Tuesday, May 31, 2011

From curmudgeon to cowboys and commencement

The best lines I read today are from this rather polemic op-ed by the curmudgeonly Harvey Mansfield:
A graduate student in sociology is one who didn't get his fill of jargonized wishful thinking as an undergraduate. Such a person will never fail to disappoint you. But sociology has close competitors in other social sciences (including mine, political science) and in the humanities.
With all his writing on manliness and gripes about a feminized culture, Mansfield does come across at times, if not all the time, as an academic cowboy of sorts.  Atul Gawande uses the same cowboy metaphor, but in a completely different way in his commencement address to the graduating class of Harvard's medical students.  Even if I were not the Gawande fan that I am, well, it is a kind of commencement address that makes a lot of sense.  Speaking about the changes in the medical profession over the last couple of generations, and the spiraling cost of healthcare, Gawande notes that "We train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need."

The metaphor is easy to grasp--we have seen how fast and efficient the pit crew people work, and work as a team.  We imagine the cowboy to be a lonely horseback rider herding cattle.  And then Gawande concludes with this:
Recently, you might be interested to know, I met an actual cowboy. He described to me how cowboys do their job today, herding thousands of cattle. They have tightly organized teams, with everyone assigned specific positions and communicating with each other constantly. They have protocols and checklists for bad weather, emergencies, the inoculations they must dispense. Even the cowboys, it turns out, function like pit crews now. It may be time for us to join them.
To some extent, the old-fashioned academe too used to function like pit crews more than as cowboys.  But, the rapid and over-specialization of academics even at teaching universities like mine has transformed faculty into pedantic cowboys, I suppose.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Oh for a brief moment in the sun ...

For a brief few hours it was a gorgeous spring day here.

Sun, blue sky, puffy white and grey clouds, with an occasional rain drop.  All we need is a couple of hours that way, and I am willing to overlook how nature is otherwise screwing us up with a February weather during these last few days in May.

It is evening, and the rains are back.  The raindrops falling on the roof and on the leaves are loud enough, and yet somehow comforting enough.  I suppose the comfort comes from the familiarity after all these years in Oregon.  Like a wonderful friend having annoying habits!

The sunny warmth and the blue sky already seems like a distant memory.  Good thing I took a bunch of photographs to remind myself that it was not in my imagination!

The river was gorgeous.  People were out and about--I think we all knew that good things, unfortunately, come to an end, and we wanted to enjoy the moment while it lasted.  As I hurried along the path, I overheard two women complaining about their mothers.  In a large group, which seemed like two families all on bikes, one father yelled out to the other father that it was getting all numb down there.  Two older women were seated on a bench, in the sun, and conversing.  A kid asked his mother why there was no trash can right there for him to throw the candy wrappers, and his mother directed him to carry that for a while.  A dog wagged its tail wildly and was so excited to see me that I stopped to pet that pooch.  Which is why I care not that it is raining again.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Are you middle class? You think you are poor? Check this out

If ever you are like me, then, well, I feel sorry for you.   Haha!

Ok, kidding aside, if ever you have doubts on your own economic standing here in the US of A, and want to figure out where exactly you fall along the income spectrum, well, take a look at this table which will tell you which income percentile you belong to.

What is, however, more interesting is the following chart (in fact, it is this chart that led me to the income percentile table too)


"Oh my freaking lord" is probably what you are thinking.
Being rich or poor in material terms is all relative.  Check this map of the world:

A generational change: The new ethos of the young and the restless

I totally get it that my students are different from me, perhaps even more than how my generation and I were different from our predecessors.  Which is why I don't care much when students have their smartphones always visible to them on their desks in the classrooms.  Or when students have their laptops open ... as long as they are able to respond to the questions I have for them, and jump in with relevant and interesting comments.  After all, I experienced this even with my daughter, who was a big time multi-tasker even a decade ago, which seems like a century ago.

Which is why the following from a NY Times report on the  Millennials (Gen Y) does not surprise me at all:
Perhaps most important, many of the behaviors that older generations interpret as laziness may actually enhance young people’s productivity, say researchers who study Generation Y.
Members of Gen Y, for example, are significantly more likely than Gen X’ers and boomers to say they are more productive working in teams than on their own, according to Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World,” a book based on interviews with 11,000 millennials.
To older workers, wanting help looks like laziness; to younger workers, the gains that come from teamwork have been learned from the collaborative nature of their childhood activities, which included social networks, crowd-sourcing and even video games like World of Warcraft that “emphasize cooperative rather than individual competition,” Mr. Tapscott says.
Employers also complain about millennials checking Facebook and Twitter on the job, or working with their ear buds in.
Older workers have a strong sense of separate spheres for work and play: the cubicle is for work, and home is for fun. But to millennials, the boundaries between work and play are fuzzier, said Michael D. Hais, co-author of “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics.”
There is a big time blurring between work and fun that is even more than how it is in my life.  To recall the words of a really, really old dude, "the times they are a-changing." Again. And again.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

How to solve America's problems in, yes, two seconds

Again, from America's Finest News Source:
A study published Thursday by psychologists at the University of North Carolina concluded that all American problems—from stuck jacket zippers to the national debt—could be solved if citizens just stopped, took a deep breath, and thought for two seconds before they acted. "We found that in 93 percent of cases, a positive outcome could have been achieved if Americans simply splashed a little water on their faces prior to dealing with an unfair boss, being out of clean spoons, signing on to direct a second Wall Street film, or answering a call from a parent," Janet Mallory, the study's lead author, told reporters. "Our data indicate that when U.S. citizens don't take a second to compose themselves, they typically charge in like maniacs and hurt either themselves or several million Iraqi civilians." Mallory said a good rule of thumb for Americans is to think of a plan, stop, and then do the complete opposite
How do these wonderfully talented people at the Onion keep coming up with gems like this without fail?  I am so bloody jealous of their creative and humor-filled brain :)

I think I picked up, in my childhood, the taste for satire and sarcasm in humor, by watching and reading "Cho" ... His play/film "Mohammed Bin Thuglak" was as crazy as the Monty Python skits ... though, years later, I began to wonder if Cho was channeling through the movie an anti-Muslim message.  I prefer to think not, and imagine the movie to be nothing but satire ...

Email of the day: geography job offer!

