Saturday, November 29, 2014

A New View From The Sixth Floor

A New View: We have moved further north within Toronto to a newer 2-bedroom apartment,
and are now situated in a corner unit on the sixth floor of a high-rise. This photo, taken yesterday,
shows a view northwest of G. Ross Lord Park, which has 4.6 kilometres (2.85 miles) of trails and is
within walking distance of our residence.
(There have been sightings of coyotes at this park.) Not
too much striking colours are evident, save for the evergreens and the blue skies overhead
. Spring
should be spectacular with a greater palate, including the budding of the many
deciduous trees
in the park.

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Summer At A Nuclear Research Facility

On Memory, Science & Faith

“It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald & Zelda Fitzgerald,
Esquire (New York, June 1934). "Show Mr. and Mrs. F to Number—"
The Summer of 1980: In this Polaroid photo, I am in front of a zirconium alloy fuel bundle (50 cm long by 10 cm in diameter and weighing 20 kg), which was on display at the Public Information Centre at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories. Apparently, corduroy jackets were fashionable then.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum

My recent post (“Nuclear Life and Death”; Oct 18, 2014) on remembering Chernobyl brought to mind my own brief experience where I worked one summer, in 1980, as an engineering student at a nuclear research facility in eastern Ontario (Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories). The facility is 180 kilometres (110 miles) north-west of Ottawa, Canada’s capital. and straddles the Ottawa River. It is also near a large military base, Garrison Petawawa, the largest in Canada. We resided in dorms in the nearby bedroom community of Deep River.

Each year, the research facility hired dozens of university students for the summer, each of us were rigorously selected, or so we were told; and although most were drawn from the hard sciences, a few were not, including two of my colleagues who came from the school of languages. That summer, I was one of six tour guides, offering the general public tours of the nuclear facility. This was right after Three Mile Island, a nuclear incident that took place the year before in the United States, in Middletown, Pennsylvania, thus bringing the whole nuclear industry under much scrutiny, and rightfully and understandably so.

Here is an overview from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s fact sheet:
The Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, although its small radioactive releases had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public. Its aftermath brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations. It also caused the NRC to tighten and heighten its regulatory oversight. All of these changes significantly enhanced U.S. reactor safety.
The focus on safety was also apparent in Canada, although Canada’s CANDU reactor is designed differently than its American counterpart, and is arguably safer (i.e., the use of a heavy water moderator and of unenriched uranium in the form of sintered UO2 pellets). Not surprising, a large part of our three-week training program was dedicated to preparing us six guides to answer all questions, including controversial ones, on nuclear energy and the issues surrounding safety and security. We were all keen and eager to explain to the public why nuclear energy was both safe, but also why it was important to secure Canada’s energy needs. Equally important, Canada’s nuclear reactor program and design was also a viable economic export.

The Training Program: The six of us, and our boss, Frank Finley, at one of the many nuclear sites we visited during our three-week training program as tour guides.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum
Chalk River's importance as a supplier of medical isotopes used in the diagnosis and in the treatment of cancer is undeniable; it is not only the world’s largest supplier of medical isotopes such as cobalt-60 (radiation treatment) and Technetium-99m (diagnosis), but by far the world’s leading supplier. These have been produced at Chalk River’s National Research Universal, or NRU reactor, since the early1950s. I stood on top of the NRU reactor numerous times while conducting tours; it was part of my job and is one of those stories that sound strange but are true.

Stories aside, my views on nuclear power or energy for wide-spread residential and business use have changed since then, and for many reasons, including that of safety. It might be more harmful than its advocates say, and yet safer than its opponents say. Even so, it is more than likely that nuclear energy is probably not a good idea for humanity, that there are better alternatives that need be developed. Eventually, these might be; when this happens is unpredictable.

As for changing views, such is the sign of an open and honest mind, and not of a wishy-washy mind as some contend.  What one sees as good and possible at one time can change at another time. Many “truths” are not eternal; they change with new evidence, new knowledge, with one’s increasing age. One can have faith in science that is as dogmatic and unchanging as faith in religion. At least that has been my observation.

It is interesting to note that youth and inexperience confer a high degree of optimism and exuberance about things, including technology, that age and experience tends to diminish if not dull altogether. At times, this leads to cynicism; at other times it leads to new knowledge. I have come to think that I have more knowledge today than I had then. But I am wistful of late, wishing that I would today have the enthusiasm and exuberance for the possibilities that the future holds as I did back in 1980 when I was much younger and much more hopeful. Yet, faith in something is not the same as knowledge about something.

Some Birthday Cake: Brigitte, one of the guides, has a birthday; the cake was a surprise, if my memory is correct.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum
Yet, we can only know with certainty what we or others can prove. The rest is a matter of belief or faith or doubt, and we live with its uncertainties. Did my summer working at a nuclear research facility contribute to my having cancer more than three decades later? Did I make too many visits to NRU? It’s possible, but I could never know for sure. I have thought about it, but not too much. Over-analysis has no positive purpose.

