Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Fantastic Vision Of Futurists

Future Views

Floating Cities: The article says: “A combination of growing populations along with rising sea levels due to climate change could see the creation of floating cities. The reef-like structures would rise above the sea and would be linked to the mainland by huge roads. The notion is seen as the second most likely to become a reality in the decades to come, with one in three (30 per cent) of Britons thinking it is viable.”
Photo Credit & SourceThe Independent

Predicting the future is always risky business, since it is often a projection of today with a fanciful imprint. An article in The Independent says that in Britain culture and economics will influence urban architecture in ways that will alter the skyline, the streets and the waterways. This includes burrowing further into the ground to make multi-level underground basements, developing rooftop farms and building floating cities.

All of these ideas emanate, the article says, from a panel of experts.
It includes award-winning architects Arthur Mamou-Mani and Toby Burgess; urbanist Linda Aitken; and Dr Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education, the Royal Academy of Engineering.
"We may build downwards, creating additional space through super deep basements, or we may need to create floating conurbations on major rivers or even out to sea. And how we grow and access food, incorporating urban farming into the built environment, as well as harnessing natural energy sources, will result in dramatically different streetscapes and skylines," commented Linda Aitken.
“There is rarely a ‘eureka’ moment,” when it comes to advances, according to Dr Morgan. “Engineering feats which are currently out of reach require time for the pieces to fit together and the minds responsible for developing the ideas to work through all the wrong avenues before achieving what is currently impossible,” he added.
Perhaps, but it is always safe to predict what will take place 100 years from now, since you will no longer be be alive to hear the stinging rebukes that you were wrong, that your predictions were off-base, that they are considered funny,“given what we know today”; and, equally important, memories being what they are, these predictions will be forgotten quickly. (And then recalled decades later, given our ability to access the large data-bank known as the Internet.) Yet, there exists such courageous individuals, who are called futurists, Wikipedia says, “whose specialty is futurology, or the attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present, whether that of human society in particular or of life on Earth in general.” 

Do predictions of the  future increase when society in general feels threatened or under attack? Do people portend a better future when the current one seems gloomy? Does anxiety and alienation increase the need for futurists? These are all good questions for which answers need exploring.

Predicting the future might be in our genes, perhaps as a way to prepare for all possible eventualities. Or the one that is most probable. One hundred years ago, the Victorians made educated guesses of what life would be like at the beginning of the twenty-first century: flying cars, routine trips to the moon, domestic robots and cities in the oceans. 

Then there are the ones made by the science-fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, 50 years ago: people being deep-freezed like food and the use of a quantum generator to control matter. Such predictions, like most predictions of the future, are fun and filled with possibilities of advancing our society, but I no longer take them seriously. If do they take place, so much the better for future humanity. But I somehow sense that new problems will crop up, and that some of the old ones will remain.

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For more, go to [TheIndepend]

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Monkees: Daydream Believer (1967)





The Monkees perform "Daydream Believer"in this feel-good 1967 song from the past; it was written by John C. Stewart of the Kingston Trio, and released by the pop group as a single on October 25, 1967. It was included on their 1968 album,The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees. I was not yet 10 but knew a good song when I heard it. Still do.


Daydream Believer
by John C. Stewart

Oh, I could hide 'neath the wings
Of the bluebird as she sings.
The six o'clock alarm would never ring.
But it rings and I rise,
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes.
My shavin' razor's cold and it stings.

Cheer up, Sleepy Jean.
Oh, what can it mean.
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen.

You once thought of me
As a white knight on a steed.
Now you know how happy I can be.
Oh, and our good times start and end
Without dollar one to spend.
But how much, baby, do we really need.

Cheer up, Sleepy Jean.
Oh, what can it mean.
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen.
Cheer up, Sleepy Jean.
Oh, what can it mean.
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen.

[Instrumental interlude]

Cheer up, Sleepy Jean.
Oh, what can it mean.
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen.
[Repeat and fade]

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Final Score

Fiction

Last week was the introduction of the fictional character, Count Zero, by Simcha Wasserman, with “The Mark Of Zero”; this week, the series continues with “The Final Score.” It is a story about boys who play sports, and about much more, including on the nature of competition and cooperation.








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by Simcha Wasserman

Already as a young boy, Count Zero was unusually self-effacing. He would rather pass off to another player than score himself. In one game of ball hockey, he had control of the ball and could easily have scored, but he instead hung on to the ball until a teammate (who was in a slump) was in position to score, passed it off, took a hard bodycheck that left him dazed, while his teammate scored.

After the game, the Coach took the Count to task in front of the rest of the team. "Young man, the idea is that you score when you can, and not try some foolish, self centered stick handling! Who are you trying to impress?"

The Count did not answer.

"Have you nothing to say for yourself!?", demanded the Coach, his voice growing louder.

The Count remained silent, looking down at his feet.

The Coach turned red and screamed, “You're nothing but a fool! If you continue like this in life, you'll never amount to anything, mister!!!”

At that, the Count looked up, and with the trace of a smile, said, “Thank you.”

“Thank you!?!” roared the Coach, “Thank you!?! Are you completely crazy?”; and he stormed off, snorting like a wild bull. But turning to look back at the Count, he saw something extraordinary.

The entire team were walking by the Count, smiling and gently clapping him on the shoulders, without saying a word.

The group of boys, at that moment, became a formidable team, which went on to lose only two games all season on their way to the league championship.

In his speech at the championship banquet, the Coach thanked all the players on the team, and was about to single out the Count for special recognition until he saw that now familiar smile; and so moved on in his speech, to praise his wife for all her support and dedication.

There was boisterous applause for the champions, as each player received a trophy and a hearty handshake from the Coach. But it was interesting to note that one player in particular, in addition to a trophy and a handshake, also received, what appeared to be, a very subtle clap on the shoulders.

