Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sociology as bs: Deconstructing Michael Jackson

By Tom Kando

Hi Folks: While I love Sociology, I must also recognize that my discipline is sometimes full of bs. So I thought I’d illustrate - as a joke - the style of some of my "post-modern" colleagues. For this, I use the current post-mortem cult and economic exploitation of the late great Michael Jackson. Be aware: the paragraph is basically meaningless verbiage (= bs), not unlike some of the things which some sociologists write. At the end, I try to help you with an interpretation of this spoof:
The subtext of the narrative which celebrates Michael Jackson as perhaps our greatest cultural icon is a social construction as well as an intersubjective symbolic reproduction. The bureaucratization (or even bureaucretinization) of our post-modern culture must be deconstructed along gender, ethnic and other diversity motives rather than through a totalizing and essentializing Weberian, Parsonian or even Perrowian perspective. A corporate culture grounded in post-modern chaos theory reveals that both the performative and the totalizing narratives are sublimating gender-specific and race-specific heterosexist motives into the larger text of a constructivist throwback to value rationality. Kohlberg's moral stages drive the social reproduction of interpretive schemes used as moral categories denoting or even connoting a Eurocentric labeling process. Thus, sociologists' interpretations are not, as Irving Louis Horowitz recently argued, in a state of decomposition but they represent, rather, a fertile and aromatic compost


Interpretation:
1st sentence: This says nothing; just that there is a lot of talk about Michael Jackson...
2nd sentence: This says nothing; it just drops some sociological words and names.
3rd sentence: same.
4th sentence: same
last sentence: an inside joke - Horowitz was unhappy with the way Sociology was going.
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

My success story

by Madeleine Kando

I first started loosing weight when I was 13. I had to bike 5 miles each way to school and I was 110 pounds but had other things to think about than worry about loosing a measly 5 pounds.

The trouble continued after I went through a physical fitness program and started my first job at a roller skating rink where I spent about 3 nights per week on roller skates. Hello, the next 5 pounds came off!

When I was 21 I lived in Spain for a while with a French roommate, Michelle. She was small and I admired her physique and it wasn’t too long before I shed another 5 pounds trying to emulate her petite stature.

So when I moved back to Holland I decided to shape up and started my first diet by following the typical Dutch milk/eggs/cheese/herring thing and cutting out every bit of vegetables I could. I got up to 140 pounds...for like a week! But I just couldn’t keep it up. I just couldn’t say no to those damn vegetables.

Of course, I knew that the key was to stay on the couch and watch tv. I locked the doors, threw away my health club membership card, drove everywhere I could and gave away my bike. But my weight went up and down like a yo-yo. Vegetables and fruits kept luring me back!

By the time I turned 30 I had had it. I surfed the internet for some weight gain motivation. And by pure chance I found this gem of a site: ‘STAYPUT’. This is one of the best things that has happened to me. I spent the better part of two days sitting (the site’s first recommendation) and reading the articles. I had hit the jackpot. I was going to gain every last bit of weight and keep it! I started with STAYPUT’S 4-day challenge, a balance of meats, milk, cheese, cookies and ice cream at every meal.

Since then I read labels religiously and many times decide the item isn’t worth the price if it doesn’t contain enough calories. I also finish everything that’s on my plate. After a couple of minor mis-steps along the way I am now 32 pounds heavier at my goal weight of 170 pounds!

So, STAYPUT, thank you so very much! You have changed my life. It can be done. leave comment here
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Will we ever travel to the stars?

By Tom Kando

I just read that astronomers have discovered another thirty extra-solar planets. Altogether, we have now identified over 400 such bodies, circling near-by and not-so near-by stars. This raises the wishful thought of traveling to those planets, some day. If we are ever going to find extra-terrestrial life, that’s where we must look for it.The effort to establish radio contact with extra-terrestrials on some of those planets is worthwhile. We could get a message to some of them in 5 to 10 years, and vice-versa. So we’d only need to wait a decade to 20 years to get a reply. However, traveling there ourselves, or expecting them to land here, that’s another matter.