My first thought, and the only thought, on reading the following email that was waiting for me in my inbox, is that this is a new way to phish?
Good Morning
My  name is [name] today I was surfing the internet and I found your email contact on the Dept University's website. I am presently looking for tutor for my son [name], we live here in England and he has completed high school last summer back home in Slovakia.
He has been soccer camping for the past month and we feel it is a forward for us to get him a tutor to in Geography of America as he likes to travel and his interest apart from soccer are in Geography and Earth Sciences. He scored  a B in Geography recently in his Cambridge O"Level exam  and we are hoping he becomes a Geographer or Geologist.
Let me know your hourly rates and also time during the week and on week ends you will be available to coach him (total number of hours you can use with him a week).Please let us hear from you soon as he would be in America in a couple of days/week to stay with my sister in-law for the time been and I will very much appreciate it very much if you can introduce me to someone qualified in the case you are not available.
Thanks
Hey, PT Barnum, it is getting increasingly difficult to prove you wrong, man! :)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Economists on re-starting American manufacturing; start with a ball!

From America's Finest News Source:
Claiming that the nation's standing within the increasingly competitive global marketplace was perhaps not what it once was, the economists gently encouraged American producers to "wipe the slate clean" and rebuild their confidence by starting fresh with a plain, basic ball.
"You really shot for the moon and tried to do something grand, and we think that's just great," read a statement from the American Economic Association that was addressed to the nation's manufacturing sector. "But let's face it, the whole American manufacturing thing hasn't worked out quite as well as we'd hoped, so we think there's no shame in just paring down your ambitions slightly and focusing on making a really good ball, no more, no less
True, there has been an extensive shift away from manufacturing.  But, then we better not quickly jump into concluding that somehow goods manufactured elsewhere means economic ruin for America.  We do manufacture a whole lot of high value items.  Here is what Reason had to say about "Made in America"



Which is the same point that he Onion, er, America's Finest News Source makes through its typical straight-faced satire:

The response within the American manufacturing sector has thus far been overwhelmingly positive, with hundreds of aerospace, home appliance, and electronics corporations readily discontinuing their more complicated products in favor of a simple little ball.
"We switched our equipment over to ball-production two days ago and things couldn't be going better," said Daniel Akerson, chairman and CEO of General Motors. "We're making 15 tons of balls a day, they're coming out nice and round, and we're just overjoyed with how much we're accomplishing. I'd completely forgotten how great it feels to make a product you're actually proud of."
As a student remarked in her assignment, we should go around asking the question that Dr. Phil apparently asks on his show: "How's that working for you?"  Hey, it is working out great.  The problem is not in the loss of manufacturing, but in our inability to move our thinking beyond that.  And the political governance problems, like with, ahem, blowing up the Constitution itself ...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

We threw out the Constitution through the Patriot Act :(

Outsourced to Reason:
The reauthorized USA PATRIOT Act has passed the Senate 72-23 and the House 250-153. It heads now to the desk of Barack Obama, who will veto it, in accord with his rhetoric as a senator sign it before the midnight deadline.
So the bastards won, as we always knew they would in the end.
Yes, the bastards won.  We get closer and closer to 1984.  Awful bastards we have as elected representatives from both the parties.

Glenn Greenwald is, as one can imagine, well ... here he is:
Harry "Rove" Reid now joins Dianne Feinstein in announcing that any Senators who try to delay extension of the Patriot Act are risking a Terrorist attack.  Here's what the Majority Leader said about Rand Paul's attempts to add reforms:
"If the senator from Kentucky refuses to relent," Reid said earlier Wednesday, "that would increase the risk of a retaliatory terrorist strike against the homeland and hamper our ability to deal a truly fatal blow to al-Qaida."
It's so outrageous how those Rovian Republicans try to exploit the Terrorist threat to extract civil-liberties-abridging legislation they want, isn't it?  In sum, Congress -- with the Democratic leadership and the White House fully on board -- is trying not only to extend the Patriot Act with no reforms, but prevent any debate on whether that should happen.
So, where are all those Democrats who pilloried Karl Rove and Dick Cheney for saying the same things, right?  Bloody bastards in every party out to screw us all.  There are no two parties in America--it is all the same "screw 'em all" party that rules.

Reason also points out how Al "Fourth Amendment" Franken turns around to vote in support of the Patriot Act


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Remembrance of things past: the girl next door

One of my favorites during my impressionable teenage years was Zarina Wahab.  She was a delight to look at and, despite all her natural beauty, was not up there on some pedestal either--perhaps that is why she was cast in those girl-next-door roles in romantic comedies, eh!



And another one, from the same movie:

May we please get the hell out of Afghanistan?



Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In making criminals out of whistleblowers, Obama worse than Nixon?

Earlier this morning, I was on the ready-set-go mode to head to campus when I was reminded that I fell asleep, with the bedside light on, half-way through Jane Meyer's essay in the New Yorker, on the NSA whistle-blowers.  So, grabbed the magazine and sat down on the chair ... and was absolutely depressed even before I reached the following final sentences in the essay:
“The Bush people have been let off. The telecom companies got immunity. The only people Obama has prosecuted are the whistle-blowers.”
President Obama has even managed to make the Bush/Cheney and even the Nixon folks look better:
the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. ...
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.”
Hey, that is probably the kind of changes Senator Obama promised, eh! 

What has President Obama managed to achieve through his relentless pursuit of whistle-blowers?  Meyer quotes Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin:  "We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state."

How does this bipartisanship manifest itself?  Here is an example: Glenn Greenwald notes that the Patriot Act got a four-year renewal, without reforms, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote
So when they were out of power, the Democrats reviled the Patriot Act and constantly complained about fear-mongering tactics and exploitation of the Terrorist threat being used to stifle civil liberties and privacy concerns.  Now that they're in power and a Democratic administration is arguing for extension of the Patriot Act, they use fear-mongering tactics and exploitation of the Terrorist threat to stifle civil liberties and privacy concerns ("If somebody wants to take on their shoulders not having provisions in place which are necessary to protect the United States at this time, that's a big, big weight to bear," warned Feinstein).  And they're joined in those efforts by the vast majority of the GOP caucus. 
Chronologically we might be moving far away from 1984, but politically, we are getting closer and closer to lining up to admit that thoughtcrime is death and to then proudly proclaim "I love Big Brother."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Kafka's "The Departure" is a metaphor for higher education :(

This is the first spring term in a while that I have not shared with my classes Kafka's wonderful short story, "The Departure."  I wonder if it is because I am slowly giving up fighting the screwed-up higher education system.  I hope not.

I was reminded of that short story when a student, "S," came to my office to chat about a few ideas related to her academic work.  In the course of the conversation, "S" tells me that she is completely disillusioned with the whole higher education.  All through high school, she was advised to prepare for college, where, she was told, she would be able to discover herself and her passions by taking a whole bunch of courses.  But, after taking all those courses, "S" now thinks that she could have been doing all that reading by herself, even as she was flipping burgers for a living.