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Next week, “Bikur Cholim”

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Simcha Wasserman is a Lubavitcher chossid living with his family in Toronto.

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Copyright ©2015. Simcha Wasserman. All Rights Reserved. The story is published here with the author’s permission.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Yesterday At Edwards Gardens

Public Gardens

Mother & Father Goose & Family
Photo Credit: ©Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015



We went yesterday morning to Toronto’s Edwards Gardens—a public venue part of Toronto Botanical Garden—for the first time this year; among the sights was a family (or was it a gaggle?) of Canadian geese (Branta canadensis) consisting of a male (a gander), a female (a goose) and their chicks (goslings); there was of course the flowers, shrubs and trees that are well within bloom. Beauty always uplifts the spirits.




The Flowing Fountain
Photo Credit: ©Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015




Flowers In Bloom
Photo Credit: 
©Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015



A Public Garden
Photo Credit: ©Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Personal Forgetting Of The Past

On Memory & Meaning


“To be able to forget means sanity.” 
― Jack LondonThe Star Rover



DARPA Memory Program: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, a military-research agency of the U.S. government, is working on devices that would aid in memory restoration; it says on its website the following: “DARPA has selected two universities to initially lead the agency’s Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, which aims to develop and test wireless, implantable ‘neuroprosthetics’ that can help service-members, veterans, and others overcome memory deficits incurred as a result of traumatic brain injury (TBI) or disease.”
Image Credit & Source: DARPA



There are some personal memories, some recounting of personal decisions, some reminiscing of personal disappointments of the past that require a conscious and voluntary forgetting, a determined dismissal of their importance. The reasons cannot be more clear: such is a way to move on, to move forward, to not live in unpleasant times where a grievance is often nursed for no particular benefit—in short, to allow good and healthy living today. Mental health and one’s sanity depends on it.

If we remember as not to forget, it is also wise to forget as to not remember. In this argument for forgetting, there is a counter-intuitive idea that says that not all memories are worth keeping, worth remembering, worth telling and discussing. In an age that deems equality as paramount, it might be disheartening to admit that not all memories are equal; that some are better than others.

Yet, it is the rational thing to do, is it not? After all, there are some memories of a personal nature involving failures in family relationships, failures in business and professional pursuits, and failures in social activities that after a period of reflection and analysis that ought to be put to rest and forgotten; in short, if it is at all possible, such memories ought to be put away into the land of oblivion.

Forgetting is sometimes not only good, but also necessary, acting as a quiet forgiveness of self and of others, notably of our intimates. Personal slights, personal insults and personal failures can be debilitating, and more so when we impart meaning to these events, these markers in our lives. It is human to do so, very human it seems. It must be a private hell to remember everything.

The older we become, the more we store memories of the past, and the greater meaning we often ascribe to them; we try to understand our present selves in relation to the decisions our past selves made. It is true that memories are not always reliable, but this is not often the important point about memories. Memories define who we are as much as anything tangible. Or so it becomes when amnesia strikes, or a person is struck down with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and thus suffers irreversible loss of memory. This is different, however, than voluntarily deciding to forget.

Or placing emphasis on one memory over another. For example, if we can change or memories, we can perhaps change our selves, our core being. If only we can alter this decision, this course of action, stop ourselves from doing this or that... perhaps our lives would be better, our relationships richer, our misery less pronounced. We have all entered this realm of thinking. Yes, the past influences the present. To what degree varies, of course, but there is a prevailing and present influence. The memory is the conduit of the influence; the highway and byway of both good and bad thoughts about ourselves and how we conducted ourselves in accordance to our personal morality.

So, yes, a conscious forgetting of past hurts makes it easier to reside well in the present. But what about the need or desire to recover the self from the past? In Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927, human memory plays an important, if not central role, in the tension between who we have become and who we (thought or remember) we were in the past:
People claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.
Yes, disappointment. This happens often, more often than we would like to admit. First to ourselves. Nostalgia, it would seem. operates in this manner, and it has a hold on our memory; we remember our childhoods as we would like them to be, seeing the past as better than it was—we do this by selecting the events that confirm our current views. It becomes more poignant if we do not like the way things have turned out, if we do not like or enjoy our present self, our present life and the “hand that fate dealt us.” This might explain the power and importance of forgiveness and acceptance in allowing us to move, without the encumbrances of the past weighing us down. We might remember, but the power it has on our today is diminished, less so and weaker than what it is without the conscious act of forgiveness.

This is most liberating, as is the knowledge of living with not too much regret. Proust’s long meandering 3,300-page literary opus of more than one million words is much like a recounting of life’s living; it is interesting to note that it was originally given the title, in English, of Remembrance of Things Past, which suggests memory rather than time lost, or squanderedOr wasted. Can time be really wasted, if what you are doing is enjoyable at that moment? I don’t think so; I hope not.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Elton John: Rocket Man (1972)



Elton John sings Rocket Man in this 1972 performance; the song is on the album Honky Château, which was released on April 14, 1972.

The song, written by Bernie Taupin, was inspired by science-fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, and his short story of the same name, Wikipedia says, it describing:
a Mars-bound astronaut's mixed feelings at leaving his family in order to do his job. Musically, the song is a highly arranged pop ballad anchored by piano, with atmospheric texture added by synthesizer (played on the recording by engineer Dave Hentschel) and processed slide guitar. It is also known for being the first song in John's catalog to feature what would become the signature backing vocal combination of his band at the time, Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone.
"Rocket Man" was ranked #242 in the 2004 list of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was later changed to #245 in the list's 2010 revision.
In the 1960s and ‘70s. space flight caught the imagination of the world, but all that changed after the Challenger Space Shuttle accident (January 28, 1986) in the United States, which made many not only question the validity of space travel, but also retain less confidence in NASA in particular and space exploration in general. Some excitement remains, notably with the planned mission to Mars, but not to the same degree of excitement and wonder that was evident when this song was written and performed. You can’t go back to the past (not yet, at least), but you can enjoy its memories and what they collectively represent.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Wonderful Experience

Human Connections

A Sense of Wonder: Awe inspires altruistic behaviour, the article says. “In still other studies, we have sought to understand why awe arouses altruism of different kinds. One answer is that awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger.”
Image Credit: Alain Pilon, NYT
Source: NYT

An opinion piece, by Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, in The New York Times gives a rather convincing explanation of the social and cultural importance of awe-inspiring experiences; these shared experiences make humans more socially aware of other humans, that such experiences tell us that we have many things in common with others.

