Friday, January 31, 2014

The courage to be ignorant ... is an asset in education

In my classes, I often feel like I am re-enacting, over and over again, the wonderful scene from Life of Brian, which makes me laugh hysterically every time I watch it. What? You don't remember that scene? You have never watched that Monty Python classic?

I, too, routinely tell students that they don't need to come to classes, and that they don't need to take courses, and that universities aren't warehouses of information.  "You've got to think for yourselves" is what I keep emphasizing to them, while reminding them that thanks to the internet they have access to all the information they possibly need, and more.  "So, why do you think we have classes?" is a question I often ask students, who perhaps view that as some kind of a trick question.

But, there is always a thought in the back of my head that neither the students nor the folks at the university would care for such a message. The faculty and administrators of the university, any university, aggressively market higher education and their own respective institutions and they will not have any soft spot for me and my views on the overselling--not even mere selling--of higher education.

Even more is the worry that students, too, might not prefer to hear my bottom-line that they are individuals who need to think for themselves.  It shifts the responsibility, a burden, on to them.  It is a lot easier, perhaps, to simply do whatever one is told to do, especially where there is no genuine interest, than to take ownership for what they want to learn.  I don't blame them--the system has trained them well, as much as the system in which I grew up trained us really, really well.

Though in a different context, this essay notes parenthetically:
Socrates challenged such thinking in his day, and it did not end happily.
This, too, I often joke with students.  I tell them following Socrates means that one of these days I might be given the option of exile or death (though, given that I have already been exiled, a cup of tasty hemlock is no longer an option?  Haha!)

In this essay titled "The courage to be ignorant," which sounds like the title of my autobiography if I were to ever write one, there is practically nothing for me to disagree, even though it is in a context of art, music, and architecture:
classes consist in the delivery of scholarly knowledge that only serves to exacerbate the distance that the students feel from the material itself. Instead of learning how to look at an artwork or listen to a piece of music, students learn how to categorize them: this is early Renaissance, this is Impressionist....
The two skills don't have to be mutually exclusive, but on a practical level, they most often are — and I would rather that my students begin by gaining the confidence to analyze and respond to a work and only then delve into the historical and scholarly background according to their interest. We live in a time where there's no shortage of access to facts, but college may be their one chance to develop a real understanding of how art and music work.
Wait, there is more:
 It has pushed me to think more about holding students accountable for the ways they reach their own answers than about how best to give them — or Socratically help them stumble upon — the “right answer.” Even in classes where I bring much more to the table, the focus is and must be the material we're working on together, not all the information I'm bringing from the outside. More than that, though, all that information must be put to the test of the material itself, so that I always have to be open to the possibility that the interpretation I brought to the table is wrong, or at least not the whole story.
Should any of the current or former students make a mistake of reading this blog post, chances are that they will agree that this is very similar to what I, too, tell them.
The liberal arts approach in particular provides a unique opportunity to form broad-minded critical and creative thinkers who have the right combination of intellectual boldness and intellectual humility to enter a wide variety of professions and explore many bodies of knowledge. A crucial part of that formation is learning to have the courage to admit one's own ignorance, and I believe students would be better served if faculty members were more commonly called upon to display that same courage.
Imagine that!  Asking the egomaniacs that we academics are to admit that maybe we don't know it all. Hah!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Super Bowl. With a woman. With two women!

"Do you want me to move my car, sir?"

I was unloading stuff from the U-Haul truck on a drizzly Oregon morning.  We were the latest in the long line of Californians moving to Oregon.  The apartment would be home until we found a permanent place of our own.

I looked towards the sound. It was from the kitchen window of the apartment next door. I walked over and introduced myself.  That is how I met her a decade and a year ago.

She had moved in there not much earlier, after the death of her husband. They had been married for a very long time--about fifty years, I think.  Yet, she yelled out a "sir" to me when I was so much younger than her?

Over the months, she was often emotional when talking about her husband and her life.  She talked about her family, her church, and the different places in the US and around the world that she and her husband had been to.

She introduced us to her church friends, who later became the neighbors that I still am lucky to have. She gave us a big potted plant for the new home that we moved into.  She came over once in a while for food or coffee.

