Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cartoon of the day: on political apologies :)

Congo's Independence Day

While still groggy from the vicodin that I am on now (yes, the doctor's orders!) I heard on NPR that it is 50 years since Congo became independent.
Despite the wonderful effects of the chemical, I remembered the stingingly satirical piece from The Onion:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sticks and stones do break bones

The caption for this from the source:
A youth attempts to throw a teargas shell back at the police during protests against the alleged killing of a young boy

So, where did this happen?
The Palestinian territories?
Lebanon?
Iran?

Naaah ... this is from India.  Yes, India.  supposedly the land where every young person is busy taking customer calls from around the world!

All is not well in India, and this is one of those many areas where the Indian government has been dealing through brute police/army force, many times going over the line into abuse of power.

Anyway this itself is from Kashmir--a few miles away from the capital city of Srinagar.

Kashmir has been an issue, unfortunately, ever since the creation of India and Pakistan, and this was back in 1947!  Sopore itself has been bubbling ever since the nasty series of tragic events.  One of my graduate school colleagues--who was a Muslim--was from Srinagar.  I wonder if she ever returned to Kashmir even for brief visits; I would doubt that ...

What is the latest situation in Sopore?
With street battles spreading in the valley, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah on Tuesday sent a high level team to Baramulla district to help local administration take measures for restoring peace in the violence hit North Kashmir towns.

"Street battle"--that says it all.  Here is one angle on the internal issues, the use of armed forces, and the neighboring countries:
The blockade in Manipur has been in place for almost two months and people are suffering unimaginable hardship even as the governments. The Naxal issue has gained criticality in the aftermath of a proactive policy adopted by Home Minister P Chidambaram.
The Army is already playing an active role in both Kashmir and the North East and now it may be called upon to contain the Naxal menace also. In the midst of this turmoil the Army, which is the sole savior and sentinel of the nation''s integrity, is facing a grave challenge from a number of forces that are trying to weaken its intrinsic fabric.
Whether this is part of a grand design or the machination of different powers and lobbies who have their own axes to grind, cannot be ascertained, but what is very obvious is that the cumulative effect is quite alarming.
The increasing involvement of the Army in quelling social and political dissent in the country provides the first and most critical chink in its armour. Interestingly, the divisive ideologies of Islamic Jihad and Maoism that the country has to contend with are direct imports from its two neighbours, China and Pakistan.

I am the walrus, er, mashed potatoes :)

glittering prizes, dazzling reviews, and bravos from colleagues may never be enough to quell self-doubt. What you can hope for is to understand what you are good at and be able to admit your faults instead of scrambling to cover them up.
Yes!
Oh, that excerpt is from this piece in the Chronicle

Monday, June 28, 2010

What if Argentina wins it all?:)

A dream final will feature Brazil and Argentina.

But if Argentina wins, and if Maradona fulfils his promise, then we will all have to bear witness to him running naked in central Buenos Aires .... aaaaahhhh :)

Meanwhile, the NY Post sums up the US' loss to Ghana .... ah, the tabloid headlines .... (ht)

The late Sen. Byrd and the Iraq War

He was one of the few who stood up against the war chants; his speech in two parts ...
this administration has directed all of the anger, fear, and grief which emerged from the ashes of the Twin Towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war .
Part 1


Part 2

Name of the day :)

More here :)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Worry about this quote on the economy :(

the United States and Europe are well on their way toward Japan-style deflationary traps.
That is Paul Krugman's line, from his NY Times column.  As I have noted many times over in this blog, this potential combination of deflation and high unemployment is a nightmare scenario that, for whatever reasons, most policymakers are not that much worried about--despite the loud cautionary notes from the likes of Krugman. Like this blog entry from two years ago quoting Roubini--though, that was in the context of oil prices!
So, who will get hurt the most?
The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again.

The marketing of Obama

When I reconnected with a high school friend more than 25 years since graduation, he said that he was into brand management consulting, or something along those lines.  A successful operation he runs.  I bet he will be interested in this piece about how the Obama brand is not seemingly working well:

In his November 2008 essay in the Harvard Business Review, “How Better Marketing Elected Barack Obama,” Quelch cited “Obama's personal charisma, his listening and public speaking skills, his consistently positive and unruffled demeanor and his compelling biography” as components of a brand that “attracted the attention and empathy of voters.” He added that “Obama chose an excellent marketing and campaign team, and managed them well. From start to finish, there was no public dissension.”
But nearly two years later, the marketing challenge for President Obama is far more complicated than for candidate Obama. ...
Quelch warns that “after you are elected, you are only as good as the product and performance you deliver, and the brand promise has to be lived up to. If the promise has been very substantial and the performance has been average, that’s going to put you in a bigger hole than if the promise was modest and the performance has been average. Individual citizens run, if you like, a gap analysis on promise versus performance.”

Poverty, generosity, and respect

Another gem from Subhashitani:

दाता लघुरपि सेव्यो भवति न कृपणो महानपि समृद्ध्या ।
कूपोऽतः स्वादुजलः प्रीत्यै लोकस्य न समुद्रः ॥
- पञ्चतंत्र, मित्रसंप्राप्ति
Even if a generous person is poor, he is to be treated with respect. A miser deserves no respect even if he is rich and prosperous. People like water from a small well but not from the mighty ocean.
- Panchatantra, Mitrasamprapti

Conflict minerals

We may be able to undercut some of the world’s most brutal militias simply by making it clear to electronics manufacturers that we don’t want our beloved gadgets to enrich sadistic gunmen. No phone or tablet computer can be considered “cool” if it may be helping perpetuate one of the most brutal wars on the planet.
More from Nicholas Kristof here ... and the YouTube video he refers to:

Chart of the day: worldwide debt

Leave it to the Economist for the appropriate pun in the caption for the graphic :)

But, yes, "oh dear" is the best way to describe one's reactions to this graph.

