Sunday, August 31, 2008

More than a million affected by massive floods

Even as we are on the Hurricane Gustav watch, India's northern state of Bihar is reeling from massive floods. Well, Nepal too.
AFP reports that "More than 400,000 people have been evacuated in an operation involving local authorities, emergency workers and the army, disaster management ... Another 800,000 people have made their own way out and sought shelter in overcrowded relief centres set up by the government or in concrete buildings and temples, officials in Bihar said, but at least one million remain stranded."

Bihar has been a tragic story for decades. It is probably the least developed state, with the highest level of corruption and violence. A classmate of mine, Vijay Nambisan, wrote a book on Bihar a few years ago. A columnist quotes Vijay: Probably one of the best intros to Bihar could be the book by Vijay Nambisan, Bihar. "No one who has seen the Ganga plain after the monsoon and the annual flood, who has seen what it produces despite more than 2,000 years of intensive cultivation, can think that the state of Bihar is a poor one. The soil is incredibly fertile: Poke in a seed and it sprouts," writes the author.
Cut to the tale of Pushpa, thin, dark and short-statured who tells Vijay's wife, Kavery, "Why should I worry about that? I will be dead by 40."
Vijay comments: "It seemed incredible that a woman in her mid-20s, in the year of grace one thousand nine hundred ninety-seven, in a democratic republic which purports to guarantee the welfare of all its citizens, could make such a statement. The most horrible thing about it, of course, was that it was true."

The unbearable whiteness/blackness of being

Growing up in Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India, I had a total immersion in the socio-political dynamics that were based on groups that had always had the upper hand versus those that were always pushed down. It was only a matter of time before those who were pushed down exercised their democractic power and, when they did, the old rules were swiftly broken. It is no wonder then that Tamil Nadu today is phenomenally way more progressive than many other states in the union.

Of course, the big difference between the situation here and that in Tamil Nadu is one of numbers: in Tamil Nadu, the oppressed were/are a majority of the population.

Looking at the presidential elections from that perspective, I have a strong feeling that the "blackness" and "whiteness" will play a significant role in this election. Which is why I liked this essay in the New York Review of Books. I think I like the concluding argument too:

What seems more needed, in my view, are two parallel campaigns: a quiet one to assure a maximum black turnout, and a more public one to make the most of the white backing the Obama-Biden ticket already has. His rallies, appearances, and advertisements would benefit from featuring white faces, and they should be accompanied by endorsements from white military veterans, union leaders, police chiefs, and firemen. His black supporters will know what is going on, and not take this as a rebuff.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Amateurism in college football? HA!

The co-chairs of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics want us to believe that college football is amateur sport. To which I say: HA!

In their op-ed in the LA Times, Chancellor William E. Kirwan of the University of Maryland system, and President R. Gerald Turner of Southern Methodist University, write: This week also marks the start of a new era in college football, one in which fantasy leagues run by commercial entities exploit college players as their virtual game pieces. These online fantasy leagues, which use the real names and statistics of collegiate athletes, raise a crucial question for higher education leaders: Is it amateurism in college sports that has become a fantasy?

In case they did not know, amateurism became a fantasy a long, long time ago. Remember Robert Maynard Hutchins as the University of Chicago president? Here is a reminder: "In 1935, senior Jay Berwanger was awarded the first Heisman Trophy (which is proudly displayed today in the Ratner Athletic Center on campus). Just four years later, however, Hutchins abolished the football team, citing the need for Chicago to focus on academics rather than athletics." To paraphrase Don McLean, that was the day that universities recognized that amateurism in college football was long dead.

The cynic in me thinks that Kirwan and Turner, and the NCAA, are merely upset that others are making money from college football--perhaps they think that only universities can make money from it. HA!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Fear and loathing in Islamabad

Ding dong the witch is dead—Musharraf stepped down when the parliamentary majority initiated impeachment proceedings against him. Having followed Pakistani politics from a distance ever since I could read newspapers, I suspected that this would trigger more instability and chaos. While recent developments indicate that I might be correct, being right in this case is, unfortunately, no cause for celebration.

Almost immediately after Musharraf’s exit, the ruling coalition government came unglued. The opposition was held together by a focused, singular, objective of getting rid of Musharraf. It no longer has that unifying force and, as a result, it is now a bitter struggle for power.

Leading one faction is Nawaz Sharif whose elected government was ousted by Musharraf in a military coup in 1999. The other faction is led by Asif Ali Zardari, who inherited the leadership mantle after his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated.

These two leaders and their parties formed the majority in the parliament. But, when Zardari became his party’s nominee for the presidency, Sharif pulled his party out of the coalition.

More bizarre developments threaten Pakistan’s extremely shaky democracy. Britain’s Financial Times reported a few days ago that Zardari is not well—he apparently "was diagnosed with a range of serious illnesses including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in a series of medical reports spanning more than two years." Would anybody want this person to be in-charge of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

As of these alone are not enough, it turns out that our ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, had taken it upon himself to advise Zardari. Apparently he was working with Bhutto even back in 2006. The personnel at the State Department, from Condoleezza Rice to the spokesperson, are furious with Khalilzad for bypassing diplomatic protocols, particularly during such sensitive situations. Naturally. Even under normal circumstances, locals do not appreciate any perception of foreign interference in their politics.

An ultimate complication in this tangled web: there have always been speculations that Khalilzad has plans to contend for Afghanistan's presidency—the current president, Hamid Karzai, has been so ineffective that a strong challenger might be able to unseat him at the elections in 2009. In case you are wondering how our ambassador can think of becoming the president of Afghanistan, well, Khalilzad is a naturalized American who was born in that country.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda sympathizers and other militant fundamentalists have seized this political confusion as a wonderful opportunity to remind everybody of the havoc they can unleash. Suicide attacks and other forms of violence have increased, according to published reports. To complicate matters, neighboring Afghanistan and Kashmir have experienced a new round of violence and death.

The world has not gained anything from Musharraf’s exit. In fact, the biggest losses dwarf the few developments I have highlighted here. For one, Musharraf is now completely off the hook and does not even have pretend not to know the answer to the question that Jon Stewart posed so wonderfully when he was a guest on The Daily Show: “where’s Osama bin Laden?”

Second, with his exit, Musharraf does not have to clarify to anybody how much he was involved in nuclear proliferation. Musharraf placed the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan, under house arrest soon as the world found out that he was actively involved in spreading nuclear know-how to countries, including Libya and North Korea. Recently, in the German publication Der Spiegel, Khan’s wife accused Musharraf of lying about her husband’s involvement in nuclear proliferation—that Khan was merely carrying out orders from the government. But, we will never find out what Musharraf knew, and when he knew it.

The irony of it all, or perhaps an insult to us Americans, is that Pakistan’s Daily Times reports that one of the two places that Musharraf may go into exile is New Mexico!

It’s Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad world.”

Obama biography according to The Daily Show :-)

The Daily Show at its best. It is a waste of time watching news. In case you need to brush up on the idea of pangaea that this clip refers to, here is a neat summary.

Biden, Palin: is it 1988 all over again?

I am all the more convinced about my earlier blog post on Biden reminding me of Bentsen and 1988. Sarah Palin is as unknown as was Dan Quayle in 1988. It looks like Palin won't be as bad as Quayle was; but, then I suppose most Americans will be better than Quayle in his best day. Let us see whether Barack Obama is a Michael Dukakis of 1988 or Bill Clinton of 1992.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Our lost constitution: why nobody talks about it ...

