Friday, July 31, 2009

Google, education, and knowledge

The fantastic availability of information, and made easy thanks to Google, has made many of us sit back and wonder if all these are good or bad news. Like that old Chinese parable. You wonder which one? Email me for that :-)

A couple of months ago, this essay in the Atlantic asked whether Google was making us stupid. At the same time, we have a whole bunch of people complaining that high school and college graduates seem to be uninformed and incompetent. And, comedians like Jay Leno routinely joke about the prevailing dumbness in society. I suspect that we are only beginning the next iteration of discussions. Why do I say this is the "next iteration?" According to Brian Cathcart, this is nothing but a reformulation of a situation from 2400 years ago:
... the story of the Egyptian god Thoth. I looked it up, and it was told by Plato. It goes like this: Thoth has invented writing and proudly offers it as a gift to the king of Egypt, declaring it “an elixir of memory and wisdom”. But the king is horrified, and tells him: “This invention will induce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, because they will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written…rather than, from within, their own unaided powers to call things to mind. So it’s not a remedy for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you are equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth.”

That was written 2,400 years ago, and Lloyd pointed out that similar arguments about inevitable damage to human thinking and memory attended the arrival of printing in the 15th century AD. We seem to have survived both shocks with our capacity for general knowledge intact, indeed enhanced. That puts modern concerns into perspective.
But, yes, as much as I am a HUGE fan of the web, Google, and many other widgets out there, I wonder whether we are outsourcing away too much of what we ought to be doing ourselves.

What does Cathcart say?
There will always be dimwits, and their feats of stupidity will always make news. Equally, there will always be teachers and parents who shake their heads at the supposed ignorance of the young. We need to be careful before we construct trends from such things. But the internet is different, and it lifts the discussion onto a different plane. We are bound to tap into it for general knowledge, and the young will do it first. Schools are surely right to encourage them. The story of Thoth tells us that the curmudgeonly response—“This invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it”—is a waste of breath.

It’s Time for the US to Declare Victory and Go Home

That is the bottom line from Col. Timothy Reese:

The general lack of progress in essential services and good governance is now so broad that it ought to be clear that we no longer are moving the Iraqis “forward.” Below is an outline of the information on which I base this assessment:

  1. The ineffectiveness and corruption of GOI Ministries is the stuff of legend.
  2. The anti-corruption drive is little more than a campaign tool for Maliki
  3. The GOI is failing to take rational steps to improve its electrical infrastructure and to improve their oil exploration, production and exports.
  4. There is no progress towards resolving the Kirkuk situation.
  5. Sunni Reconciliation is at best at a standstill and probably going backwards.
  6. Sons of Iraq (SOI) or Sahwa transition to ISF and GOI civil service is not happening, and SOI monthly paydays continue to fall further behind.
  7. The Kurdish situation continues to fester.
  8. Political violence and intimidation is rampant in the civilian community as well as military and legal institutions.
  9. The Vice President received a rather cool reception this past weekend and was publicly told that the internal affairs of Iraq are none of the US’s business.
Yes, please bring them home.
And, more importantly, please do not keep sending more to Afghanistan.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Guaranteed: A PhD for every American!

[Why] not aim to have every American receive a college degree? Better yet, why not aim to have every American earn a Ph.D.?
Thus writes Michael Rizzo.

We are way too preoccupied with a college degree. And with college education. As far as I understand it, there are supposedly two reasons for college:
  • To enhance the economic productivity of people
  • To help them have an enriched life
Yes, education helps with economic performance. With few exceptions, literate people are more productive than illiterates. With few exceptions, high school grads are more productive than those who have completed only six years of schooling. But, division of labor and the increasingly complex society does not mean that everybody needs a college degree--not at all. I am more and more worried about students who graduate from college with huge loans to pay and with no real jobs upon graduation. And we won't even go near the topic of overproduction at the PhD level!

When we begin to point out such facts, then the pro-higher education lobby (yes, every single one is a lobbyist, whether registered as one or not) then quickly falls back on the much higher value that education delivers but, unfortunately, which economic calculations cannot capture. This is where I think to myself that it is becoming f***ing crazy. Why? It takes on a seemingly religious posture--just as religions promise eternal life and peace that nobody can verify because, well, it is after death, these education fundamentalists want to deliver sermons from the ivory towers with the message that such education is good for the soul. Secular fundamentalists these are.

Even if we want to achieve these two objectives, I cannot keep asking the same question over and over again: what is preventing us from realizing these within the K-12 system? If high school graduates do not seem to have an idea of how education is good for their soul, well, how is that magically going to happen in the 13th year of education or the 14th? And, BTW, is there anybody who believes that all those partying away as undergraduates went to universities because they believe higher education will lead them to a richer understanding of life? Please!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

So, you want to be an "ayatollah" ....

You get up early morning because you have to pray. Many good clerics even get up at two or three o'clock in the early morning to pray. After the morning prayer, for example at 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock, they start to read. And at 7 o'clock, the courses start. Usually the courses are 45 minutes. Each student chooses a fellow [student] to discuss each course with him each day. Sometimes I play the role of teacher for you; I teach you the same thing I was taught yesterday. If I say anything wrong, you correct me. Tomorrow you're going to be my teacher. In this way, [students] repeat the courses and correct each others' possible misunderstandings. Usually, you take three or four courses per day.

At noon, you go back to your home or, if you live in a traditional school, you go to the school. You eat something, and you get some rest. At four o'clock, you start your classes until sunset. At sunset, you pray your sunset prayer. After that, you go home and you start to read. You go to bed early because you have to get up early.

So says Mehdi Khalaji in this very interesting piece in FP

But, what he describes is, Khalaji notes, the seminary life before the full effects of the Islamic Revolution were felt in Iran. A generation later, seminary life is very different:
people are not going to the seminary for the study of religion; people are going because the seminary became a place for training employees for the government. They are going to become wealthy and to become close to the political circles. After 30 years, the new generation of the seminary is intellectually very poor but economically very rich -- just the opposite of what it used to be.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Empty boxes and global trade

Two summers ago, I reviewed The Box for the Professional Geographer. The book was authored by Marc Levinson, who worked for the Economist at one point. In the book, Levinson argues that the box--the shipping container--catalyzed global trade and economic growth.

About the same time as my book review was published, James Fallows had a fantastic piece on the Pearl River Delta of Guandong Province in China. In that, Fallows wrote:
From the major ports serving the area, Hong Kong and Shenzhen harbors, cargo ships left last year carrying the equivalent of more than 40 million of the standard 20-foot-long metal containers that end up on trucks or railroad cars. That’s one per second, round the clock and year-round—and it’s less than half of China’s export total.
That was then when exports and global trade were booming like never before. And then came the Great Recession. How much have things changed? Here is the Economist:
But by November exports were worth 17.3% less than a year earlier, before slumping by a whopping 32.6% in the year to January. In March the managers of South Korea’s Busan port, long one of the world’s busiest, said that it had run out of space to store nearly 32,000 empty containers. The Baltic Dry Index, which measures demand for the ships that transport bulk goods such as iron ore or coal, fell from 11,793 at the end of May last year to a pitiful 663 in early December.
Estimates by the World Trade Organisation suggest that trade volumes will shrink by around a tenth this year.

Interestingly enough, Fallows and this Economist piece have shipping containers for illustration. Very different stories though!