The only surprise for me was Germany--its debt levels are not that dissimilar from the US'.

It is interesting, eh, to compare the debt levels of the "old" successful economies that are now in horrible conditions with the debt levels of BRIC--Brazil, Russia, India, China.

So, why debt?
 Why do people, companies and countries borrow? One obvious answer is that it is the only way they can maintain their desired level of spending. Another reason is optimism; they believe the return on the borrowed money will be greater than the cost of servicing the debt. Crucially, creditors must believe that debtors’ incomes will rise; otherwise how would they be able to pay the interest and repay the capital?
But in parts of the rich world such optimism may now be misplaced. With ageing populations and shrinking workforces, their economies may grow more slowly than they have done in the past. They may have borrowed from the future, using debt to enjoy a standard of living that is unsustainable. Greece provides a stark example. Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, estimates that its GDP will not regain its 2008 level until 2017.
Rising government debt is a Ponzi scheme that requires an ever-growing population to assume the burden—unless some deus ex machina, such as a technological breakthrough, can boost growth.

Quote of the day: on Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is probably one of the most controversial contemporary intellectuals--he sure is bound to piss off a bunch of people with every essay or book.  Given his political Damascene Conversion after 9/11, it has been all the more merrier for intellectual junkies like me to follow the debates and discussions from afar; here is one such moment, from Ian Buruma's review of Hitchens' memoir, Hitch-22:
Like many people who count “Hitch” among their friends, I have watched with a certain degree of dismay how this lifelong champion of left-wing, anti-imperialist causes, this scourge of armed American hubris, this erstwhile booster of Vietcong and Sandinistas, this ex-Trot who delighted in calling his friends and allies “comrades,” ended up as a loud drummer boy for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, a tub-thumper for neoconservatism, and a strident American patriot.
Boy, all these writers can use words so well :)
Anyway, more on Hitchens' memoir--this time from across the pond:
What [Hitchens] most resembles, to an almost uncanny degree, is a particular kind of political romantic, as described by Carl Schmitt in his 1919 book Political Romanticism. Schmitt was ostensibly writing about German romanticism at the turn of the 19th century (the intellectual movement that flourished between Rousseau and Hegel) but his real targets were the revolutionary romantics of his own time, including two of Hitchens’s Trotskyite heroes, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. For Schmitt, political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things. As a result, political romantics often lead complicated double lives, moving between different versions of themselves, experimenting with alternative personae. ‘Reversing one’s position between several realities and playing them off against one another belongs to the nature of the romantic situation,’ Schmitt writes. Political romantics are ostensibly self-sufficient yet also have a desperate need for human comradeship. ‘In every romantic we can find examples of anarchistic self-confidence as well as an excessive need for sociability. He is just as easily moved by altruistic feelings, by pity and sympathy, as by presumptuous snobbery.’ Romantics loathe abuses of power, but invariably end up worshipping power itself, sometimes indiscriminately: ‘The caliph of Baghdad is no less romantic than the patriarch of Jerusalem. Here everything can be substituted for everything else.’ Above all, in place of God they substitute themselves. ‘As long as the romantic believed he was himself the transcendental ego, he did not have to be troubled by the question of the true cause: he was himself the creator of the world in which he lived.’All of this sounds a lot like Christopher Hitchens.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Photo of the day: the Bhopal tragedy

A quick recap here

Union Carbide lucked out in the sense that this happened before the advent of 24x7 television news in India.  So, to a large extent, most of India did not quite understand right away what a huge tragedy this was/is.  And, India being India, well, soon after other tragedies took over dominating the news.  And by the time all the likes of NDTV came along, Bhopal became old news, and the IT-cricket-al Qaeda/Pakistan well keeps on giving now.

Why isn't uemployment a topic anymore?

In passing, I noted in an op-ed that policymakers do not seem to be worried about unemployment rates as much as they ought to be.  Daniel Gross wonders why the Fed chief, Bernanke, seem to have removed this from his considerations, and writes:
Could Bernanke go down in history as the Federal Reserve chairman who won the crisis but lost the recovery? If I were in Congress, in the White House, or at the Fed, and we were facing 9.7 percent unemployment, my hair would be on fire. In May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.8 million Americans had been out of work for more than a half a year, up 67 percent from May 2009. As this table shows, the long-term unemployed account for 46 percent of the total unemployed, up from 28 percent a year ago.
The NY Times has a discussion on what can be done about this.  I have to note a local connection here: one of the economists at the table there is Mark Thoma, who is an economics professor at the University of Oregon :)

World Classical Tamil Conference

Tamil is a rich language outside the Indo-Latin family of languages, and with a lengthy history that makes it the oldest "living" language with that kind of a long history in literature.