"S" added: "I don't think this self-discovery is worth the $70,000 investment.  If they want us to discover ourselves, then the general education should be free.  Now, I don't care.  All I want is to get the diploma and then move on to find out what I want to do."

I felt horrible listening to "S" because I know her from her freshman year, and she was one highly inquisitive, energetic, sincerely-doing-the-homework, student always with a wonderful smile.  And, through the coursework, it appears that we have simply sucked the life out of her, instead of helping her find her own distinct path towards her future.

Now, all she wants to do is jump through whatever hoops she has to in order to get that diploma and get the hell out of college.

I am willing to put every penny I have (I have only pennies!) to support my view that "S" was articulating what a significant majority of students feel.  Is this what we want to achieve through higher education?  After all the time and money invested in it?

If that is so, then I feel like I am nothing more than the corrupt police constable in India, who might let a car go through only after collecting the bribe.  I am now one of the many constables who force young adults to pay up so that they can move through the lines?  Really?  How awful!

Anyway, we end up in a situation where most students are like "S," who just want to get the hell out of college.  "So, what is your career plan?" I asked "S."  I was not at all surprised when she replied "I don't know. I guess I will figure it out soon."

Which is why I am reminded of Kafka's story, "The Departure."  As you read it, you will see why.  And, you will also see why, in the past years, I have shared this with students in the spring term, as graduation talk fills the air.
The Departure
by Franz Kafka
I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. The servant did not understand my orders. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted. In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me and asked: "Where is the master going?" "I don't know," I said, "just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it's the only way I can reach my goal." "So you know your goal?" he asked. "Yes," I replied, "I've just told you. Out of here--that's my goal."
Hey "S," good luck; I wish you well.  Sorry the system and I let you down.

On life and death: A couplet from Kalidasa

All I have been able to do is merely sample Kalidasa's works, and that too in translations and not in the Sanskrit.  It will be a lot more wonderful a world if only the poetry and observations of Kalidasa's were widely appreciated.

The following couplet is from Kalidasa's Raghuvamsha via Subhashitani... Evey time I come across a verse authored by Kalidasa, I never cease to be amazed that such a prodigal poet lived and wrote 1600 years ago.

In the few years I learnt Sanskrit, while in high school, we barely picked up a few aspects of the language.  But, I do remember well the teacher's comments praising Kalidasa's epic poems, including Raghuvamsha and Kumarasambhava

Here is the couplet from Raghuvamsha:
मरणं प्रकृतिः शरीरिणां विकृतिर्जीवितमुच्यते बुधैः ।
क्षणमप्यवतिष्ठते श्वसन् यदि जन्तुर्ननु लाभावानसौ ॥
- रघुवंश

Death is the natural steady state of nature. Life is an aberration. Wise men realize this.
Even if one is alive for just a second, he must consider himself in profit.
- Raghuvamsha

Yes, go ahead and celebrate the fact that you are alive. Kalidasa said so.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Summer of our discontent ahead? Become comfortably numb!

Shakespeare wrote:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
The spring of our discontent continues with temperatures rising, both literally and metaphorically.  Look at the sampling of news reports:
 Pakistan: Taliban attacks a naval base, and
At least 10 militants attacked the base with guns and grenades about 11 p.m. Sunday, leading to several explosions and an hours-long gun battle with Pakistani forces that killed four naval officials
Well, there is a lot more violence in Pakistan than that alone.
Such incidents then lead to the inevitable question: are the Pakistani nukes safe?
Worry, worry, worry.

Afghanistan: Taliban increasingly uses military uniforms when striking
Taliban insurgents expanded their summer offensive on Sunday by storming a government building in eastern Afghanistan and killing six people during a protracted battle that required support from U.S military forces in the area.
The assault by insurgents wearing military uniforms came one day after a suicide bomber hit Kabul's largest military hospital and killed six in the Afghan capital.
Worry, worry, worry.

Syria: Assad is on a murderous spree to put down the revolution
Syrian security forces opened fire on a funeral procession for slain antigovernment protesters yesterday, pushing the number of people reported killed in a two-month uprising to more than 900 and making it one of the deadliest of the Arab Spring.
Worry, worry, worry.
 And then there are ongoing issues in Egypt, Israel/Palestine, ...

Worry, worry, worry.

Stateside, unemployment + deficit/debt + gas prices = more discontent

Worry, worry, worry.

WTF happened, right?

Well, some of these are merely in Act I, and others are in Act II, and we are a long way before the plays come to their respective endings.  So, for now, become comfortably numb:

A selection of responses to my opinion piece ... one more

I wondered whether there might be more comments to my op-ed in the Oregonian.  I am so glad I checked for the comments because the following one, by a reader "looktherapture" makes all the crap that I get from my colleagues all worth it.
Thank you, "looktherapture," whoever you are.

An excerpt from the reader's comments:
I've taken a couple of Dr. Khe's classes. They have definitely been the most engaging and thought-provoking classes I have had at Western. His willingness to "slander" his own profession is commendable; the job of a professor should be focused on spreading knowledge, not providing job certification. When a large majority of the students obviously could not care less about actually learning and just go through the motions, then college has become a "credentialing" program. And if that's the case, maybe people will think twice about going $20,000 in debt for a piece of paper.

Why we travel ... even more so in a rapidly shrinking world

As I read this Paul Theroux essay (is there a better contemporary travel writer around?) so many thoughts flashed through my mind.  I can still recall my excited feelings when I stepped into a "jumbo jet" for the first time in 1987, which was when I left India to come to the US to attend grad school in Los Angeles.  It was a Singapore Airlines flight, and when I stepped in, it felt like I had entered into a huge hotel lobby.  And there was a staircase, for the business class, of course!  Unbelievable it was.

I reached my seat, which was quite in the rear of the plane, only a couple of rows ahead of the "smoking section."  Yes, the brilliant minds of those days who saw no problem with people lighting up in such a constrained space.  It was on the same flight that I tasted the real thing--Coca Cola--after a few years.  During my younger days, the Indian government, in all its infinite wisdom, pushed out a whole bunch of multinational corporations, including Coke.  And all we folks then had were the awfully sappy Thums Up and "77 Cola." 