Over-all, I think about my memories. This is to say that I did enjoy my time at Chalk River (and the residential community of Deep River); I did meet many fine and generous persons, including a high proportion of dedicated scientists and engineers, during my four months there. If a summer job is supposed to help us learn and gain real-life experience and knowledge, then this was the summer I learned the most. Truly, it was a memorable summer in more ways than one. (For one, I was a member of the tennis & yacht club.)

Even so, it is said you cannot go back to the way things were, that the past remains in the past; and so we must forget what we wished then. If only I could; it would make my life, and the living of it, much easier.

In Part 2: The Day After My Summer Ends

Saturday, November 22, 2014

U.S. Govt Proposes Killing Cormorants To Save Salmon

Saving Species

Killing Cormorants: NatGeo writes: “Some 60,000 shorebirds, including nearly 30,000 double-crested cormorants, nest on East Sand Island, at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes to kill 16,000 cormorants, which it says are eating too many salmon and steelhead trout.”
Photo Credit: Jim Wilson, The New York Times/Redux
Source: NatGeo

There are almost 30,000 double-crested cormorants that nest on East Sand Island, at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, says an article, by Isabelle Groc, in National Geographic. These cormorants are eating too much salmon and steelhead trout, says the United States government; as a result, the American government is considering killing 16,000 of these birds as a measure to control their population. This raises the question on whether it is ethical and right to kill one species to save another.

 Groc writes:
That's too many cormorants, says the U.S. government. Starting next spring, it proposes to shoot more than half of the iridescent black birds, on the grounds that they're eating too many fish.

The cormorants eat mostly anchovies—but they also dispatch as many as 20 million salmon and steelhead trout smolts every year. The nesting season of double-crested cormorants on East Sand happens to overlap with the migration of the juvenile fish down the Columbia to the Pacific.

"They're eating over 6 percent of all the wild steelhead that are passing through the lower Columbia River," says Ritchie Graves, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They also consume more than 2 percent of the yearling chinook salmon.

Besides being commercially valuable, both fish are on the Endangered Species List, and that's what's forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to act. The corps owns and manages East Sand Island; indeed, it created the bird colony when it expanded the island with dredging spoils back in the 1980s.

Last summer the corps announced a proposal to kill 16,000 double-crested cormorants on the island over a period of four years. It also proposes to remove enough sand to inundate the nesting area of the cormorants, so that birds that leave won't come back. The goal is to reduce the double-crested cormorant population on East Sand Island to about 5,600 breeding pairs.

The move is part of a growing trend toward what wildlife managers sometimes call "lethal control"—killing one species of animal to protect another.

Lethal control of natural predators "is slowly becoming a dominant conservation strategy," says Michael Nelson, a professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. "We are embracing this as the first line of defense."

As the strategy is playing out at local levels, it is drawing opponents. That includes Piggott, who is dismayed by the corps' plan to shoot cormorants.

"We have built a level of trust between the researchers and the birds that nest around the blinds," she says. "It makes me sad and angry that we are breaking this relationship and using the blinds against the birds. They have no idea what's coming."
This might be one of those cases where the American government is forced, by law, to act unreasonably— protecting an endangered species by killing one not currently endangered. This seems like a bad idea, and the rest of the article raises important questions on why it is important for humans and wildlife to share land and resources, including food. It would seems that human reason can find other less harmful solutions. Killing the birds is a simple and cheap solution to one problem, but it might not be the best answer. And I am persuaded that it is a short-sighted solution that will lead to more problems in a few years, or decades.

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Clear Blue Skies In Toronto

Looking Blue: After weeks of grey leaden skies, the sun appears and my mood lightens, even if the temp is minus 9°C (16°F). This northern-view photo was taken from my second-floor balcony,. You will note the snow on the ground below, it also having a blue tone.
Photo: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Day My Dad Died

Life-Changing Memories

My Father: This Polaroid photo from the early 1970s shows my father, on the left, with his best friend and neighbour, Mr. Pakman. Both came from Poland and worked as carpenters. (For an excellent article on Poland, see here.)
Photo Credit: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum, circa 1970s

I do remember the important details of November 6, 1980. It was Thursday; it was after sunset; it was a grey overcast day. It was the day after my 23rd birthday. It was the day my father died of colon cancer (the same disease that would three decades later assault me without mercy); he was 69, two months short of entering his seventh decade. But this time would not be granted to him for reasons that I have yet to comprehend.

My mother was at the hospital, which was where she always was these last few weeks; I was home frying some chicken and potatoes for supper for my twin brother (fraternal); my older brother was out visiting a friend. The phone rang at approximately 5:45 p.m. For some reason, it startled me and I burned my hand with oil, leaving a scar that remained for years. I walked the short distance to the hallway where the black rotary phone was set up on a small mahogany desk my father had made years before. After I said “hello,” the person on the other end said, “You better come to the hospital, now. Your mother needs you.”

