Thursday, January 22, 2015

Good news and hope in 2015

The media leave us with an impression of doom, because good weather and good people never make the news. But there are new great things happening this year. I found four, and I am grateful to have lived long enough to see this.

1. On line education: another Year of the MOOC

More and more people follow free courses on the Internet, especially with the emergence of the MOOCS. 
MOOCS stand for Massive Open Online Courses, free college level lectures delivered by some of the best institutions on earth (so far from 45 different countries).  2012 was already tagged as the year of the MOOC by the New York Times, but since then, their progress has been incredibly fast.
For instance, I am following a French sociology course today, just for the fun of it, and there are participants in 174 countries. There are only 195 countries in the world, this participation is really amazing. 
I am well aware that a great many people have no access to a computer, that some countries impose a tight control on the web, and that there are illiterate people everywhere.
But also anywhere in the world, imagine what one person can accomplish, with the right access to democratic ideas, irrigation, medicine, art or good information on climate change!
Ideas are very hard to stop.

2.  Our health, ourselves

Half a century ago, the only hard-core medical idea that was well transferred to the general population was the necessity of a good hygiene and the fear of invisible pathogens. Nowadays, we have been elevated to a new level: if we don't smoke, watch what we eat and are active enough, we will live longer and be in better health. It is not just about seeing the doctor anymore and being told what to do. Our health has become our responsibility: we are in charge of most of it.

3. Medical justice

The human right to health is a recent idea. It was proclaimed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights but neglected by many world organizations including the World Heath Organization (you can Google and read the thesis of Benjamin Mason Meier 2009 if you want to know how it happened). Nowadays the WHO has changed its mind: "In the 21st century, health is a shared responsibility, involving equitable access to essential care and collective defense against transnational threats." Influential medical journals like The Lancet have evolved also from a world of medical charity to the notion of the right to health.
One good news is that life expectancy has steadily increased in developing countries in the last half-century.
One of the troubling discoveries of these last years is that even in countries (like most of Europe) where access to health is free to all, there remain large disparities between social classes.
Look at what happens if you follow the metro (or Tube) in London rich and poor neighborhoods: your life expectancy can be over ten years shorter depending where you live. I think that ten years ago, we didn't even know that there was any difference. But there is a 10 to 15 years difference of life expectancy between white-collar and blue-collar people in Germany and in France as well.

SOURCE: Google "Lives on the Line" to see the full map produced by James Cheshire, UCL CASA, June 2012. Journal article reference: Cheshire, J A. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A 44(7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341. 

How is this good news?  It is an opportunity to better understand how we relate to our own health.

4. We recognize the dangers of corruption
For a very long time after World War 2, corruption was considered as a "necessary evil". It was, for instance, common to the US government to protect dictators in place against democrats during to Cold War. In Spain for instance, from Eisenhower to Nixon, General Franco did benefit from the help of the US (General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States, President Nixon). After the coup d’état in Greece in 1967, Senator Metcalf criticized the US administration for aiding a "military regime of collaborators and Nazi sympathizers."
American businesses had the same practical ideology (realpolitik), giving bribes to obtain contracts. 
Nowadays, most courtiers recognize that corruption is hurting everybody. It is all very new!
For instance back when the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, businesses from developed countries rushed to the new markets, without wondering first about how to cooperate with corrupt officials and corrupt institutions. As a consequence, they inadvertently created the most dangerous and powerful mafia in the world.
The USAID - The U.S. Agency for International Development now says:
"Countries weak in government effectiveness, rule of law, and control of corruption have a 30 to 45 percent higher risk of civil war and significantly higher risk of extreme criminal violence than other developing countries.
In 2012, 97 countries were considered very or highly corrupt."
 See also the International monetary fund Search on Corruption  (start ≈ 1997)
Corruption is “Public Enemy Number One” in Developing Countries, says World Bank Group President Kim December 19, 2013
 The OECD - Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development  (start ≈1999)


Monday, July 14, 2014

The very young Lorin Maazel

I remember very well Maazel in 1960. He was quite a revolution: he did not direct like anybody else, dressed like anybody else or even saluted the crowd like anybody else. He came to Brussels to direct Shostakovich, I think, and was an object of curiosity before becoming a subject of admiration. He represented a new generation of unconventional conductors.
My father-in-law said that he directed as if he was holding a submachine gun instead of a baton. I never forgot that because it was so true! The first thing you noticed was his high level of energy and total lack of "classic" gestures, especially if you had admired before very old chefs like Bruno Walter who could direct with one index and nevertheless obtain great music.
I imagine Maazel is now in charge of religious music in paradise, young again, and I can't help smiling. What a sound, hey!
We'll meet again, Sir.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Autopsy of a Giraffe on PBS

Is there a good reason to kill a healthy giraffe in a zoo? 
Certainly. The giraffe didn't have the right genes for reproduction explains the director of the zoo on PBS. People like me, who know a bit about the history of eugenics growl and think. "I wish I could see the science he bases himself on." But hey, it is possible that he has good science behind him.
Then he explains that people who watched the autopsy, including children, all volunteered to see it. 
Certainly, I can't imagine that he forced them to watch.
Then he is asked why the giraffe had a name. Great question!
And we get two minutes of ramblings from the director explaining that the Giraffe did not have an official name and should not have had a name. Poor anonymous Marius!