Quite a few flights later, I am always ready for the next one.  Reading about places, and looking at photos and videos, has become so easy with the web having everything I would ever want to know, and more.  However, this all the more fuels the desire to go check those places out, and experience the places.  Yes, it is the experience--not any old idea of new and exotic.  In a world where we can get pretty much music and food and arts from any corner of the world, it isn't a whole lot of newness that I am after as much for simply the experience of it all in the "original" environs.

Plus, there is a sense of more vibrancy than before.  A village in India in the 1970s might not have looked all that different from how it looked in the 1960s and 1950s.  But, a decade now brings about a lifetime of changes in many places around the world. I liked this aspect of Theroux's essay in particular:
the world has been made more restless, more volatile, more impatient through the Internet, and it has robbed people of contemplative solitude and introduced a new solitude, a sort of loneliness induced by a buzz of information. But these very alterations in culture, far from diminishing curiosity, have made much of the world less predictable, more dramatic and accessible, full of paradoxes that have to be seen to be believed.
Indeed.  More so for travelers like me, who are more interested in observing and understanding peoples and their societies, they have to be seen to be believed in the fullest.

All the more excited am I am by the upcoming trip to Ecuador.  Wish me well, dear reader!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Photo of the day: R.D. Burman

From the Source:
Rahul Dev Burman and his repertoire of Westernised beats revolutionised Hindi film music in the 1970s. With his emphasis on rhythm and beats, he had Young India of that time swinging to his tunes. At the same time, he proved his many detractors wrong by composing some of the most influential raga-based and folk-based songs.  
R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music looks at how he changed the way Indians perceived Hindi film music. With anecdotes and trivia and interactions with the musicians who were part of his team, the authors create a portrait of the man who continues to live on through his music even two decades after his death.
R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music; Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, HaperCollins, Rs. 399
Yes, I have enjoyed quite a few Hindi songs that were set to music by R.D. Burman.  Here is one of the many, thanks to him:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Poppies remind me of California ...

About this time of the year, the golden-orange colors of the California poppies bring to energetic life the Grapevine stretch over the hills between Bakersfield and Sen Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.

Often I have stopped while driving across to admire them.  I am sure my daughter remembers stopping by Gorman at least a few times to pick some of those flowers, all the while worrying that a cop or a ranger will issue us a cease and desist order.  The poppies made the warm--sometimes uncomfortably warm--drive a lot more pleasant.  No wonder Christo did that wonderful poppy-colored umbrella project.

Here in Oregon, poppies are in bloom, even by the Willamette River that I walk by practically everyday now that the cold, cold and rainy, rainy days are long gone.  There are all kinds of wildflowers displaying their beauty, attracting the bees and the humans alike.  But, it is always the poppies that draw me closer to them.  Because, ... I have stories that link me to them.  To their California cousins.    Doesn't it look like a line of poppies are meandering through on their way to California? Run, Forrest, run :)

I could watch those flowers for hours, I think, if Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" played in an extended jam session in the background :)

Proof that South Asians have made it in the US? Wall Street indictments!

Raj Raratnam, a Sri Lankan-born hedge fund tycoon, is found guilty of securities fraud, and faces up to almost twenty years in prison.  The only real question that the jury had was whether Raj was smart or stupid.
Stupid?
"He was very stupid. That was the sad part. He traded for less money than he already had. If you’re going to steal, steal big."
Or smart?
He was a “chameleon” who “could adapt to whatever personality to get whatever he wanted..."
"He knew how to pick his victims. He knew who was weak and who was crooked. It’s better to have weak and crooked people feeding you information."
But the jurors went meticulously though every detail to make sure they didn't send an innocent man to prison.
Tied to this Sri Lankan are a bunch of other characters as well, many with roots in the Subcontinent.  Including Rajat Gupta, who headed McKinsey to newer heights, before being termed out:
According to the SEC, it was on the evening of June 10, 2008, that Gupta, in "a flurry" of phone conversations with Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of the Galleon Group of hedge funds, allegedly divulged Goldman Sachs's still secret second-quarter earnings.
In early March, the SEC stunned global business circles when it filed a civil administrative proceeding against Gupta, accusing him of leaking information from confidential boardroom discussions held by Goldman and Procter & Gamble to Rajaratnam—accusations Gary P. Naftalis, Gupta's attorney, calls "baseless." Gupta has not been criminally charged, but for seven weeks this spring, during Rajaratnam's sensational insider-trading trial, hardly a day passed when Gupta's name was not mentioned. Although federal prosecutors called him an unindicted "co-conspirator," he never appeared at the trial. But jurors heard his voice, caught on an FBI wiretap, resonating through the courtroom, saw his face in a photograph beamed onto a large video screen, and listened as his professional and personal lives were dissected by federal witnesses. While Rajaratnam is alleged by the SEC to have made more than $17 million from Gupta's information, what Gupta himself might have earned is less clear.
Gupta has been removed from the prominent corporate and philanthropic boards on which he once served and is shunned by business leaders who were once his friends. His spectacular fall from grace has left the world's leading companies shocked and mystified. Rajaratnam's conviction on 14 counts of fraud and conspiracy on May 11 closes a central chapter in the story
There is more to this "illustrious" list mentioned in the same story, likeVictor Menezes: former Citigroup vice-chairman, and Anil Kumar: of McKinsey and Mindspirit, and Parag Saxena.

Why would Rajat Gupta go down this path?
his quest to amass great wealth led him to lapses in judgment, says Bala Balachandran, dean of the Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai, India, and a friend for almost three decades.
“He wanted a billionaire’s life and the question for him was how could he become a billionaire in a short time,” Balachandran says.  ...
Gupta’s former Harvard dorm mate Carberry says he’s dumbfounded as to what went wrong with his friend.
“If the SEC charges are true, something happened to Rajat,” he says. “The Rajat I knew at business school was of the highest integrity. The Rajat I’ve heard on wiretapped conversations isn’t the person I knew.”
We have made it, baby!!!  Next stop: the White House, because we now know how to say "I am not a crook."

How to print a bicycle? 3D printing

Ah, yes, changes that boggle my simple mind!

A selection of responses to my opinion piece

So, it was an interesting few minutes reading the comments to my op-ed in the Oregonian on the "college dream."