I dropped the spatula I was still holding in my hand; I hung up the phone on to the receiver. I then turned to my brother, and said, “We have to go to the hospital; Dad is dead.” His was wordless but what he felt was written on his face.

I can still recall an image of my father at work, swinging a hammer, effortlessly and efficiently driving nails into pine boards. I often helped my father during my summers off from school, an idea that my two boys would today find odd, perhaps quaint, even unfair, denying them of their free time to pursue their own interests. My father, the carpenter, trained as a cabinet-maker in Europe, worked hard and enjoyed life, defeating death on many occasions during the Second World War. Not this time, however. How can it be that at one moment there is standing before you a strong living human being; and in another moment months and years later, there is not? Philip Roth writes in Patrimony: A True Story (1991) about reconciling the impossible:
To unite into a single image the robust solidity of the man in the picture with that strickenness on the sofa was and was not an impossibility. Trying with all my mental strength to join the two fathers and make them one was a bewildering, even hellish job. And yet I suddenly did feel (or made myself feel) that I could perfectly well remember (or make myself think I remembered) the very moment when that picture had been taken, over half a century before. I could even believe (or make myself believe) that our lives only seemed to have filtered through time, that everything was actually happening simultaneously, that I was as much back in Bradley with him towering over me as here in Elizabeth with him all but broken at my feet.   (231)
When a person we love dies, we are left with only memories of him or her. It is undoubtedly true that a part of us dies with the death of a loved one. Death erases, and never adds.

My Younger Father: In this undated photo is my father, on the left, showing some personality that I did not see much of while growing up. I am sure my children also wonder if their parents had “a life“ before they became so old.
Source: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum

I mechanically turned off the gas stove and took the frying pan full of food and placed it on the counter. I ignored the pain of my left hand. Both of us quickly and silently got dressed and hurried out the door. We made it to the hospital, which was about seven blocks away, in about ten minutes. We took the elevator up to the sixth floor, where we met our Mom, who was sitting on a chair outside my father’s room in the corridor; she was not her self. The nurse said she had been sedated; and she then showed us my father. My brother and I looked in and saw a man who resembled our father, but his body was cold to the touch and without life. And then while we were standing there, the nurse (an Asian) did something that I will never forget. She said, “Can you hurry up; we have to bring the body downstairs to the morgue.“ A heartless women had just spoken.

Not wanting to make waves, or insisting on our rights to be treated and viewed as human beings, we left soon after, my mother supported by us both. When we got home, it was around 7 p.m., and I first made arrangements with the funeral home to pick up my father's body from the hospital. I then started phoning family and friends. My older brother soon arrived, and we told him the news. Shortly, friends and neighbours came pouring into our modest three-bedroom home, bringing not only their sympathies but food. Lots of food. Particularly memorable was the many boxes of food brought in by the Workmen’s Circle or Arbeter Ring (אַרבעטער־רינג), the Jewish fraternal organization that my father had worked tirelessly for for decades. These men were part of the Chevra kadisha (חברא קדישא).

On Sunday November 9th the funeral took place. The funeral hall was packed with family, my Dad's friends, my mother's friends, my brother's friends, our neighbours and many others I did not personally know. There were hundreds present to pay respects to an unpretentious hard-working and caring man from Poland. Many spoke from the pulpit passionately about the man they knew, but whom I did not. My father had done many good things (mitzvot) for many people that he did not tell me about. In some ways I was not surprised; in many ways he was private, but had always told me “to be a mensch.” I say this without sentimentality or embellishment, but my father was “the mensch” he very much wanted us (me and my two brothers) to be.

I have met few like him, but this is understandable; after all is said and done, he is my father. Not everyone has the same relationship with his father that I did. Many move on easily and without any hint of regret. I miss him; I hang on to his memory. Confession: I am not sure what this says about me. But I do value life, more than anything else.

My father’s died, passed from my presence, on 28 Cheshvan 5741 in accordance with the Jewish calendar; thus, his Yahrzeit (“anniversary of death”) is on 28 Cheshvan. This corresponds, this year, to Friday November 21 in the civil calendar; the evening before, in accordance to tradition, I will light a memorial candle.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Let's Reason Together

