally by poachers.

ElephantVoices, as the name implies, acts as an advocate for elephants, which it says is necessary in the face of many threats: “ElephantVoices uses knowledge acquired over decades to act as a voice for elephants. In the wild, ivory poaching, destruction of habitat, competition with people for diminishing resources, sport hunting, culling and capture all threaten the freedom and survival of elephants. In captivity their well being is affected by abusive practices and exploitation for commercial gain.”

You can read the rest of the article and view a video on elephant ID at [NatGeo]

Taking Risks

The Human Life

“The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you. Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” 
William Jennings Bryan

Fishermen: This profession consistently ranks among the world’s most-dangerous professions.
Photo Credit & Source: Forbes
Although it might not be comforting news to some, life is full of risks, some intentionally taken, others not. Some people are risk-takers and thrill seekers, while most are risk-averse, looking to avoid risks at all costs. It’s a fallacy to think that one can avoid all risk; even if it were possible it would be a life devoid of any interest. Some would consider this boring.

Activities that have long been considered traditional such as raising a family and going to work carry some risks. Getting married and having children is a type of risk, as is changing jobs or careers. You might marry the “wrong person”; you might have kids who do not work out according to your plans and expectations. Your job might be lacking in meaning, boring, a dead end. When considering jobs, however, there are professions that are considered high risk, including the following in America, says a Forbes article:
  1. Fisherman
  2. Loggers
  3. Airplane pilot
  4. Farmer and rancher
  5. Mining machine operator
  6. Roofer
  7. Sanitation worker
  8. Truck driver
  9. Industrial machine repairman
  10. Police officer
The list might surprise some people, since many of these professions do not pay high salaries and yet they are highly risky in terms of fatalities. And, yet, many individuals, chiefly men gravitate toward such professions and enjoy them. For such men it’s not that they enjoy risk but, rather, they enjoy such professions and risk is a part of their job.

Then there are individuals who are on the other extreme—they like risk as a way to prove themselves. Not surprising, it is overwhelmingly men who engage in risky actions, whether as a profession or as a sports activity. Why are some men attracted to risk? Gad Saad, a professor of marketing at Concordia University, says that risk-taking is a form of signaling to women. In an article (“Sex Differences in Physical Risk Taking”; July 23, 2013) in Psychology Today, Prof. Saad writes:
Such risk taking serves as an honest signal of a man’s ability to face an assortment of environmental dangers and hopefully come out unscathed. This is why women have a fireman fantasy, and why they are attracted to men who participate in aggressive sports. Of course, this does not mean that all men are more likely than all women to engage in physical risk taking. Recall that it is a biological fact that men are taller than women even though WNBA players are taller than most men (the“Katie Holmes is taller than Tom Cruise” effect). Bottom line: Whether consciously or subconsciously, men take physical risks to impress the ladies (cf. Ronay & von Hippel, 2010)!
This aspect of human nature is unlikely to change with more health-and-safety rules and regulations, or with public lectures on the merits or disadvantages of risk-taking. There will always be a subset of individuals, chiefly young men, who will take risks that others think as foolish. For some it’s about adventure and thrills, but for many others, like firefighters and police officers it’s chiefly about serving the public interest, doing good for humanity. There is also another aspect at work here: a strong sense of individuality.

So be it. Rousseau said: “Every man has a right to risk his own life for the preservation of it.” Which brings me the biggest risk that one can can take in life’s often unpredictable journey: being human. Some of you will understand what Rousseau means; most will not.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

With Music, It's Also About Seeing The Performer

Music Appreciation

An article, by Philip Ball, in Nature News says that appreciation of musical performance involves both an auditory and visual experience. This finding might come as a surprise, if not shock to music lovers, most notably the purists.

Ball writes:
But who cares about the histrionics — it’s the music that matters, right? Not according to the latest study, which shows that people’s judgements about the quality of a musical performance are influenced more by what they see than by what they hear.
The findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by social psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London1, may be embarrassing and even shocking to music lovers. The vast majority of participants in Tsay’s experiments — around 83% of both untrained participants and professional musicians — insisted at the outset that sound was their key criterion for assessing video and audio recordings of performances.
Yet it wasn’t. The participants were presented with recordings of the three finalists in each of ten prestigious international competitions, and were asked to guess the winner. With just sound, or sound and video, novices and experts both guessed right at about the same level as chance (33% of the time), or a little less. But with silent video alone, the success rate for both was about 46–53%. The experts did no better than the novices.

The results might force some to rethink what musical performance is really about. “As a classical musician, I was initially somewhat disturbed” by the findings, says Tsay, who is herself an acclaimed pianist. “It was surprising to find that there is such a wide gap between what we believe matters in the evaluation of music performance and what is actually being used to judge performances.”

But philosopher of music Vincent Bergeron of the University of Ottawa in Canada isn’t worried. “One could plausibly argue that music made for performance, such as classical music, is a visual as well as a sonic art, and that it should also be evaluated on the basis of how it looks,” he says, adding: “This is a brilliant paper.”
This agrees with the idea that it is often the case that more than one sense matters when considering anything from a musical performance to tasting a new food. And in a hierarchy of senses, if one could say such a thing, the visual might stand on top of the ranking. For example, the article adds that the visual sense might even be more important than the audio one in judging a musical concert: “Music neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, agrees that Tsay’s results might have been anticipated. ‘In a sense, the visual channel is more primordial than the auditory, ’ he says.”