Anyway, what might the story of global trade look like? The Economist seems confident that we have bottomed-out. However,
More people out of work will mean a further fall in global demand. China's boom (GDP grew by 7.9% in the second quarter) is fuelled by government investment and by the stimulus, not a rise in private consumption. Nor are other consumers stepping in. Without a move towards more private consumption in countries such as Germany and China, the world is in for a prolonged period of slow growth and correspondingly sluggish trade.

The sound of the Chinese bubble bursting?

James Fallows and Thomas Friedman, among others, have written a lot about how China needs to maintain a minimum economic growth rate, in order to keep its people happy, while at the same time ensuring growth by lending to its biggest customer--the United States. China now owns about 2.2 trillion dollars of US treasury notes that it simply cannot convert without causing chaos within its economy, and to the rest of the world. Well, this is a ground that has been well covered.

The new twist to this story, which maybe I missed before but I read for the first time now, is this:

[Don't] confuse fast growth with sustainable growth. Much of China's growth over the past decade has come from lending to the United States. The country suffers from real overcapacity. And now growth comes from borrowing -- and hundreds of billion-dollar decisions made on the fly don't inspire a lot of confidence. For example, a nearly completed, 13-story building in Shanghai collapsed in June due to the poor quality of its construction.

This growth will result in a huge pile of bad debt -- as forced lending is bad lending. The list of negative consequences is very long, but the bottom line is simple: There is no miracle in the Chinese miracle growth, and China will pay a price. The only question is when and how much.

Read the complete essay for how this argument is built up; pretty fascinating.

Jon Stewart v. Jon Leibowitz

As my posts in this blog show, I am a big fan of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Ron Rosenbaum writes that it is high time Jon Stewart changed his name back to its original:
I want you to change your name. Back to Leibowitz. Stewart is just so 20th-century, a relic of that dark age when Jews in show biz changed their names because they feared "real Americans" wouldn't accept the originals.
In the same piece, Rosenbaum wonders "whether Dylan would have become Dylan—despite all that talent—if he'd remained Zimmerman."

I think Rosenbaum has a great point when he writes:

Now, you have every right to wonder why I'm singling you out like this. I think it has something to do with what I like most about your show, which is that you, like the best satirists, focus on making fun of those who put up a false front. Not that Stewart is false in any malign sense of the word. (It was your middle name—well, Stuart was!) But that it's a kind of mask, and you spend most of your time making fun of the pretentious masks that politicians, celebrities, and big shots adopt.

You're all three now—a politician, a celebrity, and a big shot—in the sense that you have remarkable influence politically. In fact, pols and political writers often establish their identities in their appearances on your show because you have a way of exposing their authentic selves however inauthentic the "authenticity" is. They either pass or fail the Jon Stewart authenticity test. And now we learn from a new poll that you're the new Cronkite, the nation's most trusted news source. All the more reason not to use a name that doesn't completely pass the Jon Stewart authenticity test, does it right?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Unemployment: Nobody seems to be hiring :-(

Why worry about unemployment? Here is why, according to Roger Lowenstein:

In terms of its impact on society, a dearth of hiring is far more troubling than an excess of layoffs. Job losses have to end sooner or later. Even if they persist (as, say, in the auto industry), the government can intervene. But the government cannot force firms to hire. Ultimately, each new job depends on the boss’s belief — or hope — that sufficient work will materialize. It’s a bit of black magic also described as confidence. ...

...Along with double-digit unemployment, the country is facing a second potential scare headline: falling wages. Even during recessions, businesses don’t like to lower pay, because it reduces morale. But layoffs are also a downer. And in this recession, employers ranging from the State of California to publishers (including this newspaper) have cut back on pay. In effect, job losses have been so severe that businesses have been forced to spread the pain. In June, overall wage growth was zero. Zandi thinks the United States could see negative wage growth.

How would Obama, not to mention Congress, respond to declining employment and falling wages? The pressure for another stimulus (and greater deficits) would be intense. So would that for demagogic solutions like trade barriers. Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, says most lost jobs are not coming back. The huge question is when — or whether — new ones will take their place.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Requiem

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
"Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!"

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
"I thought he died a while ago."

For life's a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

John Updike

Thursday, July 23, 2009

1979: start of a new era

Way back on January 31, 2008, the Register Guard published my op-ed--titled "1979 was the start of a new era", where I pointed out that pretty much everything that we are dealing with today as major global issues can be traced back to one single year: 1979.

Fast forward 18 months. One of the essays in the latest issue of Foreign Policy--a leading policy publication--is "1979: The Great Backlash"

Am excited that I was way ahead--by a year and a half, which seems more than a lifetime in this contemporary world :-)

Jon Stewart rules! Good for America :-)

The criminals (?) who caused the Great Recession

On the banking/financial crisis that is at the center of this Great Recession:
There has been no criminal investigation to date, so evidence supporting criminality has not been uncovered -- no one is looking for it. Liberals hate to think that Obama, led by Geithner and Summers, is part of a grand cover-up scheme, but that is exactly what is going on. How else can you explain the lack of criminal investigations? Why isn't the FBI breaking down the doors of the commercial and investment banks and grabbing computers so as to preserve incendiary e-mails that will most definitely implicate executives? Why are managements that caused this still in their jobs and still receiving bonuses? Are the bonuses paid to the folks at AIG that caused its collapse nothing more than hush money? How can the rating agencies still be in business? Why don't we make one arrest and lean on the bankster to see if he will fold like the cheap suit that he is and name other conspirators? The FBI spends more time investigating $2,000 drug buys than they have to date investigating the biggest heist in the history of the world: $40 trillion, that's trillion with a T, that's 40 million bags each containing $1 million.
Maybe you think it is some crazy left-wing loonie who wrote this over at Mother Jones or at The Nation. Think again. The writer is a former investment banker with Goldman Sachs, which, by the way, reported a good chunk of change as profits!
Anyway, this is from the first instalment of a three-part discussion between John Talbott--the former investment banker--and Simon Johnson, the former IMF Chief Economist. The discussion thanks to Salon.com.

Johnson's response is far from comforting when he writes:
I think the situation may actually be worse.
O M G!

Johnson explains why it is worse than we think:
What worries me most about our situation at this moment is that while our current leadership on economic strategy issues now talks about the mistakes of their (and our) past, their policies are pointing us back in the same direction. The latest evidence in this regard is the regulatory plan released by the Treasury this June.

This plan is a long list of technocratic tweaks. But when you dig through all the details, it is hard to find anything that will really make a difference to the functioning of our financial system. Most importantly, we will still have banks that are perceived as "too big to fail," and these institutions will have access to government bailouts under vague and completely open-ended terms. In what way will this encourage responsible lending in the future?

Johnson makes a point that I hadn't thought about:

And the way in which the Obama administration is attempting to extricate us from the crisis -- with unconditional support for big banks, regardless of costs -- is not addressing the fundamental imbalance of power that favors the financial sector. If anything, the big banks that survive in this sector have now become more powerful -- the political market share of JP Morgan Chase or Goldman Sachs has increased because Lehman and Bear Stearns are out of business.

The firms left standing have become even more powerful!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to ration healthcare?

In my earlier post on Peter Singer's essay on healthcare rationing, I intentionally stopped with his observation on the reality of rationing.

I did not comment on Singer's solution, which was an utilitarian discussion of quality of life years. I did not care for it because that framework did not convince me about how we might deal with ailments that might not affect a whole lot of people. Furthermore, it seemed to offer a corollary that old people should be knocked off rather than be treated because it is generally way too expensive to treat the elderly than it is to treat the young.