The Human Landscape

In an essay in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier defends human reason against its opponents, which are many and varied. 
One of the most absurd charges against reason is that it is authoritarian. The postwar Marxist intellectuals who conflated reason with “instrumental reason” and “instrumental reason” with authoritarianism helped to perpetuate this canard. There is nothing rational about tyranny: it is stupid and it is mad. Its “rationality,” which is to say, its internal coherence and its capacity to function, is not the same as reason. Quite the contrary: it is reason that exposes this rationality for what it really is. More importantly, reason is essentially anti-authoritarian because a rational discussion is never closed. (Whereas nothing shuts down a conversation more brusquely than an emotion.) That is why modern thinkers still engage with ancient thinkers. That is why science never ends. New objections and new findings are always welcome. In the war against reason in much of contemporary philosophy, one of the cleverest tricks is to present reason’s rigor, its insistence upon the importance of the inquiry into truth and falsehood, as discouraging to thought. But the contrary is the case. What could be more encouraging to thought than the belief in the possibility of intellectual progress? This is a gathering to which all minds are invited. They have merely to agree to behave like minds. But then minds are not supposed to behave like hearts.
Reason frightens some people, but reason is never as frightening as its opposite.
The application of reason to public affairs is sometimes confused with technocracy. Yet there are no technocrats of first principles, no specialists in what to believe. Some people regard themselves as such experts, of course; but too much authority is conceded to them. Good judgment cannot be prescribed or outsourced. There are no blue-ribbon panels on truth and goodness. The responsibility for belief falls equally on all of us. The search for values, and for the grounds of values, is catch-as-catch-can: it may lead the thoughtful individual to books, to films, to travel, to participation, to conversation, to friendship and love, as the long work of mental clarification proceeds. A sense of the provisional about one’s view of the world is usually a sign of intellectual probity: most conviction exists in the vast cold space between perfect obscurity and perfect certainty. The thoughtful individual is condemned to an existence of corrections and amplifications, both analytical and empirical, in which Jamesian leaps are the selfish indulgences of impatient minds.
In a world that is both complicated and complex, and now seemingly more so than decades ago, there is a need to seek easy answers. Provisionality is the enemy of certainty, since one’s views, particularly on the larger matters of life, can change, based on finding new convincing evidence. Yes, to use my experience, “corrections and amplifications” has been my lot. It has not always been easy; it has at times been lonely, as old friends leave.

A reasonable mind resists this path of least resistance, to use an analogy found in one of the branches of fundamental physics. It seeks answers whenever and wherever these can be found; “truth,” or the search for values, is not something that one ought to leave only to the religious or philosophical leaders. Their thoughts are doubtless important, but these need be investigated and weighed in light of other equally valid thoughts and ideas found in the great pantheon of human thought, which includes both arts and science. Our values are deeply personal. They deserve our attention.

You can read more at [NewRep]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Excusing Karl Marx

Book Review

To read Karl Marx is to read a writer whose influence is felt today; this is not to say that what he wrote was greatly beneficial to humanity; the opposite case can be made, since Marx did not place human nature, human motivations and human desires in the best possible light. To a large degree, his views has led to the diminishment of the individual, and any writer excusing this is, by default, excusing and defending some of the greatest man-made tragedies in modern history. Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: “Conflict of interest is natural and universal. Politics is a way to reconcile, or at least, manage conflict of interest. When individual needs and individuality itself are rejected, individuals themselves will be considered worthless. Politics was outlawed in every country that worshiped Marx. It is no accident, comrade. Countries as different as Russia, Ethiopia and China all developed the same architecture, the same ‘neighborhood committees,’ the same fear of thought. What is even worse, Communist countries pursued policies that led to starvation on a catastrophic scale. The worst famine in human history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. A famine has been devastating North Korea for years.” 


by George Jochnowitz

Karl Marx: A Life
by Francis Wheen. New York and London: 
W. W. Norton and Co., 2000, 431 pp., $27.95.

The story of Karl Marx’s life is the story of his work. Marx devoted his life to his work: bringing about the revolution he knew would come and change the world. During certain periods, he was a political activist, but at every stage in his career he was a writer—even when he produced nothing but disorganized, unpublishable notes.

Francis Wheen has many harsh things to say about the way Marx led his life, but he is convinced that Marx‘s writings are both correct and benevolent. Wheen describes Marx the person as rude, extravagant, and intolerant. To his credit, Wheen cites Marx’s writing to show his hostility, his wastefulness, and his bigotry. Marx supports his views with sarcasm—rudeness—rather than examples or argument. He writes extravagantly, becoming ever more involved in his own verbal games. Furthermore, Marx made it very clear that he couldn't abide those who differed from him, politically or otherwise.

Any discussion of Marx‘s intolerance must begin with his pair of essays together known as “On the Jewish Question.” Wheen gives us the following excuse for Marx’s anti-Semitism: “Those who see this as a foretaste of Mein Kampf overlook one essential point: in spite of the clumsy phraseology and crude stereotyping, the essay was actually written as a defence of the Jews.” (56) Wheen has set up a straw man. Marx did not advocate genocide; moreover, he did not believe that there should be discriminatory laws on the books, as did Bruno Bauer, the writer whom Marx was answering in his essays. Legality is not the problem. Demonization is what “On the Jewish Question” is about.