I suppose it is more for theatre and politics that a World Classical Tamil Conference is underway in the town where I did my undergraduate studies--Coimbatore.  (the photo here is from The Hindu, which had the following caption: A woman sells snacks at the venue of the World Classical Tamil conference. Photo: S.Siva Saravanan)
Professor Parpola said Sanskrit, with its 3,000-year-old tradition, had produced an unrivalled number of literary works. It went back to Proto-Indo-Aryan [which was] attested in a few names and words related to the Mitanni kingdom of Syria between 1500 and 1300 BCE, and earlier forms of Indo-Iranian, known only from a few loanwords in Finno-Ugric languages as spoken in central Russia around 2000 BCE.
“But, none of these very earliest few traces is older than the roots of Tamil. Tamil goes back to Proto-Dravidian, which, in my opinion, can be identified as the language of the thousands of short texts in the Indus script, written during 2600-1700 BCE. There are, of course, different opinions, but many critical scholars agree that even the Rigveda, collected in the Indus Valley about 1000 BCE, has at least half a dozen Dravidian loanwords,” he told a large gathering. 

 So, on this occasion, here is a song/dance clip from an old Tamil movie.  The song is, well, actually a poem by Subramanya Bharathi (ignore the words that pop up in the video with that song--it does great disservice to the poetry.  Click here for translation(s))

Poem for the day: from the world of science

So, there I was watching a program on Newtonian physics and the intellectual inquiries that kept accelerating since his time, and about 20 minutes was about electromagnetism and Maxwell.  It was fantastic. 
I suppose when I was younger I was way too keen on solving the assigned problems (which I did, really well too!!! ahem!!!) and didn't have the patience, nor the right kind of teacher, for understanding the profound importance of the ideas and the history of those scientific achievements.

Everyday life now owes a lot to Maxwell and his contributions to physics.  That was not quite news to me.  But, what was news was how much he was more than just an awesome physicist--he was multidimensional, as most extraordinary people seem to be ... And the story of how this casual poem, which I have copied/pasted here is way too cool ...

It was an exciting time of the first ever trans-Atlantic cable.  Samuel Morse comes up with the single-line telegraph and Morse Code, and the world begins to shrink, so to say.  The next logical thing then was to link up Europe to the emerging economic powerhouse--the US.  But, this required undersea cabling.  Quite a technological challenge for the day, I would imagine.
Maxwell's friend--a fellow Scot as well--Thompson (later, Lord Kelvin) was the technical guy behind it, but apparently the company did not follow his instructions.  So, a failed first attempt--as the ship moved along unreeling the cable, it snapped somewhere under the sea!  Of course, the next time they followed the instructions and everything worked.

So, here is Maxwell writing a poem about this ... Now, writing verses was apparently not any unfamiliar territory for him, as this collection in an 1882 work notes
And, a quick note on the "2(u)" ... for the sake of efficiency in communication (!) Maxwell used "2(u)" to denote "Under the sea, under the sea"
THE SONG OF THE ATLANTIC TELEGRAPH COMPANY
I.
2(u)
Mark how the telegraph motions to me,
2(u)
Signals are coming along,
With a wag, wag, wag;
The telegraph needle is vibrating free,
And every vibration is telling to me
How they drag, drag, drag,
The telegraph cable along,
II.
2(u)
No little signals are coming to me
2(u)
Something has surely gone wrong,
And it’s broke, broke, broke;
What is the cause of it does not transpire,
But something has broken the telegraph wire
With a stroke, stroke, stroke,
Or else they’ve been pulling too strong.
III.
2(u)
Fishes are whispering. What can it be,
2(u)
So many hundred miles long?
For it’s strange, strange, strange,
How they could spin out such durable stuff,
Lying all wiry, elastic, and tough,
Without change, change, change,
In the salt water so strong.
IV.
2(u)
There let us leave it for fishes to see;
2(u)
They’ll see lots of cables ere long,
For we’ll twine, twine, twine,
And spin a new cable, and try it again,
And settle our bargains of cotton and grain,
With a line, line, line,—
A line that will never go wrong.
Source

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Can there be a good Commie?

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby writes that there is no "good" Communist.  He writes it in the context of the death of Portuguese writer--Nobel laureate--Jose Saramago, and the stream of obituaries that noted his Communist affiliation:
not just a nominal communist, as his obituaries pointed out, but an “unabashed’’(Washington Post), “unflinching’’ (AP),“unfaltering’’ (New York Times) true believer. A member since 1969 of Portugal’s hardline Communist Party, Saramago called himself a “hormonal communist’’ who in all the years since had “found nothing better.’’ Yet far from rendering him a pariah, Saramago’s communist loyalties have been treated as little more than a roguish idiosyncrasy. Without a hint of irony, AP’s obituary quoted a comment Saramago made in 1998: “People used to say about me, ‘He’s good but he’s a communist.’ Now they say, ‘He’s a communist but he’s good.’ ’’
But the idea that good people can be devoted communists is grotesque. The two categories are mutually exclusive. There was a time, perhaps, when dedication to communism could be absolved as misplaced idealism or naiveté, but that day is long past. After Auschwitz and Babi Yar, only a moral cripple could be a committed Nazi. By the same token, there are no good and decent communists — not after the Gulag Archipelago and the Cambodian killing fields and Mao’s“Great Leap Forward.’’ Not after the testimonies of Alexander Solzhenitsyn andArmando Valladares and Dith Pran.
In the decades since 1917, communism has led to more slaughter and suffering than any other cause in human history. Communist regimes on four continents sent an estimated 100 million men, women, and children to their deaths — not out of misplaced zeal in pursuit of a fundamentally beautiful theory, but out of utopian fanaticism and an unquenchable lust for power.
Reason, which was the link to this op-ed, has quite a collection here
Jacoby notes:
Communism is not, as its champions like to claim, an appealing doctrine that has been perverted by monstrous regimes. It is a monstrous doctrine that hides behind appealing rhetoric. It is mass crime embodied in government. Nothing devised by human beings has caused more misery or proven more brutal.