Darshak Sanghavi comments on this very issue:
The typical solution to such medical waste (most recently described in a New York Times Magazine article by utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer) is to ration health care spending, often with dubious mathematical formulae—in short, to starve the beast.
Sanghavi's essay is way more interesting, and less rhetorical than others, because of observations like this one:
We now recognize and treat problems that were previously hidden or never diagnosed—which is a good thing. Consider these sample statistics, all from generally reliable federal agencies: One percent of the population has celiac disease, causing anemia and other problems, one in 150 children tests positive for autism spectrum disorders, 2 percent to 5 percent of adults have an eating disorder, 20 percent of children are overweight, one in 22 pregnancies is complicated by a minor or major birth defect, and 10 percent of people have asthma. The list goes on. In the past, people just lived with these problems. Today, for better or worse, we do not simply let them go—and that costs more and more money.
In other words, in the olden days, people lived (or died) with problems that hadn't been given names. And some problems are getting to be more common--like with prostate--because we have more and more men living very long years; in years past, rarely did a man live that long to suffer from prostate issues.

We seem to be chasing after rainbows in the rush to reform healthcare in the US. It is bound to make most unhappy, and a few who manage to get deals, well, they will be happy. The White House adopting Bush-style tactics is not helping either. I am glad though that they changed their approach and released the list of names of healthcare executives who visited the White House for meetings.

Jon Stewart explains "Cap'n Trade"

Hiiiilaaaaarious :-)

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jon Stewart Jizz-Ams in Front of Children - Cap'n Trade
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

Afghanistan: War escalation to win hearts and minds!

Professor Paul Robinson compares the Soviet experience in Afghanistan with the current US and NATO practices, and finds that we are repeating the Soviet mistakes in a worse way:

[The] barriers to development lie not in a lack of aid but in poor human capital and weak social and political institutions. Although Western economists came rather later to this conclusion than the Soviets, most now accept it. Practice, though, continues to lag theory. Too often, those tasked with development still view it—as the Soviets initially did—as an engineering problem, a matter of building roads, factories, and schools.

The 2009 U.S. inspector general’s audit report cites the renovation of a power station in Khost. After installing three new generators, the Americans handed the plant over to the Afghans, only to find that within a few months two of the three no longer worked. Similarly, the British have invested millions of dollars into digging hundreds of wells in southern Afghanistan in an attempt to “win the hearts and minds” of villagers. The new wells bypass existing institutions for the stewardship of water resources while not putting anything in their place. Afghans, not used to having unrestricted access to so much water, have responded by pumping with abandon. As a result, the water table has dropped, increasing the danger of drought. Meanwhile, according to Nipa Banerjee, nearly half of the schools in Kandahar province sit empty because there are no teachers to staff them. Yet the Canadian government is pressing ahead with plans to build even more schools. Such failures are entirely typical and predictable. They reveal how “hearts and minds” operations, undertaken to support the short-term goals of counterinsurgency, can have damaging effects on long-term development.

In some respects, Soviet advisers, despite their failings, were somewhat better than ours. Ivanov, for instance, studied Dari at the School of Oriental Languages. As he and his wife recounted over a bowl of homemade borscht, rather than living in a fortified compound, he had an apartment in the Soviet-built Mikrorayon district of Kabul with his family (unthinkable for a contemporary adviser) and drove himself without escort to work every day (at least as unfathomable).

The flow of Western advisers is driven by supply rather than demand. The Afghans get what we send them, not what they ask for. Few high-ranking civil servants are willing to go to Afghanistan. As a result, the West sends young and inexperienced personnel to “mentor” much older Afghan colleagues. Few have any knowledge of Afghan languages. Valerii Ivanov told me that his Afghan contacts say that they laugh when these zealous Westerners tell them how to manage their affairs. Now President Obama is promising to send hundreds more. We can hardly imagine that, if he can actually find that many—and so far he appears to be having trouble—such a large number will really consist of highly experienced, properly qualified personnel with appropriate cultural understanding. More will not mean better.

Worse, in our efforts to fight the Taliban, we are providing Afghanistan with a massive army, a huge police force, and vast numbers of schools, hospitals, roads, and so on. All of this has to be paid for. The Afghan state cannot do so, nor will it ever be able to. When the Soviets left, Najibullah’s regime survived only as long as Moscow paid the bills. The same will be true for Karzai and his successors.

The election in Afghanistan is round the corner. Any odd development there, along with chaos in its neighboring countries--Iran and Pakistan--can make 2009 one milestone year in global history. Here is to hoping for an uneventful remainder of 2009.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beware the Budget Billions

Exhibit A (from Bloomberg):
[A] spokesman for the White House budget office said postponing the review from mid-July until mid-August isn’t unusual during a president’s first year in office.

“Because of the unique circumstances of a transition year, we are, like President George W. Bush in 2001, releasing the mid-session review a few weeks later than as is usual in non- transition years,” Kenneth Baer, communications director for the Office of Management and Budget, said.

Bush’s first mid-year review was released Aug. 22, 2001, and the one issued in former President Bill Clinton’s first year in office came out on Sept. 1, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. ...

A worsening jobs picture compared with February’s forecast and a still-weak economy may make the deficit picture look worse than the $1.84 trillion forecast this year, about four times the previous record of $455 billion. Next year’s deficit was projected to decline to $1.26 trillion.

Gibbs said he expected the review to show “the budget situation is going to be even more challenging” than February’s forecast. He didn’t elaborate.

Exhibit B (Economist's Voice):
Although this year's record deficit has attracted a lot of attention, the real concern is the unsustainability of the federal budget over the next 10 years and longer. The budget situation presents policy makers with a very delicate balancing act between encouraging economic recovery and establishing fiscal sustainability, according to Alan Auerbach of U.C. Berkeley and William Gale of Brookings.
The following sentence in Exhibit B is a mind-boggler:
In 2009, the U.S. federal deficit will be larger than the entire GDP of all but six other countries.
All but six other countries have GDPs less than the US federal government's deficit. What a way to understand how huge our economy is!

Anyway, let us see what the state of the government is when the report comes out, and how that might affect healthcare and other policies that are in competition for lots of resources.

Forty years of progress ... in TV news

Clap? Or no clap? Or whatever?

I grew up in a household and cultural context where South Indian classical music (Carnatic Music) reigned supreme. Being an avid listener meant knowing where the musician excelled enough in order to applaud the artiste. Like at a jazz concert. Of course, people also nod their heads in strange ways, and keep up with the beat (taal) in even stranger ways. It has been at least half my life time since I have been to one :-)

Western classical music is way too stiff. No sounds in between, and it is generally considered inappropriate to express one's appreciation of the music unless and until the piece is over and done with. Of course, if one does not know that there are different movements within, which is why there is a lull albeit temporary, then that member of the audience (yes, that is me!) could easily be fooled into thinking that it is time to applaud. Very regimented.

But, apparently it was not always like that.

"I'm a specialist in 18th and 19th Century music. It was customary to not only applaud but to stop and do other things between movements in concerts.

"At the premieres of Haydn and Beethoven they would do two movements and then have a ballet or a singer. Often they would have refreshments. And they didn't listen to everything in complete silence."

Martin Cullingford, deputy editor of Gramophone magazine, also admits things have changed.

"Up until the beginning of the 20th Century applause between movements was normal. Mozart certainly appreciated it. That changed - now it's not the thing that's expected to happen. When people do it's always slightly embarrassing."