As always, Dahlia Lithwick asks pointed questions:
Bill Clinton is a lawyer. Hillary Clinton is a lawyer. Rep. Artur Davis is a lawyer. Michelle Obama is a lawyer. Chuck Schumer is a lawyer. Joe Biden is a lawyer. Ted Kennedy is a lawyer. I have heard virtually all of these people speak poignantly and passionately about the Constitution, the rule of law, and the outrages visited upon the Bill of Rights over the past eight years. Biden was prescient about the legal implications of what had been done at Abu Ghraib. Rep. Davis has been devastating on Guantanamo and torture on the House judiciary committee. When Ted Kennedy gets started on warrantless wiretapping and national-security letters and signing statements, there is nobody better. These are America's constitutional poet laureates. And yet Buchanan is right that almost every prime-time convention speaker has behaved as though President Bush's greatest crimes of the past eight years have involved lost jobs and climbing oil prices. On the streets of Denver, they are protesting Guantanamo, wiretapping, and water-boarding. But inside the hall, you'd think it was just another recession year.

Then she writes,
The great tragedy of the Bush administration was that it operated for years as though the Constitution was something nobody really cares about. The great crime of Denver may be that Democrats feel the same way.

College football is a professional sport. Admit it.

When coaches get paid millions of dollars, the following shouldn't surprise us, right?

From the LA Times:
The season opener means more than just a football game for USC. Before the Trojans play Virginia on Saturday, they must fly more than 2,500 miles across country on a charter flight.The airport in Charlottesville, Va., isn't large enough to accommodate the team's normal plane, so the USC entourage -- coaches, players, administrators and boosters -- will leave this afternoon in a pair of Boeing 757s.

How awful that must be for them. What if one plane has more caviar than the other? OMG!

From the IHT:
It used to be when Appalachian State ventured out of its own level of competition to play a major school, it meant only one thing.
"It was a money game," coach Jerry Moore said.
Like most schools playing in Division I college football's second tier, App State would collect a six-figure check to help pay the bills...


Well, the six figure is actually $600,000. Lowly Appalachian State gets that much money to play LSU, which means that LSU gets a lot more than that, right. Want an idea of how much money is involved? This commentary about the ESPN deal will give you a flavah of the moolah:
SEC’s staggering 15-year deal with ESPN that will reportedly pay the league about $2.25 billion. That deal, coupled with the 15-year deal the SEC has signed with CBS will give the league financial security for a long, long time.

BTW, those football players are supposedly students too. As a friend joked the other day, "I had no idea there was a real university--with buildings and classrooms--that has the same name as the football team!" The joke is on us :-(

Why did Biden include India with Russia, weapons & terror?

I didn't watch Biden's speech. Or any for that matter. Not planning to watch McCain or any of the speeches there too. Am getting my updates from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert :-)

But, a blog note at Reason caught my attention: that Biden talked about India as if it is a threat to America. The suspicious fellow that I am, well, I checked with the transcripts, and this is what Biden said:
And for the last seven years, the administration has failed to face the biggest forces shaping this century: the emergence of Russia, China and India as great powers; the spread of lethal weapons; the shortage of secure supplies of energy, food and water; the challenge of climate change; and the resurgence of fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the real central front in the war on terror.

I think Reason is right. Biden is cuckoo to equate India and China with Russia as a great power, and more so when the immediate follow up is "spread of lethal weapons." Come on, for a guy who is reputedly a foreign policy specialist, Biden ought to know that neither China nor India has threatened any country with any of the lethal weapons they possess. It is very easy for the audience anywhere to conclude, upon listening to Biden, that Russia, China, and India are our targets in the "war on terror" as much as Al Qaeda or Iran is. And it was not as if he was talking without notes--Biden read from a prepared speech. Well, all I know is the tired and stressed out call center operators in India are not the same as the suicide bombers of Al Qaeda!

Do correct spellings matter at all? not? nought?

A few items as follow-up to my earlier blog on the English language:

In Arizona, "Two self-anointed "grammar vigilantes" who toured the nation removing typos from public signs have been banned from national parks after vandalizing a historic marker at the Grand Canyon." These guys ought to have known better; after all, the British are still wondering why our spelling of "honor" is acceptable :-)

Speaking of the British, maybe the grammar vigilantes ought to have listened to the British academic who says that we should welcome these typos as variations in spellings. According to this report in the Times, "Instead of complaining about the state of education as he corrects the same spelling mistakes in undergraduate essays year after year, Ken Smith, a criminologist at Bucks New University, has a much simpler solution. “Either we go on beating ourselves and our students up over this problem, or we simply give everyone a break and accept these variant spellings as such.”
My first thought was, "why is a criminologist advising us about grammar?" But, the Arizona "grammar vigilantes" make it clear that obsessing with spellings can make criminals out of us. So, maybe this British criminologist was on to something :-)
Anyway, this grammarian/criminologist managed to create quite a stir throughout the world. Apparently it became a serious debate in India, as this pro and counter arguments show. And one writer opines that Indian students are better in English than the English are.
All because of spelling?

Cricket, Don Bradman, and Babe Ruth

Yesterday was Don Bradman's cenetenary. He was a legend even among the legends of cricket. It is interesting how he and Ruth were quite contemporary, and they both left deep and wonderful marks on the respective games they played. Ruth was born in 1895, and Bradman in 1908. Ruth's final game was in 1935. Bradman played his final test match in 1948.

Every cricket batsman has The Don as the ultimate, as much as The Babe is the ultimate to every Little League kid.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

US Advises Allies Not To Border Russia

Following Russia's controversial military excursions into neighboring Georgia, the Bush administration made its most direct commitment to the U.S.'s Eastern European allies to date by "strongly advising" those countries not to border Russia under any circumstance. "The United States stands by its allies, but will not be able to defend our friends in the region if they continue to share geographical lines with Russia," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a Monday press conference. "We also recommend that those nations who may not border Russia but were once a part of the USSR immediately cease and desist from having had that history with the Soviet Union." Rice later pledged financial aid to the victims of devastating flooding in the West African nation of Togo, effective upon the country first meeting the stipulation of removing itself from under water.

Yes, that is from the Onion :-)

Pakistan: situation normal all f*ed up!

In addition to my previous blogs on Pakistan, here are more developments that can easily make Georgia or even bin Laden the least of our worries!

There are reports that the US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, will resign as early as October. Why is this news? Because Khalilzad had taken it upon himself to advise Pakistan's Zardari--Benazir's widower--during all that confusion over Musharraf's impeachment and the successor to Musharraf. Turns out that he was working with Bhutto even back in 2006. Condi Rice's people are furious with Khalilzad. Naturally. In most parts of the world, locals do not appreciate any perception of foreign interference in their politics--more so when it happens at a critical state that Pakistan finds itself in. To top things, there have always been speculations that Khalilzad has plans to contend for Afghanistan's presidency--because Hamid Karzai has been so ineffective. In case you are wondering, well, Khalilzad is a naturalized American who was born in Afghanistan.

And, internally, Zardari is the leading candidate for Pakistan's presidency. But all is not well there. In addition to Sharif withdrawing from the government, the Financial Times reports that Zardari is not well--that the guy has severe psychiatric problems. He apparently "was diagnosed with a range of serious illnesses including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in a series of medical reports spanning more than two years." Great, make a mentally unwell guy in-charge of the nukes. Dr. Strangelove could not have devised a better plan! Of course, according to Zardari's people, he is fit as a fiddle.

Meanwhile, militants have stepped up their activities in Pakistan. The expansion of "SNAFU" is the approriate descriptor for where Pakistan is today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hey Medvedev, you are no Tom Joad!

It is amazing how politicians can spin anything. In the Russia/Georgia conflict, Putin and Medvedev talk as if they are defenders of liberty, and the yearning of independence that people have. (Conveniently forgetting Chechnya, of course!) I mean, in a recent FT piece, Medvedev writes as if he is the Russian reincarnation of the Tom Joad character in The Grapes of Wrath: Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there . . . .

