Saturday, August 31, 2013

Good-Bye For Now

Good-Bye For Now

All good things, as the saying goes, must eventually come to an end. This includes maintaining this blog, The Greenbaum Report.

This decision was not an easy one to make but a necessary one. A contributing factor has been my neuropathy, chemo induced peripheral neuropathy, to be precise, which makes it difficult to write. If you have read my cancer blog, there is no need to explain further. I hope that this condition will improve, allowing me to continue my writing later on. I love writing, but I need to give my body time to heal, time to recover. Such is my purpose.

I might return to this blog in the future, adding to the many articles it contains, but predicting the future is always an exercise in hopeful thinking. This decision is predicated on my ability to use the keyboard without pain or discomfort, which is currently not the case. All the best to you, my dear readers, be well and healthy, and keep on fighting the good fight.

In keeping with the spirit of Jewish New Year (Rosh HaShanah), 5774, which takes place after sundown on September 4th, I wish everyone l’Shanah Tovah.

Home Invasion Of The Squirrel Kind

UnWelcome House Guests

Our home was invaded last winter by squirrels (eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, for the scientifically minded); well, if we are talking about science and literary accuracy, it was less of an invasion and more of a protracted and persistent rodent terrorist attack contained to our roof and attic area—yet right outside our bedroom window. Sharp-toothed business. Two squirrels had originally gained entry by eating away, relentless and persistently, at our wooden fascia, the exterior area between the roof and the second floor. The wooden beam was weathered by age (house built in 1979), and the squirrels likely took advantage of the weakness to make a home. The family of two moved in, soon becoming four when the female gave birth to two during the spring. The level of noise instantly doubled, as did our irritability.

My wife and I, and occasionally our two children, suffered through the winter and early spring with the daily noises the family of squirrels made, including the exuberant running around and squirrel chirping at between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. To put it simply, our sleep was disturbed as was our peace and enjoyment of our home. I often threatened to do the squirrels physical harm—sleep deprivation will do that—but taking such measures is against municipal by-laws and provincial and federal conservation laws; and besides, my children were adamant that the squirrels not be harmed in any way. I did not want my two boys’ father to be known as a “squirrel murderer.” Or  to commit a Sciuricide.

So, I resisted my impulses and desires to take care of the “squirrel problem”quickly and painlessly, even though it would have seemed like a rational choice given the circumstances. After all, I have legal title to my home, and the squirrels do not. Before this home invasion, I used to find squirrels cute and irresistible, not unlike other liberal democratic westerners raised in the city. When I was a youngster I fed the squirrels from my balcony, and one time I coaxed one inside our kitchen by using a trail of peanuts; I was proud of my accomplishment. It was fine until my mother entered the kitchen and started screaming; the squirrel scampered out frightened, or so I thought. I also used to periodically feed squirrels in public parks, until it became illegal. [see here.]

So, until recently, my personal experience and dealings with squirrels were always pleasant and at a distance. Up close and personal I found out a few unpleasant facts about squirrels. Squirrels are persistence creatures. A pregnant squirrel will chip away, using her sharp incisors, at the edges of a place it wants to enter, in hopes of making a nest; the animal is persistent and determined in her task. For her, it's important, urgent; for the other squirrels less important. For the humans whose attic, she's attempting to invade, it's a nuisance. Yet the squirrel remains committed to her task, since that is what squirrels do. There is no persuading them to do otherwise. They are immune to reason, to legal titles, to moral persuasion.

We eventually called a reputable humane squirrel-removal service, who were able to evict our unwelcome house guests, spray a deodorizer and animal repellent and block all possible entry points with a squirrel-resistant steel mesh. Our neighbour and I shared the $1,000 cost—our homes are adjoining—but it was worth every penny for a good night’s sleep. After a few weeks, the squirrels made a few noble attempt to gain entry, trying to chew through the steel mesh, making some noise in the process. They were unsuccessful, and have not returned. The defences are holding. Needless to say, my view of squirrels has been coloured by my experiences, and needless to say I view them as rodents with nice bushy tails, cute facial gestures, but little more. The squirrels don't consider themselves terrorists, and many nature and animal lovers would disagree with my views, seeing the bushy-tailed rodents as cute and lovable.

Let them have the squirrels; I am happy they are gone.

This took place in the winter of 2011 and the spring of 2012 in Montreal, Quebec; we have since moved to an apartment in Toronto, where the squirrels generally remain outdoors.

A version of this article was originally posted at Perry J. Greenbaum (August 9, 2012).

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hitting A Moose In New Hampshire & Its After-Effects

Travels in Rural America

“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.”
Henry David Thoreau

Eastern Moose [Alces alces] on the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in New Brunswick, Canada. This species is common in eastern Canada, in the Atlantic provinces and in the northeastern U.S.
Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae; July 23, 2006
Source: Wikipedia

We were driving in rural New Hampshire on Highway 28—a few minutes from our home in Center Barnstead, 30 minutes outside Concord the state capital. There, we had picked up our 13-year-old daughter from summer camp, and during the car ride she was recounting with enthusiasm and much laughter her camp experiences. I remember hearing a loud noise and then briefly lost consciousness. Blackness followed by Silence. A Lacuna in Time. When I awoke, I heard sirens and saw all kinds of emergency vehicles around us. My mental faculties were foggy; I didn't understand what was taking place. After what seemed like minutes, I looked around and saw that my family was all right, uninjured. 

I struggled to unbuckle the seat-belt and open the door, all the while yelling to my family to do the same. I knew, thought, it was important to get out of the car, and for them to do likewise. I, we, walked around in a trance and witnessed a moose on the side of the road, quivering involuntarily. I turned away, somehow knowing that something unnatural had just taken place. My daughter was sad, shaken.

Even so, the facts are clear. On July 20, 2003, around 9 p.m. as the sun was setting low over the horizon, our compact car hit a male moose (Alces alces) on a road in rural New Hampshire, less than two miles from our house. My family—wife, two children, including an 18-month baby boy, and I—the four humans in the car all survived without too much injury. The front and back windows both shattered on impact with the moose, who had his legs swept from under him by the car’s bumper, lifting him off the ground for a brief moment and forcing him to land centrally between my wife and me on our car roof, before he somehow bounded off to the side of the highway— a deep dent the lasting and the most-visual evidence of his unintended and unfortunate visit with our vehicle.

