Bring them Back? Safe Return?

bringbackgirlssignabductedgirls

Two years ago in April the extremist group Boko Haram stormed a girls’ secondary school in the town of Chibok, Nigeria and seized 276 girls. At the time, this massive kidnapping created an enormous worldwide reaction. People “prayed” and “demanded ” that the girls be returned home. At the White House, Michelle Obama tweeted: “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It is time to #Bring Back Our Girls.” Through social media, millions closely watched all developments.

Whom are they addressing these demands and prayers to? A remorseful Boko Haram suddenly contrite? An efficient and competent Nigerian Government? Or an attentively listening God eager to grant wishes?

Now two years later crowds are marching in the streets of Abuja again chanting and “demanding” the return of the girls. Do they think that the girls who most probably were promptly dispersed into neighboring countries will magically reappear looking just as they did when they were violently snatched by vicious intruders? Boko Haram has killed and kidnapped thousands in a campaign of violence as it (like ISIS ) seeks to establish a caliphate in Africa’s most populous nation. It coerces men to become fighters and girls to be slaves or even suicide bombers.
I recently saw a television interview with a Nigerian girl who had been abducted on another occasion (these raids are a regular occurrence) and who had somehow managed to escape. She had been 13 when she was snatched and was now 17 . She told of girls forcibly married or used as slaves by many of the warriors.

The girl had returned, but with a baby. Instead of being comforted and embraced by her family, she was brutally rejected. Her family wanted to kill the baby. He died later without their help. The girl had “dishonored” the family. She was now a pariah. Throughout the interview the girl played nervously with her shawl. She looked beautiful but her eyes had no expression. She told the interviewer she wanted to return and join Boko Haram and become a suicide bomber. As long as such pernicious attitudes continue to exist in the population, and when a perverted code of honor is invoked, there will never be a safe return for these very unlucky girls.

One Gets Away with it. Others may not.

moneyintopocketputinpanamacameronpanama

The Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca, with 600 employees in 42 countries, is devoted to helping its wealthy clients hide their income. They have facilitated money-laundering, the defeat of protective regulations and ultimately, the evasion of taxes. Until recently, this has all taken place away from the prying eyes of the curious.

Then, just ten days ago, a group of 4oo journalists, after a year of work in secret, made public over 9 million Mossack Fonseca documents, lifting the lid on these nefarious and unsavory transactions. Now the game is on to see who has been caught in the trap. The resulting scandal is called the Panama Papers. Some world leaders are suddenly appearing in the nude. They include Chinese, Arab, Ukrainians and a long list of others. Some have already resigned including the Prime Minister of Iceland.

This huge net has also reeled in the name of Vladimir Putin. Rumors about his vast hidden fortune have been circulating for years, but his financial dealings are well disguised. His name is not on any paper. Many of his associates are named but no spotlight shines on him. Officially the Kremlin is waging a war against corruption and money laundering.

A few days ago Vladimir Vladimirovich staged his mammoth annual Press Conference. Enthroned in his comfortable swiveling chair, a beatific smile on his face, he chatted amiably with the press surrounding him. He had no notes. He does not need them. This event has been well prepared, rehearsed and staged. Putin answers pre-screened and vetted questions. What he has to say about the Mossack Fonseca “revelations” is that they are a vast smear campaign led and orchestrated by non-other than the United States, which wants to discredit him, alienate him from his people and undermine the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Many Russian people swallow this fairy tale. Many others cynically believe that even if Putin has stashed a fortune somewhere, well, every leader does it, so it is fine with them.

Heads may be rolling around him, but Putin may yet emerge from this with a halo.

Things are different in England where the Panama Papers revealed that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, inherited from his father some interests in Mossack Fonseca. Cameron now admits that he did indeed own shares, but that he and his wife liquidated them when he came to power. He also promises to disclose documents showing that they payed taxes on the dividends. Even if nothing illegal took place, there is an aura of sleaziness and Cameron is facing serious challenges to his leadership.

What explains the discrepancy in the reactions in Britain and in Russia? We are tempted to say that the British have a long history of honorable political conduct and
an ethical political code to fall back on. Even more true is the they have a rival political party, the “loyal opposition,” which will exploit any apparent weakness on the other side.

This news is in rapid motion and it is only 10 days old. How many other shoes will be dropping? We await with interest.

editor’s note: You are strongly encouraged to enter a comment below. Simone greatly appreciates your responses.