Rationing through "Medicare for All"

A few years ago, when I was at CalState, the Ethics Institute brought Peter Singer to campus. Oh boy, was there a crowd! It was not because there was a huge fan base; there were lots and lots of people upset with his arguments that did not agree with their interpretations of life, death and how to deal with them. I doubt whether the campus ever had such a security presence for a visiting philosopher :-)

To his credit, Singer does not shy away from controversies, and the recent NY Times magazine essay is an example of that. In discussing how "rationing" has unfairly become a dirty word in the healthcare debate, Singer asks:
Is there any limit to how much you would want your insurer to pay for a drug that adds six months to someone’s life? If there is any point at which you say, “No, an extra six months isn’t worth that much,” then you think that health care should be rationed.
A simple question, right? How much are you willing to pay? We do this individually all the time, whether it is for the pets at home, or for the humans we love. Yet, this is practically an unspeakable topic, and how we arrive at these decisions is supposedly not because of dollar calculations.

It is something similar to a question I typically ask my intro class students when we discuss population. I ask them how many children they think they will have. Most think it will be 1, 2, or 3. I ask them then "why not six?" Their responses are, say, "I won't have time for that many", or "I won;t be able to go on vacations with that many kids" .... to which I then state that this is nothing but cold economic calculations: children are expense items that take money away from other possible spending options. We, therefore, "ration" kids.

Singer writes:
The debate over health care reform in the United States should start from the premise that some form of health care rationing is both inescapable and desirable. Then we can ask, What is the best way to do it?
Indeed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Super rich I am, according to ....

I just got this email:
From James Tyler (For Trustees)
Managing Partner (Anderson & Tyler)
London - United Kingdom.

Notification of Bequest

On behalf of Anderson and Tyler Chambers, Trustees and Executors of the
estate of Late Schulz Wagner, I once again try to notify you as my earlier
letter was returned undelivered. I hereby attempt to reach you again by
this same email address on the WILL. I wish to notify you that late Schulz
Wagner made you a beneficiary to his WILL. He left some money to you in
the codicil and last testament of his WILL.

This may sound strange and unbelievable to you, but it is real and true.
Being a widely traveled man, he must have been in contact with you in the
past or simply you were referred to him by one of his numerous friends
abroad who wished you good. Schulz Wagner until his death was a very
generous individual who loved to assist the needy. His great philanthropy
earned him numerous awards during his lifetime. Schulz Wagner died on the
5th day of May 2009 at the age of 72 years, and his WILL is now ready for
execution. According to him this money is to help the poor and the needy.

Please if I reach you, as I am hopeful, endeavor to get back to me as soon
as possible to enable me conclude my job
If only such spams were for real!

GOP's class(less) of 1994

Very rarely do I disagree with Frank Rich's analysis and commentaries. He simply makes sense. And he does that without manipulating metaphors. This commentary, too, is right on the mark, with practically no distracting thought. And his comments about how the state of the GOP now can be traced back to the swaggers of the Gingrich-led republicans are, well, here is an excerpt:
.... the Newt Gingrich revolution, swept into Congress by the midterms of 1994. Its troops came armed with a reform agenda titled the “Contract With America” and a mother lode of piety. Their promises included an end to federal deficits, the restoration of national security, transparent (and fewer) House committees, and “a Congress that respects the values and shares the faith of the American family.”

That the class of ’94 failed on almost every count is a matter of history, no matter how hard it has retroactively tried to blame its disastrous record on George W. Bush. Its incompetence may even have been greater than its world-class hypocrisy. Its only memorable achievements were to shut down the government in a fit of pique and to impeach Bill Clinton in a tsunami of moral outrage.

The class of ’94 gave us J.D. Hayworth and Bob Ney of the Jack Abramoff casino-lobbying scandals. Ney, a House committee chairman, did 17 months in jail. It gave us the sexual adventurers Mark Sanford, John Ensign and Mark Foley. (All these distinguished gentlemen voted for articles of impeachment, as did Gingrich, their randy role model.) The class of ’94 also included a black Republican, J. C. Watts, who at least had the integrity to leave Congress in 2003 to become a bona fide lobbyist rather than go on a K Street lobbyist’s payroll while still in public office. He was a fleeting novelty; there’s been no black Republican elected to either chamber of Congress since. Today the G.O.P.’s token black is its party chairman, Michael Steele, who last week unveiled his latest strategy for recruiting minority voters. “My plan is to say, ‘Y’all come!’ ” he explained, adding “I got the fried chicken and potato salad!”

Among Sotomayor’s questioners, both Coburn and Lindsey Graham are class of ’94. They — along with Jeff Sessions, a former Alabama attorney general best known for his unsuccessful prosecutions of civil rights activists — set the Republicans’ tone last week. In one of his many cringe-inducing moments, Graham suggested to Sotomayor that she had “a temperament problem” and advised that “maybe these hearings are a time for self-reflection.” That’s the crux of the ’94 spirit, even more than its constant, whiny refrain of white victimization: Hold others to a standard that you would not think of enforcing on yourself or your peers. Self-reflection may be mandatory for Sotomayor, but it certainly isn’t for Graham.

In his ’94 Congressional campaign in South Carolina, Graham made a big deal of promising to enact term limits. At the Clinton impeachment, he served as a manager of the prosecution. That was then, and this is now. Graham hasn’t even term-limited himself — an action he could have taken at any time unilaterally — and his pronouncements on marital morality (unencumbered by any marital attachments of his own) are a study in relativism. On “Meet the Press,” he granted absolution to his ’94 classmate Sanford, now his state’s governor, for abusing his office with his taxpayer-financed extramarital “trade mission” to Argentina. “I think the people of South Carolina will give him a second chance,” he said, as long as “Jenny and Mark can get back together.” Maybe Graham judges the Sanfords by a more empathetic standard than the Clintons because the Republican lieutenant governor who would replace Sanford is already fending off rumors that he’s gay.

Graham has also given a pass to his ’94 classmate Ensign, now a Nevada senator. Ensign not only committed adultery with an employee but sat by as his wealthy parents gave the mistress and her cuckolded husband nearly $100,000 to ease their pain. Ensign’s lawyer deflected questions that this beneficence might be hush money by claiming it was part of the senior Ensigns’ “pattern of generosity.”

When asked about these unsavory matters, Graham said that an ethics investigation of Ensign “isn’t high” among his priorities. This moral abdication still puts him on a higher plane than Coburn, who has been a murky broker in Ensign’s sexcapades. The husband of Ensign’s mistress told The Las Vegas Sun that Coburn urged Ensign to give him and his wife more than $1 million to pay off their mortgage and “move them to a new life.” Too bad no one thought of that one for the “Contract With America.”

Coburn maintains that he has immunity from testifying in any Ensign inquiry because he counseled Ensign as “a physician” and an “ordained deacon.” Coburn is an obstetrician and gynecologist, but never mind. What’s more relevant is the gall of his repeatedly lecturing Sotomayor last week on the “proper role” of judges — even to the point of reading her oath of office out loud. Coburn finds Sotomayor’s views “extremely troubling.” There’s nothing in Sotomayor’s history remotely as troubling as Coburn’s role in the Ensign scandal. Or as his inability to grasp Al Qaeda any better than he did the Nazis. In 2004, he claimed in all seriousness that the “gay agenda” is “the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today.”