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

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Legalizing Marijuana A Bad Idea

Drug Policy

There is a growing movement politically that marijuana ought to be decriminalized if not made legal. Such are the discussions taking place in Canada, the United States and in some Latin American nations, which have seen the socio-economic effects on the failed U.S.-led “War on Drugs.” At least the measure ought to be discussed rationally and scientifically; such explains the welcome news that the U.S. National Institutes of Health has funded the first major study on medical marijuana use as an issue of public health.      
       Even so, there are serious societal concerns that also need addressing, George Jochnowitz says: “A 12-year-old can buy marijuana from a drug dealer, although it doesn’t happen often. If pot is legalized, parents would be unlikely to offer their children marijuana, but they would be likely to smoke in public, thus setting an example for their children. There would be marijuana in the home, and children could find it, as they now find cigarettes. Nowadays, it is reasonable to suppose that fewer children have smoked marijuana than tobacco. If marijuana were legalized, this would change at once.”

by George Jochnowitz

On Election Day in 2012 a potentially threatening result occurred: the states of Colorado and  Washington voted to legalize marijuana. Massachusetts voted to allow doctors to recommend it as medicine. According to Ed Gogek, an addiction psychiatrist, “most medical marijuana recipients are drug abusers who are either faking or exaggerating their problems.” [see New York Times article.]

Not long ago, I saw a boy who looked about 12 years old walking down the street smoking a cigarette. I wanted to ask him how old he was and how he had gotten the cigarette, but I didn’t. I felt the questions  would irritate him. It’s not too hard for a minor to obtain cigarettes. If parents smoke, their children can simply take a cigarette out of a pack when nobody is looking. A parent might even offer a cigarette to a child. So might an older sibling or a friend.

What about marijuana? A 12-year-old can buy marijuana from a drug dealer, although it doesn’t happen often. If pot is legalized, parents would be unlikely to offer their children marijuana, but they would be likely to smoke in public, thus setting an example for their children. There would be marijuana in the home, and children could find it, as they now find cigarettes. Nowadays, it is reasonable to suppose that fewer children have smoked marijuana than tobacco. If marijuana were legalized, this would change at once.

The dangers of second-hand smoke are well known. Restaurants, offices, places of business, etc. do not allow smoking. Consequently, people stand in front of buildings, no matter what the weather, and smoke outdoors. Their smoke may be annoying, but the wind blows it away.

The dangers of second-hand marijuana smoke are not known. There is not too much of it. But just imagine people standing in front of buildings smoking pot instead of tobacco. The smell is much more powerful. Does second-hand marijuana smoke have a psychological effect? Nobody knows. Does it cause cancer? Probably.

Alcohol is generally considered more dangerous than marijuana. It probably is. We all know about the dangers of drunken driving. On November 10, 2011, the Associated Press reported that a bus driver on a school bus in New Jersey was swerving and falling asleep at the wheel. Children called their parents on their cell phones, and the parents called the Westhampton Middle School, which alerted the police.

The driver, named Carole Crockett, failed a breath test and was indicted for driving under the influence. If marijuana were legal, drivers might easily drive under the influence of pot. Is it as dangerous as the influence alcohol? We don’t have enough information, but it doesn’t matter. Even if it is much less dangerous, we just don’t need dangerous drivers.

The Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution failed and was repealed. Alcoholism is an ancient, well-established vice. Prohibition had to fail. Marijuana addiction is less ancient and less established. It isn’t  legal. If we make it legal, it will spread to a degree never before seen. Prohibition would then become  impossible. We don’t need it.

What about freedom? Freedom is inherently good. Unfortunately, some freedoms inhibit other freedoms. We are now free to walk down the street without being overwhelmed by the penetrating, powerful smell of marijuana. We are relatively free from people driving under the influence of pot. We are free from cancer caused by second-hand marijuana smoke. Our children are relatively free from the temptation of becoming potheads, even though that freedom is merely relative. The legalization of marijuana would end these freedoms.

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 ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved.  It is republished here with the author's permission.

Monday, August 19, 2013

First New Mammal In Decades Identified In The West: The Olinguito

New Species

The Olinguito, part of the raccoon family, is found in the South American forests of Ecuador.
Photo Credit; Mark Gurney
Source: Nature

An article, by Beth Mole, in Nature News says that researchers have identified the first new mammal in the western hemisphere in 35 years. The olinguito is found in Ecuador.

Mole writes:
The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) is a member of the raccoon family. It looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, say its discoverers, who publish their finding today in ZooKeys1. The zoologists first caught a glimpse of the nocturnal creature in the wild in 2006, during a night hike in Ecuador. They tracked down the 75-centimetre-long, bushy-tailed creature by sound, listening for rustling branches as it leapt from tree to tree, 30 metres above the ground in a cloud forest.
“Sometimes when you look up all you see is clouds”, says Roland Kays, zoologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh and a co-author of the study. “I think that’s part of the reason they stayed hidden from science for so long.”
The research team was tipped off to the olinguito’s existence in 2004, from decades-old museum samples stored in metal cabinets in the archives of the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Kristofer Helgen, a mammal curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, was in Chicago to study Andean mammals called olingos, which make up several species in the genus Bassaricyon. He noticed that some of the museum’s dozens of olingo specimens had smaller skulls and more colourful fur than the rest.
The article points out that museums hold many animals in their archives that have not yet been identified, collected decades ago and stored without much of a second thought. More so, it is highly likely that there are many other animals that have yet to be named, living unnoticed and unidentified in the uncultivated lands still found in South America and Africa.

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