Better or Worse?

Simone & Daughter Dina

Simone & Daughter Dina

Recently my daughter Dina and I were talking about how some things had improved in our lifetimes and how some had gotten worse. Were things better in the “olden days” or today? So we made lists. Some changes are for the better – such as opportunities for women and some things have gotten worse – political discourse seems out of control. Some changes are more important than others, but it was fun to try to list them – major and minor both.

Simone: I love Google and the Internet! In my work as a librarian I specialized in computer information retrieval. People filled out search request forms and we had to find the information for them using an algorithm designed to give them as comprehensive a listing as possible and at the same time eliminating extraneous information. The end product was usually a bibliography, which is a list of sources. Sometimes it included a digest. Rarely was it a full-text result.

Google finds the actual information and seems to have an in-built intuition of what is wanted. We have designed it to reach beyond what we can do, as an extension to our senses and capabilities, just like a microscope or a telescope can look further and deeper. A caveat: We still have to assess the reliability of the source of information. Wikipedia itself warns us to sometimes look further. In general, though it’s two thumbs up for Google.

Dina: Women’s lives have been vastly improved by the development of the birth control pill, which gives women a lot of control over their own bodies and reduces unwanted pregnancies.

And look at the improvements in medicine including vaccinations. No longer are chicken pox, mumps, measles, and rubella (German measles) a normal part of childhood. Other conditions have been eradicated by the vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, shingles, pneumonia, and flu. Cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence.

Simone: But where have all the doctors gone? In my childhood the slightest ailment, a sore throat, an earache, caused a doctor to materialize. Equipped with a big smile and a black bag of miraculous cures, he would touch, probe and declare reassuringly that everything will be much better “tomorrow.” Now health care is a cumbersome bureaucracy. It takes a long time to get a doctor’s appointment. So instead you go to an emergency service where you are placed on a conveyor belt and moved from one station to another, with repeat questions and no real diagnosis. You also get a big bill afterwards. In France, doctors still make house calls at a modest price.

Dina: We both feel that one thing that has deteriorated is service! We are both bothered when work that used to be done by trained employees has now been turned over to us. The first thing to go was the gas station attendant. If you are in a hurry, nicely dressed, tired, ill or old, you are out of luck. How do “little old ladies” put gas in their cars?

In supermarkets, we still have a choice between regular check-out and “self-service” check-out.” How long will this choice last? Most of us do not know the code for Belgian endive.

Worse still are the airlines. No longer does the nice clerk behind the counter print out a boarding pass. You are now expected to do this yourself at a “self-service” computer even if you are holding a squirming two-year old, keeping track of all your luggage, or don’t know English.

Simone: There are several establishments I use often that have greatly reduced their services: The Post Office and the Banks have cut back on their employees. The result is empty service windows and long lines.
At the Public Library, you can now check in your books, pick up your holds and check out without any human interaction. I must admit that after an initial period of resentment I am now used to this but I miss the niceties of personal contact.
The telephone tree is an abomination the likes of which has seldom been seen. Its originator should be shot on sight without benefit of a trial. Who in their right senses would replace contact with a warm human voice with even a modicum of intelligence, by prearranged messages that have no relation to your information needed? It is a dehumanizing experience.

Dina and Simone: We both love email!

Simone: Let me end with a recollection from my childhood in Lebanon. It wasn’t considered a luxury at the time, but I certainly miss it now…Even though our family was not wealthy, we did not buy clothes in stores. Instead we had a seamstress who had our measurements. What we provided was material and patterns and she sewed clothes to our requirements, adjusting hems with pins while we pivoted this way and that. At the time, I longed for store-bought clothes not realizing that garments made to order would be a luxury some day.

What do you think? Which things were better during your childhood and which ones are better now?

A note from the Editor…Your comments on this blog are like a nourishing rain. You are encouraged to put in your two-cents worth. -ed.

Musicians Without Borders

George Frederic Handel

George Frederic Handel

Yo Yo Ma

Yo Yo Ma

Before “globalization” people mostly lived and died in their own little corner of the world, only dimly aware of famine or pestilence elsewhere. But there always existed a class of wandering minstrels, happy to make music wherever they went. Musicians speak a universal language and can be understood and appreciated in many diverse lands. These musicians run the gamut from energetic and talented street musicians to some of the more illustrious musical wanderers I will mention here.