Tainted mangoes, India, and the FDA

Yes, we have no mangoes that haven’t been tainted

The mango is a standard example in the freshman course that I teach. The fruit’s Latin name is Mangifera, which gives away its origin in the Indian subcontinent because the name comes from south Indian languages — in Tamil, it is pronounced “maanga.”

Accounting for more than half the world’s production, India is the largest producer of mangoes. However, very little of the fruit is exported.

For a while, the export of mangoes to the United States was suspended because our Food and Drug Administration wanted to ensure that the mangoes and their packaging materials would not contain fruit flies and weevils.

Having overcome that barrier with sophisticated irradiation technology, India has resumed exporting mangoes, this time employing cargo ships instead of using air freight — which is expected to halve the retail price of Mangifera indica.

I was excited about this, because I missed the succulent and fantastically tasty varieties of mangoes that are available in India.

After arriving in Chennai, in my initial excitement of seeing hundreds of mangoes, I quickly dismissed my 11-year-old niece’s warning that some of the fruits might have been treated with chemicals that are harmful to humans. However, it turns out that my niece had the correct information after all.

Last week, most national newspapers, including The Hindu, reported the destruction of mangoes by government authorities in Chennai because chemicals had been used to ripen ones that had been harvested prematurely, thereby triggering their golden color. The chemicals included calcium carbide, arsenic and phosphorus.

To say that I am shocked is an understatement. Arsenic to improve the appearance and marketability of fruits that humans consume?

My parents were nonchalant about the news. “This happens every year,” was their comment.

I am even more appalled that such destruction of mangoes — because of illegal chemical usage — is an annual affair. I can only think that the manipulators are heartless sociopaths who need to be institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

Yes, India has laws and regulations in its books — from the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to the Insecticide Act. But as a resource-starved developing country, India does not have sufficient enforcement mechanisms that we take for granted in America. I assume that the 7,500 kilograms of mangoes that were destroyed represent a much larger amount of fruit treated with these illegal chemicals.

However, the story of Indian mangoes is not unique.

As countries compete in the global market, a few producers succumb to the temptation for quick profits through various shortcuts. I bet many of us still remember the tragic experiences with tainted dog food and toothpaste from China, among other horror stories associated with imports from that country.

All it takes is a few unscrupulous producers to spoil the reputation for an entire industry, and the country as a whole. Sometimes, it is not the intentional acts but slippages in production processes that cause immense problems for consumers, as was the case with E. coli infected spinach or beef in the United States.

Thus, I am now even more appreciative of our regulatory agencies such as the FDA. Thanks to them, we rarely think twice about the fruits we buy in grocery stores, or even the anti-allergy pills we stock up on in order to be able to deal with an atmosphere that is full of grass seed pollen.

I am now convinced about the importance of strengthening the FDA, which has been systematically weakened over the years. We ought to recognize the importance of the FDA as a prime consumer protection agency and correspondingly increase the resources allocated for its various functions.

Given the extensive and ever-­increasing level of importation of various food and drug items from all around the world, I urge our elected officials to explore ways for the Food and Drug Administration to inspect major production facilities outside the United States, too, to ensure the safety and well-being of Americans.

Such a structure could have an added benefit. Our consumer safety standards would then quickly spread to other countries, and even kids such as my niece will be able to enjoy the juicy mangoes that I did when I was young.

For The Register-Guard
Appeared in print: Monday, Jul 20, 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009

99 Superheroes, Allah, and DC Comics

The Guardian:

The 99 comics, which sell about 1m copies a year, enjoy a high profile in the Middle East. The adventures are to be made into an animated film, while the first of several 99-inspired theme parks has opened in Kuwait.

The creator of The 99 and founder of Teshkeel Media, Dr Naif Al- Mutawa, a psychologist by day, hopes his comics help dialogue and co-operation. Like Levitz, he is unsure of how the story will develop. "Are we going to have them working together from day one, or will they think the other is the enemy? Enemy number one is fear. You could open it with Obama's speech [in Cairo] with the two sets of superheroes watching it and having different reactions. There's plenty of possibilities."

California's Detroit: farmlands in the Central Valley

The real question is what emerges after the almonds, tomatoes and cantaloupes disappear. What happens as ever more Central Valley farmland is retired, as is inevitable? What does the future look like for the northwest corner of Fresno County? Will the usual solution -- building a new prison -- be all that's conceived? Or can the sun-baked San Joaquin Valley become a hub of solar power and alternative energy, as some have suggested? If so, who will prepare workers for this new field?

... "We are part of a multibillion-dollar agricultural juggernaut that feeds the nation," Riofrio said. "But we've gotten chewed up and spit out."
Rick Wartzman in the LA Times

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Clean coal is an impossibility"

Newsweek has an informative piece on the horrible ash spill in Tennessee.

It happened at a time when the world is increasingly worried about climate change for which, among others, burning coal is a big time contributor. China and India keep shoving coal into the burners to sustain their energy needs.
The coal lobby in the US keeps promoting "clean coal".

And then this Tennessee accident:
The largest industrial spill in U.S. history, it has created an environmental and engineering nightmare. The cleanup effort, which the Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing, could cost as much as $1 billion (though estimates continue to climb) and take years to complete. Meanwhile, the released ash—which is packed with toxins like arsenic, lead, and selenium—threatens to poison the air and water. Congressional committees are investigating the failure, some lawmakers are calling for greater regulation of utilities, and the EPA is probing about 400 other facilities across the country that store ash in similar ways. Yet the debacle has had another, potentially more far-reaching, impact: it has displayed in the most graphic manner imaginable just how dirty coal is. At a time when seemingly everyone from President Barack Obama on down is talking about "clean coal," the spill showed it's anything but. "Kingston opened people's eyes," says Lisa Evans of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental-law firm. "Clean coal is an impossibility."
If we have such problems with "benign" coal ash, then I shudder to think what a small mistake with nuclear waste might do. Calling Dr. Strangelove, Calling Dr. Strangelove!

Harry Potter and pals give up their wands

Friday, July 17, 2009

Obama invokes Jesus more than Bush

As president, Barack Obama has mentioned Jesus Christ in a number of high-profile public speeches — something his predecessor George W. Bush rarely did in such settings, even though Bush’s Christian faith was at the core of his political identity.
I wonder how the secular and atheistic supporters of Obama will respond to this report from Politico .....

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Great Rececssion, pregnancy, and recovery

Warren Buffett provides a fascinating analogy to explain that the recovery will take a while:
"You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant".

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Obama's war" and Pakistan's fate

I am not a big fan of Tariq Ali; but, hey, I have to give credit where it is due. Ali details the mess that Pakistan is in this essay in the London Review. He writes:

As far as the political temperature goes there is never a good month in Pakistan. This is a country whose fate is no longer in its own hands. I have never known things so bad. The chief problems are the United States and its requirements, the religious extremists, the military high command, and corruption, not just on the part of President Zardari and his main rivals, but spreading well beyond them.

This is now Obama’s war. He campaigned to send more troops into Afghanistan and to extend the war, if necessary, into Pakistan. These pledges are now being fulfilled. On the day he publicly expressed his sadness at the death of a young Iranian woman caught up in the repression in Tehran, US drones killed 60 people in Pakistan. The dead included women and children, whom even the BBC would find it difficult to describe as ‘militants’. Their names mean nothing to the world; their images will not be seen on TV networks.
And this is only the beginning of a very depressing essay. I cannot imagine how regular life goes on in Pakistan. I wonder if people just shut themselves off--a denial of sorts?