Now that we have landed on the moon and probed the outer limits of the solar system with our machines, we often assume that Star Trek-like interstellar travel is just around the corner. Forget it. Not in a million years. It's one thing to cross the solar system and perhaps land on Mars or even circle Jupiter. It is quite something else to reach even the closest star.

The closest star, Alpha Centauri, is 1.3 parsecs away, or 4.3 light-years. Since light travels at over 186,000 miles per second and there are 31.5 million seconds in a year, light covers nearly 6 trillion miles in a year. Alpha Centauri is over four times farther than that, i.e. over 25 trillion miles away.

Assume that we somehow manage to double the speed of our currently most advanced space vehicles. Some of our satellites and rockets can now circle the earth twice in an hour, so let's assume that we can speed them up to 100,000 miles per hour. At that speed, it would take an astronaut 29,000 years to reach the closest star. That's about as much time as has lapsed since Cro-Magnon man!

Now let's assume, fantastically, that we can speed up space travel to one-tenth of the speed of light. Our rockets would now travel at 67 million mph (faster than any conceivable Indy car, right?). We could reach the sun in two hours. How long would it take to get to Alpha Centauri? 43 years, i.e. the better part of a lifetime. Note that such a fantastic vehicle would travel one thousand times faster than our fastest space ships (e.g. the space shuttle) are currently capable of. (Today, our fastest space vehicles reach one-ten thousandth of the speed of light, which is the same difference as that between a man walking and the speed of the space shuttle itself).

Were we to use our current state-of-the-art vehicles for interstellar travel, we would reach the closest star in 58,000 years, i.e. fifteen times longer than the time elapsed since the construction of the ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Let's face it: We may not be completely earth-bound, but we are certainly the prisoners of the solar system - forever. And from what we have learned about our sister planets in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is becoming apparent that earth is the only livable, lovable and life-filled body in our planetary system. The moral of this story? We better learn to do things right here at home, because there is nowhere else to escape to - there is no exit! leave comment here
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Are Identity Politics and Culture Wars Necessary?

By Tom Kando

Although I was on the progressive Left like everybody else when I was in college, there were some things on the Left which turned me off, even then: For one thing, in the aftermath of the Counterculture, "progressive" at times turned into sinister, drug-crazed, Charles Manson-like beliefs and behaviors. Also, the Left became so powerful on University campuses that it stifled dissent and often became a mirror image of the traditional, bigoted Right. One of the things which bothered me about campus politics was the emergence of the "New Left.":The New Left was a term coined during the sixties. In contrast to the Old Left, it focused more on Identity Politics than purely on bread-and-butter issues. It added to the Old Left’s Socialist goals a whole new agenda, focusing on race, gender and sexual preference. It is on that front that the nastiest battles were fought. I was astounded to find that in some deranged minds, I was guilty just for being a white, heterosexual male.

I never really shed my moderately social-democratic views. For example, I deplored the decline of trade unions in America. I was one of the founders of the California University Professors Union. But identity politics were something else. People - including me and members of my family - were sometimes attacked and ridiculed not because of anything we had done, but because we belonged to the wrong demographic category. Old-fashioned white-male-sexist-heterosexual bigotry was being reciprocated in the opposite direction. Affirmative action, sexual harassment charges, grievances and law suits were flying all over the place. Things were very uncomfortable.

Of course, the only sane and intelligent political position is a progressive one. Social Justice is the most important goal. Still, I am convinced that a mature and progressive perspective requires one to distinguish between essential goals and more frivolous goals. President Obama’s genius is that he is able to make that distinction - as was President Clinton, who ran under the slogan, "it’s the economy, stupid." Indeed.

