Smart, Funny, Honorable…Our guy Alex

Answer: He redefined what it was to be a game-show host.

Question: Who is Alex Trebek!

A few words about Alex Trebek whose passing is a loss to tens of millions of his fans, of which I am one. For 37 years as the host of Jeopardy, he did a remarkably hard job and somehow always made it look easy.

He lowered the temperature of the program by eliminating all the hoopla, the jumping up and down and fake enthusiasm of other game shows. There was nothing superficial or artificial in the show’s choice of topics. They were picked for substance rather than popularity. Trebek and his questions emphasized knowledge and critical thinking. Alex often added his own intelligent comments.

The Canadian-born Trebek elicited interesting facts from the contestants during his interviews between the two parts of the game. The questions also grew in complexity as the show progressed. I was always learning something new. I think he spent time shaping the questions to ensure their quality.

I always felt both entertained and enlightened. I hope that there is a rich quantity of shows in reserve for future programs. I don’t know who will ensure the continuation of Jeopardy but I hope it will maintain its integrity and scholarship.

How were Jeopardy and Alex Trebek special for you? Please use the comments section.
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Editor’s note: Jeopardy not-so-trivial trivia…When the inventor of the show, Merv Griffin, sold his company to Coca-Cola in 1986, he collected $250 million.

But Griffin kept the rights to one thing, a little tune we all know too well which is played during Final Jeopardy. It is estimated that the Griffin estate’s earnings from that song are approaching $100 million.

Griffin said he wrote it very quickly as a lullaby for his five-year old son Tony and it was originally titled “A Time for Tony.”

It was retitled “Think” and has been used since 1984, when the Alex Trebek era began.

Beheaded in a French Suburb

Protest in France after beheading of Samuel Paty.

Abdalla Azonov had lived in France since the age of 6 but it was in a segregated Chechen community. He was not a good student and had not assimilated into the larger French society.

We might ask why he carried a large, sharp knife on his person. He also carried religious beliefs deeply embedded in his being. And on October 16th, he beheaded a French school teacher in a suburb of Paris.

As I listened to this on the French news and heard the word “beheaded” my mind went to images of the French Revolution. Tumbrels (two-wheeled open carts) conveyed “criminals ” to the guillotine, for their beheading, among them the French Queen, Marie Antoinette as well as King Louis 16th. It was not only for what they had done but for who they were.

 

Tumbrels carrying prisoners during French Revolution

And now, on October 16th of 2020 it was Samuel Paty who was beheaded by Abdalla Azonov in a suburb of Paris. Paty had been instructing his students about freedom of speech. In so doing he referred to the Mohammad caricatures which had appeared in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo as examples of the liberties of the French press to ridicule any religious or political topic.

Agonov, was offended by his “blasphemous” remarks and took it upon himself to punish the wrongdoer.

The French State and the French Schools, on the other hand stand for freedom from religion as the foundation of a secular state.

A few blogs ago, I wrote about Charlie Hebdo’s recent republication of those images. The proponents of freedom of expression seem prepared to go the extra mile to underline their position. They have hardened their stance and seem prepared to face the consequences.

This kind of stubbornness does not bode well for a resolution. But I don’t think they are interested in
a resolution as much as in entrenching themselves in their beliefs. The other side, of course, never even
aimed for a solution.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the decapitation “a typical Islamist terrorist attack”, thereby angering Turkish President Erdogan and other Islamic leaders. But it is now understood that Agonov as well as the members of the group that murdered three at a church in Nice, France on October 29th were not members of a political or terrorist group and espoused no political agenda.

The uniquely French conception of “laicity” (secularism) means the French simply won’t accept religious intervention in political matters.

The Islamists on their side, hold fast to their view of fundamental Muslim beliefs. To them, religious wrath is an acceptable way of responding to attacks on their faith.

You cannot see the same landscape standing on a fundametalist platform as you do standing on an secular one. These two positions are irreconcilable. There is no middle ground, no possibility of negotiation.

And so they face each other across a chasm of incomprehension.

I am gazing across that chasm.

If you have an opinion about this, please write me a comment. I’m interested in how you see it.

How Do You Justify Your Existence?

Let’s say you are here in the world for a purpose. You can’t “just be.”

But whose purpose? Some would say “there is a creator who had a reason for creating me.” But what if you don’t believe in a creator? Then what makes you what you are?

If you answer: I am here to procreate, that just postpones the question. Why procreate? So that your descendants can also ask the question “Why am I here?” We are back full circle.

Does everything have to have a purpose? What is the purpose of music, dance or art?