A reader, "Eddy Rock" writes:
That’s odd isn’t this a geology professor talking about social science. Perhaps what he means is that geology degrees are worthless. Or maybe he should become a sociology professor instead. Perhaps then he could better understand the complex nature of political, economic and cultural Norms.
...
A Higher education is paramount to a better future for everyone… or we can all go back living in terror of our shadows and killing small animals with our teeth. Maybe Khe, you should propose programs that help students become more informed about job requirements rather than torching the whole system. Way to slander your own profession there guy!
I think I will take one of your classes since I go to your collage.
Hmmm ... in case "Eddy Rock" reads this:
  • As the byline stated, I am not a geology professor, but I work out of the geography department, which is housed in the social sciences division of the university.
  • And, yes, I constantly hassle students who seek my advice about the need to do internships, even if unpaid, in order to improve their employment prospects.
  • And, yes, looking forward to having you in the classroom.
Another reader, "Rlindsl" writes:
The link between degree level and employment rate is very strong. The BLS reports unemployment for Masters degree holders at 4% while non HS diploma holders is 15%, with a steady correlation for all levels in-between. Of course doing your research and checking your facts to verify expected outcome is part of a planning and management process that you learn in a school of business, so Khe probably doesn't support that kind of approach.
I refer you to this, and this, for starters, which are all based on facts.  I suppose I follow a Keynesian approach: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Reader, "whatgoeson" writes:
If this writer thinks I'm going into debt to have someone lecture me about Plato, when I can access the info online basically for free, well, it's drug test time.
 Nope, my argument was/is that it is a waste to force everybody to read about Plato. 

And then this strange letter to the editor. I suppose the comments in response to the letter address many of the issues there.  It will be interesting, however, to find out how many graduates of the program referred to have been placed--if any, at all--in those wonderful $100,000 jobs the letter-writer refers to, and about the employment and remuneration of the rest of the graduates.

Confessing another long-running love affair!

As the NASA space shuttle program comes to an end, I realize that it is the end of an affair for me; yet another affair that goes back to my teenage years in a far, far away Neyveli.

One of the high school subjects that fascinated me the most was physics.  To such an extent that once when I had a nagging question about what happens to the speed of light as it gets refracted when it travels through different media, and when my high school teacher couldn't provide me with a satisfying answer, I decided to write to a physics professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Madras.

It was those prehistoric days before the internet.  All I knew was that there was a professor named "Ram Shastri" that another physics teacher, who had moved on to a different town, had mentioned at some point.  So, I addressed that letter to Professor Ram Shastri at IIT-Madras, and detailed my question to him.

It would be a terrible understatement to say that I was ecstatic when I got a reply from a Professor Shastri, whom I had never met.  I was blown away that a professor at that level would care to respond to a student like me.  I wish I had saved that letter!

So, yes, physics fascinated me. Physics was also the opening to understanding the cosmos.  It was such a profound love for the subject that solidified my friendship with a classmate, Srikumar.  He was as much a physics nut as I was.  Though, I suppose, to him physics and philosophy went together a lot more than the physics and math combination that worked for me.

It was through Srikumar that I came to understand NASA's space shuttle program.  The miniscule resources at out local library had next to nothing on this, which meant that we had to rely on newspaper and radio reports.  I think Srikumar wrote to NASA, or perhaps it was to the US embassy in India, asking for informational materials about the space shuttle, and I recall him getting quite a bit of glossy printed materials.

One can imagine, therefore, the thrill I had following the news about the successful launch of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was about the time we were having our school leaving final exams.  It was also because of such an intense personal connection that I was devastated when Columbia did not make a successful reentry back in 2003. 

Such a teenage love doesn't die, of course, and these are the kind of affairs I hope to carry to my very end, which, for all I know, is simply round the corner :)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Outlook bleak for college graduates

A couple of days after I write about the higher education bubble, the NY Times reports that outlook is bleak even for recent college grads:
Employment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is “worth it” after all.
...

This may be a waste of a college degree, but it also displaces the less-educated workers who would normally take these jobs.
“The less schooling you had, the more likely you were to get thrown out of the labor market altogether,” said Mr. Sum, noting that unemployment rates for high school graduates and dropouts are always much higher than those for college graduates. “There is complete displacement all the way down.”
Meanwhile, college graduates are having trouble paying off student loan debt, which is at a median of $20,000 for graduates of classes 2006 to 2010.
The Chronicle adds more to this discussion from another perspective:
A report by Rutgers University, "Unfulfilled Expectations: Recent College Graduates Struggle in a Troubled Economy," says that 53 percent of college graduates from 2006 to 2010 have full-time jobs, while 21 percent are in graduate school, 12 percent are working part time, and 9 percent are unemployed.
Awful, the situation is.  I hope we will put an end to this soon.

Ashton Kucher as bin Laden's replacement?

As a replacement for raving mad men :)

Photo of the day: census and caste in India

A census official marking a house in India.

More here on India's "a caste-based census along with the socio-economic profiling."

Makes me worry that much more that the caste system will never be eliminated :(

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The forgotten many: America's unemployed

Newspapers in Oregon have been trumpeting that unemployment in the state is now down to 9.6%
But, other than to spin any such positive story, the media has gone dead:
Major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit, a National Journal analysis shows.
The analysis -- based on a measure of how often the words "unemployment" and "deficit" appear in major publications -- portrays a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media's consciousness. ...
Mentions of unemployment have been dwindling since they spiked to 154 in the month ending August 15, 2010; over the month ending Sunday, there were 63. ...
That major newspapers and other media outlets have covered the deficit with greater intensity in recent months should come as no surprise given the focus of the politicians and policymakers they cover. The declining mentions of unemployment are perhaps more surprising, as the issue remains salient for millions of Americans.

The 9.6 percent in Oregon or the nationwide 9% is an under-count in many ways.  When looking at the entire labor force, unemployment is at 16.5 percent.

Of course, there is an entirely separate discussion to be had on what happens to the labor-age population that has been incarcerated?  "The overall unemployment rate among men would be about 8 percent higher if those in prison were out and experiencing the same labor market as others of their race and age. By expanding our prison population, we have reduced the unemployment numbers."

It is not only the journalistic media that has forgotten the unemployed--the literary and entertainment media, too, has apparently shut itself off:
Hollywood and the publishing industry have learned just one historical lesson from the Depression: people want entertainment in tough times.
The Grapes of Wrath, the films of King Vidor, even socially conscious gangster films from Warner Brothers were only a fraction of Hollywood's output then. The Depression was also the era of Fred and Ginger, Nick and Nora, screwball comedy and Busby Berkeley.
That hasn't changed. Writers, film-makers, game designers all want to eat - and that's the market they have to create for.
A line of poetry by T S Eliot composed at the same time Steinbeck was writing Grapes of Wrath, and Agee and Walker were having their report spiked, says it best. "Humankind / cannot bear too much reality."
But humankind has to live in the real world with other human beings. And if writers and artists won't put a human face on the jobless numbers, who will?