There is something very wrong with the director of that zoo. I feel the same way I felt while watching Stalin on parade or while I was listening to Chiang Kai-Shek. I mean, forget the politics for a minute. Humans are talented to justify anything. But then, they slip and you ask yourself: "what is wrong with that guy?"
I am wary of tyrants who don't like people to have names and of zoo directors who think animals shouldn't have names either.
I can't put a name on the disease, but there is something wrong here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Business of Making You Sick (smoking and overeating)

I am too stupid to smoke: I am unable to control at the same time the need to have cigarettes, a lighter and an ashtray. I already have trouble finding my keys. So I never smoked, but it is not because I am smart. Over the years I learned that every ten years or so, doctors find more nasty effects of smoking and more diseases secretly related to  smoking.
You probably think that the people who make a business of producing and selling cigarettes think that somebody has to do it anyway. But it is not what they do: what they do is increase the level of nicotine in their cigarettes to make sure you will come back. They also change the pH of cigarettes to make sure that most of the nicotine will get to your brain, because it is how you become an addict. Do you thik it is fair practices?

It is the same thing with nutrition. Far from me the desire of condemning the producer of fast foods!
What I don't like is people who use scientific experts to make sure that the precisely calculated combination of salt/sugar and fat will reach the pleasure receptors of your brain and make of you an addict.

There are dark scientists around. Somebody should write a book about them. In the meantime, control your life, don't let anybody else sneak up on you to make money in total disregard of the value of your life.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Big Brother and Petite Brothers

I am amazed that so many people think that mainly the NSA is spying on them. How many foreign governments are also spying on us, I wonder. The technology exists and the temptation exists and the money is always there for that kind of things.
Of course, it is not Big Brother that is the most annoyuing, it is all the businesses that buy information about you and put you in a category to target. We don't want the government to spy on us, but every bank or business or geek is welcome to spy on us. Does it make sense?
Based on my age, I get every week a proposition to get buried lavishly, to buy a handy wheelchair and take care of my deafness and my life insurance. I am not targetted for the things I like: new dresses, antiques, books, elegant shoes, pralines, good wines, cheese and expensive perfume. Petite Brother is persistent, but stupid.
If I google "Russian stove" because I don't understand the description of a huge stove  in a book, I receive propositions to buy a Russian stove for a whole week. Nobody in their right mind would buy a big stove in Savannah, Georgia: it is too hot out here. How the ads moguls have the guts to say that "targetting works" is beyond me. I look once at a site like Overstock, and they "target" my Google page for several weeks. It makes me smile. I am an avid reader, I look at hundreds of things I am curious about, every week. I don't want them.

We have a tradition of being afraid of Big Brother, and it is enhanced by the fact that the Press will naturally report more on Federal excesses than on local excesses: it gives them more audience.
But frankly, who is most annoying? Who writes 100 pages instructions for a building permit? Who imposes the color of your house? Who decides that your grass should be no more than 7 inchers high? Who prevents you to grow vegetables in your frontyard? Who decides what you should recycle or not? Who sells lottery tickets to pay for education? We do know, isn't it,  that the lottery is a secret tax on the poor? It is all done by all the Petite Brothers around you,

Culture has us fighting Big Brother, but it is the Petite Brothers all over America who pull the carpet under your feet.

Friday, October 25, 2013


E-Learning has been around for a while. It is practical because students can stay home, study and email their questions. The system was the logical child of long-distance learning who was around at least half a century ago: your lessons were mailed and you posted back the quizzes.

Now come the MOOCs. The Massive Open Online Courses are different, not just because they are free. They offer you not only free courses, but an excellent structure.  We have a lot of free courses on YouTube already, from math to economy to music, so anybody can learn about almost anything. A MOOC has advantages above that: one, it gives access to the community of students with discussions pages. The discussions are not there just for questions, they are open to comments and expressions of feelings and concerns and opinions. I checked 20 different MOOCs discussions and I found the level much better than what you find nowadays on the comments page of the New York Times or the Washington Post: students are required to follow the basics rules of decency, and they usually do. I really like the structure: you get not only videos, but material (textbooks, experiments, examples), quizzes, exercises, and assignments.
You can get a certificate or a diploma from a MOOC, but that part is usually not free.

Why do prestigious colleges and universities get into producing MOOCs that cost them money? Because it allows them to reach students and potentially future paying students all over the world. It is not rare to see the first run of a MOOC open with over 50, 000 students all over the world. It is a new gold rush: if one percent of these free students become paying students, the MOOC will be worth the investment.
MOOCs are great publicity even if the college does not make money out of them. For instance, out of the twenty MOOC s I follow including teachings from Stanford, Tokyo U., Penn U., Chicago U. , Geneva U. Being of curious mind, I am also addicted to YouTube lectures from Yale and Princeton. Well, I discovered that some of the best teachers come from Michigan University. So, Michigan is now ranked number one in my mind. It is an unexpected result of following MOOCs. Of course the teachers quality is only one element of ranking but for me and probably other MOOCs students, it is the main one.

What I like best with the MOOCs is the freedom it gives you:
- You can be a college student, follow this to term like you would in a regular college.
- You can follow the course to keep updated on a subject in your field
- You can just listen to the lectures because you are interested in a subject. For instance, democracy, health, epidemiology, finance are subjects of general interest.
-You are allowed to be just curious.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dance as a political statement

 Dance, like music, can express every human feeling.
In the movie White Nights (rated PG-13) it expresses political opinions very well. This is the story of a ballet dancer who escaped the Soviet Union where he was not allowed to dance what he wanted. When his plane is forced to land in Siberia, he is made prisoner by a KGB officer who wants to use his return for the official propaganda. The movie did not have as much success as it should. 18 years later, it is a wondefrul classic. You can still buy it for a few bucks on Amazon. It also shows the great Gregory Hines in wonderful performances.
In the following dance, the dancer expresses his longing for artistic freedom. At the time, the Soviets only accepted classic ballet. Observe the modern and daring moves of American dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who in real life also fled the Soviet regime. The song is from Vladimir Vysotsky an iconic poet who often criticized the communist regime. The song is about horses running towards the abyss.