The cost of parking


Urban planners and economists keep harping on the notion that parking is severely under-priced, and the more a good is under-priced the more the incentive for consumers to over-consume. The result is that almost universally we complain about lack of parking spaces.

According to the Economist,
The cheapest parking in the survey is in India, where a spot in Chennai costs 96 cents a day.
Even in Indian prices, that is awfully cheap. It is amazing how expensive parking is in some of the European cities.

A trillion here, two trillions there. Trouble.

Contrasting news stories. First the news, and then my comments :-)

News 1 from CNN: Uncle Sam is one trillion dollars in the hole. For the first time ever.

By the end of fiscal 2009, the government expects to be in debt by $1.84 trillion. The Treasury said it expects that its expenditures to approach $4 trillion while its income will only be $2.16 trillion.

For fiscal 2010, Treasury said it expects to have a budget deficit of $1.26 trillion, with $3.59 trillion in expenses and a slightly more robust $2.33 trillion in receipts.
While we are trying to digest what a trillion-dollar deficit might mean, it is quite a contrast on the other side of the world, which is News 2 from Bloomberg: China's foreign-exchange reserves surge, exceeding two trillion:
China’s foreign-exchange reserves, the world’s biggest, topped $2 trillion for the first time as the nation’s economic recovery prompted overseas investors to pump money into stocks and property. ...
About 65 percent of China’s reserves are in dollar assets, with the rest mostly in euros, yen and sterling, estimates Wang Tao, an economist with UBS AG in Beijing. It is “difficult to stop buying U.S. Treasuries when markets for most other assets are too small and too illiquid,” she said in a report last month.
Analysis from the BBC: How long will China finance America?
A recent speech by Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of the Chinese central bank, conceded - in a slightly elliptical way - that China would have to lend more to the US, to see it through the current economic and financial crisis.

He said: "in the short run, the US may need more capital inflows to deal with the financial crisis".

So China will continue to fund the growing gap between America's public expenditure and its tax revenues, by recycling to the US the cash of overseas investors who prefer to invest in China's real assets.

Mr Zhou is clear that allowing America to live beyond its means is profoundly unhealthy for the global economy in the long term.

As he said: "over the long run, large capital inflows are not in its best interest of making adjustments to its economic growth model".

Or to put it another way, the US public, private and financial sectors all have to reduce their indebtedness: Americans have to save more.

But there is huge self-interest on the part of the Chinese in not forcing America to go cold turkey - in breaking its borrowing addiction - too quickly. China's exporters, squeezed savagely over the past year by the global recession, would hardly relish another lurch downward in US demand for their stuff.

I agree with Jim Fallows' and Larry Summers' observation that the US-China are locked in a mutually assured economic destruction: China needs American consumption. America needs the Chinese to provide the cheap money to finance this consumption.

This, however, cannot prevail for long. Will be quite a world when this Gordian Knot is untangled. I just hope it does not happen similar to how Alexander got rid of that knot.

The Uighur-issue morphs into Chinese oil issue!!!

In an earlier post, I commented that China might be able to rid itself of Communist Party's choke-hold not via Tibet, or via some radical movements for democracy. Instead, I think it will be only through a successful Uighur revolution. Now, even if the Party does not get ousted, I certainly wish for an equal treatment of Uighurs--equal to how the Hans are treated.
In that post, I worried though that the Uighurs themselves will be shortchanged if al-Qaeda decides to make this a rallying cause. Well, al-Qaeda has fired that first shot:
China has warned its citizens in Algeria about possible attacks from al Qaeda in retribution for a Chinese government crackdown in the Muslim region of Xinjiang, and security has been tightened around Beijing's missions in the Philippines.

The Chinese embassy in Algeria on its web site urged all Chinese people and organisations to be more aware of safety precautions and to strengthen security measures "in consideration of the situation after the July 5 incident in Urumqi".

The warning came after London risk consultancy Stirling Assynt said in a report to clients that al Qaeda might target Chinese workers in northwest Africa, citing "chatter" after the July 5 ethnic riots in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang.

"China has been reminding overseas Chinese to pay attention to their safety and enhance self protection ... China will take any necessary measure to protect the safety of Chinese organisations and citizens overseas," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters on Tuesday when asked to comment on the report.

In the Philippines, which is battling a Muslim insurgency in its south, the government has ordered security to be tightened around the Chinese embassy and consulates, said Andres Caro, head of the national police directorate.
So, why does China have so much of an interest in North Africa for its citizens to be there you ask? Good question! What might Algeria, Sudan, and Libya have that China might need? The same thing that cynics contend drives American interest in the Middle East: OIL!!!

Let us then summarize the story thus far:
The Uighurs, who have a long history in Central Asia, and who are Muslims, have tried establishing their independence, but were absorbed into China, with an "autonomous" status--Xinjiang. And then in the name of promoting economic development, Beijing has been "Hannifying" Xinjiang so much so that the Han population is now about 45% in Xinjiang. There are extensive reports of how Uighurs are treated as second-class citizens in their own "autonomous" province. Every once in a while, as the Uighurs demand better treatment, China puts them down. And now, al-Qaeda is ready to target Han Chinese in North Africa, who are there primarily because of the Chinese economic demand for petroleum and natural gas.

So, is there anybody out there watching out for the Uighurs? US? UK? India? Russia? Oh yeah, the brave Turkey--yes, that same country which has a problem even talking about what happened to Armenians within their borders a hundred years ago.

What a crappy world this is, eh!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The unemployed, and the millionaires, in Oregon

Unemployment in Oregon is not showing signs of coming down, even though this is the peak of the tourist season that generates a lot of employment. According to Forbes:
Oregon's unemployment rate hovered at 12.2 percent in June - essentially unchanged from the previous month but still a modern high and more than double the rate a year ago.

The latest figure also was well above the U.S. rate of 9.5 percent as Oregon's recession-bound economy shed another 7,200 jobs last month.

Contrast that with the following news item:
The Portland Business Journal reports that we have fewer millionaires than a year ago:
Oregon boasts 61,621 households with a net worth of more than $1 million, the 25th-most in the country.

About 4.12 percent of the state’s 1.495 million households have net worths of $1 million or more, Phoenix Marketing International researchers found. The top five states are Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut and Virginia.

In Oregon, as in the rest of the country, the number of millionaires is declining.

In 2007, 4.88 percent of state households reported net worths of $1 million or more. That dropped to 4.5 percent last year.
An irony that the two updates were on the same date, only hours apart!

We come in peace. Really!

In my intro classes, when I discuss demographic transition, I point out that as much as we like to think that humans are large-scale killers, well, the more time progresses, it seems like wars and the like kill fewer percentage of humans than in earlier centuries. Life is, by and large, quite peaceful for most humans on the planet.

Steve Pinker begins his essay on that very note. He writes:
Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.
So, what is the reason for this decline in violence, while we walk around thinking that life is getting worse? Hmmm ..... can you do some work and read his essay? Pinker concludes:
We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.

But the phenomenon does force us to rethink our understanding of violence. Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we might ask, "Why is there peace?" If our behavior has improved so much since the days of the Bible, we must be doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.

Thanks to A&L Daily for the link.

Bing. Chrome. OS. Who cares!