A foot or two in either direction and one of us wouldn’t have survived. Despite tiny shards of glass flying in all directions, our male son, then a toddler, safely buckled in his car seat, sustained no injuries, not even a superficial scratch. Words like miracle naturally came to mind; I couldn’t explain it any other way other than luck. The car, a two-year-old Toyota Corolla, was a write-off. The emergency crews on the scene responded wonderfully, professionally and yet with generous amounts of compassion. As was the custom, they also divvied up the meat from the now-dead animal. [They asked us first, but we declined for a number of reasons.]

Growing up in an urban area, Montreal, I had never considered the possibility of ever encountering a moose on a highway, let alone hitting one. The experience was traumatic on many levels, including the idea of killing another sentient being. After getting out of the damaged vehicle, we made our way to the side of the highway where we witnessed the quavering moose, an unfortunate victim, take his last breath. Despite our slight injuries, the scene was heart-breaking. An animal paid the ultimate price through no fault of his own.

There are 250 moose-vehicle collisions in New Hampshire each year. There is not much a driver can do other than be aware and alert that moose cross highways in certain areas and at certain times during the year,  notably between April and November and during dawn and dusk in search of food. There are highway signs attesting to this fact—Brake for Moose. It Could Save Your Life— and truly they are posted for a reason.

In the collision with the 1,000-pound (454-kilogram) moose, I was the one who suffered the greatest injury, although it was much less than what it could have been considering the speed of the impact and the effect of Newtonian physics. I was pulling fragments of glass out of my scalp for a few weeks, and embedded in my left hand were three or four tiny fragments of glass from the shattered  front windshield; these remained just under my skin for years until I finally was able to extract them. More important and more urgent was that I also had pain in my lower back.

On the recommendation of someone, a neighbour, I visited a chiropractor in Concord, NH, which was a learning experience in itself. After performing a few tests, which included tapping my head (a type of phrenology) and my back, the chiropractor, an avuncular man in his late fifties, pronounced that I would need intensive sessions, “at least three times a week for the next two or three months, and then we can evaluate your progress from there.” When I asked him if he could take X-rays with his machine, which I noted was nearby, he said it was broken, and he didn’t need it anyway to make an accurate diagnosis. He had his experience and “professional judgment,” as he explained it.

Here is how the rest of the conversation went:

I said, “In September, we have plans to fly to California, which is less than two months away.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” the chiro said. “In about six weeks, you will be in extreme pain.”

“That's precisely when we are taking an airplane trip”

“I wouldn't go; you need intense therapy, at least three times a week.”

“I have to go; we made plans; we have tickets and booked a hotel.”

 “That would be a bad idea; you'll be in extreme pain then. You can book the appointments up front.”

I looked at him and at the broken X-ray unit, and I knew then and there I was in the midst of a quack who believed in a type of phrenology and who had no problem instilling fear in patients—a method, I would guess, to better his business and support his ego. Even so, I had no plans to book an appointment.

My wife, who was waiting outside in the waiting room, took a look at my blanched face and saw I was upset. I relayed the conversation and we both agreed that I would never return to this chiropractor, nor any other. I found a massage therapist, again on recommendation, whom I went to once a week for a about six weeks. My back became increasingly better; by the time I took the airplane flight, I had no pain. The trip to California was generally a pleasure.

A version of this article was posted on Perry J. Greenbaum about a year ago. (August 20, 2012). If you travel in areas with moose populations, drive carefully.

No Greenbaum Report This Week

News & Commentary

No Greenbaum Report this week: I will return in a week or so with more news & commentary.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Immigrant Life: Beginning Again

Culture Shock

“My father was an immigrant who literally walked across Europe to get out of Russia. He fought in World War I. He was wounded in action. My father was a great success even though he never had money. He was a very determined man, a great role model.”
Arlen Specter [1930-2012],
U.S Senator, Pennsylvania

Downtown Toronto’s Chinatown: In many major cities there exists concentrated areas of shops
and restaurants dedicated to immigrants, where they can comfortably feel at home.
Photo Credit: chensiyuan; 2009
Source: Wikipedia

I am not an immigrant to Canada, my land of birth; yet, I am deeply and emotionally familiar with the immigrant experience, from my upbringing, my choice of friends, and through my marriage. My father was an immigrant from war-torn Poland, arriving first in Toronto in 1951 and then settling in Montreal; he married my mother, a child of immigrants from the Transylvania region of Romania, a year later in 1952.

My wife is an immigrant from Russia, by way of Israel and the United States; she became a Canadian citizen in 2012. Many of the friends and persons with whom I attended high school, college and university were sons and daughters of immigrants.

It's hard for someone who's not an immigrant to understand the immigrant life. But I will make an attempt, however feeble it might be. I have also read many stories about immigrants, including those of well-known artists, writers, and photographers who left Europe for America, leaving behind what was known and familiar and finding what was unknown and new. In some cases, it was exciting; in many cases, it was not. Frustration. Despair. Sadness. All these emotions were shared by many immigrants trying to both retain a sense of their old identity and forge a new one in their adopted land. Think about such a difficulty, if you will; I have.

Immigrants often move, not only for themselves, but to forge a future better life for their children. And it’s a truism that children of immigrants tend to work harder than non-immigrants, chiefly as a way to prove themselves to the indigenous population, the so-called locals who in many cases are only a few generations removed from their immigrant forebears. “I'm very inspired by him—it was my father who taught us that an immigrant must work twice as hard as anybody else, that he must never give up,"”says Zinedine Zidane, an European football player whose parents immigrated to France from Algeria.

One of the complaints that long-time residents of a nation often make, usually out of ignorance, is that immigrants tend to stick together and fail to integrate well in their adopted land. There is some degree of truth in that statement, but it’s a truth that has some omissions in facts that begs for addition, if only to add some clarity.

Language is often the chief barrier to entering a nation's culture. This explains why immigrants in their adopted nation often congregate with individuals from their land of birth; it's a matter of comfort and familiarity, having at least an ability to communicate—until they learn the native language sufficiently well—in a language they now understand. My wife once remarked that immigrants often make friends with individuals in their new country who they, typically, would not be friends with in their country of birth. Newcomers often willingly live together in dedicated geographical areas, so-called ghettos. The reasons are simple enough to explain. The commonality of language and a shared history is often enough to united people, different in many other areas, to bind them in friendship, even if of a temporary or convenient nature.