Piff and Keltner, both professors of psycholgy at American universities, write in the article (“Why Do We Experience Awe?”; May 22, 2015) that this effect—the one that causes goose bumps— is instructive and beneficial to human development.
HERE’S a curious fact about goose bumps. In many nonhuman mammals, goose bumps — that physiological reaction in which the muscles surrounding hair follicles contract — occur when individuals, along with other members of their species, face a threat. We humans, by contrast, can get goose bumps when we experience awe, that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.
Why do humans experience awe? Years ago, one of us, Professor Keltner,argued (along with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt) that awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. Through many activities that give us goose bumps — collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship — awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.
Whether it is found by being in nature, by participating in a religious or spiritual service, or by attending a musical performance, the sense of wonder these evoke in humans has the power to make us less selfish, less egotistical—it is the antithesis of the individual pursuit, the opposite of self-marketing, of self-promotion, and of résumé building. These awe-inspiring moments give us a sense of proportion; to wit, we are not the gigantic homo sapiens with large brains that we often see ourselves as being, but much smaller beings who are part of a larger world and an infinite and a strange & wonderful cosmos. It’s a humbling experience.

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For more, go to [NYT]

Friday, May 22, 2015

Redeeming Judas

Book Review

One of the puzzling aspects of the New Testament is why Judas early on became such a despised figure among Christians; why wasn’t he given a place of honor? Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: “The cross, the tool used to execute Jesus, symbolizes Christianity. Then why isn‘t Judas honored for identifying Jesus to the Romans who captured and crucified him?” We can never know the answer for sure, because the Christian canon is thin on this question and seems in any case to contradict itself. The answer can, perhaps, be found in the formation of the early Church and of the New Testament, which contains 27 books. Like all new movements, and more so with religious ones, there was much debate on what direction it would take and what writings would be considered authoritative, inspired; various factions were formed. By the late fourth century of the Common Era, however, the canon was considered complete and closed by Church authorities. This meant that certain books were included, and many others not, such as the Gospel of Judas, which came out of the Gnostic tradition of the early church. The Gnostics lost the battle, but the questions surrounding the place of Judas have never really gone away.

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by George Jochnowitz
The Gospel of Judas
Edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst,
with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman. National Geographic
2006, 185 pages.

According to Christian doctrine, Jesus came to earth to redeem humanity through his suffering. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” says the Gospel According to John (1:29). The crucifixion is thus the central miracle in Christianity. The Friday when it occurred is called Good Friday. The cross, the tool used to execute Jesus, symbolizes Christianity. Then why isn‘t Judas honored for identifying Jesus to the Romans who captured and crucified him?

There is no question that in the New Testament, Judas is part of the Divine plan. “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” asks Jesus (John 6:70). The Gospel of Judas is based on the idea that Judas was indeed chosen, but that he is not at all a devil. “But you will exceed all of them. You will sacrifice the man that clothes me” says Jesus to Judas (p. 43). “All of them” refers to the other disciples, who are portrayed negatively in this gospel. Jesus tells them “Truly I say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me” (p. 22). These words created a negative reaction. “When his disciples heard this, they started getting angry and infuriated and began blaspheming against him in their hearts” (p. 23).

If The Gospel of Judas were part of the Christian tradition that accepted the idea that the suffering of Jesus was necessary to redeem humanity from sin, then it would make sense for Judas to be recognized as the most virtuous of the disciples. However, sin and redemption are not part of this story. The Gospel of Judas is part of an entirely different religious tradition—one that is utterly unfamiliar to those of us who are not scholars of the religions of the early centuries of the Common Era. This tradition is a branch of Gnosticism, known as Sethian Gnosticism to its adherents and as Cainian Gnosticism to its enemies. In the Gospel, we read about twelve angels, “The first is Seth, who is called Christ” (p. 38). Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, and the gospel is identifying him with Jesus. When Judas talks to Jesus, he says, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo” (pp. 22-23).

The Gospel of Judas doesn’t tell us who Barbelo is. However, most of the pages in the book are not part of the Gospel but explanations by scholars. One of these, Marvin Meyer, tells us that, according to Sethian Gnostic belief, God merely created the world. The world is merely a part of a greater universe created by the Great One (pp. 143-44). In a different Sethian text called the Secret Book of John, “the appearance of the Child is portrayed in such a way as to suggest an act of spiritual intercourse between the transcendent Father and Barbelo the Mother” (p. 147). Nowhere is the Virgin Mary mentioned. Seth is the child of Adam and Eve; at the same time, Seth is Jesus, the child of two eternal, all-powerful beings, the Father and Barbelo. There apparently are contradictions in the writings of the Sethians. Meyer explains, “The Secret Book of John is another Sethian text that seems to have been composed as a Jewish gnostic document and lightly Christianized into the teaching and revelation of Jesus” (p. 168).

Bart D. Ehrman, one of the scholars whose comments help us to understand what is going on in this unfamiliar religious environment, has entitled his analysis “Christianity Turned on Its Head.” He points out that without the betrayal of Jesus, “there would be no arrest, without the arrest there would be no trial, without the trial there would be no crucifixion, without the crucifixion there would be no resurrection-and in short, we still wouldn't be saved from our sins. So why were Judas's actions such a bad thing?” He then goes on to add, “Our gospel writers never address this speculative question” (p. 93).