In an odd twist, it is now the Right which focuses on "Culture Wars." School prayer, gay marriage, the right to teach creationism side by side with evolution, abortion, crosses, creches and other religious symbolism in public locations, the right to bear arms, etc.

There is a similarity between the Right’s emphasis on Cultural Politics and The Left’s Identity Politics. They both move politics away from bread-and-butter issues.
Obviously, the Right couldn’t come out overtly in favor of economic inequality and the accumulation of wealth in fewer a fewer pockets. It has done that in a veiled way, and with some success, by trying to indoctrinate the populace into believing that labels such as "socialism" and "redistribution" are evil. In America, being called a socialist is now the kiss of death. Still, the Right’s economic agenda is hard to sell, since it basically says that "inequality is good."

So what does the Right do? It draws the gullible public’s attention to "cultural" issues. Hence, the "culture wars" fought by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Issues such as gay marriage and school prayer are excellent smoke screens. You get the people to huff and puff about such issues, so they won’t pay attention to their growing poverty, while Goldman Sachs continues to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.

But my point is that the Left’s Identity politics function somewhat the same way: They divert the population’s attention from the essential economic issue - growing inequality. Instead, subgroups are all up in arms over their ethnic and sexual identities. Should Columbus Day be a national holiday, or should we have Leif Erickson day instead? Is this important?

So you see, Identity politics turn me off for the same reason that the Culture wars turn me off. Maybe I am forever an "Old Leftist," and I will never feel comfortable with Identity politics. Gays? Lesbians? Transgendereds? African-Americans? Hispanics? Kablinesians (Tiger Woods)? Women? Men? The young? The old? Absolutely: ALL must be included, all must enjoy fully equal rights.

But most of what we are after can be subsumed under economic equality. In the end, it all boils down to a reasonable level of economic equality for all. For the rest, let there be diversity, live-and-let-live. It is not necessary for every group to march and to demonstrate in a quest to be loved by all others.

I am a grubby Hungarian Jew. I know that most people don’t love me, and that most people couldn’t care less about Hungarian Jews or Hungarian identity. But you know what? As long as I and my children are not arrested, or denied a job or a school or service in a restaurant because we are of Hungarian Jewish descent, I don’t really give a damn what other people think about our demographic origins. I don’t care, because we lead comfortable and happy lives. And that is the only essential goal progressive politics must pursue for all. leave comment here
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Public or Private?

By Tom Kando

The current debate about health care makes me think: Which services belong in the public realm and which ones should remain private? In other words, which ones are government responsibilities, and which ones are not? Many goods and services are produced and delivered for profit. Homo Economicus. But there are also services which can never be profitable, and therefore must be provided at a loss, i.e. at the taxpayer’s expense. Homo Publicus. Here is a list of services, with notes on how they are usually delivered - in the US and elsewhere:
1. Education: There are public schools and private schools, both in the US and overseas.
2. Health: Medical insurance, medical services and hospitals are largely private in the US, more public but sometimes private overseas.
3. Public Safety: Law enforcement, the correctional system and the courts are almost always public, both in the US and overseas, although America has privatized some of its prisons and some of its juvenile correctional facilities, which are run for profit. Fire protection is usually a public service everywhere.
4. Defense: Almost always a public service, both here and overseas, although in the past, mercenaries for hire played a big role in wars, and even today the US uses some private "security" personnel in Iraq.
5. Welfare: This is the "total loss" segment of the economy: welfare, AFDC, unemployment and disability benefits, etc. In past ages, charity was largely private, and religious and other private charities continue to exist, especially in the US. However, modern societies provide most of these benefits at the public’s expense. They are the most resented government expenses because they are so totally born by the taxpayers.
6. Child services, receiving homes, orphanages, group homes, and convalescent homes.: In the US, many of these facilities are private for-profit businesses. Elsewhere much less so.
7. Transportation: In the US, passenger trains are run by a semi-private-public corporation (Amtrak), while freight trains are fully private. Elsewhere railways are largely public. Municipal bus systems are almost always public, both in the US and overseas, while the US has one major private national bus company - Greyhound. Other urban mass transit systems - trams, subways, etc. - are public, both in the US and elsewhere. Of course, Americans use private cars more than anyone else. Road construction and maintenance are a public responsibility everywhere. Airports are largely public in most countries, at least the major international ones. Airlines are private in the US, public and private elsewhere.
8. Communication: Postal service in the US is both public and private (UPS, FedEx). Elsewhere it is largely public. Telephone service is entirely private in the US, but public and private elsewhere.
9.Housing: mostly private everywhere, although there is some public housing in the US and in other countries.
10. Recreation: largely private everywhere, except for local, state and national parks.
11. Consumer goods and food. This is the 800 pound gorilla in the economy. It is overwhelmingly the realm of the private economy in most countries. The notable exception is the defunct Soviet Union.