Running Scared. From Waterloo? Not me :)

The Eurovision winner from Azerbaijan:



A favorite of mine from a previous Eurovision contest:



The most famous Eurovision winner among all ...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lonely planet, yes. But, with less than a billion hungry people?

The cover says it all, doesn't it?

Lester Brown's essay is more of the same kind of worries expressed over the years decades. 

The essay by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, on the other hand, has lots of observations that might challenge conventional wisdom.  Like this one, for instance:
If there is any chance that by eating a bit more the poor could start doing meaningful work and get out of the poverty trap zone, then they should eat as much as possible. Yet most people living on less than a dollar a day do not seem to act as if they are starving. If they were, surely they would put every available penny into buying more calories. But they do not. In an 18-country data set we assembled on the lives of the poor, food represents 36 to 79 percent of consumption among the rural extremely poor, and 53 to 74 percent among their urban counterparts. 
So, where else do they spend? On other basic necessities?  Not so, they add:
The poor seem to have many choices, and they don't choose to spend as much as they can on food. Equally remarkable is that even the money that people do spend on food is not spent to maximize the intake of calories or micronutrients. Studies have shown that when very poor people get a chance to spend a little bit more on food, they don't put everything into getting more calories. Instead, they buy better-tasting, more expensive calories....
All told, many poor people might eat fewer calories than we -- or the FAO -- think is appropriate. But this does not seem to be because they have no other choice; rather, they are not hungry enough to seize every opportunity to eat more. So perhaps there aren't a billion "hungry" people in the world after all....
We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don't invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.
Life is complicated, as much as it is beautiful.

Colbert Super PAC ... for the PAC-less Americans

Only in America can things get so twisted and knotted up into shapes and PACs that nobody can understand anymore ... :)

Remember the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United?
Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.

So, Colbert did this a few weeks ago:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Super PAC - Trevor Potter
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive


And then Colbert gets to the FEC to complete the process, by requesting its opinion on the formation of a Super PAC to make a better tomorrow, tomorrow ...



Life in the USA!

Monday, May 16, 2011

In the jungle the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight

Was searching for a photo in my collections when I came across this clip of lions and cubs just having a great day at Mukumi National Park in Tanzania--from my trip there in December 2009.



Which then, naturally, led me to think about The Tokens singing their classic:

Federal Debt: The US is no PIGS

I am probably worried more than the average American is when it comes to federal debt.

But, listening to news reports, I am concerned that they could mislead many of my fellow citizens into thinking that all the trillions and trillions of government debt is owned by foreigners. (editor: there is your problem--listening to the news!)

Note that the most significant part of this pie is owned locally.  As Reason put it in its typically sarcastic tone, "70 percent of the debt is held by domestic suckers and by elements of our trusted and trustworthy government."


This domestic versus external debt makes a hell of a difference.  Greece or Ireland is in trouble because of the overwhelming proportion of external debts, as in the figure below:


 It is highly probably that Paul Krugman wrote about this and I missed out on it; damn!

That we should begin to slim down the debt, by tackling the underlying causes, is a no-brainer.  The questions are how and, more importantly, when?  I am not sure if this is the right time to start a dramatic diet overhaul.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The college dream: Is it higher education or a job-training program?

(My op-ed published in the Oregonian)

If only we were all aware of the cost of higher education and engaged in those discussions as much as we are painfully in sync with gas prices.

Every once in a while I point out to students that in the academic quarter system, it costs about $110 every week, per term, for each of the four-credit classes that I teach. A majority of that $110 is paid for by students through tuition and fees. Taxpayers chip in a significant amount as well.

Such an expensive investment is guided by a belief that college education is about future employment and economic productivity, but that's not entirely true. In fact, this linkage of higher education to economic performance is relatively new in human history.

Education, for the longest time, was not about credentialing for the trades. As one looks back to the days of gurukula in India or Plato's academy, it becomes clear that education was simply about knowing. Preparations for the trades and professions happened elsewhere.

Thus, higher education wasn't an industry, either. Galileo pursued research on the cosmos because of his undying, and heretical, curiosity, not because he thought of it as a convenient opportunity to charge students fees that they could not afford.

But especially since the post-World War II years, there has been a transformation that's resulted in a twisted understanding that higher education is some sort of a credentialing service for young adults interested in joining the 21st-century equivalents of trade guilds.

The irony is that it doesn't require an undergraduate degree to complete the tasks in service-sector jobs. Yet we've managed to convince ourselves that a college diploma is a must-have for mere survival, let alone prosperity. Most students I talk to feel that they have no choice but to get a college diploma if they want to get any sort of job anymore. And that presents a horrible choice.

After spending $110 week after week for classes like mine, students graduate, typically, with about $20,000 in debt, only to realize the realities of employment. Despite all my full disclosures in the classroom, they are shocked to find that there really isn't a job waiting for them and that their diploma isn't necessarily the guaranteed route across the (un)employment gates. In fact, trade guilds often add and require their own training and certification.

At the end of the day, the only beneficiaries are colleges and universities that are, naturally, recording enrollment increases -- even in my classes in the summer. This enrollment growth then triggers the need for additional facilities, which necessitates a demand for more money from students and taxpayers.

Such a higher educational system cannot go on forever. As economist Herbert Stein famously remarked, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." I suspect that it will come to a crashing halt when students, and their families and taxpayers, begin to see the numbers flashing by really fast on their meters.

Maybe students and taxpayers will then demand a refund of the money they spent on my classes, eh?


Postscript:
In addition to the comments at the newspaper's site, two emails, thus far, to me. (I have withheld names and email addresses)

A reader:
Thank you for the EXCELLENT OP-ED piece in the Oregonian: I wished I would have read it 40 YEARS ago; True then also: 3 Degrees Later and OUTCOME SAME: Jobs R in CHINA !

A faculty colleague:
That was an excellent piece in the paper this morning.  I, too, feel that the objective of a university education must be to encourage intellectual growth rather than simply being a minimal qualifier for employment.  We have community colleges for that purpose.  My observation has been that many, if not most, WOU students are intellectually adrift.  We, as an institution, can help young people discover significance.  I believe that should be our mission.
Another reader:
"The world needs ditch diggers too".  Judge Schmels, CaddyShack
A GREAT piece on education.  Unfortunately, the (educational) system is not made up of individuals such as yourself, but of "intellectuals" who have been installed by society as those that must know, and therefore we must follow.  We will be following right into the abyss.
Instead of the constant mantra of "go to college", I hope that we will finally get our educators - particularly in elementary and high school - to say "get a skill" and then teach them how to get that skill.  We have wasted at least two generations on this notion that a four year degree is absolutely necessary.  Gather the industrialists, the business leaders, the employers that want to groom their future workers.  Let the school system(s) produce a crop ready to learn the skills, and then guide those with the aptitudes to the right industry. We could make a tremendous difference in our society, in our educational system, and in our pocket books.  Free the schools from being the catchall of what a child "needs", and just TEACH.  
Thank you for the thoughtful and enlightening opinion piece. 