Now, some people have an ability learning languages, others don't. It has nothing to do with effort or intelligence or willingness to learn. These are false ideas and ought to be put to rest. Many immigrants learn the language, have an excellent vocabulary, but speak with a noticeable “thick accent.” Again, that has nothing to do with intelligence. Yet, it can act as a barrier of acceptance for some immigrants, who become somewhat fearful to speak their adopted language. Too much judgment is made, by the listener, of the speaker’s intelligence, based on accepted accent and general speech patters—to wit, language abilities. On the face of it, it sounds absurd, yet it’s a very real (and painful) criticism.

I remember one of my friends remarking about my father’s accent when I was a high-school student; I felt embarrassed for him, which of course was wrong, but understandable for a kid who wanted to fit in with his friends. This story will be familiar to many.

A version of this article originally posted on Perry J. Greenbaum (March 26, 2013).

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending August 17, 2013

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

A Deafening Silence In Turkey: An article, by Dexter Filkins, in The New Yorker reports just how bad things are in Turkey under the dictatorial rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Filkins writes about one case, one show trial, that in many ways symbolizes how far from justice Turkey currently is with its cleansing of all dissent, including individuals who were once close to the leader:
Two years ago, when I started investigating the sprawling prosecution of Turkey’s military and political leaders—known as the Ergenekon case—someone pointed me to Emin Şirin. At the time, more than seven hundred people from across Turkish society, from military officers to academics, journalists, and aid workers, had been charged with, among other things, attempting to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Şirin’s story, I was told, was emblematic of the Ergenekon prosecutions, in that it relied on obviously trumped-up evidence.
Şirin, who speaks perfect English and has travelled in the United States, was once one of Erdoğan’s closest confidants. In 2001, he helped found Erdoğan’s political party, known by its Turkish initials, A.K., and was elected to parliament in 2002, when the Party won a landslide victory. Shortly after Erdoğan became Prime Minister, in 2003, Şirin broke with him, accusing Erdoğan of running the A.K. Party in a dictatorial fashion. Şirin completed a lonely term in parliament and left office in 2007. A month later, prosecutors charged him with membership in Ergenekon—allegedly a secret network of secular-minded Turks bent on overthrowing Erdoğan’s Islamist-leaning government.

Sure enough, when I looked at Şirin’s court file, I was astounded. The evidence against Şirin was not merely thin; it was preposterous, as though it had been assembled by a group of schoolchildren—or by a prosecutor who never imagined that an independent observer would examine it. The central piece of evidence against Şirin was a fifteen-page transcript of wiretapped telephone conversations that Şirin had allegedly made to other Ergenekon members. Yet nothing in the transcript appeared remotely criminal in nature; many of the calls were to Şirin’s girlfriend. And—here’s the showstopper—all of the recorded calls were made after his arrest. When I asked a senior Turkish prosecutor about it for my story, he told me, “It’s not one of the strongest cases.”
Last week, a Turkish court sentenced Şirin to seven and a half years in prison. Şirin was convicted along with two hundred and fifty-seven other defendants, including some twenty journalists and three members of parliament. Nineteen of the convicted, who include Ilker Basbug, the former chief of staff of the Turkish military, were sentenced to life in prison; several others received sentences of ninety-nine years or more. Şirin says that he plans to appeal his conviction. But if the Turkish appellate judges even remotely resemble their brethren in the lower courts—and there is no reason to think that they don’t—Şirin and the others don’t stand a chance.
The show trials continue, removing any possibility of dissent. And not a peep of protest from the one nation that could make a difference, Fikin says: “How does Erdoğan get away with it? One reason, surely, is the silence of the Obama Administration. For all of Erdoğan’s heavy-handed tactics, the White House still sees him as a Middle Eastern moderate, a freely elected Muslim leader who is friendly to the West. There aren’t many of those. So, to a remarkable degree, Erdoğan gets a pass ”

An Air Pollution Problem In China: An article in The Economist says that China’s rapid economic growth and industrialization has led the economic powerhouse to look at how it can quickly go green to improve its poor air quality.

The article says:
The muck that spews from Chinese factories most immediately affects those unlucky enough to live nearby. In January 2013 the air of Beijing hit a level of toxicity 40 times above what the World Health Organisation deems safe. A tenth of the country’s farmland is poisoned with chemicals and heavy metals. Half of China’s urban water supplies are unfit even to wash in, let alone drink. In the northern half of the country air pollution lops five-and-a-half years off the average life.
All this has led to an explosion of protest across China, including among a middle class that has discovered nimbyism. That worries the government, which fears that environmental activism could become the foundation for more general political opposition. It is therefore dealing with pollution in two ways—suppression and mitigation. It has jailed environmental activists and is planning to limit the power of judicial oversight by handing a state-approved body a monopoly over bringing environmental lawsuits. At the same time, it is pouring money into cleaning up the country. It has just said that China will spend $275 billion over the next five years improving air quality—roughly the same as the GDP of Hong Kong, and twice the size of the annual defence budget. Even by Chinese standards it is a massive sum.
The pace at which it deals with local pollution is a matter for China itself. But the country’s emissions are of wider interest because they also pollute the atmosphere, which is a global resource. The scale and speed of China’s development—it consumes 40-45% of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel, aluminium and zinc—means it is doing so fast. Since 1990 the amount of CO2 pouring from Chinese smokestacks has risen from 2 billion tonnes a year to 9 billion—almost 30% of the global total. China produces nearly twice as much CO2 as America. It is no longer merely catching up with the West. The average Chinese person produces the same amount of CO2 as the average European. Even if you reduce that number by a quarter to take account of the emissions produced by China’s exports, it is still huge.
Indeed, the environmental problems that China face are large; the health problems of air pollution are well-known and deadly. In many ways China is where the United States and Canada were in the 1970s; the good news is that there are technological solutions today that were not available then, and if China puts the same level of effort into solving its environmental problems as it did to its economic ones it will be successful. It has no choice but to act now.