Gnostic writers weren’t interested in the question because they weren’t interested in the world. Ehrman explains that for gnostics, “the god who created this world is not the only god ... No, this world is a cosmic disaster, and salvation comes only to those who learn how to escape the world and its material trappings” (p. 85). Perhaps the Gnostics viewed salvation as akin to the Buddhist idea of nirvana.

The Gospel of Judas was part of a codex (an ancient manuscript bound like a book) found in Egypt, perhaps in 1978. It is written in Coptic, the variety of ancient Egyptian used in the early centuries of the first millennium, before Egypt was conquered by Muslims who introduced their own language, Arabic. Rodolphe Kasser tells us that between 1978 and 2001, the 1600-year-old codex “had been damaged by so many misfortunes, many of which could have been avoided. It was a stark victim of cupidity and ambition” (p. 47). Kasser tells us about the theft, recovery, sale, and restoration of this damaged treasure. The version we have is not complete because of erosion and mistreatment, but the message is nevertheless there. We now have an English translation of a Coptic text that is itself a translation from the original Greek.

The codex that we have dates from around the last quarter of the third century C.E. The Greek original, however, must have been written after 177 C.E., since it is the subject of a lengthy attack by a bishop named Irenaeus of Lyon who took office in that year. Gregor Wurst is the author of a summary of the arguments used by Irenaeus against the people he calls “Cainites,” although as Wurst tells us, “in the newly discovered text there is no mention of Cain or the other antiheroes from the Jewish Scriptures mentioned by Irenaeus” (p. 126). Wurst says “we would have to assume the existence of more than one Gospel of Judas circulating within gnostic communities of antiquity” (pp. 126-27).

The second century C.E. is a long time ago, but it is nevertheless a long time after the Crucifixion. We don’t know who wrote it, but it couldn’t possibly have been Judas. It tells us nothing historical about the events leading up to the death of Jesus. Its interpretation of the role of Judas and of the message of Jesus is irrelevant, since Bishop Irenaeus won. Christianity is the religion of the Christian Bible, which does not include the Gospel of Judas or any other Gnostic texts.

The fact that Judas is considered utterly wicked in the New Testament has for two millennia been a threat to Jews. This threat has abated, although threats may come from different sources. Will The Gospel of Judas lead Christians to recognize the paradox that Judas enabled Jesus to suffer and become the lamb “which taketh away the sin of the world”? Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t, but in any event, that’s not what the Gospel is about. What is important is that an ancient text has been discovered and translated, a text that scholars of early Christianity knew about because of the writings of Irenaeus of Lyon. All of us can now look at a document that sheds light on the period when the nature of the Christian religion was being determined.

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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 atgeorge@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2015. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. A version of this review appeared in the July-August, 2008 issue of Jewish Currents.The article is republished here with the author’s permission.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Mark Of Zero

Fiction

Today, I introduce to this blog a new short-story writer, Simcha Wasserman; we met when his wife invited my wife and I to a Shabbat meal a few weeks ago. We immediately hit it off, discovering that we are from the same generation and had much in common, including experiencing a similar kind of world (he in Toronto; I in Montreal), and sharing a love for writing and story-telling. Mr. Wasserman describes himself as a Lubavitcher chosid, which is a term used to describe orthodox Jews of a particular sect of Judaism, Hasids, among other things, believe that life, although serious, ought to be enjoyed—at least within the bounds of Torah Judaism. My hope is that you will enjoy these short stories—four in all, which will post weekly on Wednesdays; they all focus on Count Zero, conveying in their telling the kind of hopefulness and wonderment in humanity, with a touch of humility, that we all seek at one time or another.




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by Simcha Wasserman

Shir l’maalos esah anai el harim m’ayin yavoh ezrie
Ps 121:1


One day in the supermarket, Count Zero was eyeing the labels on many items, checking for kosher products, when he noted an elderly man swaying strangely on his feet by a ten-foot high pyramid display of canned corn. Unless the man was praying to this display, which might be possible if he were an Egyptian, the man looked like he soon would be entering this “pyramid” in a no entry zone, as no entrance way, in fact, existed.

In a flash, the Count understood the grave consequences that lay moments ahead for this poor old man. And not just the physical repercussions but, in some ways even more grave, the emotional trauma and embarrassment that would accompany such an unfortunate mishap.

So with great agility and tenderness, the Count darted toward the old man, throwing his arms around him, as would the gentlest mother bear embrace her newborn cub.

A picture of grace, perhaps, in a perfect world. But not so in this world, the world of rectification, and so down came this metal pyramid, and not as silently as it would have, had the floor been composed of silent desert sand.

Two managers and a few stock boys came running after the thunder, and there stood the Count hugging the old man. The Count looked pleased. The old man did not.

“What exactly happened here?” asked one manager.

“This young ox tried to tackle me to the ground!” said the old man. All eyes turned to Count

“I saw you swaying and I was afraid you were going to fall into these stacked cans and hurt yourself....” explained the Count.

“I was NOT going to the fall!” shouted the old man. “Just because I forget my pills this morning doesn’t mean I’m going to fall!”

The supermarket staff immediately understood, and the same manager who asked what had happened, looked at the Count and said, “Sir, we would like to thank –”

The Count interrupted, and turning to the old man began to apologize, “Please forgive my misunderstanding and clumsiness. I have made a dreadful mistake.”

The old man’s demeanor softened, “Young man, I forgive you. But next time, think before you
leap! Somebody could really get hurt!” The old man walked away, checking his pockets until he
found his pill box, and then continued on his way in search of a drink to help wash down his
medication.

The manager quietly thanked Count Zero, who answered in his usual self-effacing way, “It was
nothing, really, nothing at all.”