You ought to read that piece. Here is an excerpt:

The Russian Federation is an example of largely harmonious coexistence by many dozens of nations and nationalities. But some nations find it impossible to live under the tutelage of another. Relations between nations living “under one roof” need to be handled with the utmost sensitivity.

After the collapse of communism, Russia reconciled itself to the “loss” of 14 former Soviet republics, which became states in their own right, even though some 25m Russians were left stranded in countries no longer their own. Some of those nations were un­able to treat their own minorities with the respect they deserved. Georgia immediately stripped its “autonomous regions” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia of their autonomy.

Can you imagine what it was like for the Abkhaz people to have their university in Sukhumi closed down by the Tbilisi government on the grounds that they allegedly had no proper language or history or culture and so did not need a university? The newly independent Georgia inflicted a vicious war on its minority nations, displacing thousands of people and sowing seeds of discontent that could only grow. These were tinderboxes, right on Russia’s doorstep, which Russian peacekeepers strove to keep from igniting.


Here is Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath

Do the "humanities" serve any purpose at all?

Yes they do.
But, if taught and learnt with a certain approach. Certainly not the way we torture students with the humanities now. If I were an undergrad, I would hate taking anything in the humanities! Why? Because, the focus has shifted from helping students comprehend the world and understanding their own individuality and individual place in this world, to some horribly rotten dumbed down version of doctoral topics so that professors can then pretend to be ultra-smart in the eyes of students. No wonder then students are left wondering why there is a focus on some strange abstraction and theory when all they want is to "get the gen.ed. out of the way." So, that is what we have at the end of the undergrad experience: that the humanities are to most students something to endure if they want to get a college degree.

That is not how it ought to be. I found so much of valuable insights into what it means to be human from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Dickens, Narayan, Saroyan, Maugham, ..... I am so glad I read them and reflected on them on my own time and not in a choking classroom environment. The Grand Inquisitor by itself was a profound experience. I am willing to bet that most humanities departments rarely guide students towards the Grand Inquisitor.

The trigger for these thoughts came while reading this essay in Wilson Quarterly. In it, I liked this part the best (I don't agreee with everything in that essay):
[Many] of those who speak for the humanities, especially within the organized scholarly disciplines (history, English, and the like), have not quite acknowledged the nature of the problem. The humanities reached unprecedented heights of prestige and funding in the post–World War II era. But their advocates can only dream of such status today. Now the humanities have become the Ottoman Empire of the academy, a sprawling, incoherent, and steadily declining congeries of disparate communities, each formed around one or another credal principle of ideology and identity, and each with its own complement of local sultans, khedives, and potentates. And the empire steadily erodes, as colleges and universities eliminate such core humanities departments as classics (or, at the University of Southern California, German), and enrollment figures for humanities courses continue to fall or stagnate.

The economic agenda for the next administration

Larry Summers:
Nations are increasingly preoccupied with their relative economic standing, not the living standards of citizens. Issues of strategic leverage and vulnerability now play a bigger role in economic policy discussions.

At the same time, it is unclear which underlying driver of global growth will replace the one in place for the past decade – the US as importer of last resort. Global growth has depended on US growth, which has depended on the US consumer; and the US consumer has depended on rising asset values first of stocks and more recently of real estate. With falling house prices and a challenged financial system, US consumer spending is falling. The US is no longer in a position to be a net source of demand for the rest of the world. Indeed, with the drop in value of the dollar, US growth – which had been focused on imports and which had enabled the export-led growth of other countries – is a thing of the past. Already, Europe and Japan are in or are very close to being in recession.

The current global policy debate is a cacophony. It is all very well to advocate increased US saving and a cut in the US current account deficit but the process for bringing it about will mean less US demand for foreign products. That will put pressure on jobs and output growth in other countries if no countervailing measures are put in place. Conversely, the return of a stronger dollar without other policy changes will raise US demand for exports but at the price of cutting demand for domestically produced goods and compounding the recession.

These problems will be with us for some time. They may not be at the top of anyone’s agenda right now. But the success of the next administration could depend on its ability to engage with a wider range of global economic stakeholders, on a broader agenda, at a time when disagreements are increasing not just about means but also about ultimate ends.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Biden on Jon Stewart's Daily Show

Biden as VP: 1988 and Bentsen all over again?

With Biden as the VP, comparisons are being made to Cheney, and how Cheney is Bush's brain. I wonder if Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 is a more appropriate comparison. As long as Obama does not mutate into a Dukakis ....







































Dem VP CandidateJoe Biden (2008)Lloyd Bentsen (1988)
Age at "inauguration"6667
Age when went to Congress3028
Age when launched the first presidential run4653
Dem Prez CandidateBarack Obama (2008)Michael Dukakis (1988)
Age of the presidential candidate at "inauguration"4755
Age difference between the presidential and VP candidate1912
Age of the Republican presidential
opponent
72 (McCain)64 (Bush)
Age difference between Republican and
Democratic candidates
159

In a fantastic skit during the Michael Dukakis/George Bush presidential election season, Saturday Night Live featured Jon Lovitz as Dukakis and Dana Carvey (of course) as Bush. It is a presidential debate, with "Peter Jennings" and "Diane Sawyer" as moderators. The best part of the skit was this:
George Bush: Let me sum up. On track, stay the course. Thousand points of light.
Diane Sawyer: Governor Dukakis. Rebuttal?
Michael Dukakis: I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!
(The complete transcripts are here)

Well, as this running chart at Pollster.com shows, Obama does not have a lead over McCain that TKOs the Republican.

How much this election is turning out to be an eerie re-run of this memorable SNL kit!

Hey, is there a YouTube clip that I can embed here? For now, here is Bentsen skewering Quale with "you are no Jack Kennedy" line:

Save the whales, er, males that is!

Men have been domesticated to within an inch of their lives, attending Lamaze classes, counting contractions, bottling expressed breast milk for midnight feedings – I expect men to start lactating before I finish this sentence – yet they are treated most unfairly in the areas of reproduction and parenting.

Very funny paragraph in that excerpt from the Times piece, which is an extract from Kathleen Parker's book, Save the Males.

I expect gender issues to come up a lot more over the next couple of decades. How societies--here in America and elsewhere--deal with that will have profound impacts in a number of ways. There is something happening here.

All the more the reason to be reminded of a piece that was in Slate a long time ago--well, in 2004--that reviewed Bastards on the couch. An excerpt: The bastards' stories make clear that they know better than to believe in quick, across-the-board fixes. Nor do they seem to set much store by a one-size-fits-all diagnosis of the problem. There's plenty of tinkering, not just talking, ahead for all us—and aren't men famously good at that?

If you liked that, then read the other piece on The Bitch in the House. Excerpt: "Every woman I know is mad at her husband, just mad mad mad at everything," a friend informs Cathi Hanauer, the editor of the best-selling anthology The Bitch in the House (subtitled 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage) .... "Why … hadn't I been warned of this—the loss of identity, the potential claustrophobia, the feeling of being utterly trapped?"

The shoe drops in Pakistan. Next, the military coup

On July 21st, I blogged about the coming regime change in Pakistan, and worried if the country was heading towards yet another military coup, which has been the norm for Pakistan. Since then I blogged more about Pakistan. It is awful how predictable the developments have been. Now, according to the BBC, "Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says his PML-N party is pulling out of the country's multi-party governing coalition."