How to fake it .... learn from soccer

This Ivory Coast player bumps his side into a Brazilian player ... but he goes down holding his nose :)
ht

Come to think of it, this is what most faculty also do at meetings: pretend hurt and anger, when in reality all they do is promote their own interests, hoping that nobody will notice it.
(editor: ahem, aren't you a faculty member, too? Yes, but I skip out of most meetings!)

Keep teachers happy!

I did not say that; it is from Manusmriti--the Laws of Manu--which is about 2,000 to 2,500 years old.
Manu wrote:

तयोर्नित्यं प्रियं कुर्यात् आचार्यस्य च सर्वदा ।
तेष्वेव त्रिषु तुष्टेषु तपः सर्वं समाप्यते ॥
- मनुस्मृति
One must do all he can to keep his parents and teacher happy. If they are satisfied it is equivalent to any (all) penance.
- Manu Smriti
It was not this verse that I was searching for though.  I was trying to recall a Sanskrit verse about "five mothers" a person has and, well, I was at a loss.  So, I googled it, but was unsuccessful.  However, I landed at this site with a wonderful collection of verses along with their translations.  Spent some time there trying to read the originals in Sanskrit, and the thirty-plus years since my last Sanskrit class definitely showed :(

Anyway, the "five mothers" is, if I recall correctly (and I wish I could write it out in Sanskrit):
Gurupathni rajapthni jyeshtapathni thathaiva cha
pathnimaatha swamaatha cha panchai the maathara smrithaha
which translates to:
The guru's wife, the king's wife, along with the eldest brother's wife
Wife's mother, and own (birth) mother are to be treated as five mothers
I am all the more curious now whether listing the birth mother at the end was for poetic placement purposes, or whether the poet intended a hierarchy in such a listing.....

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The nation's--world's--worst job ...

A couple of days ago, Fred Thompson (erstwhile senator and Republican presidential contender, and actor!) was on the Daily Show.  One of the questions Jon Stewart asked him was whether Thompson is relieved that he is not in the White House having to deal with all the issues.
Of course, The Onion beat everybody to the post when it declared soon after Obama won:
Black man given nation's worst job
It has gotten only worse for the president; the latest?
Yes, it is now Day 64 since the BP rig exploded, and continues to gush out oil at rates that only seem to increase every day--now at, or having exceeded, 100,000 barrels a day!
General McChrystal decides it is time to be a MacArthur, and is now looking at being removed from the job, which means a new chief for the country's longest war ever
Israel has gone complete bonkers with Gaza and occupied territories, and now even Ehud Barak is worried
The Euro is quite close to imploding, and the French-German relations are showing the stress
Unemployment continues to be high, and is a mere fractional points away from the psychological two-digit rate
WTF, eh!
And then internal issues:

The budget director, Orzsag, is leaving; A blogger at the SF Chronicle's notes the sex-issue:
Any dude who can snag ABC newscaster Bianna Golodryga while banging wealthy shipping heiress Claire Milonas, and running the country's budget is a man.
A man, yes, but not a thoughtful man.
One long summer ahead.  And then?  Midterm elections.  Odds seem to be in favor of the Republicans getting back the control of the House?

Monday, June 21, 2010

It is summer ... finally!!!

Summer officially--astronomically--began this morning.  (editor: here is a depressing thought: from now on days will get shorter!)
The summer solstice is a result of the Earth's north-south axis being tilted 23.5 degrees relative to the sun. The tilt causes different amounts of sunlight to reach different regions of the planet.
Today the North Pole is tipped closer to the sun than on any other day of 2010. The opposite holds true for the Southern Hemisphere, for which today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
Growing up in the southern part of India, I was familiar with only three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest!  Of course, I am kidding; there was only one season--HOT :)

But, as a kid, I cared for nothing, as all kids are (and ought to be?)  Life was only in terms of school days versus holidays.  And holidays meant doing nothing, or climbing up mango and tamarind trees, or biking all over the place, or playing cricket, or fighting with my brother while doing any of the previously listed activities ... maybe the age difference was why I never fought that much with my sister? ...

It was a near magical place where I grew up, and I thank all the lucky stars for that.  It was my own MacondoNeyveli will always be my true home in my heart.  It will be awesome to have my ashes scattered in Neyveli--well, after I die, of course!  Perhaps under my favorite mango tree in the yard.

"The law is a ass--a idiot"--continued

A follow-up to this earlier posting where I used the Charles Dickens quote in the context of a law suit that had worked its way up to the Supreme Court.  A quick recap of that case:
Ralph Fertig hardly resembles a terrorist, but the soft-spoken 79-year-old pacifist and human rights activist from Los Angeles might well qualify as one under the government's strong anti-terrorism law.
He is the lead plaintiff in a Supreme Court case to be heard next week that will test whether speaking out on behalf of an oppressed foreign minority -- represented by a group that's been deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. -- can result in a long prison term.
So, what did the Supremes say?  Are we to be surprised that the uber-conservative Supreme Court supports the government's position?
The court ruled 6-3 Monday that the government may prohibit all forms of aid to designated terrorist groups, even if the support consists of training and advice about entirely peaceful and legal activities.

Material support intended even for benign purposes can help a terrorist group in other ways, Chief Justice John Roberts said in his majority opinion.
Six to three!  even the retiring Stevens sided with the conservatives on the bench.  (Well, this is merely another piece of evidence that Stevens is not that much a "liberal" justice, as is often mistakenly presented.)