We are all members of a society. Each one of us participates in some function of that society. Often the society works to improve the welfare of its members by helping with jobs, family life or personal development.

We have skills we can use on behalf of this community. Here is a purpose we can reflect on. Is this society better off than when you entered it? If you can say “I leave this world in a little better shape than when I arrived,” perhaps that is justification enough for your existence.

 

How To Blog

Editors note: Today, we are republishing a previous blog post, but Simone has also provided us with some new remarks on the subject so we’ll lead with those….

The actual process of writing is interesting because you don’t know exactly where you will end up.

The simple act of writing by hand stimulates the brain and thoughts start spilling out. All you need to do is to arrange them in a coherent manner so that others can make sense of them.

And writing a blog is not like writing a story. In fact it is much easier since you don’t have to respond to an interior voice which keeps saying “and then what happened?”

Since you are not restricted by events, your mind can ramble like a wanderer in an attic with a collection of strange objects. You need to arrange them in some pattern, and suddenly you have a new reality.

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The original blog post (with new pictures):

It used to be that you could only write an “opinion piece” if you were a regular contributor to a newspaper and had your own column. Social media now allows anyone to write what they want anywhere, anytime. Short thoughts can be tweeted: (“You know who’s” favorite medium). Daily events and pictures can be shared on Facebook. and more ambitious writers can start a blog.

Not Simone

Why would anybody want to write a blog? The comparison I can think of is not a very elegant one, but here it is: You have something sticking in your mind that wants out.
So you end up writing something like a school essay on a topic of your own choosing.

In the act of putting down your thoughts, something of your personality will inevitably emerge and you have to be scrupulously honest because readers will detect any insincerity or posturing. For instance, if you really hate “The Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake” just say so! But at the same time, you are not in the business of writing about yourself and you need to safeguard your privacy, so no nakedness! There are good reasons why clothes were invented. Keep “confessions” for your diary.

You also have to remember that you are not writing a novel, so advice like “Show, don’t tell” does not apply to a blog. You do have to tell a story to keep your readers wanting to know more. There are no restrictions on what you can write about. I was asked once: Why don’t you write about advice? So I wrote a blog about why I don’t give advice.

When writing or editing yourself, simple, concrete everyday words are more potent than abstract ones or circumlocutions. But if only an esoteric word can adequately describe your thought, then use it. Some readers will know it too; others will guess or look it up. Avoid empty calorie words like awesome or terrific. Their meaning has evaporated from overuse. Uncouple often paired words. Shun all cliches. They add nothing to your work.

And finally, you need to enjoy writing your blog. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The Right To Blasphemy

It has been 5 years since the deadly attack by militant Islamists on the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which, along with an attack at a Kosher supermarket left 17 people dead.

The two attackers

Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the attack. The two brothers who conducted the attacks were deeply offended by the magazine’s publishing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed which had originally appeared in a Danish newspaper.

Eight days ago, a new trial opened in Paris to serve as an attempted closure to the events. With the main perpetrators dead, the Court will focus instead on those who provided aid to the attackers. It will also include a formal tribute to the employees of the magazine who were killed.

Cariane Rey survived the attack and testified at the new trial.

Charlie Hebdo, has continued to publish and at the start of the trial republished the same photos that were the subject of the original attack.

In response to the attack, four days after it occurred, two million people in Paris and four million throughout France gathered in a rally of national unity. The country is now remembering one of the worst chapters in its modern history. Demonstrations and unrest in the wake of the attacks left over a hundred people dead.

Demonstration in Paris after the shootings.

In France the right to poke fun at religion is sacrosanct and the right to “blasphemy” is protected.As early as the 18th century, aristocrats and the royal family were objects of satire. Challenging the powers that be is almost an obligation.

The Muslim faith (along with all the other religions by the way) is totally at odds with religious faith being ridiculed. Insult any of them and conflict is likely to ensue. The type and degree of conflict varies dramatically among the religions.

Security will be tight at the new trial. Some of the suspects are in hiding and could not be found. They will be tried in absentia; all the accused will be wearing masks. Charlie Hebdo’s magazine staff concluded their announcement of the trial with the words:

We do not forget
We will always continue to speak, to write, to draw.

What’s Behind the Mask?

Prologue: When you wear a mask you are stepping out of your usual self and and becoming someone else. You can look around  through different eyes and those around may see you as a stranger. It emboldens you to say things and behave in ways that you had never imagined because of fear of looking ridiculous, overstepping some boundary or displeasing someone. Suddenly there are no limits. You are liberated. No disapproving comments can touch you; your thoughts come out of hiding. Someone else is there and expressing them. Are you evading responsibility? Perhaps, but you have traveled to another country where you know the language but nobody knows you. You are incognito.