I am all the more amazed at how every American politician--Republican and Democrat--was putting pressure on Musharraf to leave, without thinking about what might happen if he actually left. I wrote about this almost one year ago; but, as in my classes and at home, nobody listens to me :-)

Condi Rice does not have any time for this because she is already up to her head with Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine, Georgia .... The Democrats are busy with their party at Denver. The Republicans are preoccupied with the next nasty negative ad they can craft. It means that it is all up to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to advice us :-(

Millions more in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India will now have to sleep with one eye open, watching out for the coming chaos. And we will watch it with the same fascination we have for car wrecks on television.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

GM's Volt, and the the quest for the holy grail

From Peter Gordon:
On July 2, the WSJ's Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., wrote "What is GM Thinking?" I have to admit that it took Jenkins' column to get me to see the light. GM's investment in its 2010 Chevy Volt is a political and not a market move.
Now we see that during NBC's Olympics coverage, GM runs a strange ad for its 2010 Chevy Volt. I cannot buy it for a while (and Holman suggests I would not want to anyway), so why are they not using valuable air time to push their 2009 models?
This morning's NY Times includes
"Automakers to Seek More Money for Retooling Vehicle Plants". Aha! It's the politics, stupid. With politicians of both parties honing their "investing in energy alternatives" message, the ailing Detroit automakers can smell the pork.
Combine two sentiments du jour ("too big to fail", "end our addiction to oil") and, presto, a new boondoggle. I finally get it.

I suppose I would disagree with Peter's libertarian free-market thinking most of the time. But, on this one, I am inclined to agree with him--the big three are gearing up (yes, pun intended!) for the possible billions of subsidies that seem very likely in the quest to move to personal transport that is not powered by gasoline or diesel. Given how much our fascination with domestic ethanol as the path to nirvana has generated unintended consequences regarding food prices, I am certainly concerned about the rather overzealous and faith-based approaches to finding alternatives. Oh well ....

(I was a grad student at USC's School of Planning, where Peter was a professor and Associate Dean. A few years ago the School merged with the School of Public Administration and is now SPPD.)

Beyond Iraq and Iran: global hotspots are even hotter

Tunnel vision can be worse than no vision at all. Yes, we ought to focus on our Iraq problem. But, here is a listing--not complete by any means--of other globally important and urgent issues:
  • Pakistan: I have blogged a lot about this. The country is getting more and more unstable. Latest reports are that the coalition government, which forced Musharraf out, is on the brink of collapsing--not good news by any measure. Zardari, the candidate to replace Musharraf, says that the Taliban has the upper hand in the war, and that Pakistan and the world are losing the war on terror. Duh! Like this was not obvious all along?
  • Afghanistan: Karzai is losing even the little bit of control he had over the country's security. Not only are American (101 this year alone) and foreign troops dying in large numbers because of the Taliban, the US is making things worse by accidentally killing civilians--the latest one involved 76 civilians according to one report. "The U.S. is now losing the war against the Taliban," Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a report Thursday (AP)
  • Georgia: Need I write about this? Really?
  • Zimbabwe: The discussions to share power are at an impasse. Meanwhile, inflation is at a never-before-in-history 11.2 million percent. To give us a perspective, we in America are concerned that prices rose by 0.7 percent last month!
  • Sudan/Darfur: I agree with comments that this is the only case of well-documented genocide, and yet the rest of the world cannot mobilize for any action. In fact, we continue to ask questions such as "Is Darfur Genocide? It's not yet clear"
  • Israel/Palestine: Need I write about this? Really?
  • Lebanon: Despite all the Israeli and American attempts to rid Hizbollah, and Iran's influence there, well, Lebanon is pretty much Hizbollah country now. According to AFP, "The moment the Lebanese government confers legitimacy on Hezbollah, it must understand that the entire Lebanese state will be a target in the same way that all of Israel is a target for Hezbollah," Environment Minister Gideon Ezra said on Wednesday. To which, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed on Sunday to destroy Israel if it carries out threats to hit Lebanon should the government give greater legitimacy to the Shiite militant group.
  • Sri Lanka: This AFP report says it all: Strife-torn Sri Lanka is bracing for intense and bloody battles as security forces close in on the political capital of the Tamil Tiger rebels, according to military analysts.
  • Burma: George Packer's article on Burma is a must read to understand the horrible state the country and the people have been reduced to by the cold and heartless military junta.
  • Tibet, and minorities in China: Need I write about this? Really?

More later

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Chili pepper pasta in yoga :-)

A funny, and informative, piece in the NY Times magazine. The intro itself is filled with humor:
‘At the beginning of class, we stood at the front of our mats and let out a long, dirgelike moan,” the first-time yoga student recollected. “Then the teacher yelled, ‘Chili-pepper pasta,’ and everyone hit the floor.” Sanskrit, the language of yoga, is said to unite sound and meaning; that is, saying the word gives the experience of its meaning. But for the novice yogi (the word for male as well as female practitioners), whose ears need to be tuned to a new frequency, that experience can be as elusive as an overnight parking spot in Manhattan. Thus, chaturanga dandasana (four-legged staff pose, which looks like the bottom of a pushup, your body hovering inches above the floor) might become “chili-pepper pasta” if you’ve got dinner reservations at the latest outpost of the latest fusion craze. And the ear-twisters don’t end there. So let’s do some untwisting.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Why is Obama stuck in the polls?

As always, The Economist's Lexington has sharp observations. This time around, the column is on Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod.

Here is the best part from that column:
Why is Mr Obama stuck in the polls? And why is he less popular than his party? Some Democrats worry that he is not prepared to hit John McCain hard enough. This seems unlikely. Mr Axelrod is a product of Chicago’s street-fighting school of politics. Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist, puts him at the head of his list of “Guys I never want to see lobbing grenades at me again”.

The bigger problem lies with what has hitherto been the Obama campaign’s greatest strength—message control. Mr Axelrod firmly believes that the candidate is the message. The important thing is to tell a positive story about the candidate rather than to muddy the narrative with lots of talk about policy details.

This worked perfectly when Mr Obama was up against Mrs Clinton, a woman who agreed with him on most points of substance and whose own autobiography is messy, to put it mildly. But things are different with Mr McCain. As a Republican, Mr McCain is on the losing side of most policy issues, particularly when it comes to economic and domestic policy. But Mr Obama has still not figured out how to relate his grand rhetoric to the numerous specific policy positions that litter his website. Mr McCain also has one of the most compelling autobiographies in American politics—one that is more likely to appeal to the average American than the coming-of-age of a mixed-race child. For all his skills, Mr Axelrod may have chosen to fight on the one battlefield where the Republicans have a chance of winning.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The worst is yet to come?

I blogged about how the US economy is set to rebound while the rest of the world slows down. And then Vlad "the impaler" Putin goes after Georgia. Bombs the life out of half of Georgia, and the situation becomes a security threat for Caspian Sea oil: "BP shut down its Baku-Supsa oil pipeline — which runs through the center of Georgia from Baku in Azerbaijan to Supsa on Georgia's Black Sea coast". Almost as a response, even if not worded that way, Bush and Rice then rush into signing the missile shield agreement with Poland, thus escalating the tension with Putin. Result: "Crude oil rose more than $6 after the signing yesterday of a missile-shield agreement between the US and Poland bolstered concern that Russia may disrupt the flow of oil".

Yes, it is not all about economics. But, the economic impact is immediate. We can easily make sure that Nouriel "Dr. Doom" Roubini is right after all--the worst is yet to come. BTW, want to know what a former chief economist of the IMF said? In a shot heard around the world, Ken Rogoff loudly proclaimed that "the worst is to come", and even predicted that a big bank will soon go belly up!

Ok, back to Georgia. A Guardian commentator is worried that American interest in Georgia is because of its interest to attack Iran.