A letter to the editor:
I was very disappointed in Sriram Khé's analysis of higher education ("The college dream: Is it higher education or a job-training program?" In My Opinion, May 15). Indeed, his opinion seems to confirm the worst and ignore the best of what is actually happening in higher education today. As professors (and as a society), we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled by a siren song of doom and a lack of imagination.

Why can't we provide classical training AND prepare students for the job market? In my field, criminal justice, I am able to teach historical, philosophical and analytical thinking in addition to giving students face time with real-world employers.

To suggest that increasing employment options for our students is somehow a bad thing is shortsighted. Recently, I was able to provide my students with an opportunity to obtain $100,000-a-year jobs with an out-of-state criminal justice agency. Guess what? The hiring folks are actively and eagerly recruiting from the higher-ed pool. Our students are desirable candidates precisely because they have been educated and not simply trained.

Robert Swan
Swan is a visiting assistant professor of criminal justice at Western Oregon University. 

Word of the day: "sphexishness" ... explains the Afghan quagmire!

An email from a friend "D" led me to this LA Times op-ed on why humans, and Americans in particular, persist in irrational and counterproductive behavior.

The author, Barry Goldman, describes a situation that most of us are familiar with--how dogs like golden retrievers can seem to play fetch forever.  However, we have also noticed situations when they stand rather confused and start barking at the ball or the stick; it is:
because of two fixed, internal rules he has. The first rule is that he must stay on land until he is as close as possible to the ball and then swim the rest of the way. The second rule is that he must enter the water gradually. He won't jump in from the side. This makes playing in the Pacific Ocean easy, but the pool presents a problem. If the ball is closer to one of the edges of the pool than it is to the steps, all he can do is run to the closest edge, look at the ball with trembling excitement and bark.
Do we humans do anything like this?  Or, are we way smarter than the retriever that barks from the edge of the pool?

To get to this, Goldman explains the psychology:  
Cognitive scientists call this kind of difficulty "sphexishness" after the behavior of the female sphex wasp. She will sting and paralyze a cricket, stash it in a hole in a tree and lay her eggs on it. When the eggs hatch, the baby wasps have fresh cricket to eat. But the mama sphex also has an internal rule. When she brings a cricket to the opening of the hole, she always goes inside for a look around before she drags it in. If an experimenter moves the cricket a few inches away while the sphex is in the hole, she will repeat the process, bringing the cricket back to the opening and going inside for a look. If the experimenter moves the cricket again, the wasp will repeat the behavior. Her internal rule calls for her to look in the hole before she drags the cricket inside, and that is what she will do. If the experimenter moves the cricket 40 times, the sphex will repeat the behavior 40 times. We don't know how many more times she would do it because the experimenters always give up.
By now, you are thinking that we humans are way smarter than this, right?  Are you sure?  Take it away, Goldman.  Give us a couple of human analogies:
We continue to think that Americans, no matter how crazy, should be able to buy guns, no matter how lethal. ...
We continue to believe that business can regulate itself....
We persist in throwing endless blood and treasure into the endless, pointless war on drugs.  ...
We continue to believe in the fantasies of smart bombs, surgical strikes and limited wars. ...
Now, speaking of wars, from what Nicholas Kristof writes in the NY Times, it appears that we might/would be able to get out of our sphexishness--if we and our President listened to the late Richard Holbrooke.

Kristof writes:
Holbrooke opposed the military “surge” in Afghanistan and would see the demise of Bin Laden as an opportunity to go into diplomatic overdrive....
Vali Nasr, a member of Holbrooke’s team at the State Department, puts it this way: “He understood from his experience that every conflict has to end at the negotiating table.”
Nasr says that Holbrooke’s aim for Afghanistan was “not cut-and-run, but a viable, lasting solution” to end the civil war there. If Holbrooke were still alive, Nasr says, he would be shuttling frantically between Islamabad and Kabul, trying to take advantage of Bin Laden’s killing to lay the groundwork for a peace process.
So, Mr. President, more sphexishness?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

WTF is a semicolon, eh! "Death to high school English"

No, it is not about my high school English teacher, who on two occasions slapped the life out of me for no reason at all.  Nor is it about how he knocked up the attendant in the chemistry lab and, as a result, married her.  Oh, it is definitely not about his embezzlement later on, for which he and his wife were fired.  (editor: anything else you have to publicly trash him? Awshutupalready!  editor: why all the fretting and fuming; what is this post about then? will you shut up so that I can get to it?)

My students know all too well that I want them to focus on the mechanics of writing, even though I am not a language instructor teaching them how to write.  I typically refer them to George Orwell's fantastic essay on how related writing and thinking are.

While I am not one of those grammarian colleagues I had in California, who said her favorite bedtime readings were books about the art and craft of writing, I am always fascinated by discussions on this topic.  And sometimes I actually do understand them!  A few years ago, when Lynne Truss' book came out, I quickly purchased for myself a copy and was so close to making it a required reading for one of my courses until a colleague pointed out that students might not easily relate to the British examples and language that Truss discusses.  I was, like, er, WTF :)

Which is why it has been a good Saturday morning--I read two commentaries that deal with different aspects of the English language and grammar.

In this essay in Salon, from where I have borrowed the quote in the title of this post, the author notes:
after seven years of teaching college composition, have I started to consider the possibility that talking about classics might be a profound waste of time for the average high school student, the student who is college-bound but not particularly gifted in letters or inspired by the literary arts. I've begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write.
For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I've puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I've sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don't know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language, all the basic skills that surely they will need to master if they are to have a chance at succeeding in any post-secondary course of study.
One more reason to wonder if college is for everybody, and if college, then what exactly do we want students to get from that experience.  Oh well ... a discussion for another day, I suppose.