A Possible Leukemia Cure In Canada: An article in CBC News says that Canadian researchers in the nation’s capital might have a breakthrough cure for leukemia that uses ultra-violet (UV) light to prevent cancer cells from multiplying and spreading

The article says:
Researchers at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute say they’ve been able to use a virus-like particle to kill human blood cancer cells and cure mice of leukemia. Dr. John Bell and Dr. David Conrad said in a study published in Blood Cancer Journal they used UV light to take away the ability of a virus to multiply and spread, but keep its ability to enter and kill leukemia cells.

“It kills the cancer cells, the leukemia cells; it preserves the healthy cells,” said Dr. Conrad.
“And when these leukemia cells die it simultaneously induces an immune memory effect, so we are hopeful that this would prevent relapse as well going forward."

Their study found this therapy killed such cells in patients where therapies such as chemotherapy had been unsuccessful. It said 80 per cent of mice with leukemia who received this modified-virus therapy lived much longer than those who did not, and 60 per cent of these mice were eventually cured.
Of course, this now applies only to mice; it’s a long way before we can know whether it can work successfully for humans. This is the first steps in a long testing and proving process that will eventually lead to human clinical trials. This treatment sounds promising since it works when long-tried therapies like chemotherapy have failed, and likely without the nasty side-effects. 

A Safer Additive For Food: An article in Nature News says that allowing manufacturers to decide if food additives are safe is not a good idea, often leading to not only conflicts of interests but also poor science and poor consumer safety. Independent analysis is necessary.

The article says:
A chef who crafts a delicacy for sale in the United States can choose from more than 10,000 food additives to garnish the dish. Of these chemicals, 43% are labelled ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) and need not be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The system has weaknesses. A manufacturer is responsible for assessing whether an additive it has developed is GRAS. Once that is done, the manufacturer is asked — but not required — to notify the FDA. There are no data to evaluate compliance systematically, but the FDA found during a 2010 crackdown on caffeinated alcoholic drinks that four out of four manufacturers queried had not done the required checks.
Even when manufacturers do submit GRAS determinations, there are concerns about the quality of the assessment. An ongoing project at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington DC reveals discomfiting gaps in the data. A search of three toxicological databases, including that of the FDA, showed that fewer than 38% of GRAS claims were backed up by FDA-recommended toxicology studies in animals (T. G. Neltner et al. Reprod. Toxicol.; 2013).
The same team has published an analysis of 451 GRAS notifications submitted to the FDA. To avoid conflicts of interest, assessments should be done by an independent expert panel, but none had been; in fact, 22% had been performed by an employee of the manufacturer (T. G. Neltner et al. JAMA Intern. Med.; 2013).
This is poor policy; if manufacturers want the public to have confidence in their products the onus is on them to show impartiality, in keeping with scientific standards and objectives. The first rule of production is not to sell shoddy products and services, as is now often the case, but to sell the best products that current manufacturing and production technologies allows. No sensible person begrudges companies making a good profit if that follows making a good product.

A Funeral In Outer Space: An article, by John Simon Ritchie, in Digital Journal says that you can now sign up to have your cremated ashes flown into space for about $2,000.

Ritchie writes:
Technology is booming in the funeral industry right now, and there are no signs of it slowing down. Now thanks to Elysium Space, we've reached a new milestone in burial tech, offering you your own funeral in space for just under $2,000. (Seriously.)
In just the last few years alone, we've gone from the disposing of bodies through environmentally conscience means using alkaline-hydrolysis, to having your loved one's ashes compressed into a diamond that you can wear as a ring, and now, your own space funeral for just $1,990, all thanks to Elysium Space.
The new start-up based in San Francisco, CA will send your cremated remains into low orbit, where they will circle the Earth for a few months before reentering the atmosphere, and burning up into a fireball. And as if that wasn't amazing enough, the entire time your cremated ashes are in space, you can actually track where they are using this iPhone appWow.
Yeah, wow; this is, another silly choice for America’s consumer society. This shows that not all technologies better the human condition.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Being Original In Modern Times

Personal Existence

“Happiness can only exist in acceptance.”
George Orwell

“My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth,
even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.”
Miguel de Unamuno

Miguel de Unamuno [1864-1936]“That which the Fascists hate above all else, is intelligence.”
Photo Credit: Anónimo; 1930
Source: Wikipedia

One of my favourite existential thinkers is Miguel de Unamuno. In The Tragic Sense of Life (a translation of Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida), Unamuno recounts early in the book a conversation that he had with one of his best friends, with whom he took frequent walks:
On a certain occasion this friend remarked to me; “I should like to be So-and-so” (naming someone, and I said: “That is what I shall never be able to understand—that one should want to be someone else. To want to be someone else is to cease to be who one is. I understand that one should wish to have what someone else has, his wealth or his knowledge; but to be someone else, that is a thing I cannot comprehend ”(9)
Neither can I. Now the expression “being yourself” might be casually thrown out too much, usually as a reminder to the person’s essential being. The reason that this sentiment is universal is that there is a powerful instinct in us to be precisely who we think we are. And, if truth be told, would you really want to live your life as someone else? That does not mean you cannot improve areas of yourself, if you find them deficient in some way.

But, can you really change your core being? Such a being as yourself has been developed, so to speak by a combination of genetic influences and environmental effects, a combination of your parent’s genes and the way that you grew up. Our obsession with trying to be someone else, like a celebrity, so as to conform to some societal notion of normal or acceptable behaviour is to deny yourself—it is to deny the importance and testing of original thoughts and ideas before they are even formed, let alone matured. And it’s patently absurd and self-defeating. You will lose self-respect and get nothing of value in the bargain (Think Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby).

Originality in thought and action has become rare these days, the fear of being different than the pack, than the masses, is so great that original thinking becomes easily defeated. It hardly has a chance today.

Today’s times are conformist to a large degree. The individual pressure (and fear) to conform to societal notions, resulting from a combination of advertising interests, political and religious dogma, political, economic and social propaganda, stigmatization of the other and self-censorship, has lead to a giving up of individuality and individual freedom. In a society with many putative choices, all roads become narrow and directed. The end result is an inability to make individual choices, a loss of human dignity, and sense of helplessness. The public spaces, meant for freedom of expression, has become smaller, and the need to conform larger.

If you notice children, they are very comfortable with themselves. Off course, we do not wish to remain as children in thought, action and all behaviours. That would make us childish individuals, and there are enough of those types already. But we can learn to become comfortable and understanding of ourselves, which brings self-respect and self-acceptance.