Meanwhile, the developments in Pakistan are making that entire Pakistan/Afghanistan area even more explosive than it even was. The Taliban is pretty pumped up with all this. I am thinking we are only weeks away from a military coup in Pakistan. I bet Musharraf is chuckling at these developments. The guy is off the hook, and does not have to answer anybody's questions on the country's nuclear program, how much he oversaw the proliferation of it, .... Meanwhile the Daily Times says that Musharraf is heading to New Mexico until it will be safe for him to return to Pakistan. WTF!

All we need is a suicide bomber succeeding in the attempt against Afghanistan's Karzai, who has lucked out thus far--it will be September 11th all over again. Kiss goodbye to any economic or political recovery anywhere on the planet.

BTW, Mugabe continues on in Zimbabwe, where inflation was 11.2 million percent in June. North Korea vows to build up its military. Violence and protests continues in Kashmir, and violations of ceasefire agreements across the Line of Control.

I feel like I should go into hibernation, and wake up in 2011!

So, it is time for a military coup in Pakistan?

Musharraf served as a unifying force--all the opposition to him, internal and external, was focused on him and his exit. Now that he is gone, well, the country is slipping into chaos, which is what I worried about a year ago in my opinion piece. The Taliban are behaving like Putin--sensing the weakness, the Taliban has stepped up its violence. The two political leaders--Sharif and Zardari--can't agree on how to move forward, particularly with the chief justice who was sacked by Musharraf; Sharif has threatened to pull out of the coalition.

Well, here is my opinion piece from a year ago.

Musharraf up against the wall in Pakistan
The Register Guard, August 12, 2007

I am worried about the hardening political rhetoric with respect to Pakistan because an unstable Pakistan has the potential to cause geopolitical crises, beyond our wildest imagination, which will have global implications for many years into the future.

August 14th marks the sixtieth anniversary of Pakistan’s existence as an independent country. In 1947, the country was carved out from the British Raj in India in order to meet the demands of the Muslim League, which incorrectly believed that a free India with a dominant Hindu majority would not accord equal status to Muslims. Since then, Pakistan has rarely been ruled by freely and democratically elected governments. With utmost regularity, military generals have ousted every elected government. The current president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, also came to power through a bloodless coup in 1999.

A few days ago Musharraf faced one of the toughest problems ever when he had to deal with fundamentalist militants holed up with a few hostages in a mosque in the capital city of Islamabad, and not too far from the parliament itself. Eventually negotiations failed, and he ordered the army to storm the mosque; a few soldiers died along with almost a hundred hostages and militants, including their leader.

This was a pyrrhic victory for Musharraf because it earned him the wrath of fundamentalist and militant groups in the country. To make things worse, many of these groups are sympathizers of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Further, it came close on the heels of the collapse of the “peace agreement” with leaders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas—the region adjacent to Afghanistan, which is also where it is believed that bin Laden and his group have been regrouping themselves.

Meanwhile, there are a number of other political troubles that are making Musharraf’s life a tad too stressful. His illegal firing of the country’s chief justice rightfully unleashed protests across the country. Elections need to be held towards the end of the year, and Musharraf cannot constitutionally continue on with being the president and the military chief. Perhaps Musharraf knows all too well that those who live by the sword also die by the sword: Musharraf has lucked out with the assassination attempts thus far.

Unfortunately, it was when Musharraf was trapped in such a situation that our political leaders, from both the parties, decided to amp up the rhetoric and tighten the screws on Pakistan for its inability to deal with terrorism.

Given all these developments, it is, therefore, no surprise then that Musharraf decided against attending the peace council in Afghanistan, where the focus was to be on combating the notorious Taleban that appears to be growing in power, again.

Musharraf’s vulnerability is further evident in the following statement from Pakistan’s minister of information: “"There was pressure on the president to impose emergency due to the situation in the country, but he is committed to furthering democracy and will not take any such step.” A highly visible discussion of the possibility of emergency rule in Pakistan is a worrisome development indeed.

Imposing emergency in Pakistan, because of perceived external and internal threats, can spell even more trouble to its people. Emergency rule would further constrain the judicial system, and restrict people’s rights. If we in the US could end up in a horrible state of suspending habeas corpus and authorizing warrantless wiretaps despite all the checks and balances to protect individual rights, it is not impossible to visualize Pakistan moving into a highly militarized and authoritarian rule. This would then provide additional fodder for the militant groups and lead to an escalation of violence.

The world simply cannot afford to have more instability and violence, particularly in that part of the world, any more than what we are already witnessing in Iraq, Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza. Keep in mind that Pakistan is a nuclear power. At least with Musharraf in control, we can hope that the nuclear bombs are safely tucked away and will not fall into the hands of Al Qaeda sympathizers. If his government were to fail, and should governance become chaotic, well, we could get very close to realizing the hypothetical “ticking time bomb” scenario.

I am reminded of what my grandmothers used to say when I was growing up in India: it does not matter if a mad dog goes left or right, as long as it does not pounce on us. I fear that our careless rhetoric will only provoke the mad dog!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hey, how about the Congress?

I watched George Will interviewed by David Broder on C-Span's BookTV. While Will's ideological commitment is not quite what I agree with, he made a wonderful observation during the interview: that we are obsessing with the presidential elections, so much so that we set up any candidate to fail as the president, once elected. Further, the presidency is only one of the three branches of the government. To quote Will, "the presidency is not the heart of the matter." Which means, we ought to pay a lot of attention to the Congressional elections too.

Click here to watch the interview online. Advance to 28 minutes for his comments on the executive power.

So, what is being projected at the Congressional level at the November elections? The Cook Political Report has a great deal of info on this.

Big Ten schools are football preseason favorites

Four Big Ten schools are listed in the top five favorites for the upcoming football season. Leading everybody in the country is Wisconsin. Second is Michigan, followed by Illinois. Penn State is ranked number five in the pre-season favorites.

This might come as a surprise to you, and it should. Well, because I have re-ranked the pre-season favorites according to their respective academic rankings in the world. The Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University has released its latest rankings, which I have used here. So, if you want the eventual champion to have at least a little bit of an academic standing in the world, then root for a top-ten team listed here. (Full disclosure: I went to USC!)

Click here for my previous post comparing salaries of coaches at these same universities.



























































































































































































Football

Rank
UniversityAcademic Rank--USWorld RankNew Rank
1GeorgiaGroup 55-70Group 102-15010
2Southern California37506
3Ohio State41618
4OklahomaGroup 118-140Group 305-40219
5Florida38517
6LSUGroup 89-117Group 203-30413
7MissouriGroup 89-117Group 203-30413
8West VirginiaGroup 141-166Group 403-510*24
9ClemsonGroup 118-140Group 305-40219
10Texas29384
11AuburnGroup 118-140Group 305-40219
12Wisconsin15171
13KansasGroup 89-117Group 203-30413
14Texas TechGroup 118-140Group 305-40219
15Virginia TechGroup 71-88Group 151-20211
16Arizona State53969
17BYUGroup 118-140Group 305-40219
18TennesseeGroup 71-88Group 151-20211
19Illinois19263
20OregonGroup 89-117Group 203-30413
21South FloridaGroup 89-117Group 203-30413
22Penn State32435
23Wake ForestGroup 89-117Group 203-30413
24Michigan18212
25Fresno StateUnrankedUnranked???

* this is the final group.




The Pastor Rick Warren exam at Saddleback

Kathleen Parker has a good argument in her WaPo column:

At the risk of heresy, let it be said that setting up the two presidential candidates for religious interrogation by an evangelical minister -- no matter how beloved -- is supremely wrong.
It is also un-American. ...

Her closing lines are great ...