Once when she and the neighbors were home for dinner, I played a CD of Hank Williams hits.  Yes, the old style country music. She was excited, especially when the neighbor danced with her.

Life happens.  She moved to another apartment complex. I visited with her there, too. She was the perfect old-style host that she always was.  With coffee and cookies came her stories of her grandchildren. Her old photos, in which one could see the stunning beauty that she was as a young woman.

She knew I couldn't care for church and god, in which she was a firm believer.  She never, ever figured out how to say my name and I never, ever cared to correct her either. What's in a name, after all, when she cared so much for a stranger that I was.

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbors had an update for me about her. Cancer, with perhaps not much time left to live.

I requested my neighbor to go with me to visit with her.  "Sunday afternoon should be a good time to visit. She is very happy to see you" was her reply.

Game time!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

To feel the pain of others, and to help those in misery

Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, was shot dead on January 30, 1948--only a few months after his successful struggle to boot out the British.

One of Gandhi's favorites among the prayer music is this  While the reference to the Hindu god, Vishnu, might distract a militant atheist, I ignore the Vishnu part and appreciate, and love, the ideas expressed there. For instance, this:
Vaishnav people are those who:
Feel the pain of others,
Help those who are in misery
Wouldn't you want to be friends with such people?  Wouldn't you want to be such a person?  A wonderful ideal to work towards, though a tall order for most of us mortals.

So, yes, it was Gandhi's favorite.

The video below is an instrumental version of that bhajan. The lead musician is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.  Way back, when I was still an undergraduate student, I spent a few precious rupees from my meager allowance to attend his concert in Madras' Music Academy.  I went alone, because I could not convince anybody from my generation of friends and family to go with me. As exhilarating it was, I felt the lack of companionship that evening. I should have known then it would be a recurring theme in my life :(

But, I digress!  Yes, a Muslim musician and a Hindu bhajan.  How cool is that, and how awesome the music he produces is!

The music below is Ustad Bismillah Khan's powerfully emotional rendering of Gandhi's another favorite "bhajan"--Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram. Yes, another Muslim musician masterfully treating a Hindu bhajan. A few years ago, when talking family stories, I came to know that the shehnai was a favorite of my grandfather's, perhaps a result of his undergraduate studies at Benares, which was also home to Bismillah Khan and many other musicians.

I worry that such coexistence and celebrations in daily life, among the regular folks, have all become a distant and faded memory, as much as Gandhi and his messages have become.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Finding the direction in our lives ...

A decade ago, when I went to Dubai, I noticed that the table in the hotel room included an arrow that pointed in the direction of Mecca.  I suppose in Dubai or most parts of the Islamic world, there is always an explicit, or at least an implicit, orientation towards Mecca.

We have similar orientations in the secular world, too.  Artists, stereotypically, seem to be always oriented towards Paris. This city is their Mecca, even if the Eiffel Tower is not their Kaaba.

In The Summing Up, Somerset Maugham writes about his first experiences in Paris when he was a young man, struggling to create a life as a writer.  From the continent, and from across the channel, writers and painters and dancers and everybody seemed to converge on Paris.  It turned out that much later in life, Maugham didn't find Paris to be the charming and alluring place it was to him when he was young.  But, I would think that Paris did give him a frame of reference.

A neighbor has a similar Paris-orientation. Well, to all of France.  The artist that she is, it is an annual trip that she makes to that part of the world.

The Dordogne ... yes, I was there!

I wonder if that is her pilgrimage, as much as going on Hajj is to the devout Muslim, and like how I go on my own travels that are pilgrimages in the sense of how much they let me understand my place and purpose in this world.  We all do what we can in our own ways in order to get our bearings and to orient ourselves in the correct direction.

A couple of evenings ago, when the sun was shining, I saw this neighbor heading to the river.

Bonjour, madame, I yelled out from my front porch.

Without looking towards me, and not even pausing to wonder who said that, and almost as a reflex, she replied, bonjour, monsieur.

And then she turned towards me and said something that sounded like "bzz bzzz bzzzz bzzzzz ..."

"Hey, I used up all the French I know when I said bonjour, madame."

"That's all you need to know and say, really" she replied with a smile, as she continued on to the rivière.