The struggle is to be yourself is not easy, notably when so many false values accost you daily. The trick is to be yourself without imposing your values or intruding on others’ beliefs, while maintaining self-respect and self-dignity, and equally important, providing the same for people around you.

A version of this article was originally posted on Perry J. Greenbaum (September 29, 2010).

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending August 10, 2013

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Japan Launches Talking Robot Into Space: An article in BBC News says that Japan has put a talking robot, named Kirobo into space, where it will be part of the team of the International Space Station.
Japan has launched the world's first talking robot into space to serve as companion to astronaut Kochi Wakata who will begin his mission in November. The android took off from the island of Tanegashima in an unmanned rocket also carrying supplies for crew onboard the International Space Station (ISS).Measuring 34cm (13 inches), Kirobo is due to arrive at the ISS on 9 August.
It is part of a study to see how machines can lend emotional support to people isolated over long periods. The launch of the H-2B rocket was broadcast online by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa).The unmanned rocket is also carrying drinking water, food, clothing and work supplies to the six permanent crew members based at the ISS.
Kirobo's name derives from the Japanese words for "hope" and "robot". The small android weighs about 1kg (2.2 pounds) and has a wide range of physical motion. Its design was inspired by the legendary animation character Astro Boy. Kirobo has been programmed to communicate in Japanese and keep records of its conversations with Mr Wakata who will take over as commander of the ISS later this year. In addition, it is expected to relay messages from the control room to the astronaut.
If successful, this might prove the future of space flight, where robots instead of humans will be sent further into deep space.

Turkey Jails Hundreds After Show Trials: An article in Reuters says that Turkish courts have jailed hundreds of individuals, including a top military commander, in what the government has said was plans to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Reuters writes:
Retired military chief of staff General Ilker Basbug was sentenced to life for his role in the "Ergenekon" conspiracy to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Announcing verdicts on the nearly 300 defendants in the case, the judges also sentenced three serving parliamentarians from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) to between 12 and 35 years in prison.

Earlier, security forces fired tear gas in fields around the courthouse in the Silivri jail complex, west of Istanbul, as defendants' supporters gathered to protest against the five-year trial, a landmark case in the decade-long battle between Erdogan and the secularist establishment.Prosecutors say an alleged network of secular arch-nationalists, code-named Ergenekon, pursued extra-judicial killings and bombings in order to trigger a military coup, an example of the anti-democratic forces which Erdogan says his Islamist-rooted AK Party has fought to stamp out.

Critics, including the main opposition party, have said the charges are trumped up, aimed at stifling opposition and taming the secularist establishment which has long dominated Turkey. They say the judiciary has been subject to political influence in hearing the case.

"This is Erdogan's trial, it is his theatre," Umut Oran, a parliamentarian with the opposition CHP party, told Reuters. "In the 21st century for a country that wants to become a full member of the European Union, this obvious political trial has no legal basis," he said at the courthouse.
This is political theater, a show trial with all of its political meanings; this is an attempt to silence dissent in a nation that has become more tyrannical under the current leadership. 

Welcome To America: Hand Over Your Valuables: This story might seem as if it were taken from a dystopian science-fiction novel, but it’s from an article, by Sarah Stillman, in The New Yorker (“Taken”)The police in many parts of the United States are using asset forfeiture, ostensibly to fight crime, but probably as a way to control its citizens through fear.

Stillman writes:
The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, cops drive a Cadillac Escalade stencilled with the words “this used to be a drug dealer’s car, now it’s ours!” In Monroe, North Carolina, police recently proposed using forty-four thousand dollars in confiscated drug money to buy a surveillance drone, which might be deployed to catch fleeing suspects, conduct rescue missions, and, perhaps, seize more drug money. Hundreds of state and federal laws authorize forfeiture for cockfighting, drag racing, basement gambling, endangered-fish poaching, securities fraud, and countless other misdeeds.
In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.
One result is the rise of improbable case names such as United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins. (Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson’s forfeiture was slugged State of Texas v. $6,037.) “The protections our Constitution usually affords are out the window,” Louis Rulli, a clinical law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading forfeiture expert, observes. A piece of property does not share the rights of a person. There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence. Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods. Washington, D.C., charges up to twenty-five hundred dollars simply for the right to challenge a police seizure in court, which can take months or even years to resolve.
Consider this line from the article and how it again its police actions contravenes the fundamental understanding and interpretation of U.S. Constitution: In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Is this not theft by legal means?

This brings to memory the actions of Nazi Germany against the Jews when they confiscated their property? This is another sign, of many such signs in recent years, that the U.S. is moving toward a police state, and to deny such reality is to acquiesce to what is currently taking place in a nation that was once a home to civil liberties. Such articles show otherwise; the U.S. is not a place that I would now want to visit, let alone call home.

Being Malnourished A Poor Way To Start Off Life: An article, by Amanda Mascarelli, in Nature News says that when babies start off life malnourished, it can lead to health problems later in adulthood; thus concludes a Finnish study published this week. This research finding questions the long-held assumptions of the predictive adaptive response (PAR) hypothesis, which says that that the human body, in some way, can eventually adapt from not getting sufficient nourishment early in its development.

Mascarelli writes:
People who were undernourished during infancy or in the womb are less resilient during famines later in life, have shorter lifespans and are less likely to reproduce than those who were well fed, a study of Finnish church records from the 1800s has found. The results contradict an often-cited hypothesis about the effects of prenatal under-nutrition.
The predictive adaptive response (PAR) hypothesis posits that people who are deprived of food during prenatal development or infancy compensate physiologically, storing fats and using sugars more efficiently. This, in turn, is thought to make them better able to withstand food scarcity later in life, and it has been suggested that these traits would be passed on to their offspring.
Instead, the Finnish study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, concludes that people who were undernourished during early development are less able to cope with famine as older children and adults.The PAR hypothesis could offer one explanation for the high rate of metabolic diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes among people who experience food scarcity early in life. It proposes that if these individuals encounter plentiful food resources when they are older, they are more apt to store abdominal fat and gain weight, leading to a plethora of metabolic disorders.
This study ought to give governments the necessary data to make informed decisions, for one, that there needs to be more programs dedicated to early childhood development, including food-aid and healthy eating initiatives. Government cutbacks, as we are witnessing in some nations, of such important health and food subsidy programs for the poor can only lead to detrimental affects for society, that later on has to bear the high costs of hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

For example, consider a New York Times article (“Poor Children Show A Decline of Obesity Rate”; August 7, 2013), which reports that obesity rates are dropping among the poor, but it cannot accurately explain why this is so. Allow me to offer some explanations that missed the NYT’s writers and editors. Can it be a result of children being malnourished as a result of government cutbacks? That large food conglomerates do not make healthy foods readily available and affordable? That the food industry has relied for too long on preservatives and chemicals in its food processing as a way to earn a quick buck and high profits? These are more likely and simple explanations.