For the moment, let's set aside our curiosity about what Jesus might do in a given circumstance and wonder what our Founding Fathers would have done at Saddleback Church. What would have happened to Thomas Jefferson if he had responded as he wrote in 1781:
"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
Would the crowd at Saddleback have applauded and nodded through that one? Doubtful.
By today's new standard of pulpits in the public square, Jefferson -- the great advocate for religious freedom in America -- would have lost.

Not Smart Enough for College

A letter in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
David Glenn's essay on the wage gap between college graduates and high-school graduates ("Supply-Side Education," The Chronicle Review, July 25) misses the central point: Not all people have the intelligence to complete a college education.

Some basic intelligence must be required to complete a respectable college education. Otherwise we will not only dumb down higher education, but the benefits of a college degree will be subsumed under a tide of educational mediocrity. One would need a graduate degree to truly be credentialed. If the big wage gap today were between graduate degrees and bachelor's degrees, would we suggest universal graduate school as the solution?

The truth is that there are students who don't belong in college. There are students who don't even belong in high school. Not only do they benefit marginally, if at all, but their presence reduces their peers' education as teachers are forced to slow down and give them more attention.

Many well-paying jobs require skill but not intellect. Some plumbers, carpenters, and electricians earn more than some professors. Pressuring everyone to go to college would gradually destroy the quality of higher education in America, and therefore of our society in general.

Scott Salvato
Valley Stream, N.Y.

After reading this, I thought it might be interesting to check the name with "Fundrace" that I blogged about earlier. Click here to find out about Salvato's political donation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gorbachev is ticked off--at America!

In the NY Times opinion piece, Mikhail Gorbachev writes that Russia did not have any choice, and that Putin and Medvedev acted appropriately and wisely. Gorbachev writes,
For some time now, Russians have been wondering: If our opinion counts for nothing in those institutions, do we really need them? Just to sit at the nicely set dinner table and listen to lectures?
Indeed, Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here’s the independence of Kosovo for you. Here’s the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here’s the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?


And, Thomas Friedman offers a different take. He does agree with Gorbachev that expanding NATO--supported by Clinton and Bush--was stupid. That Georgia was reckless with the military incursion. But, Friedman writes that Putin takes the gold:
That is why the gold medal for brutishness goes to Putin. Yes, NATO expansion was foolish. Putin exploited it to choke Russian democracy. But now, petro-power-grabbing has gone to his head — whether it's invading Georgia, bullying Western financiers and oil companies working in Russia, or using Russia’s gas supplies to intimidate its neighbors....
Russia would be wise to reconsider Putin’s Georgia gambit. If it does, we would be wise to reconsider where our NATO/Russia policy is taking us — and whether we really want to spend the 21st century containing Russia the same way we spent much of the 20th containing the Soviet Union.

We are all Georgians if we are White Americans? :-)

For the longest time I have kidded around with friends and family that despite being from India, I qualify as a white guy in America because of my Caucasian connection--particularly because I was born in a brahmin family (though an atheist for quite some time now, after a long stint as an agnostic, who was hesitant to come out of the religious closet!). Well, the joke apparently needs to be killed because of Slate's explanation that brings on some serious Supreme Court decision:

Americans still use the word Caucasian to mean "white" despite the fact that they haven't always been synonyms in the eyes of the law. In U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court argued that although Asian Indians were technically Caucasian, they couldn't be U.S. citizens because they weren't "white."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Kobe Bryant's quest for gold at the Olympics

Hilariously satirical and sarcastic, from Slate:

Let them eat (rice) cakes-2

I blogged about research evidence that while the poor, especially in Asia, are indeed eating more meat, this increased consumption is not the cause of the spike in food prices

But, then who cares for research and logic, eh, as the following excerpt from Reason shows:
In a recent interview about the current food crisis, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said, "If part of our problem is that the Chinese are going to eat meat and you've got to have corn and soybeans to feed the Chinese their meat, then why isn't it just as legitimate for the Chinese to go back and eat rice as it is for us to change our policy on corn to ethanol?"
Let them eat rice? So that American taxpayers can continue to pay people to turn corn into fuel?
Silly senator, corn is for food.

Divine intervention in market economics

Maybe I should forward this news item to Greg Mankiw so that he can blog about it, because I am sure it will surprise him that god messes up with a fundamental idea that the Harvard prof teaches in his EC10--that price is determined by the supply/demand relationship. This BBC news item reports that a "prayer group in Washington DC is claiming the credit for the recent sharp drop in the US price of petrol". According to the report,
"We were down in Huntsville, Alabama. We finished praying," Mr Twyman said. "Immediately the owners came out and changed the gas prices. They brought it down. We had marvellous success down in St Louis, Missouri."
This week the group returned to the site of their first prayer meeting to celebrate. Singing "We shall overcome," they changed the words of the well-known hymn to "We'll have lower gas prices".
Mr Twyman is sceptical that market forces might be responsible for the lower prices.


Mankiw, your response please?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Last Jews of Kerala

A relative of ours lived in Mattancheri, in Kerala. Yes, we tamils had relatives scattered all over India! Well, for the longest time the small town where my grandmothers hailed from, Sengottai, was in the Travancore Kingdom, which for the most part is modern day Kerala.
The strangest thing is that until the I came to the US, I had no idea that the oldest synagog was right in Mattancheri; the provincial lives we lead!

The Economist has a review of a new book on the Kerala Jews. Excerpt:

YAHEH HALLEGUA is the last Jewish woman of child-bearing age in Mattancheri. Her cousins Keith and Len are the last eligible bachelors. But she is not keen on either of them. So within a few decades the extinction of the 400-year-old Jewish community in the port-village in India’s southern state of Kerala is assured.

Mattancheri is Indian Jewry’s most famous settlement. Its pretty streets of pastel-coloured houses, connected by first-floor passages and home to the last 12 sari- and sarong-wearing, white-skinned Indian Jews, are visited by thousands of tourists each year. Its synagogue, built in 1568, with a floor of blue-and-white Chinese tiles, a carpet given by Haile Selassie and the frosty Yaheh selling tickets at the door, stands as an image of religious tolerance.

If the missing Caylee was a black kid ....

From Salon:
[You] probably haven't heard of Tomisha Ross, Camille Johnson, Jasmine Kasner, Jasmine Hosbon or Callie Munn -- all of whom have gone missing this summer. And all of whom are black.

I hadn't heard of them until I read a recent post by Renee of Womanist Musings, who writes, "By pointing out the invisibility of these young black women I am not stating that Caylee [Anthony] does not deserve attention, I am only seeking the same kind of attention for [people of color]. We do not love our children any less than white families. Yet when one of our children disappears resources are not devoted to finding them and this often leads to tragic results." Those tragic results include the torture and murder of Romona Moore, a 21-year-old black woman from New York whose mother, Elle Carmichael, reported her missing a few hours after Romona said she'd "be right back." According to the Village Voice, police told Carmichael that since Romona was an adult, they were "not supposed to take the report," even after 24 hours had gone by. Carmichael called local media outlets and got the brushoff. Only after Romona's family contacted politicians, who put pressure on the NYPD, did the official search for Romona begin, 93 hours after her disappearance. That was the same day she was murdered.

The lack of media and police response to cases of missing people of color has prompted former ad writer and blogger Black Canseco to launch a viral Web campaign called We Want Our Kids Back Too. It's a series of posters featuring the faces of missing children with tag lines like: "He had his whole life ahead of him, too," "Her mother hasn't slept since she disappeared, either," and "Her close-knit community was shaken, too." Writes Black Canseco, "Each ad highlights a different child/teen and reminds us that they are just as human, just as 'all-american' as Jesse Davis, Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart and all the rest who receive so much focus.