What did the three dissenting justices say?  Here is their spokesman, Justice Breyer:
I cannot agree with the Court’s conclusion that the Constitution permits the Government to prosecute the plaintiffs criminally for engaging in coordinated teaching and advocacy furthering the designated organizations' lawful political objectives. In my view, the Government has not met its burden of showing that an interpretation of the statute that would prohibit this speech- and association-related activity serves the Government's compelling interest in combating terrorism. And I would interpret the statute as normally placing activity of this kind outside its scope.
It is bloody f*ed up, I say. Again, as a reminder, what did Ralph Fertig do, and what does he want to achieve?

The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army, two of history’s most notorious terrorist groups, have never appeared on the State Department’s List of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. By the time the list was first compiled in 1997, both groups were deemed to be moving away from violence and toward a peaceful resolution of their grievances.
Ralph Fertig, president of the Humanitarian Law Project, wants to encourage a similar change within the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a violent separatist group in Turkey also known as the PKK (its Kurdish initials). But he worries that doing so will expose him to prosecution for providing “material support” to a terrorist organization, a crime Congress has defined so broadly that it includes a great deal of speech protected by the First Amendment. When it hears Fertig’s case next week, the Supreme Court will have a chance to correct that error.
Fertig, a civil rights lawyer and former administrative law judge, seeks, as the district court described it, to “provide training in the use of humanitarian and international law for the peaceful resolution of disputes, engage in political advocacy on behalf of the Kurds living in Turkey, and teach the PKK how to petition for relief before representative bodies like the United Nations.” Fertig says he also wants to “advocate on behalf of the rights of the Kurdish people and the PKK before the United Nations and the United States Congress.”
I am looking forward to Glenn Greenwald's and Dahlia Lithwick's analyses ...

BTW, does this mean that the 80-year old Ralph Fertig is looking at prison time?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

It is "nospeak" not "newspeak" that should worry us

The brilliant Tony Judt, who has been compelled by life to deal with "a bunch of dead muscles", has, as always, profound and timely observations--this time about words and articulacy and inarticulacy ...
When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”
The final paragraph is quite moving:
No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.

BP spill at 60 days, and counting: Worst case scenario?

The BP rig exploded and sank on April 22nd.

My intro class students were just about wrapping up the assignment I had given them--on how the volcanic eruption in Iceland messed up Kenyan farmers who export flowers and, therefore, on the role of transportation in economic growth and development.

I thought that might just about be the only "current news" driven assignment for the term.  But then the BP disaster happened.  My gut instincts were that it was a catastrophe, which was the word I used to describe it when I pulled up photographs of the news story in the class (thanks to the wired "smart rooms" in which we now teach).  So, it was on to the next "current news" driven assignment.

Now, 60 days later, it does not seem like we are anywhere near the end of the story.  In fact, as Lisa Margonelli writes:
The question I'd like to ask Tony Hayward is this: To the best of your knowledge are we near the end of this spill? In the middle? Or perhaps, only at the very beginning?
Back on May 1st, I noted in the post that this was our own Chernobyl.  If I second-guessed myself that I was engaging in hyperbole, well, it sadly seems like I might have even underestimated it--it is even worse than Chernobyl because unlike the nuclear reactor accident, this one has a real probability that it could go on until there is no more oil to ooze out.  One can imagine the horrific economic and environmental consequences .... and we will still be underestimating ...

I was initially a tad suspicious of this Scienceblog post on the worst case scenario about the BP oozathon--that we will never be able to stop it.  But, even Margonelli refers to that, and adds this:

There are legitimate concerns about the integrity of the casing. Yesterday, someone asked Admiral Allen about that. He said that concerns about the integrity of the well bore were part of the decision to stop the "Top Kill" a few weeks ago, indicating that there are significant concerns. On April 23, the Coast Guard was aware that the size of the leak could grow from 8000 barrels a day to 64,000 to 110,000 barrels a day if the well completely blew out. That's quite close to the current spill estimates. Does that mean that the well is nearing a full blow out?   
The reason the casing's integrity matters is that if it's cracked, oil will push out through the cracks and into the surrounding ground, destabilizing the ground around the casing, and bubbling up from the ocean floor. Here's more, with Senator Bill Nelson's interview a week and a half ago saying just that. A seeping well, of course, will be hard to contain. 

Holy crap!
Oh yeah, happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Remembrance of things past-9

Having left India in the second half of the 1980s, and not having kept up with popular culture since then means that, well, ....!  Life has been about creating entirely new sets of memories since then, and am all the better and wiser as a result.
Here is one of my many favorite film songs from years past; this one is by a classically trained singer, Vani Jayaram.  As with almost all the film songs that I still cherish, I have not watched the movies in which they were featured.  And, as with operas, I have no clue most of the time about what the words mean because all I had even then was a rudimentary understanding of Hindi, while the lyrics were poetry.  But, yes, no knowing what the words mean did not stop me from enjoying the music then--and even now, for instance, when I listen to Edith Piaff :)

Are we f*ing idiots?