Without a doubt, most rational people would agree that this is a poor way to attack the obesity problem in the U.S. Rather than starving the poor, as is now the case, early prevention would be preferable. Even the poor have to eat.

The Evolution of Monogamy: An article, by Michael Balter, in ScienceMag looks at three possible theories on why monogamy evolved in animals, including primates, a species to which humans belong.

Balter writes:
Living in pairs, what researchers call social monogamy, has repeatedly evolved among animals, although in widely varying proportions among different groups. Thus, about 90% of bird species are socially monogamous, probably because incubating eggs and feeding hatchlings is a full-time job that requires both parents. But in mammals, females carry the babies inside their bodies and are solely responsible for providing milk to young infants—and only about 5% of species are socially monogamous. That leaves most mammalian males free to run around and impregnate other females. Primates, however, seem to be a special case: About 27% of primate species are socially monogamous; and recent studies by Christopher Opie, an anthropologist at University College London, and his colleagues have concluded that social monogamy arose relatively late in primate evolution, only about 16 million years ago. (The earliest primates date back to about 55 million years.)
But why did social monogamy arise at all among mammals, including primates, given the many reproductive advantages to males having access to as many females as possible? Scientists have proposed three major hypotheses: Monogamy provides more effective parental care for infants, as in birds; it prevents females from mating with rival males, especially in species where females are widely spaced and cannot all be easily monopolized by one male; or it protects against the risk of infanticide, which is very high among some primate species, including chimpanzees and gorillas, and is often explained by the desire of a rival male to quickly return a mother to a fertile state so that he can sire his own offspring. Some researchers think that a combination of all three factors, and perhaps still others, provide the best explanation for monogamy.
Resolving this debate is important, researchers say, especially for understanding the evolution of human mating behavior. Although humans aren’t completely monogamous, “the emergence of pair-bonding in humans was a major evolutionary transition, which dramatically altered the evolutionary trajectory of our species,” says Sergey Gavrilets, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Many researchers think that we could not have evolved our large brains without joint parental care during the extended period of helplessness required for infant brains to grow to their full size. “Understanding the forces that drove that transition can help us better understand the causes of human uniqueness,” Gavrilets adds.
Monogamy and parental investment are both good for society, and greatly explains why this model of human behaviour has lasted for millions of years. That the higher species with larger brains are more monogamous than the lower species makes perfect sense, in that it takes some higher-level thought process to understand the benefits of social pairing, notably when it comes to raising children.

How much primates understand is hard to know, since they don’t communicate with us in highly recognizable speech, and even the hand signs are limited in scope and the transfer of information, including emotion and feeling. We, for now, can only know what we observe, collate and interpret, forming ideas and conclusions from such observations. It is interesting to observe that humans are not the only mammals that pair off and raise children, showing our kinship to other mammals, notably to primates.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Balancing Security With Liberty In A Modern Democracy

Individual Liberty & State Security

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” 
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)

Brave New World: The front cover of  British novelist Aldous Huxley's [1894-1963] most well-known work, a dystopian fiction, which he wrote in 1931 and had published a year later. Industrialization, the First World War and the Russian revolution were all influencing factors in the novelist's views. The book speaks about loss of individuality in a modern fast-paced and technologically advanced society.
 One of the fundamental tenets of democracy is individual liberty, not only liberty to follow one's conscience in regards to individual pursuits, but also liberty from fear, notably fear of the state and its intrusion in one’s private affairs—as long as such private affairs don't break any laws. An important caveat: the laws themselves have to be morally just, which is among the most important points of consideration in a democracy and has been a long-standing and continuing debate among citizens.

Now, that has always been a tricky balance. Most democratic nations can agree on a set of basic laws and principles to guide them on what kind of society they want. Such explains why democratic nations have strong laws and penalties against murder, theft, rape and crimes against private property. There are also laws against harming the State and its national interests, such as treason, sedition and espionage or spying. What is more tricky and open to interpretation are balancing the rights of the state against the interests of individual liberty. This has been and continues to be full of tension and conflict. [The NSA Scandal and other recent revelations about American espionage activities show what is at stake for democracies world-wide.]

Individuals desire, naturally, to live in a community in safety, free from abuse of all kinds. But that desire for security can lead to abuse and encroachment from the State and its apparatus, the various police and security forces under its jurisdiction. As a recent example, consider in Canada the reining Conservative government’s snooping bill, which it has tried to pass since 2009, an unnecessary and offensive intrusion into the lives of citizens. The bill seems similar in intent, if not scope, to what the Americans have enacted with its NSA legislation, which says much about the Harper Government’s thinking on the rights of citizens to privacy. 

In essence there is a decided lack of trust among Conservatives, notably so-called social conservatives, in Canadian citizens. We ought to be more than concerned; we ought to be outraged, since such sends a message that the State’s needs, whatever they might be, supersedes the rights of citizens in its most basic form—the right to privacy. Monitoring the online activities of citizens sounds Orwellian, because it is. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former Canadian prime minister, once famously said “there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Or any room, for that matter, real or virtual, we might add.

Hard-headed conservatives—law-and-order types— tend to argue its necessary, parroting the common dictum that if you are not doing anything illegal, you have nothing to fear. That saying might be true in most cases, we hope, but history has shown us that the State can be capricious and arbitrary, since it is run by humans who often act with emotion. Mistakes have been made; persons have been harmed irreparably. The State might act legally, since it makes the laws, but not always morally or humanely. William Gladstone, former British prime minister, explained the distinction between liberals and conservatives, which likely holds true today: “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”

Fear seems to be the ruling emotion these days, and it is used to enrich the state coffers. Governments have been looking for more money, due in large part to cover up their inefficiencies and poor oversight of the public purse. The easiest way is through taxes, both positive and negative. Yet, individual rights extend to the right to earn a living, a fundamental right if there ever was one. Yet, such rights have been continually eroded in the last few years with increasing legislation overseeing many areas of the lives of citizens.