As the Count left the store, one manager said to the other, “Strange, isn’t it? He didn’t even buy
anything!”

“Yeah, you’re right! Maybe that wasn’t why he came here?” They looked at each other with the
same thought, and darted outside to find the Count, but he had vanished.

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Next week, “The Final Score.”

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Simcha Wasserman is a Lubavitcher chossid living with his family in Toronto.

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Copyright ©2015. Simcha Wasserman. All Rights Reserved. The story is published here with the author’s permission.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Problem Of Scarcity

An Abundance of Poverty

Living in a Manila rubbish dump: This is how some people live in Manila, Philippines, in a place that once was a designated dump for rubbish in the central part of the city of 1.7 million inhabitants. “Manila is the most densely populated city in the world with 43,079 inhabitants per km2,” Wikipedia reports.  The nation’s poverty rate is around 25 per cent; and its unemployment rate around 6.6 per cent.
Photo Credit
: Lasse Bak Mejlvang; 2015

Source: BBC News & Syngenta Photography Award

It is said that the academic discipline of economics is to a large degree the study of scarcity, that is, how humans make decisions on how to best use scarce resources. The greater the degree of scarcity, the greater the necessity to make good decisions. Such is how the thinking goes, and this is essentially how governments think and operate and, to a large degree, design programs to allocate resources and redistribute wealth. At the private individual level, nowhere is this effect more pronounced than among those classes that have the least resources and the greatest scarcity: the lower classes, the poor.

An article, by Carla Finberg, in Harvard Magazine suggests that now some behavioral economists have begun to view scarcity from a different perspective, chiefly, that of examining how poverty leads to individuals making poor decisions, thus leading to poor outcomes. What this equates to is not blaming poverty on the poor, but blaming the poor for making poor decisions. It seems innocent enough, scientific in its approach, but will it lead to the necessary societal changes to eradicate poverty?

Fineberg writes in “The Science of Scarcity” (May/June 2015) the following about the work of Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard University professor of economics; and Eldar Shafir, Tod professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University:
But what’s most striking—and in some circles, controversial—about their work is not what they reveal about the effects of scarcity. It’s their assertion that scarcity affects anyone in its grip. Their argument: qualities often considered part of someone’s basic character—impulsive behavior, poor performance in school, poor financial decisions—may in fact be the products of a pervasive feeling of scarcity. And when that feeling is constant, as it is for people mired in poverty, it captures and compromises the mind.

This is one of scarcity’s most insidious effects, they argue: creating mindsets that rarely consider long-term best interests. “To put it bluntly,” says Mullainathan, “if I made you poor tomorrow, you’d probably start behaving in many of the same ways we associate with poor people.” And just like many poor people, he adds, you’d likely get stuck in the scarcity trap.
True; when people are in the giant maw of scarcity, their thought patterns change, at least initially. This is something that I know and which I have first-hand experience. Our family has been stationed around the poverty line since 2009 (called low-income cutoffs, or LICO, here in Canada), and while I and our family might not have a lot of money, I am intelligent, rational and make good decisions—despite our family’s financial limitations. Perhaps, in some cases better than others who have more resources, because “necessity is the mother of invention”; and it is important in our case to make good sensible decisions so as to “live within our means.” We have a roof over our heads, sufficient food in our fridge and pantry and all the necessities of life.

Economists ought to dig deeper: Can it be that some people will always find ways to survive because they can make appropriate and good decisions, chiefly since they have adapted well to their circumstances? Does one good decision leads to another, and so forth? More important, can lab studies sufficiently duplicate real-life experiences, even if (independent and dependent) variables are sufficiently isolated and understood? The answers are all important; and while the thinking behind this decision-making research is interesting from an academic sense, I sense that it will do little to change the poverty landscape in America. No matter the fine and noble intentions.

Here is my reasoning for saying this, although some might take exception to this. The U.S. is considered a land of abundance; and while this is undeniably true so is the fact that it also has an abundance of poverty. The U.S. Census reports that in 2013, the last year official figures are available, 45.3 million people live in poverty—equating to 14.5 per cent of its population. Note that the poverty line for a family of four (two adults, two children) is designated as $23,283. (It is almost double that amount for urban centres here in Canada, at $43,292; the poverty rate is at 14.5 per cent.

When adults do not earn enough, children suffer. Child poverty, in particular, has been increasing since the early 1990s; in Canada, the child poverty rate is 14.3 per cent, representing almost one million children. In the U.S., 16 million children live in families that are designated poor, says the National Centre for Children in Poverty at Columbia University in New York City. This equates to 22 per cent of all children in America. The cost of ignoring child poverty has been, and continues to be, great; and not only in monetary terms, says an article, by Jeff Madrick, in The New York Review of Books; in “The Cost of Child Poverty (May 8, 2015), Madrick writes:
Meanwhile, years of research have made clear the direct connection between childhood poverty and social dysfunction, ranging from poor health outcomes to higher incarceration rates. Dozens of studies have reported that poor kids are more likely to have learning disabilities, language delays, behavioral problems, and to contract diseases such as asthma and diabetes. They tend not to do as well at school and are more likely to drop out of high school, or even grade school. Women more often have babies in their teenage years. The Children’s Defense Fund says the path to prison is often paved in these years. And, most important, neurologists have found virtually incontrovertible evidence that high levels of stress experienced from birth to the age of three can actually damage brain architecture, reducing, for example, the size of the hippocampus.
Ignoring these problems is hugely costly to the US government. Harry Holzer of Georgetown University, with co-authors, showed that child poverty cost America $500 billion a year in lost productivity, higher crime rates, and raised health expenditures. Nor is it hard to find government programs that can effectively address these issues. And yet until now, there has been little interest in tackling child poverty on a large scale.
The last sentence is true, but the one before it is instructive and also true; there are good programs currently available in America, this same article says, ones which would help alleviate their poverty, and better their condition; but many do not for various reasons. This is sadly true; on an anecdotal level, I have “spoken” online to many Americans about such programs, but many said it is either too complicated or too intrusive to fill out an application—it seems that pride and dignity (or resentment) over-rides sound decision-making and material comfort.