I used Google Chrome for a couple of months, until it crashed one day a few months ago and simply would not revive. Even re-installing a couple of times made no difference. There was no point using IE because of the time it took to even open the program. So, for now it is Firefox. I am so ready for a next generation of web browsers. I can't quite figure out what that might look like, but it cannot be minor variations of what we have.

After my experience with Chrome, I have pretty much given up on taking any Google product for a test drive--I use enough Google services already (blogger, YouTube, reader, groups.) I wasn't jumping up and down about Google's new operating system because none of these tinkerings excite me that much. But I just could not think about the common thread among all these to explain my ennui. Until I read Robert Cringely, who, with this op-ed, shows why he has a wonderful understanding of the big picture:
none of this is likely to make a real difference for either company or, indeed, for consumers. It’s just noise — a form of mutually assured destruction intended to keep each company in check.

Microsoft makes most of its money from two products, Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. Nearly everything else it makes loses money, sometimes deliberately. Google makes most of its money from selling Internet ads next to search results. Nearly everything else it does loses money, too.

Neither company really cares because both make so much from their core products that it simply doesn’t matter. But companies, like people, strive and dream and in this case both dream, at least sometimes, of destroying the other. Only they can’t — or won’t — do it in the end, because it is against the interests of either company to do so.

The vast majority of Google searches are, of course, done on PCs running Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer. It is not in Google’s real interest to displace these products, which have facilitated so much of its success. Chrome products are given away, so they bring in no revenue for Google, and they don’t even provide a better search or advertising experience for their users, the company admits. So why does Google even bother?

To keep Microsoft on its toes.
I wonder who that next company will be--the real big one--that will dethrone Microsoft and Google and Apple. I can't wait, not because I want these corporations to fail, but because it will launch a whole new world :-)
Cringely writes:
I wish these companies had more guts, that either would make a true bet-the-company investment in changing the world, but they won’t. Google engineers are allowed to spend 20 percent of their time on new ideas — yet of those thousands of ideas, the company can really invest in only a dozen per year, leading to dissatisfaction and defections as the best nerds leave to pursue their dreams.

Maybe they’ll leave for the startup that finally topples Microsoft ... or Google. But until then these companies will posture, spend a little money on research and development, and keep each other in check, while reporters and publications pretend that it matters.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Graph of the day

Expect China and India to drag feet on climate intiatives

Visualize this: The temperature outside is 105 degrees, with about 80 percent relative humidity. There is no electricity, which means no air conditioning.

That was my experience on the third day after arriving in Chennai, India’s fourth largest city with a population of more than 7 million.

I suppose I have been spoiled by the temperate conditions in the paradise that is the Willamette Valley, and am no longer able to bear the weather conditions in which I spent the first 22 years of my life. The power supply was restored after a few hours. After a couple of more days in Chennai, I headed to the cooler temperatures of Mysore to, at least temporarily, escape the heat and humidity.

As I was walking around a little after the sun went down in Mysore, everything turned dark because of load shedding in the electric power grid. With the entire area in darkness, the well-lighted Royal Palace stood out as a fantastic spectacle, while being simultaneously a symbol of India’s paradoxical problem of shortages and consumption.

When I wrote in this paper a few months ago about energy and water problems in India, I had no idea I would experience the shortage within a short time. In addition to the power shortage, there are widespread worries about a water shortage because the monsoon has been delayed, and rainfall is expected to be below normal.

A below-normal monsoon might well be the proverbial last straw to this country of a billion, which has managed to weather the Great Recession without too many problems. Agriculture, which is mostly rain-fed, will have significantly lower productivity as a result.

Electrical generation will drop as well with a decrease in hydropower. As will China, India too will ramp up its consumption of coal to produce electricity in order to try to keep pace with the dizzying growth in demand.

That means a larger volume of carbon dioxide emissions from the power plants. And there will be a lot more of carbon dioxide — from automobiles.

One report suggests that automobile sales in India can be expected to double in the next 15 years. Tata Motors, the manufacturer of the much talked about Nano — the $2,000 car — has enough orders to keep it going for years. It is the same Tata that is also the owner of the upscale Jaguar and Land Rover, which it has introduced into the Indian markets.

Meanwhile, Nepali and Indian scientists have been collecting and analyzing data on glaciers and glacial lakes in the Himalayas. Preliminary reports indicate that the lakes have become larger. That is no cause for celebration, because the lakes’ increased size comes from glaciers that are melting.

All these experiences from this trip thus far are valuable indicators of the intense arguments that are forthcoming when the world gathers later this year in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

It is clear that the energy needs of India are immense, and they will continue to grow at dizzying rates that will match China’s. We can expect both these countries to continue to state at the conference that advanced countries are higher polluters on a per-capita basis and that they should therefore share a larger burden than the much poorer nations of India and China, which are low per-capita polluters.

I am confident that Bob Doppelt, who has been writing in these pages about climate change issues, will agree with me that India and China will press hard the case that slowing their economic growth rates will not be viewed as feasible, politically or morally.

In a casual dinner table conversation about Chennai’s pollution levels, my parents asked me whether America, too, polluted a lot. It was a tough question in many ways. For one, I was representing America at the table. And as an academic, I am expected to be “neutral” and stick to the facts.

I gave them examples, from places where I have lived, of how America also polluted its way to economic prosperity — from how even the Willamette River was a convenient dumping ground to how Los Angeles used to be even dirtier than it is now.

I added that the old U.S. model is not sustainable. America has got to change its habits, and other countries need to avoid the unsustainable aspects of the American model.

Well, if my dinner table conversation is an indicator, then maybe the Copenhagen meeting will be successful only if it is attended by a lot more mothers.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The AfPak quagmire

A month ago the Register Guard published my opinion piece where I discussed political instability in the Baluch territory of Pakistan and Iran. In that, I referred to the Balochs who are yet another ethnic group whose lands got divided--in this case, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. And the Baluchs have been treated as less-than-equals in these countries, which has therefore resulted in militancy in Iran and Pakistan. My concern then, and even now, is that by expanding our operations in AfPak, we might be drawn into these situations also, which is not what we want ....

A month after my piece, ahem, the NY Times has a report on "another insurgency" gaining in Pakistan. These are the kinds of instances that end up as positive feedback on my approach to understanding the world and writing about them. Anyway, the NY Times says:

Although not on the same scale as the Taliban insurgency in the northwest, the conflict in Baluchistan is steadily gaining ground. Politicians and analysts warn that it presents a distracting second front for the authorities, drawing off resources, like helicopters, that the United States provided Pakistan to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Baluch nationalists and some Pakistani politicians say the Baluch conflict holds the potential to break the country apart — Baluchistan makes up a third of Pakistan’s territory — unless the government urgently deals with years of pent up grievances and stays the hand of the military and security services.

Kashgar, Uighurs, Kashmir, and Aryans

With Xinjiang in the news, the curious person in me started wondering whether there might be connections between Kashgar--a major Uighur city--and the name Kashmir. After all, these are all place names up there in the mountains and it is possible that they are all derived from the same clan, of sorts?

If Wikipedia can be believed, they are indeed related.
The Khasas are an ancient people, believed to be a section of the Indo-Iranians who originally belonged to Central Asia from where they had penetrated, in remote antiquity, the Himalayas through Kashgar and Kashmir and dominated the whole hilly region. They are believed to have given their names to Kashgar, Kashi (Central Asia), Kashkara, Kashmir, Khashali (south-east of Kashmir) Kashatwar, Khashdhar (Shimla Hills) and other recognizable colonies at the present day in the hills from Kashmir down to Nepal as also in various plains.
Indo-Iranians? Aryans? How interesting!