Jean Baptiste Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence in 1632. He was a dancer, guitarist and violinist. At age 14 he moved to France at the invitation of the young Louis XIV. There he wrote court ballets, collaborated with Moliere (He wrote the music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.) and became director of the Royal Opera.
He died of gangrene in 1687 having struck his toe with the big stick he used for conducting.

Luigi Boccherini (1743 -1805) was a composer and cellist born in Lucca, Italy. His father was a cellist too. They were both employed as court musicians in Vienna. In 1770 he was invited to the court of Charles III in Madrid. There he lived, married and composed. He was inspired by Spanish music, especially the fandango, wrote elegant chamber music and developed the string quintet.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), born in Thuringia, Germany traveled to Hamburg where he became a violinist at the Opera. He later went to Italy at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de Medici. When in Hanover, he met George Louis who was later to become King George I of England and who took a liking to him and enticed him to England. It was for George I that he wrote the famous and hugely successful Water Music which was performed on barges on the Thames. I like to think of those two expatriates conversing in German since neither was fluent in English. After the death of George I, Handel composed large scale anthems for the coronation of King George II and his consort Caroline, an occasion of great magnificence.

Jacques (born Jacob) Offenbach 1819-1880 was born in Cologne, Germany. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and remained in France for his entire musical career. Paris at that time offered a more favorable atmosphere for European Jews. Offenbach was a violinist and cellist and played in the Opera Comique Orchestra. He then shifted to composing operettas and opened his own theater Les Bouffes Parisiens. He is remembered mostly for Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Helene and his last unfinished work Les Contes d’Hoffman.

Yo Yo Ma (1955- ) is a Chinese-American cellist born in Paris to parents who were both musicians. He spent his school years in New York. Ma was a child prodigy and started performing at age five. Although we think of him in the context of classical music, he has been called “omnivorous” by critics because of his eclectic repertoire. He is interested in American bluegrass, Argentinian tango, Chinese melodies and Brazilian music. Ma was invited to the White House by several Presidents. He and Itzhak Perlman both performed at President Obama’s 1st Inauguration Ceremony.

May these wonderful artists continue to wander among us.

(Editor’s note….Simone has several thousand loyal followers and readers and we are very proud of that. But let me take this opportunity to ask you to respond and comment on her blogs. Her thoughts expand your world and your response will greatly expand hers. Just click below on “leave a comment”)

How We Learn #4 – It’s All Relative and What is Possible?

einstein

Albert Einstein was a poor student. He disliked school and was expelled at age 16. Some of his teachers thought that he was retarded. Today, no one remembers those teachers’ names whereas the name Einstein has become synonymous with genius.

Einstein gave us the concept of relativity. Simply put that means that the position and state of motion of the observer determines how he experiences space and time.

A clock sent into space returns to earth having run much slower than a grounded clock. This has implications for inventions like GPS satellites. Before we can use and rely on them, they have to be adjusted to reflect accurate time.

This is how I explain relativity to myself…From my window, I see a tall monkey tree with many interlacing branches. From where I stand, two branches are intertwined and seem to form a perfect heart shape. But when I stand on the sidewalk at ground level and look at that tree there is no heart shape anywhere.

Einstein liked to use trains to illustrate his ideas. If you are running alongside a train at the same speed as the train, you feel that you are running on the same spot. Or if two parallel trains are at the station and one of them starts to move, a person in the other train would feel as if his train was going backwards.

But enough of trains. We are bipeds and stand erect and see the world from that position. If we are high in the sky on a plane, we have a totally different perception. And the perspective changes dramatically when we are flat on our stomach as in snorkeling (not to mention that we are underwater).

The greatest limitation on our ability to learn is the scope and nature of our senses. We see only a partial spectrum of colors and hear only a limited range of sounds. Our smelling and hearing ability are completely different from a dog’s or a bird’s. Travel and migration by echolocation are totally alien to us. So we have used our intelligence to create microscopes and telescopes which have considerably expanded our horizon. This has enabled us to realize that our so-called universal laws of physics are relative also. For instance they do not apply to the quantum world of the infinitely small and infinitely large.

Our galaxy is in constant motion and objects move relative to each other. I think that helps us understand that space and time are the same entity. I think it is quite sobering to realize how many limitations there are to what and how we can learn, but it has not stopped us from striving for as much understanding as our brains allow us to absorb.