What Marx hated was alienation: a society based on division of labor where people produced commodities in order to earn money. He later would call this system capitalism. He blamed the Jews. Since Jews did not rule Europe, he explained it as follows: “Christianity issued from Judaism. It has now been reabsorbed into Judaism. ... It was only then [after Christianity had been reabsorbed] that Judaism could attain universal domination and turn alienated man and alienated nature into alienable, saleable objects, in thrall to egoistic needs and huckstering. ... The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.”
There is something nonsensical about saying that Christianity has been reabsorbed into Judaism, but Marx liked to make extravagant statements without backing them up. He could then claim that Judaism had achieved universal domination and was guilty of the ultimate sin: the creation of capitalism. If most capitalists were Christians, capitalism was nevertheless the fault of Judaism. This is not merely nonsense; it is poison. Wheen is only looking for excuses when he describes “Concerning the Jews” as an answer to Bruno Bauer's opposition to legal rights for Jews. Marx didn’t believe legal rights mattered.

Marx continued to love Christianity despite his atheism and despite the “reabsorbtion” of Christianity into Judaism. “We can forgive Christianity much because it taught us the worship of the child,” said Marx to his daughter Eleanor after “patiently elucidating the story of the carpenter whom the rich men killed.” (215) Curiously, Wheen doesn’t mention the fact that Marx’s father converted his eight children to Christianity when Karl was six, although there is an endnote on Page 394 referring to an article called “The Baptism of Karl Marx” by Eugene Kamenka. In the text of his book, Wheen simply informs us that “Marx was a bourgeois Jew. ... He died an atheist.” (8)

In his writings, Marx talked of Judaism as the source of alienation. In his personal life, his hostility was clearly toward Jewish people, although they certainly weren’t the only targets of his scorn. Here is what he wrote about the noted socialist Ferdinand Lasalle: “Now this blend of Jewishness and Germanness, on the one hand, and basic negroid stock, on the other, must invariably give rise to a peculiar product. The fellow's importunity is also niggerlike.” (cited on 55 and again on 248). There is no reason to believe that Lasalle had any African ancestors, but Marx’s comments would be offensive whether he did or not. A different Jew, Joseph Moses Levy, “was subject to many pages of heavy-handed and anti-Semitic taunts for changing the spelling of his surname from ‘Levi.’ ” (242) ”... Levy‘s nose provides conversation throughout the year in the City of London” (243).

And here is what Marx said about his son-in-law, described by Wheen as a Creole: “Lafargue has the blemish customarily found in the negro tribe—no sense of shame, by which I mean shame about making a fool of oneself.” (291) As for the English, Wheen explains, “For the rest of his life, Marx’s view of the English proletariat oscillated between reverence and scorn.” (205) Yet the scorn is dominated: “One thing is certain, these thick-headed John Bulls, whose brainpans seem to have been specially manufactured for the constables’ bludgeons, will never get anywhere without a really bloody encounter with the ruling powers.” (206) Nor did Marx have a high opinion of women. When his daughter Eleanor was born, he wrote to Engels saying, “Unfortunately of the ‘sex’ par excellence. If it had been a male child, well and good.” (215)

Marx was famous for being insulting. His rudeness overlapped with his intolerance. The theoretical in Marx's writing was always reflected by the particular in Marx's life. In the case of the Jews, the demonization of Judaism is part of a general attack against human variety. Marx hated self-interest and confused it with variety. Marx couldn't understand that self-interest logically and inevitably included interest in one’s family, friends, community, country, and world. Nor could he grasp the fact that people have different tastes, talents, and abilities. “In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities,” he said. (97) Genius, for Marx, was merely a by-product of the system of alienated labor.

Marx the activist sometimes showed a willingness to compromise, at least for a while: “In his speeches and editorials he insisted that Germany must have a democratic government ‘of the most heterogeneous elements’ rather than a dictatorship of brilliant communists like himself; but the vehemence with which he delivered these views—flinging insults and derision at anyone who dared to disagree—suggested that this was a man who wouldn’t recognise pluralism if it was presented to him on a silver salver with watercress garnish.” (135-36). Wheen is not quite right about recognizing pluralism. Marx recognized it only too well—and hated it. “Like most of its twentieth-century successors this communist cell asserted its authority by purging anyone suspected of deviation from official correctness.” (103) A theory that has no place for human differences is logically one that eliminates these differences.

The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s most widely read work, was a call for the day when we would see the end of disagreement as well as the cessation of conflict of interest. The Manifesto rejects politics: “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” Marx hated civil society. He described it in the most offensive way he could think of: “It is from its own entrails that civil society ceaselessly engenders the Jew” (“On the Jewish Question”). In other words, civil society is so ugly that it excretes Jews from its bowels.

Conflict of interest is natural and universal. Politics is a way to reconcile, or at least, manage conflict of interest. When individual needs and individuality itself are rejected, individuals themselves will be considered worthless. Politics was outlawed in every country that worshiped Marx. It is no accident, comrade. Countries as different as Russia, Ethiopia and China all developed the same architecture, the same “neighborhood committees,” the same fear of thought. What is even worse, Communist countries pursued policies that led to starvation on a catastrophic scale. The worst famine in human history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. A famine has been devastating North Korea for years.