That is what Jon Stewart asks ... this is a must-watch segment, which tells a far better story (of course!) than the one I did earlier ... once again, will be super-hysterically funny if it weren't true.
Stewart also points out something that I tell students when we discuss environmental aspects--the political label of R or D can be misleading, and the best example is Nixon.  Yes, that unethical president who resigned in disgrace and didn't do jail time only because he was given a swift presidential pardon.  Nixon created the EPA that most of the current Republicans dis all the time.
Oh well, here is Stewart:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
An Energy-Independent Future
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Feel good photo (story) of the day

The BBC:


The tawny owl chick tumbled from its nest and hopped right up to Indu, a two-metre-long Asiatic lion.
Zoo visitors raised the alarm, but it was too dangerous for anyone to go into the enclosure to rescue the owl.
The big cat wasn't interested in its new feathery friend though, and it's thought the owl later flew to safety.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Abba performing "Dancing Queen" at the wedding, again?

tomorrow ... Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria marries fitness trainer Daniel Westling. Five hundred million television viewers across Europe are expected to watch the 20m Krona (£1.7m) spectacle in Stockholm's specially renovated cathedral.
That report from The Guardian also notes that:
even non-royal watchers have taken an interest in the celebration, which it has been rumoured, will see Abba re-convene for the first time in almost three decades to perform for the royal couple — and play Dancing Queen.
Will be neat if they did perform :)

Quote of the day: on politics

In opposition Mr Cameron vowed that, were he to become prime minister, politics and government would not be "some demented branch of the entertainment industry". So far, he has been as good as his word. This seems to be a government that speaks up when it has something to say, but when it hasn't, or when keeping quiet is more sensible, it doesn't. It is both quiet and dramatic at the same time.
Awesome, that the British prime minister actually described politics and government as "some demented branch of the entertainment industry" ... Good you, Mr. Cameron.
In that same posting, Bagehot of The Economist also notes that
Right-wing British newspapers are often every bit as shrill as the American media. Leaping on the chance to display some easy, knee-jerk patriotism, several urged David Cameron to stand up for “British Petroleum” and rebuke Barack Obama for demonising the company. Instead, the line has been that the government neither owns nor will disown BP—and quietly to point out that the firm has lots of American shareholders and employees too. Ministers saw Mr Obama’s rhetoric for what it was: the flailing of a politician in a desperate fix. By saying very little in public, they defused what threatened to become a juvenile spat.
I really, really hope that this Tory-LibDem coalition will work out ...

A Tale of Two Gulfs

Taking off on the classic Charles Dickens work, A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps the economic, environmental, and geopolitical aspects of petroleum can be woven together as A Tale of Two Gulfs.

Growing up in India, I, like many others, was familiar with “the Gulf” to which hundreds of thousands of Indians headed every year.  The geographic area referred to was the Persian Gulf, which had gained prominence thanks to the phenomenal growth in employment in the oil-rich Gulf countries—specifically, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait. 

Here in the US, in the current contexts, “the Gulf” now refers to the Gulf of Mexico, where oil has been gushing out from a mile under the sea for two months now.  The live video feed from the site continues to mesmerize not only us here in America, but in the rest of the world as well.

But, more than thirty years ago, it was that other Gulf, and the oil there, that monopolized the attention of Americans.  In 1979, the Iranian revolution ousted the Shah, and installed a theocratic regime, and the geopolitical instability that resulted triggered a massive increase in the global price for oil.  The high oil prices that were recorded then went unmatched until very recently, immediately before the Great Recession. 

As the planet watched the unfolding events in Iran, and struggled to cope with the high price of oil, President Jimmy Carter addressed the country—and the world—in the “Crisis of Confidence” speech.  Carter noted early on in that speech on July 15, 1979, “I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?”

Thirty-one years have gone by since Carter’s frustration that we have not been able to figure a way out of the energy problem.  Six months later, after losing the election in November, Carter stated in his State of the Union address that the official position of the United States was that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Since then, we have been quite fixated on the Persian Gulf, with mostly disastrous economic and human costs.  While Carter couched this doctrine in the context of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the altered landscape since the fall of the Communist bloc has apparently not dented our perspectives on the Persian Gulf and petroleum. 

Even more, despite the political fixation, I suppose most Americans are unfamiliar with the geography and geopolitics.  Every once in a while I quiz students on the Persian Gulf and Middle Eastern countries, and rare is a student who correctly identifies at least a half of them.   

As problems began in the “other” Gulf—the Gulf of Mexico—I asked students in my introductory class to quiz at least six on campus about the catastrophe.  One of the questions was to list all the states in the union that border the Gulf of Mexico.  The results of this exercise, also, were far from encouraging. 

Our collective apathy about the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mexico, and the valued resource that is in common—petroleum—is depressing.  Particularly when we project it against the background of Carter’s speech from 1979, in which he observed that “the energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation. These are facts and we simply must face them.”

We threw out any sense of urgency once the Persian Gulf crisis eased.  The Gulf of Mexico gusher, which ought to have been avoided in the first place, will be capped, hopefully sooner than later.  But, even after the images of oil-stained pelicans disappear from the daily news, I hope we will stay focused enough to write the rest of A Tale of Two Gulfs, and get to my favorite phrase: The End!

Thank you for smoking!

Ok, if you are like me, well, I am sorry for you :)
No, seriously, if your childhood was similar to mine, then you looked forward to the newspaper or the magazine that had a puzzle for children--to spot the differences between two drawings.

Well, play that game again--this time with the photos of Churchill here.
There is only one difference between the two photos; did you see what it is?
Done?

You think there might be a back story? As Palin might say, "you betcha!"
In the well-known original image, Churchill makes a "V" shaped symbol with his fingers – while gripping a cigar in the corner of his mouth.
But in a reproduction of the picture, hanging over the main entrance to a London museum celebrating the wartime leader, he has been made into a non-smoker through the use of image-altering techniques
Get this: it was at  "The Winston Churchill's Britain at War Experience"
And we thought that Winston Smith lived only in the fictional 1984!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

That is smooth--well, no beard :)

Every few years, I begin to wonder how much difference my beard makes, and sooner or later I shave it off ... and within a matter of days I start growing the beard again because it is now so much a part of who I am ...