There is also the social stigma of receiving “entitlements” from the government, a message put out and reinforced by conservatives, who equate paid work as the only “honest way” to live. The full implications of this narrative has to be fleshed out; one result of such inflexible thinking is that some individuals would rather continue to live in their miserable situation, with their children, until they found a job, or not. (It is also true that some poor people do not want to better their lives, even if an opportunity is presented to them.)

What is missing from this magical thinking, however, is the fact that millions of well-paying jobs in manufacturing have left America since the 1990s; many have been replaced by part-time or low-wage and minimum-wage jobs, which do not provide a living wage. There is a direct correlation between a good job and exiting poverty.

There are some short-term and hopeful solutions. The same article cites direct cash subsidies of between $300 and $400 a month as a way to reduce child poverty, which would cut the rate in half—a program that some academics estimate would cost the American government between $100 billion and $150 billion; this is less than one percent of U.S. GDP ($16.8 trillion). Such a program does not yet exist in the U.S., but it exists in Canada, Britain and in many other industrialized and wealthy nations.

Even so, while this would help, this is really only a short-term solution. If you genuinely want to alleviate poverty long-term, it is necessary to make political and societal changes to ensure, as an important first step, full employment, a living wage, and affordable housing. It will also necessitate less finger-pointing and more political collaboration. Until this happens, poverty will always be with us, as one well-known Galilean prophet said 2,000 years ago.

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For more, go to [HarvardMag]

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bizet's Carmen In London (1991)



Here is Georges Bizet’s Carmen, conducted by Zubin Mehta, who leads the Royal Opera House Orchestra in this 1991 staging at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; this opera is stage-directed by Nuria Espert; and its leading roles are played by Maria Ewing (Carmen), Luis Lima (Don José), Leonina Vadiva (Micaëla) and Gino Quilico (Escamillo).

This well-liked opera was not initially well-received:
The libretto, by Henri Meilac and Ludovic Halévy, is based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. The first performance of Carmen on 3 March 1875, produced such a hostile reaction that Bizet left Paris physically and psychologically ill, and died only three months later on 3 June 1875, following two serious heart attacks. The massive scandal of the premiere may have been partially the result of Bizet’s attempt to reform the Opéra Comique genre, yet it must still be said that Carmen is operatic history’s most famous example of a failure being corrected by the passage of time: Carmen is now one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. 
It is ranked as the second most-performed opera in the world; Verdi’s La Traviata is no. 1.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Long March Of Modern Science

Scientific Advancement

Galileo shows the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope in this fresco by Giuseppe Bertini [1825-98], dated 1858. The painting currently resides in the Bertini Room, in Villa Andrea Ponti, in Varese, Italy.
Photo Credit & Source: Wikipedia

A book review article, by John Leslie, in The Times Literary Supplement looks at Steven Weinberg’s “To Explain the World: The discovery of modern science.” While we today take modern science and both its fundamental ideas and its ways of observing the world for granted, this was not always the case; it begins with the ancient Greeks, a few thousand years ago, and with all the mathematical theorems that you learned in high school. While these theorems are no doubt important, they are not sufficient in themselves to explain the physical world.

Leslie, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Ontario, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, says that Weinberg’s book traces the arc of ancient view to modern view. To a large degree, the change hinged on how man observed the natural world. The cumulative effect of the changes—acting over a long period of time—influenced or forced the arrival of the scientific method, and with it modern science:
It tells an exciting story. Why on earth did good science take so long to arrive? Weinberg’s answer, the book’s main theme, is that it was so immensely difficult to learn what there was to explain, and how to set about explaining it. Explanation by bringing a wide range of facts under a single theory; the need, often, to state theories mathematically; which principles (looking for simplicity, for instance) were sometimes helpful in arriving at theories – all such things had to be painfully learned. Other principles (such as seeking purpose and the good) called for painful unlearning. At first, even the need to submit theories to observational tests was not grasped by the world’s best brains. For, Weinberg comments, people “had never seen it done”.
The tale begins with Ancient Greece. The Pythagoreans, inspired perhaps by comparing the lengths of harmoniously tuned strings, concluded that mathematics dictated all the laws of the cosmos. In reality, Weinberg points out, mathematics by itself “cannot tell us anything about the world”; we need actual observations as well. Without observational support, Plato declared that the world’s four elements, water, air, earth and fire, were composed of regular polyhedrons. Fire was the tetrahedrons, earth the cubes. Weinberg thinks we should best understand such declarations as “poetry”, not as trying “to say clearly what one actually believes to be true”. “Intellectual snobbery” among the early Greeks often made them dismiss as “not worth having” any grubbily acquired knowledge of the material world. Weinberg gives Democritus no praise for proposing atoms. The man seems to have made no effort to show “that matter really is composed of atoms”. 
Modern science took many hundreds of years to arrive at a form that we today recognize as the child of the scientific method, which has generally benefited humanity. The history of science always raises questions on how we got from there to here, and on how one discovery lead to another, and why one discovery became more important than another. Are there particular times and places that are better than others, where and when the political and economic climate allow or induce great discoveries, great leaps that advances science forward to the betterment of humanity? Is it a matter of pushing the boundaries of knowledge? Is it a matter of dedicated and devoted hard work by brilliant minds?

How important is the relationship between money and science?

