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.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Death is not becoming

When I was young, I volunteered at a retirement home, and I was surprised that the director always knew when somebody would die. "We'll have a free room pretty soon" he would say. I asked how he knew, he said he did not know, an accumulation of small signs probably, but he could not point it out. After two years of visits, I knew too, but just like him, I could not point out the signs. 
I got pregnant, of course I did not know it. I must have been two weeks pregnant when I got the congratulations of a visitor, a friend of ours who was a gynecologist. "Congratulations for what?" I asked. "Oh! I thought you knew", he replied. And how did he know? He said he could not point it out, but having seen so many pregnant women, he recognized the signs.
I forgot all this for fifty years. 
Then yesterday, I was looking at the 2009 "Joshua Bell with friends" on YouTube. When I saw composer Marvin Hamlisch, my heart stopped. I thought he looked very sick. I could not listen to Bell any more. I forgot that time had passed, wishing that somebody would drive Hamlisch to the hospital. Then I remembered that he died "unexpectedly" in 2012. So my old training had unexpectedly kicked in. We always think that people are well when they keep being very active, but it is not always the case. 
We don't pay enough attention to others.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

45 fun sounds to open the mind

You don't even scrape the surface of how many instruments are used in the Western world with this list. I make 2 bets: 1) there is an instrument in this list that you never paid attention to, but your going to love the sound of it. 2) There is a song you're going to like and listen to again. I chose on purpose music written before your generation, because I want you to be surprised by something new to you. Have you ever wondered how come we understand music so well, all of us? How come we know it is sad or joyous?

A as in ACCORDION This has become an almost outdated instrument, along with the harmonica. Jazz and rock killed it, I guess. Observe how the two hands are far apart, push different buttons, and it is not like a piano: you cannot see what you are doing. Yes, there are still jazz musicians who play the accordion, and sometimes they play in a big orchestra like this but in number they dwindle. I used to see them in train stations and in bars, sometimes at the street corner, I have not seen one in decades. Do you like it or does it sound old to you?

B as in BACH

What fascinates people when they listen to Bach classic music? The architecture, the construction of it.
This can be visualized here:
If we simplify the world of music lovers, they can be divided in two main categories of listeners: some are fascinated by the architecture, the harmony. They love Bach, Mozart, but they often also like modern architecture as written by Stravinsky, Carl Orff or Britten
By contrast, some listeners prefer the expression of feelings: they like the opera, Verdi, the romantic music of Beethoven, Wagner and more modern musicians like Mahler and Shostakovich. You want to hear something very romantic? Here comes Perhaps love from John Denver
What is it to you? Are you more tuned to romantic music or very constructed music? The difference is there even in pop music. I never met anybody who liked equally the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Do you prefer mostly rhythm or does the melody make you feel good?



A balalaika is a Russian musical instrument with three strings. It plays a major role in the movie Dr Zhivago (rated PG-13), a romantic story during the Russian Revolution. You can read the main story line on Wikipedia. The film music was composed by Maurice Jarre. Listen to a balalaika, the sound is very different from a guitar.

B as in BANJO Steve Martin, the comic actor is very good at it. You can check that it does not seem to be any easier to learn than guitar. The banjo, like the accordion, has lost some ground. But you can almost smell the wood fire and the barbecue when you listen to it.

B as in BASSOON Do you recognize music instruments? I am not too old to enjoy Peter and the Wolf, see if you can hear the bassoon in the orchestra. I think it is a fun instrument. A nice group of girls playing the bassoon.

C as in CELLO

Classic cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a great group interpretation of Hush little Baby What beautiful smiles! Don't you wish you had a voice like this?

C as in CLARINET This is the most amazing thing. The transformation of a carrot into a musical instrument. You could also make an ocarina.
If you subscribe to his site you can see more extraordinary feast, such as this: or a man playing music with a small bonsai, music with autoparts, wonders and more wonders.
Now do you know if there is sound in Space? Check it out. What is sound anyways?


You would think it is easy, until you see Neil Pearl

F as in FLUTE

G as in Marvin GAYE


George Gershwin (1898-1937) died young from a brain tumor. He could write music in any style or for any mood, and it still had the Gershwin's print.
Or Rhapsody in Blue
observe that orchestras all over the world enjoy playing this.
And do you know Our love is here to stay?
If you ever buy the DVD of an old movie, it should be An American in Paris

G as in GUITAR

Are you too young to know Hotel California?
Would you try the Memories of the Alhambra? The Alhambra is the most celebrated cathedral of Spain, in the town of Grenada.
Musician Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) influenced the way guitar is played today.


If you are not impressed, I don't know what to do.


H as in HARP


The song that made of Elvis Presley (1935 -1977) a singer that changed America. You can find the 1956 recording on YouTube: I get so lonely I could die.


A peace song by British composer John Lennon (1940-1980) created in 1971, at the heart of the Cold war and the Vietnam war. “You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. ” The song has marked a generation, Like all well known pacifists, Jaures, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lennon was assassinated.


Maybe everybody got suddenly tired of the inherent sadness of rap music; in 1996 this song totally unpretentious but full of good rhythm and good mood went around the world. You can listen to it by the original creators, Los Del Rio.
Latin America is a constant strong influence in the USA and in Europe, but this type of success is unique.
Seize the day and check if you can find Caetano Veloso, the best Brazilian composer. It is an opportunity to learn some Portuguese (you just go on YouTube and type “Veloso translation” or “Veloso English subtitles”.)