A little after that, an old friend swung by to have coffee with me. After six years.

The coffee I brewed, and the eats were from the store:
salty plantain chips, pound cake, and amaretto cookies

A lot has happened in those six years.  C'est la vie!

Looking back, I am relieved, more than anything else, that over those years I didn't my lose sense of direction in life. My Mecca, my Paris, and my everything, are all within me?  Merci!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Heartbreak Warfare is comforting for this curmudgeon

If I write that I miss something from the old days, will that necessarily make me one of those stereotypical curmudgeons who find some of the changes not all that great?

When I was in graduate school, the university was just about beginning to transition from the card catalogs to a computerized searchable database system. My typical approach was to jot down the call number and then head to the stacks.

I would reach the stacks and locate the book.  But, would not leave the area right away. Given that books were shelved based on the subject and content, well, it meant that the other books were also on related subjects. I would then scan the shelves for books that caught my attention. Sometimes it would be a half hour or more of me standing there on a serial date with books.  More than once, I have walked out of the library with a couple of books other than the original one that I might have gone searching for.

I miss those kinds of real world, tactile, experiences.

The googlized world of today delivers enough and more when we search for whatever, yes. Perhaps I would enjoy the current structure if I had not known the old ways?

It is a similar feeling with renting movies. The going to the rental place and scanning the shelves seem to have been a lot more fascinating than searching through the Netflix database while fending off its suggestions.

There is at least one place that offers me a refuge from all these modern madness.  The vinyl collections at my neighborhood thrift store, Goodwill.

I went there to scan. To hold them in hand while my eyes and brain processed the information on them.

A young woman was scanning one side of the bins. A young woman who knows what those round thingy is?

I didn't want to intrude on her space--I went to the other side.  She was apparently done with her side and she came to mine. "Oh, if you are done with that, I will give you this space" I smiled and left her in peace.

Music I have no idea about. Music I have no interest in. And, if anything seems interesting, well, either I have that same vinyl at home already, or I have that music in a CD. Maybe I have exhausted the possibilities at this store?

But, here is where that surprise element kicks in. Like those books on the university library shelves.  I saw this:

So, I stand there and read the description of the group and their music--I had never ever heard of them before. It was a radical group of lesbians. During a time period when most of the English speaking population would not have even known the word "lesbian."  How fascinating!  I decided to buy that.

I picked up three other LPs--Cole Porter songs, Tchaikovsky, and Neil Diamond. I wonder what a Netflix equivalent would decide about such a music collection!

A total of four vinyls. I felt satisfied with this tactile experience.

I reached the counter. The young man counted the vinyls. "You have four?"


He looked at a paper that was hanging by the register. My eyes also went there.

"You get four or five, it will be the same price of  99 cents."

"99 cents for five LPs?" I couldn't believe.

"Yes, for all five."

"Ok, ring me up for five and I will go get another one" I told him as I handed a dollar bill.

Imagine that!  I get five LPs and I didn't even pay a whole dollar for them.

I reached home. Perhaps by now you are thinking that I rushed to play the Berkeley Women's Music Collective LP. I too would have thought so.

But, when I came home, I saw an LP that I hadn't played for a while. It is by a contemporary artist, John Mayer. A friend in Southern California had ordered the CD version of the album, or so she thought, and it was a surprise to her that it was two LPs in the package. She didn't have a turntable either. When she knew I had one, and liked vinyls, that became mine.

And so it was that I spent the evening listening to sides A through D. It was like I scanning at my own library bookshelf and ending up picking something other than what I had planned to.

I miss those old days, perhaps more than merely sometimes.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

At least influenza is seasonal. Affluenza makes life meaningless?

"My aunt died of influenza" begins Eliza Doolittle, remember?

At least that is an illness that we can hope to fight against by taking preventive flu shots, or by resting and taking care when sick.

But, how do you deal with a problem like affluenza?

When we did not have much, we made do with what we had.  As we begin to live the life of affluence (if you are reading this, face it, you are affluent!) there is always a chance that we will be on the path towards being infected with affluenza, for which there is only one cure, which is within ourselves.