The same Wikipedia entry goes on to discuss the role of Khasas in the Mahabharata, and in the famous Kurukshetra War in that epic. (BTW, apparently a friend was talking to his brother-in-law about the Hindu mythologies, and that BIL stopped him right there with an admonition that to him those are not mythologies but real gods he believes in, and events he believes unfolded centuries ago!)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Some more on Uighurs, and China

This time from the Economist:

The government, however, was unusually quick to restrict internet and mobile telephone communications. It has been spooked by the role of the internet during recent unrest in Iran. The Iranian opposition has sparked considerable online discussion in China, as well as disapproving coverage in the official media. Within hours of the Urumqi riot, internet access was cut across Xinjiang (the first time such a wide outage has been reported anywhere in China, even during the unrest in Tibet). International telephone calls were blocked. Within 48 hours text-messaging services were also suspended. A few broadband lines were kept open in an Urumqi hotel for the media .....

China can count on strong moral support from its Central Asian neighbours, with which it is co-operating closely to try to combat cross-border militancy. In the old alleyways of Kashgar, now being rapidly torn down as part of an urban-renewal programme that is fuelling yet more resentment among local Uighurs, official painted slogans condemn Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group calling for a universal caliphate. The group, which has roots across China’s borders, has started to gain recruits in Xinjiang, but is not thought to be widespread. China’s efforts to establish common cause with its neighbours, and to encourage them to stamp out Uighur militancy in their own territories, may partly explain the prominence that Kashgar’s authorities give the organisation.

America feels these closer ties with Central Asian countries are being forged at its expense. But it appreciates China’s quiet support for the anti-terror campaign, including intelligence-sharing. America has no interest in supporting Uighur nationalism and exacerbating instability in an already volatile region. Xinjiang for now is one unstable Muslim area of the world where America is not a public enemy, at least among its Muslim population. It will require a skilful balance between the preservation of crucial ties with China and support for the rights of an aggrieved minority to ensure that this remains so.

As has always been the case with America's foreign policy, realpolitik will end up triumphing over principles, which means that the US will screw the Uighurs and kowtow to the Chinese Communist Party. After all, they are our economic colonizers!

More on Uighurs

James Fallows notes that:
it is a lasting error and embarrassment that after 9/11 the U.S. won Chinese government support by agreeing that Uighur separatists -- formally, the East Turkestan Liberation Organization -- should be seen as part of the world terrorist threat. After all, they are Muslims.
It is such stupid decisions by the US government that continue to fuel the Islamist view that America and the West is anti-Mulsim.

Fallows throws a damper on my hope--my hope that the collapse of the Chinese communist stronghold will be triggered by any radical youth or Tibet, but with Uighurs. He approvingly cites the NY Times op-ed:
The state apparatus has become dizzy with success in dealing with unrest. This gives little hope that further mass outbreaks will not be violently crushed. It also demonstrates that social upheaval will not pave the way to democracy. The party is too strong and confident to allow change from below.
Fallows is way more informed about China--way, way, more than me--which means that I have to kill my hopes for reform, and any hopes for the Uighurs. The world might not care because, after all, they are Muslims without oil :-(

Do professors think and say foolish things?

YES, they do. A lot more than we let the public know. Unfortunately.

Christina Hoff Sommers has a wonderful essay, again. When she writes about the lack of professional and academic integrity, I cannot think of any flaw in her argument. Her comments below, in the context of feminism, are applicable to any field:

Why should it matter if a large number of professors think and say a lot of foolish and intemperate things? Here are three reasons to be concerned:

1) False assertions, hyperbole, and crying wolf undermine the credibility and effectiveness of feminism. The United States, and the world, would greatly benefit from an intellectually responsible, reality-based women's movement.

2) Over the years, the feminist fictions have made their way into public policy. They travel from the women's-studies textbooks to women's advocacy groups and then into news stories. Soon after, they are cited by concerned political leaders. President Obama recently issued an executive order establishing a White House Council on Women and Girls. As he explained, "The purpose of this council is to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy." He and Congress are also poised to use the celebrated Title IX gender-equity law to counter discrimination not only in college athletics but also in college math and science programs, where, it is alleged, women face a "chilly climate." The president and members of Congress can cite decades of women's-studies scholarship that presents women as the have-nots of our society. Never mind that this is largely no longer true. Nearly every fact that could be marshaled to justify the formation of the White House Council on Women and Girls or the new focus of Title IX application was shaped by scholarly merchants of hype like Professors Lemon and Seager.

3) Finally, as a philosophy professor of almost 20 years, and as someone who respects rationality, objective scholarship, and intellectual integrity, I find it altogether unacceptable for distinguished university professors and prestigious publishers to disseminate falsehoods. It is offensive in itself, even without considering the harmful consequences. Obduracy in the face of reasonable criticism may be inevitable in some realms, such as partisan politics, but in academe it is an abuse of the privileges of professorship.

"Thug," "parasite," "dangerous," a "female impersonator" — those are some of the labels applied to me when I exposed specious feminist statistics in my 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? (Come to think of it, none of my critics contacted me directly with their concerns before launching their public attacks.) According to Susan Friedman, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "Sommers' diachronic discourse is easily unveiled as synchronic discourse in drag. ... She practices ... metonymic historiography." That one hurt! But my views, as well as my metonymic historiography, are always open to correction. So I'll continue to follow the work of the academic feminists — to criticize it when it is wrong, and to learn from it when it is right.

Oh, yes, save the whales, er, males :-)

Sommers mentions Sarah Blaffer Hrdy as one of the models for scholarship. Interestingly enough, it was yesterday that I was reading a review of a book by Hrdy--the book is an anthropological exploration into why humans might be interested in raising children who are not their own.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Save the males, part two :-)

In August of last year, I blogged that we needed to worry about the males.
Now, two significant developments--one from economics and the other from science. (No, economics is NOT a science!)

In the world of economics, in this Great Recession, it turns out that males have been losing jobs, and finding it difficult to get employed again, than what has been the female experience thus far. So much so that apparently one economist has termed this the "mancession"--"a recession that hurts men much more than women, and we are allegedly in the worst mancession in recent history"

The huge loss in manufacturing has a significant gender implication. On the other hand, services like teaching holding steady to a large extent has kinds of gender implication.

Amidst this kind of an update from economists, comes a completely surprising, though not that unexpected, news from the world of medicine--reports, which are yet to be confirmed through independent studies, that scientists have been able to create human sperm without any help from a male! To which the BBC has assembled a bunch of funny and serious responses; here is my favorite:

The Daily Telegraph's Rowan Pelling says men are redundant but worth keeping for menial tasks.

"Yet I feel compelled - and not just as the mother of two small boys - to make a spirited defence of the weaker sex. Where would I be without my husband to read 80 pages of a car manual, in French, to find out how the back windscreen-wiper works? Who would tug the dried lumps of excrement from our cat's backside? Who would explain the rules of cricket to an American? Who would clear a blocked drain of unspeakable clotted matter? Who would take hours to demonstrate the dreadnought manoeuvres at the Battle of Jutland, armed only with salt cellars and jam jars? Without men, there would be no one to read Joseph Conrad or Norman Mailer, to remove spiders from the bath, or (important one, this) to tell women they're pretty."
So, if unemployed men had so far been lining up to donate at sperm banks, the prospects are getting dimmer, eh!

Posts popular the last 30 days