Any conclusions? Well, (1) for one thing, the US is much more private than most others. (2) What is best? Should products and services be part of the private or the public economy? This depends on what items we are talking about. (3) In general, services which are inherently more costly than profitable MUST be public (i.e paid for with taxes). In this regard, the US errs on the private side, as Communism erred in the opposite direction. (4) This raises the fundamental question as to what the good society is. A society which fails to provide services that are inherently unprofitable, yet essential to human well-being, is not a good society.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Did Obama Deserve the Nobel Prize?


By Tom Kando

I just sent this letter to the Sacramento Bee, in response to a whole slew of letters very critical of Obama's receipt of the Nobel Prize:

You recently published an amazing amount of vitriol about President Obama’s Nobel Prize. Even on the "Left Coast," many hate the man - viscerally, irrationally, moronically.True, the Nobel Committee was motivated to encourage the beleaguered President, in the face of the hateful opposition illustrated by such letters as Gonzalez, McPherson, Dupree, Moore, Bogetich, and Labahn.

But let’s not overlook the President’s real accomplishments: (1) His stimulus program has pulled us back from the abyss where decades of Republican and Wall Street greed and mismanagement had brought us. He has canceled wasteful military programs, including (2) the Eastern European missile shield and (3) a military airplane. He is improving relations (4) in the Middle East, (5) with Iran, (6) Russia and (7) North Korea. (8)He is engaged in a titanic effort to reform health care, and (9) his environmental policies are bringing America back to a position of leadership in that area as well.

Most importantly, he has fundamentally altered the planet’s political climate, from confrontation and contempt for America, to respect and cooperation. All these steps are tangible progress, not vague hopes. They can be taken to the bank.
This is a miraculous list of achievements, after nine months. This presidency is truly transformational. It richly deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
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Monday, October 12, 2009

Is Being Evil also a Medical Illness?

By Tom Kando

I have always been a humanistic psychologist. For years, I have argued that the medicalization of human behavior is, in my view, an error - an error of which psychology is increasingly guilty. Because of the great success of the natural sciences and their unrivaled prestige, the behavioral disciplines - sociology, psychology - feel compelled to emulate them. This is called "Positivism," and it requires physical reductionism. Human beings no longer decide to mis-behave; they are just ill. When I came across one more instance of this in the media, I wrote the following rebuttal:

Here we go again. The neuro-psychological reductionists are at it again. According to an article in the Sacramento Bee (March 22), "part of our moral behavior is grounded in a specific part of our brains... It is hard-wired." Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, recently researched this. He concluded that moral behavior is controlled by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is a small region in the forehead. His findings are based on submitting a number of moral questions to 6 subjects whose ventromedial prefrontal cortex was damaged, to 12 people without brain damage, and to 12 patients with other forms of brain damage. The subjects with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were found to be more willing to sacrifice one person for the greater good of many, than the comparison groups. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is said to house " feelings of empathy, shame, compassion and guilt."