Nouriel Roubini says we are not done yet :-(

The NY Times magazine has a lengthy piece on Nouriel Roubini and his bearish forecasts. Despite Roubini's continued pessimism, I am not going to change my mind that the worst of the crisis here in America is over (my earlier post). The essay also ends with some ideas that are similar to the sentiments I expressed in an oped in Planetizen: The United States of Gordon Gekkos.

The concluding paragraphs in the NY Times article:
“Reckless people have deluded themselves that this was a subprime crisis,” he told me. “But we have problems with credit-card debt, student-loan debt, auto loans, commercial real estate loans, home-equity loans, corporate debt and loans that financed leveraged buyouts.” All of these forms of debt, he argues, suffer from some or all of the same traits that first surfaced in the housing market: shoddy underwriting, securitization, negligence on the part of the credit-rating agencies and lax government oversight. “We have a subprime financial system,” he said, “not a subprime mortgage market.”

Roubini argues that most of the losses from this bad debt have yet to be written off, and the toll from bad commercial real estate loans alone may help send hundreds of local banks into the arms of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. “A good third of the regional banks won’t make it,” he predicted. In turn, these bailouts will add hundreds of billions of dollars to an already gargantuan federal debt, and someone, somewhere, is going to have to finance that debt, along with all the other debt accumulated by consumers and corporations. “Our biggest financiers are China, Russia and the gulf states,” Roubini noted. “These are rivals, not allies.”

The United States, Roubini went on, will likely muddle through the crisis but will emerge from it a different nation, with a different place in the world. “Once you run current-account deficits, you depend on the kindness of strangers,” he said, pausing to let out a resigned sigh. “This might be the beginning of the end of the American empire.”

Friday, August 15, 2008

USC's coach, Pete Carroll, earned more than $4 million

That is right. Four million dollars to coach a university football team. For one year--in 2006. We will know about his 2008 compensation sometime in 2010, and we will find out it is even more than five mil. This beats the data in my earlier post on the ridiculous compensation for university sports coaches.

Adam Rose, in the LA Times blog, provides the breakdown of Carroll's earnings. And that of the other highest paid USC employees. Nope, the university president is not the highest paid employee, but Carroll is. An Assistant Football Coach earned almost as much as what the Dean of the medical school there earned. One works with hundreds of people to save lives and improve the quality of our health. What exactly does the other one do? Pathetic!

Full disclosure: I earned my graduate degrees from USC :-)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Olympics, jingoism, and the "wisdom" of crowds

I think the only time that the Olympics ever interested me was, well, never!
Strange events, almost scientifically sculpted and robotic athletes who are as professional as they can be. And then all the flag-waving, which essentially means that it is not about the sport anyway.

Matt Welch has a fantastic autobiographical piece on the 1984 Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles. It needs to be read in its entireity. But still, it is way too good for me not to excerpt the following:

Then Shane Mack struck out looking on a curve ball.

It was as if the Goodyear blimp had deflated in one second on the centerfield grass. People were either stunned into silence, or (as in our case) muttering bitter obscenities at the world in general. Then came a horrifying sound from somewhere behind my left shoulder. It was a grown man, a grown American man, and his two kids, clapping, and saying, in perfect English, "Hoo-ray Japan!"

My eyes nearly burned clean out of my skull. The Hulk, John McCain...they had nothing on the white-hot American rage I felt at that moment. I wheeled around, fangs bared, glared at this pleasant-looking man, and yelled: "SHUT UP, YOU...COMMIE!!!!"

The genie was seconds out of the bottle when I began to feel regret. A crowd of furious Americans, who had been taking our cues for several innings now, immediately erupted into a "YEAH!!!", then began to chant: "COM-MIE!! COM-MIE!! COM-MIE!!" Dodger Dog wrappers went zipping by my ear in the general direction of the offender. Confronted with a potentially violent mob of Angeleno nationalists, the alarmed fan fled the facility, ushering his two young kids to safety.

My friend was psyched. I, in the words of Bob Dylan, "became withdrawn." Harnessing (or having the illusion of harnessing) a crowd of thousands turned out to be much more frightening than fun. Going plum loco over an exhibition baseball game felt, well, loco. And taking the side of a snarling overdog against a hapless and vastly outnumbered minority suddenly felt like the opposite of how I ever again wanted to approach either social dynamics or political thought.

The ride home with my friend's dad was totally silent, as if we were keeping our lips sealed about some terrible crime. In the following days, I noticed everything began to look different. The crowd-whipping antics of Wally George were no longer funny. Republican politics in general, particularly the flag-waving, lefty-baiting strain, became revolting overnight. So did knee-jerk, anti-Ronnie Ray-gun rhetoric. Religious settings of all varieties—Southern California was then going through a big fundamentalist revival—became intolerable exercises in peer-and-God pressure. People who I had internally dismissed as outcasts at school I now externally sought after as friends. People whose approval I once craved were suddenly ridiculous to me. I started gravitating toward any book that challenged the accepted wisdom of a topic I thought I knew, starting with baseball. And any time I found myself in an overwhelming majority, my first question became, "What if we're wrong?"

Independence Day in India and Pakistan

61 years ago, these two countries became independent, carved out of the colonial Raj. Here are two different perspectives on this anniversary:

From the Economic Times of India:
[It] is becoming clear that the much-maligned neo-liberal policies have contributed more to the alleviation of distress than the tax-and-spend socialistic policies of the past. The latest figures show that there has been a fall in the number of people below the poverty line to 24 percent compared to 36 percent in 1993 and 51 percent in 1977-78.
If India does become a major economic power over the next two decades, as is predicted, historians will look to the present period to assess the individuals who were responsible for the magical transformation from the land of tigers and snake charmers to one of Information Technology and nine percent growth. And among those who will be remembered are Rajiv Gandhi, who inaugurated the age of computers in the mid-1980s, and Manmohan Singh, who launched the economic reforms under the tutelage of then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao in 1991, and carried on the process after becoming prime minister himself in 2004. There is little doubt, therefore, that the positive aspects of the present times score over the negative features.

And from the Daily Times of Pakistan:
Everybody thinks President Pervez Musharraf has no way to go but resign from office. Some think he is going to announce his decision to bow out on Thursday (today). Newspapers are reporting on the advice being offered to him: most of it is in favour of resigning.
The ecstasy produced by the ritual of immolating President Musharraf is going to wear off pretty quickly in the post-Musharraf era. At this juncture, we should pause to ask whether we are not all becoming a collection of angry posses with single-item agendas. It is dangerous that, at the end of our “struggle”, there is the lone figure of Pervez Musharraf tied to a stake. Tunnel vision is no vision.

Mooning and debates in the academic world :-)

A communications professor shows his ass, er, class. Life in academe is always exciting, I suppose!

Academics thrive because of generosity

A couple of weeks before the academic year ended, an e-mail from the university's advancement office informed me that an alumnus had made a $100 donation with a specification that it was "for geography." This alone made the academic year a fantastic one for me.

The donation reminds me of the idea of "guru dakshana."

Centuries ago, when learning was restricted to a very few in India, the student left home to go live with the teacher — the guru — and his family. This system was referred to as "gurukula," where the student learned from the guru, and the guru's wife took care of the student with the same care and affection that she had for her own children.

After years of learning, upon graduation, the student would then make a "guru dakshana" — an offering to the guru. The offering did not have to be only gold or jewels and could also have taken the form of a scholarly treatise.

Of course, the gurukula concept does not exist anymore. Yet because of the specification that the donation was "for geography," I suppose I am tempted to interpret the contribution as a variation on the idea of guru dakshana.

On a larger picture, this donation is consistent with the giving nature of Americans. We often overlook the phenomenal amounts that are being contributed every year to organizations ranging from the United Way to churches to universities and hospitals. Charitable contributions made in 2007 amounted to a record high of $306.39 billion, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals — a huge sum, indeed.