It seems that the State in most democracies has been enacting more laws lately to protect its purported interests at the expense of its citizens. Some of these laws plainly lack merit, others are a justification to exact more money, either in taxes, surtaxes and fines, from citizens to feed cash-strapped governments of all levels. This game has to end soon.

In other words, an old-fashioned tax grab. Such excessive and egregious  measures do not affect the wealthy, for the plainly obvious reason that they have more money. But the majority are greatly affected, including small-business owners who have to close down because their business doesn't meet a new municipal or provincial or state by-law. It happens every day, unnoticed. Another business failure. Cause: inefficient and ineffectual government bureaucracy.

In Rights of Man, which Thomas Paine, drafted in 1791, three essentials ideas were elucidated: 1) Individuals were not born with a corruptible nature; 2) Government is a contrivance of free individuals; and 3) Government's sole purpose is safeguarding the family and his/her inherent, inalienable rights. Much of this thinking contained in this document derived from John Locke (1632-1704), the British philosopher; and from the ideas coming out of the Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason.

To a great degree, we can thank Thomas Paine for such a courageous document, one of the hallmarks of modern democracy. No doubt, its publication caused a furor in Britain. Paine was tried in absentia, and convicted for seditious libel against the Crown. But he had already left England and resided in France, where he was out of reach of the noose.

Today, schoolchildren might study this document as part of American history and might understand some of its implications. Government has expanded its role in the lives of its citizens, some for good measure, as in providing social programs and some less so, as when intruding unnecessarily in people's lives. Individuals have also asked for more rights, and again some are merited and some are not.

More government intervention often leads to less individual responsibility, or more important, diminished individual liberty, since governments then become paternal and patronizing towards its citizens. How one views society's health in terms of the level of individual liberty and individual responsibility greatly depends on such factors as wealth, religious views and political awareness and knowledge.

In many ways, designations like Left and Rights do not have the same meaning as 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago. Too much time is spent among the party faithful defending their party's actions and spewing opprobrium on the other party. What is often not examined in such blind devotion is whether the action or proposed legislation is morally defensible. This requires a set of principles, a standard in which to measure against. In a democracy, no political party has the high seat of morality; and no political party is as evil as its opponents say it is. Today, one can hardly tell the difference between the two major parties, not measured by rhetoric but by legislative action.

Let’s return a moment to events before the First World War, to before the introduction of democracy and Paine's document, notably, Point no. 3: Government’s sole purpose is safeguarding the family and his/her inherent, inalienable rights. Is this the case today in many of the world’s long-standing democracies, including in Canada, Britain, the U.S, France, Germany or Israel? Today, in a climate of fear, it has become natural to assume that the State ought to seek more power, safeguarding itself, which is not the same as safeguarding the family or the individual within the family. When the State has too much encompassing power, such can eventually lead a political system that has all the markings of authoritarianism or even totalitarianism.

In a review in the British Guardian, J.G. Ballard, a noted writer himself, made in a 2002 review of  Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual by Nicholas Murray the following astute observation:
Aldous Huxley was uncannily prophetic, a more astute guide to the future than any other 20th- century novelist. Even his casual asides have a surprising relevance to our own times. During the first world war, after America's entry, he warned: "I dread the inevitable acceleration of American world domination which will be the result of it all...Europe will no longer be Europe." His sentiment is widely echoed today, though too late for us to do anything about it. The worst fate for a prophet is for his predictions to come true, when everyone resents him for being so clear-eyed.
We feel the resentment, and it's stinging. Nobody wins, least of all the individual. If anyone needs reminding, that's each of us that comprise the State.


A version of this post originally was published at Perry J. Greenbaum (March 7, 2012).

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending August 3, 2013

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

New Normal For Afghanistan: An article, by Graham Bowley, in the New York Times says that an Australian entrepreneur, backed by American investment, has started a soccer league in Kabul, which might shape the future of this nation that has seen its share of violence.

Bowley writes:.
Mr. Mohseni has brought a modicum of normalcy to Afghanistan. His new commercial soccer league is part of a broader Afghan media empire — the holding company is called the Moby Group — that he and his family have built after their return to Kabul from Australia in 2002. As a private company, Moby does not state its earnings publicly, but people familiar with its performance say it is likely to post revenue of more than $60 million in its current fiscal year.
In a country where the Taliban once banned television, where a television set costs about one-fourth of an average Afghan’s annual income and where the electricity supply is uneven, Mr. Mohseni has built a business in the bubble of security and prosperity afforded by the international presence in the country. He has done this with the start-up help of United States government money and with a cash injection last year from News Corporation, led by his friend Rupert Murdoch, with whom he shares an Australian background, a love of gossip and an obvious industriousness.
Now, like his native country, Mr. Mohseni stands on the cusp of the next phase of development. In the coming year, Afghanistan is facing both the withdrawal of most international troops and a tense political transition after presidential elections. Outside the stadium, beyond the police guards poised on nearby towers, the reality is that Afghanistan remains a poor, turbulent, chaotic nation that, some fear, may plunge into something even worse as its army confronts the Taliban alone without international support, as outside aid money dwindles and as warlords jostle for supremacy.
Whether Mohseni and others like him succeed will largely depend on the will of the average Afghani to both accept and embrace modern ways. If they attend soccer matches, watch TV and do some of the things that moderns do, then there is every good chance that Afghanistan will eventually have some of the decorations of a modern democracy.  Real democracy will take much longer, requiring more effort, taking decades to take force.

Elections In Cambodia: An article in The Economist says that elections in Cambodia last week returned the incumbent, but with a smaller majority, to power, signaling that Hun Sen, the prime minister, who has led the nation for 28 years, has seen better days. His party, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), won 68 seats in the 123-seat parliament, a comfortable enough margin, but, more surprising is that the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by Mr Sam Rainsy, had picked up 55 seats.