I will not quibble about the study’s ridiculously small sample - 6 experimental subjects. What bothers me much more is the ever stronger belief of psychologists that human decisions and behavior are rooted in specific locations in our nervous system. The psychologists’ holy grail is a map of the human brain which will indicate the precise physical locations of all our emotions. This is as futile and idiotic as the pseudo-science of alchemy was, during the Dark Ages. Why?

Because our responses to stimuli (our decisions) are the result of our perceptions and our interpretations of the stimuli, and these interpretations are socially arrived at. Of course we already know that some areas of the brain play a major role in cognition, and that other areas experience certain chemical states under certain stimuli, states to which we then apply such socio-cultural labels as "fear," "anger," "love," "happiness," "pride," etc. In and of themselves, without the labels, these are only chemical states. It is obvious that many forms of brain damage reduce cognitive ability, i.e. the ability to understand, i.e. intelligence. Equally obvious is the fact that various forms of brain damage alter the chemical reaction triggered by stimuli.

However, words such as "fear," "shame," "guilt, "empathy," and "compassion" are cultural concepts, similar to "love" and "pride." They are not physiological states or processes. These neuro-scientists are committing the error of reification. They endow words with physical reality. They should hear themselves talk! They are looking to find - under a microscope perhaps - "shame" or "pride" in a patient’s brain. Please tell me, doctor: What are the size and color of the patient’s "shame," which you have just located. Is it one centimeter in size? Is it green? The Japanese are known to experience more shame than Americans do. Is this because their brains are different? In wars and disasters, the decision is sometimes made to sacrifice one or a few for the greater good of many. This is sometimes called leadership or heroism. These people presumably suffer from a damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex?
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dreams: Do They Come True?

by Madeleine Kando

I like to write because it beats talking to myself in my head all the time. And it’s always nicer to think that someone out there is reading your writing. I mean: I could write a diary like I used to when I was a young girl. But then no one would read it. My twin sister and I used to hide our diaries so that we wouldn’t know each other’s secrets. The trick was to pretend that you hadn’t read each other’s diaries, but of course you knew every little detail. But now my twin sister is far too busy to be interested in my thoughts. I am lucky if my little dog Max watches my moving fingers on the keyboard as I type. I have this fantasy that one day, after I am dead and gone my children will find my writing in a dusty box by accident. ‘Oh, my God’ they would exclaim with regret, ‘Look at all the stuff mom wrote. I had nooo idea.’ That’s a fantasy of mine, to be discovered posthumously. After I have turned to dust. Then I’ll show them how smart I was, how interesting. They will posthumously bemoan the fact that they never read my brilliant essays.

So, yes, I post my brilliant essays on this blog. Of course it’s a bit cowardly because I don’t know who will read my stuff. If they like it, that’s good. And if they don’t like it? Well, I don’t know who it is that doesn’t like it. So it’s a cowardly way of escaping criticism, isn’t it.

But enough said about my motives for writing. I am getting dangerously close to one of those people who spend 90 minutes presenting a 3 mintue speech. What I really wanted to say is this:

I am from Europe. I am an immigrant. I came here as a young adult with so many dreams, so much hope. I came and conquered the promised land. Yes, every immigrant has that feeling. Even though this country has been ‘conquered’ a long time ago, as an individual immigrant, you are the first one to arrive. I was happy to be in a place where I could explore, invent myself, not conform.
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If It's Broken, Should We Fix It?

by Madeleine Kando

Two of my favorite authors are Thomas Sowell and Paul Krugman. They are both economists, but at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Sowell is a conservative, Krugman is a liberal. They have very different opinions on the health care issue and I have had fun imagining them sitting opposite each other arguing this issue. Their conversation might go something like this:
Sowell: How could the government, of all institutions, make health care less expensive and still effective? Other countries have gone that route. It might have made health care cheaper but it is of less quality. One fourth of the people in Canada have to wait 6 months for surgery, 10 weeks for an mri. I cannot think of anything that the government runs more efficiently than the market does.