Today, very important, but then again this was also the case yesterday. Even so, money and fancy equipment can’t replace good science and brilliant scientists. The history of science suggests all of these mental character traits are necessary, including the necessity to discard old ideas in the face of mounting evidence, It also must be said that science thrives in an atmosphere of openness and collaboration, in societies that are not overly restricted. Although it must be added that the history of science suggests that restrictions has not stopped the advances of science, only slightly hindered them.

If modern science is anything, it is self-correcting. It is facts and not opinions that count the most. Hypothesis becomes theory only after passing through rigorous observational tests, proven true time and time again. Or in other cases, what was true in the past is now no longer true.

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For more, go to [TLS]

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Measles Vaccine Has An Added Benefit

Disease Prevention

An article, by Michaeleen Doucleff, in NPR says that the children inoculated with the measles vaccine are also protected against other childhood diseases; Doucleff, a science journalist who holds a doctorate in chemistry, writes:
Back in the 1960s, the U.S. started vaccinating kids for measles. As expected, children stopped getting measles. But something else happened. Childhood deaths from all infectious diseases plummeted. Even deaths from diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea were cut by half. Scientists saw the same phenomenon when the vaccine came to England and parts of Europe. And they see it today when developing countries introduce the vaccine.
“In some developing countries, where infectious diseases are very high, the reduction in mortality has been up to 80 percent,” says Michael Mina, a postdoc in biology at Princeton University and a medical student at Emory University. “So it's really been a mystery — why do children stop dying at such high rates from all these different infections following introduction of the measles vaccine,” he says. Mina and his colleagues think they now might have an explanation.

And they published their evidence Thursday in the journal Science.


Now there's an obvious answer to the mystery: Children who get the measles vaccine are probably more likely to get better health care in generalmaybe more antibiotics and other vaccines. And it's true, health care in the U.S. has improved since the 1960s.
But Mina and his colleagues have found there's more going on than that simple answer.
The team obtained epidemiological data from the U.S., Denmark, Wales and England dating back to the 1940s. Using computer models, they found that the number of measles cases in these countries predicted the number of deaths from other infections two to three years later.
“We found measles predisposes children to all other infectious diseases for up to a few years,” Mina says.
So, it reasonably follows that children who do not contact measles are better protected from other so-called childhood diseases, some deadly. Thus, this is more scientific evidence supporting the health and protective benefits of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine in particular and vaccines in general. That vaccines save and better children’s lives and health is undeniably true. Parents who do not vaccinate their children are making uninformed decisions, something that I have written about in countless posts (e.g., see here.)


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For more, go to [NPR]

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Breakthrough In Early Detection Of Ovarian Cancer

Cancer Screening

Blood Test: While no single blood test can confirm the existence of ovarian cancer in women, periodical blood tests can build a profile of the level of the CA-125 protein evident in the human body.
Photo Credit & Source: The Independent


An article, by Adam Withnall, in The Independent reports that blood tests for a protein, CA-125, could be an early predictor for ovarian cancer. The key finding in this 14-year British research study is that changes in CA-125 levels correlates with increased incidences of ovarian cancer; the test has an accuracy rate of 86 per cent.

So, while no single blood test can yet predict ovarian cancer, periodic blood tests can compare levels, or changes, in the CA-125 protein. This is the building of a profile, which is now becoming more common in detecting all types of cancers.

Withnall writes:
And UCLA’s Professor Usha Menon said that the new test, involving tracking changing levels of the protein CA125 in the blood, could change the way doctors screen for ovarian cancer in the UK. “There is currently no national screening programme for ovarian cancer, as research to date has been unable to provide enough evidence that any one method would improve early detection of tumours,” Professor Menon said.
Tracking changes involves more work, more tests, more needle pokes, but thus far it represents the best hope of early detection of ovarian cancer, a disease that affects thousands of women each year; Ovarian Cancer Canada says: “There are 17,000 women living with ovarian cancer in Canada. It is estimated that this year in Canada, 2,600 women will be newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is the 5th most common cancer for women and is the most serious women’s cancer.” Globally, 239,000 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, says World Cancer Research Fund International, a cancer-advocacy group based in London, England.


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For more, go to [TheIndepend]

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Sacrificial Love Of Books

Collections & Confessions


What follows is an elaboration of a previous post: “Confessions Of A Bibliophile.”

“Smaller than a breadbox, bigger than a TV remote, the average book fits into the human hand with a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture, whether of cover cloth, glazed jacket, or flexible paperback.”
John Updike 
Front Cover of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, a Folio Edition (London; 2009) with etchings by Jane Joseph. This 234-page book, with dimensions of 9 inches by 7 inches by one inch, takes up 63 cubic inches and one inch of shelf space on one of my bookcases.
Photo Credit: © Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015

There are those who read books; there are those who collect books; and then there are those who both read and collect books and view these as more than physical pages containing stories and knowledge or stories and entertainment. Theirs is a love affair of the heart and mind—the bibliophile. This obsession with books starts at an early age, and only ends with death.

We are here talking about physical books, of the kind one finds with paper pages, bindings and words printed with ink. There are electronic books that have none of these qualities, save convenience. An electronic device is small and can hold dozens of books, which one can access fairly easy. This is no doubt a marvel of engineering and many have purchased such devices to both store and read books. I, too, have such a device, but do not put it to use. I am in this case a hold-out to tradition.

The electronic device holds many books and takes up little space; physical books are singular and each takes up a specific volume of space, usually in its rectangular form or shape. Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man takes up 63 cubic inches and one inch of shelf space; Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene 104 cubic inches and one-and-one-half inches of shelf space, and  Bartlett’s Familair Quotations 148 cubic inches and two-and-one-half inches of shelf space—the books becoming thicker and heavier. Then there are the mufti-volume sets; my eight-volume set of Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire takes up 10 inches of shelf space (and more than 1,000 cubic inches) and easily weighs twenty pounds—a heavy set. Not something that one would want to lug around for long.