The Economist writes:
It was a dramatic conclusion to a dramatic home stretch. On July 12th the government had issued a pardon to Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader who had exiled himself from Cambodia since 2009, while criminal charges were prepared against him. He made his homecoming on July 19th, when he was met by a jubilant crowd. They may have hoped that Mr Sam Rainsy’s presence could bring their party an outright victory in the polls, but he seemed to have known better. Even then, with a week to go before the election, he was threatening to have the results condemned if the rules weren’t changed.
When July 28th came round, some voters were angered to discover that their names were not on the rolls, or that other people had already voted under their names. Other rumours flew furiously: for instance that the CPP was shipping in Vietnamese from across the border to cast ballots.
“Khmer can’t vote—yuon can,” went up the cry on social-media sites and among many who were protesting against the CPP. Yuon means Vietnamese people in Khmer, the main language of Cambodia. Many regard it as a highly derogatory term. Two police vehicles were overturned and set alight. By nightfall troops were deployed, roads blocked and Phnom Penh’s lively rumour mill had gone into overdrive. It all made a tense atmosphere tenser.
By the end of preliminary counting, the CPP acknowledged that the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by Mr Sam Rainsy had picked up 55 seats, an impressive improvement on the 29 seats it had already held in the 123-seat parliament. The CPP won 68 seats for itself, down from 90, and so lost the two-thirds majority which had enabled it to rewrite the constitution. Minor parties, including the once-formidable royalist Funcinpec party, were obliterated.
Poor Die Much Earlier: An article, by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, in the New York Times says what the poor and less-fortunate already know; that no options as a result of little money leads to killer stress and early death:

Velasquez-Manoff writes:

Dr. Marmot blames a particular type of stress. It’s not necessarily the strain of a chief executive facing a lengthy to-do list, or a well-to-do parent’s agonizing over a child’s prospects of acceptance to an elite school. Unlike those of lower rank, both the C.E.O. and the anxious parent have resources with which to address the problem. By definition, the poor have far fewer.
So the stress that kills, Dr. Marmot and others argue, is characterized by a lack of a sense of control over one’s fate. Psychologists who study animals call one result of this type of strain “learned helplessness.”
Such sums up the problem that many in the United States today face—a land with increasing social and economic inequalities. No options; no control; more stress; early death. Welcome to the American Nightmare.

Major Scientific Study On Medical Marijuana: A press release from Drexel University says it “has received a grant for a five-year study of medical marijuana and its impact on drug use and physical and psychological health among young adults in Los Angeles. It is the first large-scale NIH project funded to directly investigate medical marijuana use among young adults aged 18 to 26.”

It adds:

The study, “Medical Marijuana, Emerging Adults & Community: Connecting Health and Policy,” is being led by Dr. Stephen Lankenau, an associate professor in Drexel’s School of Public Health, who was awarded an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health for $3.3 million over five years, beginning July 1. Ultimately, Lankenau hopes the study’s findings can guide medical marijuana policies at local, state and national levels to result in the most positive health outcomes for young adults and communities.
Lankenau aims to determine the impact of medical marijuana policies in Los Angeles on young adults’ physical and psychological health. A core focus is understanding the significance and influence of dispensaries – storefronts that sell medical marijuana – on health.
Federal funding of medical marijuana research has been minimal to date likely because under federal law the drug remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, a category that includes other drugs such as heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Lankenau noted that, as a result, most existing studies are smaller in scale, or involve secondary analysis of survey data without direct recruitment of medical marijuana-using populations.
This is a significant public policy shift in the U.S., which, until this announcement, has not conducted any studies of this magnitude. Given its wide use, it's important to understand the effects and significance of marijuana, notably on the health and welfare of young adults. Ignoring the issue will not make it disappear. 

Playing With Schrodinger’s Cat: An article, by Jesse Emspak, in Live Science says scientists are coming closer to understanding a decades-old thought experiment in quantum mechanics:

Emspak writes:
The idea, called Schrödinger's Cat after the physicist,Erwin Schrödinger, who proposed it in 1935, goes like this: Put a cat in a box with a vial of poison gas. The vial opens when a tiny piece of radioactive metal emits an alpha particle (the nucleus of a helium atom) as it decays. Emitting an alpha particle is a quantum-mechanical process, which means that whether it happens in any given stretch of time is basically random.
Quantum mechanics says that it's impossible to know whether the radioactive decay has happened (and the cat is dead) unless one measures it — that is, unless the alpha particle interacts with the environment in some way that an observer can see. Until that happens, the alpha particle is emitted and not emitted at the same time. The cat is both dead and alive, a state called superposition. Opening the box is a measurement — one sees the effect of an alpha particle as the dead cat, or the absence of an alpha particle as a live one. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]
In the two new studies, detailed in the July 21 issue of the journal Nature Physics, researchers used particles of light, or photons, to test the limits of such superposition. If there is no limit to how many particles or photons you can put into a quantum system, that means the cat really is both dead and alive at once, and the act of measuring its state makes the mathematical formulation that describes it (called a wave function) "collapse" into a definite state, alive or dead.
This shows the strangeness of quantum mechanics, where things can exist in two states. It is hard for our minds, that is those of us who are not quantum physicists, or highly familiar with it, to comprehend its reality. Even so, it’s good to try to understand its implications without arrogantly attacking its premise from ignorance.I welcome physicists' comments on this experiment.

& One More, On Cancer

Cancer Should Be Better Defined: An article in CBC News says that the definition of cancer needs to be narrowed to exclude diseases that are likely to do no harm:

The CBC writes:
The definition of cancer should be narrowed to exclude some forms of the disease that are unlikely to cause harm, U.S. cancer experts propose. That's one of the recommendations from a working group of the U.S. National Cancer, which published an online commentary today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 
The word 'cancer' often invokes the specter of an inexorably lethal process," said Dr. Laura Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California in San Francisco, along with her co-authors. "Use of the term 'cancer' should be reserved for describing lesions with a reasonable likelihood of lethal progression if left untreated."
The authors say doctors, patients and the general public need to recognize that overdiagnosis is common and occurs more frequently with cancer screening. Overdiagnosis occurs after the detection of tumours which, if left untreated, would not cause harm during the patient's lifetime.
This is an interesting proposition, since a diagnosis of cancer can also result in psychological, emotional and familial turmoil. If the tumour is not harmful, there is no need for long-term invasive procedures like chemotherapy and radiation. Medicine now has a better understanding of cancer and often over-treatment can do more harm than good.