Krugman: Actually the US health care system is very inefficient and it does not accomplish what it promises to do, i.e. insuring the sick. Health care can’t be marketed like a loaf of bread or TV set. Buying a tv set is a choice but you don’t decide when you’ll get sick. And when you do get sick the cost of treatment can be very high if you want to stay alive. Very few people can afford to pay for a coronary by-pass surgery out of pocket. It’s the difference between buying a tv and buying a small airplane.

Sowell: But what is the first thing that government run health care will accomplish? It will undermine self-rationing. When you pay the full price of going to a doctor, you go there when you have a broken leg but not when you have the sniffles or a minor skin rash. When the government makes health care “affordable,” you go there for sniffles and a minor skin rash.

Krugman: That argument is all wrong. The great bulk of medical expenses are caused by a small number of people who require very expensive treatment, not by people who go to their primary care physician, even if it is just for sniffles. Unlike shopping for a tv set, where you can opt to not buy a big one if your budget doesn’t allow it. You cannot ration a coronary by-pass surgery by saying: ‘oh, I think I’ll just buy half a by-pass surgery. I cannot afford a full one’.

Sowell: The lure of something for nothing may be seductive when you are in good health. But it can become a bitter irony when you are waiting months for surgery to relieve your pain or when your life hangs in the balance while some bureaucrat decides whether you can get the best medication or something older and cheaper. Who do you want to control your health care decisions: you or some government bureaucrat?

Krugman: First of all, we are not talking about government run health care, we are talking about government run insurance. Competition is fine and it will not go away. Many countries have universal health care without everything being run by the government. And to answer your second argument: right now it is not you who makes the decisions, it is the insurance company and they are trying their darndest to NOT cover you.

Krugman: But let me ask YOU a question, Mr. Sowell. What do YOU propose to do? You say you didn’t have insurance when you were young, and paid everything out of pocket. Would you go without insurance now, at a later stage in your life? Aren’t you grateful for Medicare? It seems to me that you are denying reality at all costs in the service of an ideology.
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Friday, October 2, 2009

Socialism is Not a Dirty Word

by Madeleine Kando

We have posted on this subject before but I cannot help myself. I have to voice my own outraged opinion on the subject. The debate over universal health care has awakened in me the socialist beast and it can not be tamed.

I googled ‘Obama socialist’ the other day and found a barrage of ominous looking images that equate Obama with Che Guevara, Mao Tse Tung, Mussolini and worse. There is a ‘socialist witch hunt’ going on in this country. But why? Why is socialism so evil in the American psyche?

I grew up in a period of history where government was supposed to look out for the interests of the ‘little guy’. But with the health care issue on the table it seems that the ‘little guy’ has become so indoctrinated by the right that they are damaging their own cause.

I am beginning to think that Americans are missing the ‘socialist’ gene. They don’t understand the words ‘equality’, ‘social justice’. Even the ‘less fortunate’ don’t take care of themselves because they think they need to uphold ‘American freedom of the individual’ which they feel does not allow for socialist ideas.

Socialist movements have always had a say in shaping the democracies of most European countries. And it has made those democracies better. More affluent, more just. The big bad red wolf has not gobbled them up. None of these democracies have become communist. They are justly called ‘social democracies’. Here were have a ‘liberal democray’. Very liberal. We are free. Free to starve to death, free to die without medical care.

Socialism is not the enemy of freedom. If it were, then Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair would be enemies of freedom. But many Democrats in government have felt the pressure of being branded ‘socialist’ and have thrown in the towel. If I wasn’t so polite I would call them cowards.

Universal health care for all is a worthy social goal. If the price you have to pay is being called a ‘socialist’, so be it. When a good idea goes south because of of a totally misunderstood word that is being abused and manipulated by the Republicans, you should stand up and fight, not be intimidated.
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