So, yes, that is where I am now ... but, I am doing it in stages ... I have only a mustache on for now ... looks hiiiillllarious :)

Come to think of it, if I had not left India, there is a fair chance that I would have retained my moustache (as it is spelt there) ...

I tell you, it doesn't take much to amuse myself ...

According to Shakespeare, the beard shows up in the fifth part we play in this world that is a stage:
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.
I have commented to students on quite a few occasions that Americans are mostly a tad suspicious of men with facial hair.  Thus, it is rare for a male politician or CEO to sport a beard, or even a mustache.  (Yes, that is yet another reason why the Oregon governor race is all the more interesting!)  The last bearded president we had, well, you know who that was :) 
To a large extent, men with facial hair then tend to be found more in higher education settings and in the public sector.  Yet, I am always surprised that quite a few male faculty do not have beards, and even more surprised when they say they have never ever even experimented growing one ...

Anyway, next step--removing the mustache too.  But, a post on that is at least a week-plus away ...

Best lines of the day :)

On Monday night in Ohio, a 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus got hit by lightning and burned to the ground. (The adult bookstore across the street was unscathed.) 
Those were the opening lines from Gail Collins' column in the NY Times.
Pretty good.  Not Dickens, or Tolstoy, or Melville.  But, pretty good :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An OMG edition: Sarah Palin

TPM via Slate:
"Well, then what the federal government should have done was accept the assistance of foreign countries, of entrepreneurial Americans who have had solutions that they wanted presented. They can't even get a phone call returned, Bill. The Dutch—they are known, and the Norwegians—they are known for dikes and for cleaning up water and for dealing with spills. They offered to help and yet, no, they too, with the proverbial, can't even get a phone call back."
—To Bill O'Reilly, Fox News, June 15, 2010.


You know, maybe it is time for that Stephen Sondheim classic:

Product of the day: bicycle

I think I was about nine years old when I learnt how to ride a bike.  In my teenage years in high school, my friends and I biked all over the town, and many a time outside of the town too ...
Even as a grad student, I relied on my bike for everything from going to campus to the grocery stores.  I loved my bike, which I bought as a used--very much so--bike, and the basket in front was just the right size.  I was devastated when somebody stole it.  I could not believe that somebody would steal that very old, used bike!
Anyway, later when I was gainfully employed, I bought bikes.  But, I sold my bike more than a year ago--as I got older, the more I found the damn seat too uncomfortable!!!
But, I would love to have the bike pictured here--looks way too cool and simple ...
Bangalore-based Neil Foley is a leading Product Designer. This year he won the ‘Silver Prize' in the 14th International Bicycle Design Competition. His design ‘Spine', as the name suggests, is designed like the backbone and supports the whole body.
The designer explains:
The essence of the bicycle design is brought out by its simple, elemental and basic structure and lack of visual clutter. So I concealed the drive within the skeleton, which made it more elegant. Then the durability factor; I had to take Indian roads and weather into consideration. The basic factor I concentrated on was safety. Usually when you have an accident with a bicycle, the metal components cause the injury. So I clad the metal in Elastoma which is a shock absorber. This will help reduce injury. Also, the bicycle was made out of light weight metal; so it's easier to manage it.
Yes. I want it.  Hey, btw, if I get this bike, given the name of the design, I suppose people will no longer call me "spine"less :)

Cartoons of the day: the BP Oozathaon

We continue to fail "to resolve our serious energy problem"

After listening to President Obama's Oval Office address yesterday, I prefer the Jimmy Carter "Crisis of Confidence" speech from 30-plus years ago.  But, the fact that I am referring to Carter's speech is itself a reflection of how much the US has failed to act when it comes to energy and the environment.  Pathetic.  And, even when Obama talked about an energy policy need, he did not use that pulpit to urge the Senate to get cracking on the stalled bill ...

Bloody depressing that politics is thus ... To get more depressed (!) I thought it might be neat to dig up what President Bush (II) said about offshore drilling; wasn't a difficult search.  Here he is in July 2008--his last days of the presidency:

As all these are happening, I thought this might be the best opportunity for Al Gore to come out swinging, and say "I told you so."  But, of course, Gore is dealing with his split from his wife, and his daughter's divorce as well.  If that is what is preventing Gore from being in the public on this topic, then I am all the more impressed with his priorities--as they ought to be.
Yet,
Contrast this with last summer, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought her climate bill to the floor of Congress. Gore phoned wavering members and twisted arms alongside the president to pass the landmark American Clean Energy and Security Act. As the Senate debates a version of that legislation that could reduce emissions and consumption of domestic oil reserves, Gore is far behind the scenes.
Here is the first part of Jimmy Carter's 1979 speech, where he states the main purpose behind his address: "why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?"

So, how much things do not change? Jon Stewart explains it in the context of Guantanamo:
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Respect My Authoritah
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Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research

A couple of months ago, the dean of the college, where I teach reviewed my work over the past few years and declared that it essentially amounted to me being on the "mashed potato circuit" ... I asked him whether writing in a third- or fourth-rate journal that nobody ever reads was really worth it.  His response was even more classic--that "bean counting" was his responsibility.  (Yes, the phrases in quotes are the dean's very words!)

As I wrote in an essay in the Chronicle Review, almost ten years ago, most of the academic "research" is pretentious work that will not sell even for penny, or for a kopek according to Anton Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" that I quoted in that essay.  I am hoping that the financial urgency will force higher education to review its bizarre facade of scholarship, before the public figures it out as much as Uncle Vanya figured it out ...