With physical space, or volume, comes mass or weight. Hardcover books are often heavy to lug around, easily weighing a few pounds. So, having a few hardcover books in your briefcase or backpack can easily add ten pounds of weight (a gravitational mass) requiring sufficient energy and work to move. Reading literature can also improve one’s cardiovascular health, yet it becomes harder and less desirable with increasing age and decreasing energy. There are, of course, softcover books, which are lighter and smaller, and also take up less space on the shelf. Even so, they weigh something and do take up space. Two hundred can fill a bookshelf, or is it crammed rather than filled?

I am here making a very good and valid argument for the electronic book reader. Who in their right and sane mind would resist the marvels of modern technology, with all its known conveniences and advantages, including the environmental saving of trees and the personal saving of space? Not so much insane as impractical. Yet, this has little or nothing to do with convenience or the practicality of it all, but with a kind of love and devotion to an idea. It is more than knowledge; it is more than pleasure, although collecting books contains both. It is also about the physical beauty of books, which requires no further explanation to those who understand and appreciate this sentiment or thought of the heart.

One has to eventually come to a conclusion of sorts that collecting books, as it is true in collecting anything of value, has a sacrificial side to it. It not only takes a certain kind of devotion; it takes a certain kind of sacrifice. A devotion to books often leads to a sacrifice of space. Not as serious as other sacrifices (like those of parents to children), perhaps, but a sacrifice nevertheless that places one thing above another in importance. Some say that this is a type of love, and it may well be.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Mid-Spring View

Seasons In The Sun

A Spring View From The Sixth Floor: This photo facing the park was taken a few days ago, from my sixth-floor balcony, around 8:15 a.m. It is now mid-Spring, and the trees have begun to show their leaves. You can see a lot of foliage in various shades of green, both evergreens and deciduous trees (“falling off at maturity”), which contrast nicely with a blue-and-white sky. You can compare this photo with one taken in February (“Mid -Winter Blues”). What a difference in feeling a few months can make here in Toronto.
Photo Credit
: © Perry J. Greenbaum, May 2015

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Discovering Scurvy

Human Health

Marine Travails: “I watched the water-snakes” (1877), illustration by Gustave Doré for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Source. University of Adelaide, South Australia

An article, by Jonathan Lamb, in Public Domain Review gives a brief overview on the human disease of scurvy, which is caused by a nutritional deficiency, and in particular a lack of Vitamin C. (Scurvy is rare among animals.) This was common scourge among sailors undertaking long voyages starting in the 15th century and during its Age of Discovery. Scurvy and its cure are inextricably linked. “The chemical name for vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is derived from the Latin name of scurvy, scorbutus, which also provides the adjective scorbutic.

Lamb, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, writes that scurvy affected the senses in undesirable ways, making life unbearable and unpleasant, where everyday sensations became accentuated and altered to a grotesque and inexplicable degree. For example, common pleasant sensations, under the influence of scurvy, became unpalatable and in some cases oddly fatal:

Sudden sounds, such as the report of a musket or a cannon, were well known to kill scorbutic sailors. Even pleasant stimuli such as a drink of fresh water, or a long-awaited taste of fruit, could provoke a seizure and put an end to their lives. In his Omoo, Melville recalls how once
the Trades scarce filled our swooning sails; the air was languid with the aroma of a thousand strange, flowering shrubs. Upon inhaling it, one of the sick who had recently shown symptoms of scurvy, cried out in pain, and was carried below. This is no unusual effect in such cases.2
When, badly afflicted with scurvy, Bernardin de St Pierre landed on Mauritius, he was disgusted by the trees, which smelt of excrement, and flowers such as the veloutier were alluring only at a distance for the odour “quite close is perfectly loathesome”.3 Sometimes the sensation passed the frontier from pain to pleasure, or vice versa. Here is Anders Sparrman, a scorbutic naturalist on the Resolution who was hunting ducks when at last he landed in New Zealand: “The blood from these warm birds which were dying in my hands, running over my fingers, excited me to a degree I had never previously experienced. . . .This filled me with amazement, but the next moment I felt frightened”.4
It does sound frightening, does it not? If scurvy undermined the human desire for knowledge or discovery, it didn’t last long. Such a desire is often greater than fear of disease or illness. Even so, scurvy remained a health concern well into the 20th century, Wikipedia notes:
Scurvy was at one time common among sailors, pirates and others aboard ships at sea longer than perishable fruits and vegetables could be stored (subsisting instead only on cured and salted meats and dried grains) and by soldiers similarly deprived of these foods for extended periods. It was described by Hippocrates (c. 460 BC–c. 380 BC), and herbal cures for scurvy have been known in many native cultures since prehistory. Scurvy was one of the limiting factors of marine travel, often killing large numbers of the passengers and crew on long-distance voyages.[2] This became a significant issue in Europe from the beginning of the modern era in the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, continuing to play a significant role through World War I in the early 20th century.
Today, no one in the developed world is worried about scurvy (although it does occur in rare cases when resulting from severe malnutrition). That being said, I remember my mother trying to “scare us” into eating more fruits laden with Vitamin C (like oranges and grapefruits) by saying if we didn’t we would soon get scurvy. A tale that even as youngsters we knew as a truth stretched beyond its boundaries, yet we still found our mother's attempts at healthy eating amusing if not endearing. She no doubt had heard from her mother, a product of the 19th century Europe, similar tales that scurvy presented.

The story of scurvy can perhaps be explained as a tale of what happens when desire for progress overrides knowledge and understanding. It is true that we ought to be careful where we tread, and it is also true that not all things progressive initially seem beneficial to humans. Yet, some of the ideas of discovery and advancement eventually prove beneficial to humans—often decades or centuries later—when the knowledge and understanding of such discoveries, often scientific in nature, catch up to romance and desire.

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For more, go to [PublicDomRev]