Wheen excuses the Manifesto, needless to say: “Any text from the 1840s will include passages that now seem slightly quaint or outdated; the same could be said for many party election manifestos or newspaper editorials published only a year or two ago. It was never intended to serve as a timeless sacred text, though generations of disciples have sometimes treated it as such.” (124) It is certainly true that Karl Marx wrote so very much and so very badly that readers miss the point of what he is saying. Yet elsewhere in his book, Wheen praises the validity of Marx's thinking: “Marx’s work has often been dismissed as ‘crude dogma,’ usually by people who give no evidence of having read him. It would be a useful exercise to force these extempore critics—who include the present British prime minister, Tony Blair—to study the Paris manuscripts, which reveal the workings of a ceaselessly inquisitive, subtle and undogmatic mind.” (68)

Obviously, Wheen doesn’t really believe Marx is outdated. Yet the passages he cites from the Paris manuscripts are neither subtle nor undogmatic: “So, Marx concludes, even in the most propitious economic conditions, the only consequence for the workers is ‘overwork and early death, reduction to a machine, enslavement to capital.’ ” (69) Wheen doesn’t know about the power of organization, the ability to form unions, or the importance of acting politically. Neither did Engels, who said “I delight in the testimony of my opponents” (83) when British newspapers wrote about the harsh conditions that faced workers. Conditions have improved in Britain, but in China, where there are no unions and no free newspapers, there are more people killed in coal-mining accidents per ton of coal produced than anywhere else in the world. (“Dangerous Coal Mines Take Human Toll in China,” The New York Times, June 19)

Marx, who never supported himself, loved money and spent it immediately when he acquired it. His wife Jenny—a patient, loving woman whose life was filled with tragedy—came from a rich family. "He was ridiculously proud of having married a bit of posh," Wheen informs us. (183) When various relatives of Jenny's died, the Marxes inherited money. Marx looked forward to the death of his wife's relatives: “Yesterday we were informed of a VERY HAPPY event, the death of my wife's uncle, aged ninety,” he wrote. According to Wheen, “For the previous few years this indestructible uncle had been referred to in the Marx household as ’the inheritance-thwarter.’ ” (219)

Jenny’s mother sent the Marxes a maidservant, Helene Demuth, “on permanent loan.” (91) It is not clear from Wheen’s book how—or if—Ms. Demuth was paid by the Marxes, who were usually broke. She lived with the Marxes until Jenny and Karl had both died, after which she spent the rest of her life with Friedrich Engels. (385) Her son, Freddy Demuth, was probably Marx's illegitimate child. The child was given to foster parents. (171-76) Perhaps one day DNA testing will shed more light on the question of Freddy Demuth’s paternity. For all intents and purposes, Helene Demuth was property—owned by Karl and Jenny Marx.

Marx’s major book was Capital, about money, property, and value. One of the ideas running through Marx’s work is the labor theory of value, which is the idea that the value of a commodity is the value of the raw materials plus the cost of the labor. It would follow from Marx’s reasoning that a $5 bill and a $10 bill are equally valuable, since the materials and labor that produced them are exactly equal. There is no place in Marx’s theory for services, no recognition of the necessity of stores or other markets, no acknowledgement of supply and demand. What if I worked on a painting just as hard as Rembrandt did? Would Rembrandt's work and mine be of equal value?

Wheen is fully aware that Marx's writing on economics makes no sense. Here is his excuse for Marx’s nonsense: “The absurdities to be found in Capital, which have been seized on so readily by those who wish to expose Marx as a crackpot, reflect the madness of the subject, not of the author.” (306)

This excuse is not satisfactory, not even to Wheen. Sane writing on mad subjects is certainly possible; moreover, it is often necessary as a way to deal with the madness. If Marx thought capitalism mad, he was under an obligation to point out the way to sanity.

Wheen then comes up with a brilliant and original excuse. Marx is another Laurence Sterne, author of the mad and maddening novel Tristram Shandy. “Like Tristram Shandy, Capital is full of systems and syllogisms, paradoxes and metaphysics, theories and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery. ... To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated, sometimes even waterlogged, with irony—an irony which has yet escaped almost every reader for more than a century.” (308)

Wheen is giving us a hint. If he claims that Marx’s Capital is all a big joke, he must be telling us something about his own book. Wheen has written a tour de force, a satire of Marx’s theory. It's too bad that Wheen himself has not understood the joke.

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 ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This review originally appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Midstream.It is republished here with the author’s permission. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Please Leave, Doctor; I'm Feeling Nauseous

Going Home

Last week, I wrote about the level of nursing care I received post-surgery; this week, in Part 3, I give an impressions of an unsavory incident that took place while I was recovering in hospital.