Anyway, the author finds out from the English teacher at a large school district on what exactly is going on in high schools these days:
"It's very hard to get a lot of teachers to teach those things, especially grammar. We have such a need to engage students. There's such an emphasis on keeping student enthusiasm going and getting them to want to actively participate. When you start talking about grammar, it's like asking them to eat their vegetables, and no one wants to ask them to do that. They prefer class discussion, which is great but to a certain degree, goes off into the wind."
So, then even this foreign-born geography faculty ends up teaching grammar?  Why do we emphasize writing, and why don't students want to learn it?
When I ask her why she thinks there's such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: "It's not fun."
True, but then, teaching (and for that matter, learning) isn't always fun. Changing my kid's dirty diapers isn't fun. Dragging my fat ass onto a treadmill isn't fun. Helping my grandmother "fix" her computer isn't fun. Sometimes we do things not because they're fun but because they're important.
Oh well ...

And even when do get students who are careful about grammar, grammarians make it difficult for us and we have to worry about where to put that damned question mark in the quote--inside the quotation marks or outside?  And today I find out there is something called "logical punctuation" that sounds more of an oxymoron than anything else :) 
the British way simply makes more sense. Indeed, since at least the 1960s a common designation for that style has been "logical punctuation."
British and logical? You got to be kidding!  And in a language in which, as Bernard Shaw pointed out, "ghoti" can be pronounced as "fish"?  Hey, notice that I placed the question mark after the quotes? Haha!


Friday, May 13, 2011

Women rule in Bengal and Tamil Nadu! Communism dies!!!


Jayalalitha (left) leads her party to one ass-whooping victory over the geriatric Karunanidhi.  Not that I am a supporter of either, but the margin of victory is simply awesome.
The defeated Karunanidhi said, “The people of Tamil Nadu have given me rest.”

All the way across, Mamata Banerjee routs the Commies from power.  A 34-year rule by the same folks.   She said it was "a victory for maa, mati, manush [her party slogan that translated reads: mother, soil, people]”  I suppose all over the world we love alluring alliterations :)

Perhaps the end of "democratic" communism in India?

Somewhere down the line in a fast-changing world the communists, many believe, began losing their way. After the first wave of farm reforms had exhausted its potential, they needed fresh ideas as governments cut back on spending, and private capital was touted as the main driver of growth and jobs. Land reform had run its course in Bengal, and farm produce prices were falling. Peasants, with enough food in their bellies, now aspired to better lives.
But a largely gerontocratic and hidebound leadership - already stunned into stasis by the break-up of the Soviet Union - "lost its way coping with the pressures of a globalised market", says social scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya.

Well, in my part of India, communist leaders were never exciting anyway.  In Tamil Nadu, elections were simply way too fascinating for me when I was a kid.  It was fantastic rhetoric and theatre. Even at local campaign speeches, the guys--rarely a woman leader those days--would go on for hours, and even throw in more than one challenge to the United States.  Literally, sentences such as "I am warning the US President ..."  But, boy, some of those politicians had wonderful command of the language, with quick and biting wit.  When I watch the C-Span speeches at Congress, I can't believe our politicians are as boring as the fabled Soviet leaders were!

The family lore is that as a four year old kid, I wanted to go watch MGR (Jayalalitha's boss, co-actor, lover, ...) at an election rally.  This was in Sengottai, where I spent most of my upper-kindergarten years.  With grandma saying no, apparently I sneaked out while it was raining, stood at a corner lost for a while, until somebody brought me back home.  Promptly, it was a high fever the following morning, which was then referred to as "MGR fever."

 So, to mark the occasion, here are MGR and Jayalalitha, who were both movie idols before switching over to politics, in one of my favorite songs featuring them

Confessing my thirty-year love affair!

A high school classmate, "S," suddenly went off the cyberspace, and a few days later explained his absence:
I'm back here again after a small hibernation in Beirut & upcountry Lebanon. Business ....huh..
Lebanon. Beirut. Aah, I have been in love with the country and that city from my early high school years!

As a young teenager, I realized that I had a deep-seated yearning for understanding the world outside the small little part that I had been exposed to.  As I noted earlier, my window to the world was through the radio and the print media--after all, the internet had yet to be invented!

Thus, it was perhaps in my eleventh grade or so, I wrote two letters.

The first one was to the West German embassy in New Delhi.  In the letter, I requested information about possibilities for undergraduate studies in West Germany.  With the characteristic German efficiency, which I would personally experience two decades later, I got a thick envelope from the embassy with a whole lot of information.

Well, it didn't take me long to realize that fluency of the German language was required. And, that was it.

The second letter was to the American University in Beirut.  Yes, the Beirut of the horrendous civil war that was dominating the pages of The Hindu those days.  I couldn't care about the war, and I figured that there wouldn't be any language issue with the American University.

When a thickly padded envelope arrived, dad was flummoxed, and may have said something along the lines of "you want to go to a country that is in the middle of a war?"

I suppose I had a difficult time explaining my fascination for Lebanon--it was all because of Khalil Gibran.

I had borrowed The Prophet from the only library in town, and found Gibran's writings very intriguing.  It appealed a lot to the brooding teenager that I was, like most teens!  Even though, I wasn't able to quite fathom Gibran's philosophical and mystical words.

But, Gibran had me all worked up about Lebanon.  A few other essays I read talked up Lebanon as a Venice, as an exciting place where the West met the East.  I wanted to be there,civil war be damned!

I might have made it there, but for the truckloads of money that was needed.

So, no Beirut.  Instead, I went to Coimbatore, via Nagpur.  Oh well, Beirut, Coimbatore, ... all the same, right? :)

A little over five years after the first time I ever went to Coimbatore, I reached America.  Lebanon and Beirut always managed to pop up in my life at regular intervals.  Towards the end of graduate school, a friend, Praveen, who returned to India after completing his doctoral work, presented me with Gibran's Tears and Laughter.  It kept the Lebanon flame alive.

A few years later, one of the people we met in our work lives after graduate school, and who later became good friends, was a couple from Lebanon.  Samir, who suddenly died of a heart attack way too young, fondly talked about his growing up years in Lebanon, and about the cedars and the figs.  Sam, as he was known, did his part to stoke the fire inside for Gibran's land.

It is now more than thirty years since I fell in love with a place and its peoples I had never met.  The email from "S" reminds me that it is a love affair that was not a mere teenage crush.  Maybe soon I will be in Lebanon.

For now, I will satisfy myself with this one stanza from Gibran's "Leave me, my blamer"
Let me sail in the ocean of
My dreams; Wait until Tomorrow
Comes, for tomorrow is free to
Do with me as he wishes. Your
Laying is naught but shadow
That walks with the spirit to
The tomb of abashment, and shows
Heard the cold, solid earth.
PS: had to re-do the post because Blogger went down for hours, and when it came back up, my last two posts had vaporized :(

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