You are free.

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African Masks

Images of people wearing masks have been found on rock paintings in many parts of the world with some going back to 700 BCE. Neanderthals decorated their faces with masks for camouflage during hunts or skirmishes.  All cultures have used transformational masks for disguise.

A masked fool is found in many cultures. His  task is to keep order and to keep children from being  unruly and noisy during ceremonies and observances. Sometimes masks were meant to represent the spirits of ancestors who were thus invited to participate in the festivities.

In the theater world the masks of comedy and tragedy were created in ancient Greece and exhibited during performances. Sometimes, masks started out as a religious ceremony, but later evolved as entertainment.

Often masks were also worn for protection against a disease just as we do today in the case of the Covid 19. Plague doctors wore a mask to prevent them from being infected by the deadly disease during the plague of 1656 which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples.

Many of these masks had birdlike beaks that were stuffed with herbs and foodstuffs to protect the wearer or at least dilute the odors. Some believed these masks would purify that air. Other believed that Death would not recognize them thus transformed.

In Jewish culture,  the holiday of Purim celebrates deliverance from captivity and is marked by a parade of fancifully costumed and masked men, women and children enjoying their freedom.

Today we also have many mask wearing ceremonies like the Venice Carnival which features a procession of elaborately costumed revelers parading in the streets.

An entire opera by Verdi, The Masked Ball celebrates this joyous custom.  I would think, though, that it is not easy to sing with masks on.

What is the Father of Famine?

I am thinking about famine. Although there have been famines throughout history due to crop failure, this is not only a phenomenon of the past. It is still happening. Today over 30 million people are experiencing acute hunger and malnutrition in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

 

And of course in the US, the pandemic has called on Americans to rise to the challenge of providing sustenance to tens of millions of people who now cannot afford food. This country has been pretty good at preventing its own people from starving and we are doing fairly well in the current crisis. (at least foodwise) It’s not a famine, but it reminds me of one.

 

The Bible is awash in stories of famine. It was one of the reasons the Israelites fled Egypt.

“…And the Lord God sends famines to his people when he is displeased with their behavior.” (it sounds biblical, but I adapted it)

This view of God was promoted by the leaders of the time who were autocrats and ruled supreme over their people. It was easier to keep control in the name of God. Who could argue?

(Editor’s note: Asked Simone if “of the time” above referred to a particular time. She thought about it said, “Almost all the time.”)

The Irish potato famine devastated that country between 1846 and 1851 resulting in over a million deaths from disease and starvation. As a result, a mass exodus of Irish fled their country and arrived on the shores of the New World, settled and eventually prospered.

It wasn’t until two years ago that scientists isolated the pathogen that set off this catastrophe. I’m thinking the Irish were over-dependent on a single crop.

Many famines occurred in Russia and Ukraine despite the fact that Ukraine was so fertile it was called the “bread basket of Europe.” Joseph Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization was intended to abolish private property, but when what you plant is no longer yours, your motive for working hard no longer exists. Millions died because of this tragically misguided policy.

In 1932-33 and again in 1946-47, Stalin’s failed thinking in dictating crop choices caused artificial ideology-based famines. Powerful leaders can cause a lot of trouble.

Joseph Stalin

 

Today’s famines are partly caused by water shortage and climate change, but also result from war and and political upheval. Refugees cannot stop to plant crops, when they are fleeing .

Nobody should die of starvation today and yet it happens because people cannot find ways to resolve their conflicts.

The Unlimited Sense

As I was looking at the sky last evening, I realized that I had not seen any stars in a long time. It is because of all the light pollution generated by our numerous illuminated buildings, street lights, automobiles and electric signs. Cities glow and pulse with light.

So how do I know that stars exist? How many other phenomena am I unaware of because I have only 5 senses with a very limited reach?

An eagle can see a rabbit from two miles away. I also learned that they adjust the curvature of their eyes as they descend to attack so prey is always in sharp focus. Bats navigate by echolocation which is completely alien to us. Vampire bats have proteins in their noses that lead them to food.

Our sense of smell is very rudimentary. Often it stops at pleasant or unpleasant and does not reveal edibility or harmfulness. Elephants’ feet and trunks are sensitive enough to pick up vibrations created by other elephants as far as 10 miles away.

Our hearing is also problematic. We often do not know how to follow it to its source or whether it signals danger or not. Our experience is often limited by the size and distance of the object being heard.

Because we long ago realized that much of the world is hidden from us, we knew we had to build instruments to expand our search abilities and learn the truth. But what is the truth of a star or the truth of a tree for that matter? Still we have to strive to understand that elusive reality.