Sometimes donations to universities do indeed take the form of a guru dakshana, such as an endowment honoring a former professor. Other times, they might be for naming rights; a library or a medical school gets named after the donor.

When it comes to such donations, an argument can easily be made that donors do not have to give money at all, and yet they do. If the natural state of humans and societies is to be "nasty, brutish and short," as Thomas Hobbes described way back in 1651, then the generosity, sparked for whatever reasons, is an amazing contrast and is something to applaud.

It is not that I am looking at the world through any special rose-colored lenses, and neither am I in denial when it comes to the gross inequality in this country and in the world. But the unequal distribution of wealth is all the more reason why I find donations so special; after all, donors can easily continue to hold on to their wealth and widen the inequality.

I am immensely thankful to the anonymous $100 donor and to all those who donate. Without that generosity, academe and academics will not be what we have today. And without donations that provide for scholarships, quite a few students might not be able to attend college at all.

I hope that the class of 2008, all across Oregon, will take a moment to thank the donors over the generations, who have made their higher education possible. And then, perhaps a guru dakshana as well.

(published in the Statesman Journal, August 14, 2008)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Abortion in India: as confusing as it is here

Here in the US, everything becomes ultra-passionate. Coke v. Pepsi, Bush v. Gore, pro-life v. pro-choice .... The story is not that different when it comes to India--the struggles are there, perhaps without the ultra-passionate fights, except when it comes to cricket and movies!

Niketa Mehta's gynecologist found out that the fetus might be born with heart problems, which might require a pacemaker almost immediately after birth. Not the best news for any parent. Niketa and her husband, Haresh, decided to abort the fetus and spare the child the possible trauma and low quality of life.
However, it was past the 20th week of pregnancy, and Indian law makes it illegal to abort fetuses at that stage. So, the Mehtas went to court. According to the Times of India, the court ruled that "Undoubtedly, the doctors opinion shows a substantial risk that the child would suffer severe abnormalities. But the opinion itself discloses the necessary treatment to be given with a rider that as things stand a cardiac surgery is not required at birth. In the end, there is no clear opinion that if child is born it would suffer serious mental or physical handicap. It is not mere desire to terminate pregnancy that would entitle a woman to abort her fetus. The legislature in its wisdom has stipulated a time bar of 20 weeks. There is nothing in the petition to suggest that the bar is placed arbitrarily or without logic. Since there is no case made out for us to exercise our discretion to permit the abortion, we dismiss the petition."

The Mehtas are, obviously, dejected--they know they have to carry on with the pregnancy fully aware that the child will have problems from the first second in this world and, for all we know, suffer a sudden death. They point out, "what is disappointing is that we have been proved to be fools. We are educated fools. People in remote areas go to quacks for an abortion. The lesson here being sent out is: don’t follow the law. We are being punished for being law-abiding citizens"
Kalpana Sharma in The Hindu comments that "the question of choice is restricted to an urban class in India that has access to and can afford to use technology to monitor the progress of a pregnancy. Poor mothers have neither the time, nor the money, to go for regular check-ups during pregnancy. If they and the child survive the pregnancy, that in itself is often a miracle given the high rate of maternal and infant mortality in this country. And if at the end of nine months, a deformed or incapacitated child is born, the gods are blamed for it and life goes on. The question of choice simply does not arise, not on whether to get pregnant, or on what to do about an infant with severe health problems.
Niketa and Haresh will now have to live with the choice that has been made for them by the court and the law. But they should be lauded for being open and seeking a legal way out. As a result, they have thrown open an important issue for people to understand and debate."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

There is no "undo" option in presidency

Of the many pundits around (excluding this blogger, of course!) Fareed Zakaria is one whose views I think I agree with more often than not. And, it certainly is not because we are both from India! In his lengthy piece in Newsweek, Zakaria has some wonderful advice for the next president:

The next president will inherit the world as it is in 2009. He will have to examine the Bush administration's policies as they stand in January 2009—not as they were in 2001 or 2002 or 2003—and decide how to accept, modify and alter them. There was a U.S. president who came into office convinced that everything his predecessor had done was feckless, stupid, ill-informed and venal. He rejected and tried to reverse everything that he could, almost as an article of faith. Before he had even examined the policies carefully, he knew that they had to be changed. The base of his party was delighted by his clarity and fighting spirit.

That president, of course, was George W. Bush. His decision to blindly repudiate anything associated with Bill Clinton is what got us into this mess in the first place. Let's hope that the next president, no matter how much he despises Bush, will take a careful look at his administration's policies, America's interests, and the world beyond and do the right thing for the country and its future.

The only thing I would add here: In addition, W wanted to one-up papa Bush. Thankfully, we don't have to deal with those dynamics in 2009; count our blessings, eh!

Georgia understimated Russia. Russia "over-retaliated"

Gary Brecher at Exiled Online sums it up well:
The fretting and fussing and sky-is-falling crap about this war is going to die down fast, and the bottom line will be simple: the Georgians overplayed their hand and got slapped, and we caught a little of the follow-through, which is what happens when you waste your best troops—and Georgia’s, for that matter—on a dumb war in the wrong place. We detatched Kosovo from a Russian ally; they detached South Ossetia from an American ally. It’s a pawn exchange, if that. If it signals anything bigger, it’s the fact that the US is weaker than it was ten years ago and Russia is much, much stronger than it was in Yeltsin’s time. But anybody with sense knew all that already.

But, before concluding thus, Brecher writes:
Most likely the Georgians just thought the Russians wouldn’t react. They were doing something they learned from Bush and Cheney: sticking to best-case scenarios, positive thinking. The Georgian plan was classic shock’n’awe with no hard, grown-up thinking about the long term. Their shiny new army would go in, zap the South Ossetians while they were on a peace hangover (the worst kind), and then…uh, they’d be welcomed as liberators? Sure, just like we were in Iraq. Man, you pay a price for believing in Bush. The Georgians did.

On the road in India

It is extremely difficult for me to relax while travelling in India. Car, taxi, autorickshaw, plane--it doesn't matter. It is too damn stressful. The only travel part I really enjoyed was the train ride from Kollam to Sengottai.

I can, therefore, easily imagine the autorickshaw accident, in the on-going "on the road to India" WSJ blog:

Only death is certain: not taxes for corporations!

I wonder what Obama and McCain will have to say about this GAO report that most corporations do not pay income taxes. I suppose taxes are only for the working stiffs :-(

From CQ Politics: Most corporations, including the vast majority of foreign companies doing business in the United States, pay no income taxes, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday.
During the eight-year period covered by the report, 72 percent of foreign-owned corporations went at least one year without owing taxes, and the same was true for 55 percent of domestic corporations.
Small companies were much more likely to pay no taxes than larger companies. Still, more than 3,500 large domestic corporations — with more than $250 million in assets or $50 million in gross receipts — did not pay taxes in 2005. ...

... The country’s 35 percent top rate on corporate income is among the highest in the industrialized world

Economic growth and pollution in China

James Fallows notes in his blog that "Blue visible in the sky, for the first time in one week." But, the factory closures, which have helped clean up the sky, will cease soon after the Olympics, and manufacturing will pick up the pace, again. Bloomberg reports that "China's economic growth slowed for a fourth straight quarter in the three months to June 30, expanding 10.1 percent. Gross domestic product growth below 9 percent would be ``unacceptable'' for a government targeting 10 million new jobs a year, according to a Credit Suisse Group report this month."
Reading all these, I am reminded of a fantastic satire from, who else, The Onion :-)

China Celebrates Its Status As World�s Number One Air Polluter

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