In this essay in the recent Chronicle Review, the authors note:
We need policy makers and grant makers to focus not on money for current levels of publication, but rather on finding ways to increase high-quality work and curtail publication of low-quality work. If only some forward-looking university administrators initiated changes in hiring and promotion criteria and ordered their libraries to stop paying for low-cited journals, they would perform a national service. We need to get rid of administrators who reward faculty members on printed pages and downloads alone, deans and provosts "who can't read but can count," as the saying goes. Most of all, we need to understand that there is such a thing as overpublication, and that pushing thousands of researchers to issue mediocre, forgettable arguments and findings is a terrible misuse of human, as well as fiscal, capital.
The authors list a few suggestions for reform.  What is their bottom line?
Best of all, our suggested changes would allow academe to revert to its proper focus on quality research and rededicate itself to the sober pursuit of knowledge. And it would end the dispiriting paper chase that turns fledgling inquirers into careerists and established figures into overburdened grouches.
Here is the ultimate kicker: the authors are, implicitly, referring to the research universities.  If this is their set of observations on the happenings at research universities, then one can easily imagine the state of "research" at the vast number of universities that are not research universities but teaching universities ....

In another essay, elsewhere at InsideHigherEd, Arthur Levine notes that rapidly widening gap between "Digital students, Industrial-era universities" :
[It] is important to ask how much colleges and universities need to change. In 1828, facing industrialization and a Connecticut legislature that disapproved of Yale’s classical curriculum, the Yale faculty responded with a report which asked, in part, whether the college needed to change a lot or a little. This, Yale’s faculty said, was the wrong question. The question to be asked, they argued, was: What is the purpose of a college? This remains the right question today.
Ahem, 20 years ago, the late Ernest Boyer wrote about this issue of the need to (re)establish the priorities of the professoriate!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Ghost Writer ...

I delayed watching the movie because I was conflicted about its director--Roman Polanski.  He is, after all, guilty of having raped a 13-year old.  And has been dodging the legal complications for 33 years.
But, dammit, he makes good movies .... an artist he is .... Now, of course, it does not mean that everybody else in the entertainment industry is a Gandhi either ...
Well, finally, I did end up watching it ... and, yes, it is a well-made movie, and well acted too.  I had no idea that Pierce Brosnan can be this good an actor.  Ewan McGregor was, as always, good.  Kim Catrall's performance was even more of a surprise--in a good way :)
Half way through the movie, I started thinking that this is a re-telling of The Manchurian Candidate.  So, to some extent, I was playing a guessing game of who the hidden spy was: the ex prime minister's wife or his erstwhile foreign secretary.  They both were good candidates ... There were a few illogical aspects in the storytelling .. but, then, come on, this was no Hitchcock movie, eh...

This Time for Africa


a

Kafka and the Gulf of Mexico Oozathon

I have always been drawn to Kafka, and now I can't stop myself from following the BP catastrophe ... It is neat that thanks to one of my favorite websites I came across this fantastic piece that combines Kafka and the great ooze from the bottom of the sea:
Is there any hope in the situation? This is where on our darker days, Kafka is a bleak New Orleans prophet. He was often dark, though never a nihilist. He lived, always, at the edge of faith. Once, his friend Max Brod asked him if there was any such thing as hope in the universe. “Yes,” Kafka replied, “of course there’s hope, plenty of hope—for God. Just none for us.”
I know that punch line sounds grim, but right now it hurts so much it’s funny. In the land of disaster, even a bitter laugh is a start.

Kafka offers wonderful insights through his works.  It is too bad that many universities provide enough and more pathways for students to completely bypass Kafka--they can graduate and earn diplomas without ever even having heard about Kafka.  Unfortunate.  There is one college that has apparently been requiring incoming freshmen to read Kafka and Charles Darwin's works in the summer before they start college, and then the first few weeks of college is nothing but Kafka and Darwin all the time
[We] have asked incoming first-year students to read two texts in the summer before they arrive at Bard---Kafka's The Metamorphosis and the fourth chapter of Darwin's The Origin of Species, "Natural Selection." On some level, students will find something familiar about these summer readings as well as something counterintuitive and obscure. A simplified version of what takes place in Kafka's short story has some presence in popular culture, and at a minimum most students will have heard someone use the word "Kafkaesque." A direct encounter with the writing of this remarkable German-speaking Jew from Prague who was reluctant to have his writings published can be inspiring precisely because of the tension between image, reception, and textual reality that characterizes both The Metamorphosis and Kafka's life.
090206-charles-darwin-02.jpgThe disjunction between image and reality could not be more pronounced than in the case of Charles Darwin. The claims of no other thinker or scientist, with the possible exception of Einstein, have been so mangled and distorted in the popular imagination. Somehow every citizen thinks he or she knows what Darwin thought without actually having read his writings. Direct engagement with Darwin's work not only makes the character and significance of modern biology more apparent, exciting, and vital, but the brilliance and subtlety of Darwin's thought quickly dispel the distortions that dominate scientific journalism in the popular media.
Colleges must counter the experience of conventional high school education in the United States, where learning is little more than a standardized test-driven chore with utilitarian benefits. In college, students should discover that most of the important writings and discoveries they will study were not generated for their benefit, but rather came into being in order to illuminate and improve life. It is precisely the connection between learning and living that justifies the life of the mind and makes study and inquiry a treasured form of human activity and among the most rewarding.
This belief cannot be preached; it can only be experienced. What better mechanism to set this experience in motion than assigning common readings in the summer?

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