I wanted to be released; I wanted to go home; it was Monday December 24th, 2012. It was, however, up to my surgeon to give his consent. Later that morning, with my wife by my side, the surgeon (an Indo-Canadian in his late 30s; he had told me he was from Montreal, my home town) confidently walked in, and the conversation quickly turned to money and my paying “his bill.” It seemed that I would not be officially released until some “arrangement” was made then and there. That this conversation was taking place in Canada, which has mandated universal healthcare (or Medicare) since the 1970s, surprised me. But not this surgeon.

Here’s why. I had recently moved from another province, Quebec, and thus I was not yet covered by the Ontario healthcare regime (called OHIP), which had a mandatory three-month waiting period. Even so, I was still covered by Quebec’s medicare regime, in accordance with universal healthcare in Canada and the portability provision contained in The Canada Health Act (1984). The problem was not access to medical services, which was legally mandated, but of fair compensation. Or, in plain language: money.

The “problem,” according to the surgeon, was that the rate of re-reimbursement was lower in Quebec than it was in Ontario; this makes perfect sense, since the cost of living in Ontario is about 40 percent higher than it is in Quebec. The surgeon neither wanted to fill out the requisite forms to be reimbursed by Quebec, nor even consider receiving less money for his surgical services.

Here is how one part of the conversation went:
Surgeon: You can pay me by credit card right now.
Me: I don't have a credit card on me.
Surgeon: Do you have cash?
Me: No, that would be absurd, wouldn't it? Why are you so concerned about being paid?
Surgeon: I checked with other doctors here and they said that Quebec will not reimburse me.
Me: That’s not possible. I am still covered by the Quebec medicare regime, and if they do not pay you, I will.
For some unfathomable reason that I still do not understand, he still was not satisfied, and kept asking me for money. Right then and there. After what seemed like 30 minutes, I felt nauseous and went to the bathroom. I said. “Please leave, doctor; I'm feeling nauseous.” When I got out of the bathroom, the surgeon was still there, sitting on my bed, talking to my wife. He finally left after a few more minutes. I did not have the time or the energy to think how callous and arrogant he was: my goal was to return home.

I got dressed, which took some time; but more important, I was bothered and agitated that such a vulgar incident took place in a hospital, and so soon (a few days post-op). My wife, a nurse, suggested that she would place a call to the hospital ombudsperson, which she promptly did. Although the woman was pleasant, she promised nothing and did nothing. I was not surprised, having now become used to what this hospital and its employees viewed as their chief priorities; patient care did not, it would seem, rank near the top of the list.

I was soon officially released and went home; I was 10 kilograms (22 pounds) lighter, losing approximately 15 percent of my body mass. Prior to having a few nibbles of food and a few sips of liquid that day, I had not eaten for ten days, or had more than a few sips of water in the last six days, having been classified as NPO (Latin: non per os or nil per os, nothing by mouth), Nevertheless, I survived, having been fed, by intravenous.

Upon arriving home and the for the next two days, I vomited seven or so times; my poor wife had to clean up my mess. A week or so later, after receiving his bill, I did the surgeon’s administrative work, filling out a reimbursement form for him; he was duly and quickly paid at the scheduled rate, the Quebec government informed me by letter. I have not heard from him since. He might be a good surgeon, but his bedside manner leaves something to be desired. In fact, it left a sour taste in my mouth, and, more longer lasting, another lesson in the foibles of human nature.

This concludes a first-person account of my six-day stay in hospital; I have written a weekly account of my chemotherapy treatments, and then monthly post-chemo recovery posts, which can be found on My Cancer Journey.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

To Marx's (Dis)Credit

The 20th Century

If we want to understand this century, we need look at the 20th century. The 20th century and its carnage is clearly influenced by the ideology of Marxism, and so it carries through to our century. The New York Review of Books reprints a speech that Isaiah Berlin wrote (but read by someone else) at the University of Toronto in November 1994, where he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Berlin says:
They were, in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them—fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power—though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea. It is paradoxical that Karl Marx, who played down the importance of ideas in comparison with impersonal social and economic forces, should, by his writings, have caused the transformation of the twentieth century, both in the direction of what he wanted and, by reaction, against it. The German poet Heine, in one of his famous writings, told us not to underestimate the quiet philosopher sitting in his study; if Kant had not undone theology, he declared, Robespierre might not have cut off the head of the King of France.

He predicted that the armed disciples of the German philosophers—Fichte, Schelling, and the other fathers of German nationalism—would one day destroy the great monuments of Western Europe in a wave of fanatical destruction before which the French Revolution would seem child’s play. This may have been unfair to the German metaphysicians, yet Heine’s central idea seems to me valid: in a debased form, the Nazi ideology did have roots in German anti-Enlightenment thought. There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.

Let me explain. If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any.
“The end justifies the means.” This is the crux of the matter; when one thinks that he has the solution to humanity’s problems, that he alone can conceive an ideal perfect society—as Marx did in his writings—he will initiate many acolytes or followers who will think similarly; and they will act so in accordance to such simple and straightforward dictums. We have witnessed such deplorable acts of the faithful not only in the last century, but also at the beginning of this century. The result is never good.