M as in MOZART

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, a prisoner plays Mozart for the whole camp to the great rage of the director. This scene is here:
Listen to this beautiful aria: this is the complaint of a young man discovering love (usually sung by a woman):
All the charm of Mozart's operas disguises some pointed political statements. For instance, the marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are satires of the aristocracy.

O as in OBOE


I am partial to Offenbach. He lived in France and wrote light music and witty comic pieces. He mocked everything: the aristocrats, eternal love, the military, the Greek Gods in operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld, The Beautiful Helen, Parisian Life, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, La PĂ©richole.
When he got older, Offenbach started working on a beautiful tragedy called The Tales of Hoffmann This is song saying "beautiful night, night of love", it has an irresistible sadness about it.

O as in ORFF

Carl Orff (1895-1982) is the grandfather of rock music. He was a German musician, not the most compassionate or responsible guy you could meet, but his musical ideas were fine. I once met a woman in France who worked for classic records. I mentioned that I had noticed a campaign promoting Orff as a modern rock group. She smiled: she had done that, and it worked well: sales had soared. You might enjoy looking at this video, the contrast between the stiff setting and the rhythm is amusing

P as in Charlie PARKER

In his short life, American saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955) succeeded in changing the history of jazz. You should read the excellent article of Wikipedia on him and listen to him on YouTube,
If you like the sound of saxophone, check also John Coltrane (1926-1967) and Stan Getz (1927-1991). Find out why Getz was called the sound. Listen to his interpretation of a well known song by Kosma: Autumn leaves. It is out of this world.

L as in Leon PARKER


In classic ballet, it is a duet.

P as in PIANO

A very romantic piece played by Krystian Zimerman

P as in PROMS

In Great Britain, proms stand for promenade concerts, a series of classic concerts at low price or free organized every summer. Here is a typical one to enjoy.

Q as in QUEEN

An old British band, very influential. You probably know this tune.

R as in RHYTM

It makes sense, doesn't it, that music started with the rhythm of a beating heart?
Here is Gershwin, one of the greatest American composers, playing I got rhythm.
and watch this extraordinary performance of Halle Berry


M as in MALONE

Gareth Malone is a British choirmaster who goes in unknown towns and derelict suburbs to create fantastic choirs. He makes great choirs with military wives or with prisoners.
He can recruit people in the street and get astonishing results as here
Watch this passage where you can see the emotion of singers listening to themselves for the first time; for some, it is the first feeling of pride they ever had. Look at the people who cry and imagine their lives.


Novelist Joyce Carol Oates said about Bob Dylan's voice that it was “as if sandpaper could sing.”
One of his most famous songs is Like a rolling stone. The lyrics are unpleasant, mocking a middle class lady for falling into misery. But it is not what the listeners remember of the song, they saw themselves rolling into life's uncertainty: With no direction home/ Like a complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone.

S as in SAX

Chris Potter, this thing called love.


S as in SINGLE

Single ladies: A dance song from American mezzo-soprano Beyonce from 2008. You can listen to it on Youtube. It has the same atmosphere, but not the same rhythm as Macarena.

S as in SOLDIER'S tale

A soldier comes back home with a small violin. He meets the devil. The devil wants the small violin but he needs lessons. The soldier accepts; he believes that he will stay with the devil 3 days, but it lasts 3 years. When he goes home, his girlfriend is married and his neighbors don't recognize him. The devil has made him rich.... but there is more trouble ahead.
This is a folk story that inspired Igor Stravinsly to write this delightful orchestral suite with actors, dancers and a small orchestra on the scene.
Look at it on YouTube. There is a short introduction, then a pretty good representation.

S as in SONG

What does your favorite song talk about? Who is talking in the song (a person of faith? A person in love? A patriot?) What is the subject of the song?
Here is a very easy song, and I bet you will have a hard time finding the subject. It is called Swinging on a star and was composed by J. Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. So, what does it talk about?
It is a standard sung by many artists, but my favorite interpretation is from Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello who sing it in the film Hudson Hawk. They use the song to time themselves while committing a robbery. It is a great scene.
So tell me what is the subject of the song?
What a song really says is a good game to play with friends.

S as in prince of SOUL

Who was the prince of soul? Marvin Gaye.


There are plenty of wonderful soundtracks, but three composers who did beat the odds.
1) The forgotten HONEGGER (1892-1955). Listen to Pacific 231, it is fun.
2) The French composer Maurice JARRE (1924-2009) who created brilliant music for the theater before composing for movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India.
3) John WILLIAMS (b. 1932) who composed for many many films from Jaws to Star Wars and Lincoln.

S as in STORMY weather

Ever heard of the Cotton Club? It was a center for jazz music in Harlem, N.Y. between 1920 and 1940. You can close your eyes, and listen to Stormy Weather, a success of the 1940s, sung by Lena Horne (1917-2010), a good singer, an activist and a beautiful woman.

S as in SWING

T as in TUBA


"Up there with the Gods", as Eric Clapton once said, Wynton Marsalis, here in a very brilliant talk about jazz:
To pass the exams in France, the players used to be hidden behind a screen, to avoid the temptation for the judges to favor their own students. It was said the sound of Maurice André was so special that everybody knew it was him. Here he is in Summertime

V as in VIOLIN

Each artist has a favorite instrument. Look at this discussion about "the best" instrument.
Do you hear the difference? If you don't, check on YouTube Stradivari, Guarneri: there are other examples.