Microphones and ultrasound devices capture unheard sounds. Smoke detectors can smell fires. Thermometers can measure exact temperatures beyond cold or hot. Litmus paper can tell if a substance is an acid or a base. In 1610 Galileo invented the telescope to examine the Milky Way and its vast collection of stars. He suspected that there existed many more heavenly bodies beyond our galaxy.

The Hubble Telescope

Since then telescopes have grown in size and complexity. The Hubble telescope which is suspended high in space is a most productive scientific instrument. It whirls around the earth and takes pictures through the haze of the atmosphere. It is only the size of a bus but it can look back to when the universe was only 3% of its current age. It can spot the dark energy that exists in space.

We have enlarged our horizons and will continue to expand our ability to apprehend and comprehend the world because we have one sense that is truly unlimited, our sense of curiosity.

 

Editors Note:  Simone would like to know what you think about the seen and unseen worlds and about human curiosity. We encourage you to comment below.

Fire In the Sky

When our children were little, we used to drive to the Berkeley Hills to watch the July 4th fireworks. Nowadays I have a wide window that allows me to see fireworks from across San Francisco Bay and in all other neighboring cities. They are colorful, dazzling, shimmering and noisy.

Still I find that after 5 to 10 minutes, my attention wanders and I tend to stop looking. Are explosions and bangs just a childish pleasure? Or do these displays last too long? Or perhaps nowadays there are too many competing events to attend to.

Fireworks were developed in China in the second century BC. (Sometimes it seems to me the Chinese invented everything.) These displays were used to celebrate births, weddings, coronations and deaths In 200 B.C. people roasted bamboo stalks till they sizzled and exploded.

Bamboo Chute Fireworks

But then they got smart, and 800 years later, between 600 and 900 A.D., they started filling the bamboo with gun powder and the big bang was born. They added metal salts to achieve the brilliant colors. This was all done to scare off evil spirits of course.

In this country Capt. John Smith set off the first fireworks in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, and the first Independence Day fireworks display was in Philadelphia in 1777.John Adams said that he hoped that the anniversary of Independence would always be marked by guns and bonfires. So it was for a while, but these were eventually replaced by fireworks.

In France, fireworks are traditionally used to celebrate July 14 French Independence Day. This year, displays were held in Lyon, Nantes, Marseille and many other cities. In Paris, because of crowd restrictions due to the pandemic, the display was started at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and lasted for 30 minutes. People were encouraged to watch from a distance, from their balconies. The display was dedicated to the “heroic daily fight against the corona virus”

Fireworks will continue to exist as long as the inner child in us keeps wanting them.

I’ll close with a Debussy prelude called “Feux d’Artifice.” (fireworks in French) This is a magnificent performance by Marc-Andre Hamelin. You don’t need to see the fireworks…you can hear them.  This same piece was played in Paris on July 14th with colorful light reflections dancing in the River Seine. (lots of youtube of that available if you are interested)

The Aristrocrat and the Bad Little Girl

When I was a little girl, I loved reading a series of books written by a woman who was born in 1799 to a noble Russian family and was said to be descended from Genghis Khan. Her name is Rostopchine Comtesse de Segur.

She received an aristocratic education and spoke five languages including French. (Russian nobles found it fashionable to have French governesses for their children.) Exiled from Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, she married into the French family of the Count Eugene de Segur.

 

The Count

 

The Countess had eight children and many grandchildren to whom she frequently told morality-based stories that she made up on the spot. At age 58, encouraged by her family, the Countess began to put her beloved storytelling into storybooks for the wider world.

From an early book cover

 

She started by writing about simplistic characters representing good and evil. (“prince disguised as pauper” type of tales.) But her characters escaped from those restrictions and acquired a life of their own. I loved her stories about a donkey named Cadichon who was ill- treated by his family, rebelled and grew wise in the process. Other stories were about General Dourakine (Dourak means “imbecile” in Russian).

 

 

The Model Girls

Then her fans requested stories about “model little girls” to serve as role models for aristocratic girls. So she created “Les petites filles modeles,” Camille and Madeleine. She also invented their foil in what became her most famous work, “Les Malheurs de Sophie.” Sophie was to be the negative role model who fell into one scrape after another.

 

But the readers had little interest in Camille and Madeleine, and perversely the misbehaving Sophie became a great literary favorite.

Didn’t the Countess know that misadventures are always more fun than exemplary lives? I doubt that any of the children who read her became little “Goody Two Shoes.”

 

 

Oh boy, how I loved that rebellious little girl.