You can read the full speech at [NYRB]

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nurse, Can I have Some Ice?

Cancer Care

Last week, I wrote about my surgery. This week, in Part 2, I review the level of nursing care I received the hours and days after surgery.

When you are weak and confused, as is often the case post-surgery, you are at the mercy of those who care for you. This is the case when you are recovering in a hospital bed. I was designated as NPO, nothing by mouth (no food or drink) A few impressions remain in my mind, in my memory, of the level of care I received while recovering in the hospital. While the details might not be completely accurate, since memory is not completely reliable, the general impression is, and this holds as much power as the way things were or might have been.

Black female west-Indian nurse’s aid: she was proficient and cheerful, and did a good job washing me (although my wife, a nurse, disagreed, and said she didn’t). I was happy with the way she performed her job, chiefly because she seemed to care.

Filipino male nurse in his late 20s: Although he was cheerful and pleasant, he was hardly around. When I rang the call bell, which was rarely, another nurse covering for him usually answered and said he was “on break.” Although I was on pain medication, and my sense of time might have been distorted, unreliable, he seemed to be on continuous break. Given that I was not allowed any food or drink, I was constantly thirsty, and wanted a few pieces of ice, which the nurses meted out to me in tiny doses, it seemed important to me that I receive some assistance in this matter. My needs and his needs rarely coincided, it would seem.

Female Chinese physiotherapist in her late 30s: The day after surgery, she told me rather forcefully that I had to make my way to a chair and sit there for 45 minutes. She returned about an hour later, and said that I now had to return to my bed. I would say that she spent no more than 10 minutes with me. She offered neither encouragement nor support.

White female nurse in her late 20s: She was pleasant, but did not want to do much for me. As an example of her enthusiasm to help, she gave me a towel and told me that I could shower unaided. I did as she said, but it was with great difficulty.

General impression: Only one nurse identified herself and her name on the white board; the majority walked in unidentified and took my vitals, sometimes explaining why and what they were doing, other times not. My presence in the room was hardly acknowledged. On the weekend, there was a party atmosphere, with much conversation about the upcoming Christmas holidays, discussions of holiday recipes, punctuated by peels of laughter coming from the nurse’s station, which was situated in front of my room. Somebody was having a good time, but it was not me; as much as laughter is good for the soul, in this case it prevented me from sleeping.

I wonder, based on my one experience, how anyone could rest and recuperate in a hospital.

My wife, a nurse for 20 years, said that this was unprofessional and I ought to have complained, at least about the noise the nurses were making. Of course she is right, but when you are sick, complaining is a difficult endeavor. As to the over-all care I received, she said that it was adequate, but by no means exceptional. Again, she is right.

Next week:  Part 3: Please Leave, Doctor: I Am Feeling Nauseous

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Journalists Telling Stories

News Reportage

In an article   (“Who cares who’s a journalist”; Oct 31, 2014) in Columbia Journalism Review, Elizabeth Spayd writes: 
By next year, Coca-Cola hopes to have killed the press release. It believes the corporate website is dead, and it’s shifting its money away from television advertising. It has little use for journalists who aren’t interested in stories Coke wants to tell. Instead, it’s decided that producing its own content is better than relying on others.

To that end, Coke—and Nestlé and Chipotle and Volkswagen and countless other companies—have blown up their marketing departments in recent years. They’ve infused them with something that looks closer to a newsroom, producing glossy magazines, blog networks, reported articles, long-form narratives, and compelling videos. One Volkswagen video alone, filmed in a Hong Kong movie theater, has drawn almost 29 million viewers on YouTube, proof that you don’t have to work in a newsroom to understand the dynamics of social media. Or check out a site produced by Red Bull on surfing: It’s filled with spectacular photography, short documentaries, the latest news on surfing, and very little about Red Bull energy drinks.
Corporations are by-passing traditional information channels to deliver their product messages directly to consumers; is this a threat to journalists? No, and here’s my view on why such changes can be good, based on personal experience. I started this blog more than four years ago with a few simple aims, and thought then I would focus more on the craft of journalism and the gathering of news stories. (see Why a Journalist?; August 19, 2010). But this blog has changed its focus, its direction so to speak, which in my view has been good and necessary.

Thus, as a trained journalist, I actually view as positive current changes affecting journalism and advertising, which has always had an uneasy but necessary relationship. The changes will set clear and delineated boundaries (between news and advertising), and thus persuade journalists and, more important, the organizations they work for to focus on hard news (and away from soft fluff)—areas that content marketing is not interested in pursuing. It might actually be good for the trade or craft of journalism, making journalists and news organizations better in the pursuit of genuine news.

What is journalism, anyway, but the telling of a story? News organizations will now, I am persuaded, be forced to work harder, and become more innovative in how they tell their stories to an audience that is now more fragmented and more distracted, and shrinking. Those interested in genuine hard news will always be a small percentage of the general audience; this has always been the case.

For more, go to [CJR]