A few years ago, well, nearly two decades ago, the visiting Swedish high school student we were hosting talked about depression among the youth in her country.   She thought out her reason for that, which was along the lines of "we have everything we want. So, the teenagers invent problems and cut their wrists."

I often remind students when we discuss poverty that the economic deprivation does not equate to despair and depression and all those negative associations.  There is, of course, a good chance that we are happy when we do not have to worry about where the next meal will come from, or to worry about shelter. That basic, fundamental, material needs, the lack of which can easily make one unhappy.  But, once we look beyond those basic aspects, and as we move along in the affluence continuum, do we find our lives to be meaningful?

Do the poor have more meaningful lives?
Thousands of people, completing an annual Gallup survey administered in a hundred and thirty-two countries, reported how happy they were, whether their lives had “an important purpose or meaning,” and where their lives stood on a scale from zero (worst possible life) to ten (best possible life).
The first result replicated plenty of earlier research: people from wealthier countries were generally happier than those from poorer countries. To reach an average life-satisfaction score of four out of ten, people needed to earn about seven hundred dollars a year; for a score of five, they needed to earn an average of three thousand dollars per year; for a score of six, they needed to earn an average of sixteen thousand dollars per year; and to score seven they needed to earn an average of sixty-four thousand dollars a year.
But, if wealth fostered happiness, it appeared to drain meaningfulness. Between ninety-five and a hundred per cent of the respondents from poverty-stricken Sierra Leone, Togo, Kyrgyzstan, Chad, and Ethiopia reported leading meaningful lives. Only two-thirds of the respondents in Japan, France, and Spain believed their lives had meaning.
A typical Ethiopian or a Bangladeshi finds life to be a lot more meaningful than does a typical American or Swede.  Not difficult to guess that there is practically no affluenza in Ethiopia or Bangladesh!  How does this work?
Happiness was generally a reflection of how they felt in the present alone. Happier people were more likely to report leading easy lives, to be in good health, to feel good much of the time, and to be able to buy what they needed without financial strain. People who felt their lives were meaningful, on the other hand, were likelier to have experienced fulfilling social relationships, engaged in acts of charity, taken care of their children, thought about struggles and challenges, and prayed, among other activities. These characteristics sound a lot like the social ties and religious beliefs that gave poorer people a sense of purpose in Oishi and Diener’s paper. Perhaps because poverty strips people of happiness in the short term, it forces them to take the long view—to focus on the relationships they have with their children, their gods, and their friends, which become more meaningful over time.
I am not sure I agree with the possible corollary that there is a tradeoff involved between the short-term material needs happiness and meaningfulness over the horizon. But, perhaps I feel the lack of the tradeoff because of the intensely introspective and reflective and autoethnographic life that I lead?  I suppose it is quite possible that those caught up in the short-term "rat race to richness" might feel that emptiness about what life is all about?
“On Wall Street, hard work is always overwork.” Grinding out hundred-hour weeks for years helps bankers think of themselves as tougher and more dedicated than everyone else. And working fifteen hours a day doesn’t just demonstrate your commitment to a company; it also reinforces that commitment. Over time, the simple fact that you work so much becomes proof that the job is worthwhile, and being in the office day and night becomes a kind of permanent initiation ritual. 
The more we stand and stare the more meaning we find in life?  I am convinced about that.

Have I convinced you?  Are you sufficiently inoculated against affluenza?

A dude with a hoodie on, on a hammock, by the river, basking in the sunlight

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Those winter sundays

It is winter here, and already Sunday in the old country.

Nothing special, you might think.

There is something special.

My father's birthday.

One of his three birthdays.

Yes, you read that right.  Father has logical reasons to celebrate his birthday three times every year.

Why three birthdays?

He was born on the 26th.  But, perhaps the clerk at the school that he attended mistakenly recorded 28 instead of 26.  Given that back then the school records were the de facto documents for such data, well, all the official papers ever since his elementary school days have the 28th as the date of birth.

So, that is two birthdays. The third?

The desi readers of this blog know the answer, while those from my adopted country will wonder what tricks we people were/are up to.  The third one is based on the traditional lunar calendar, and I have no idea when that comes up.

You might then wonder why the title of the post is not something like "happy birthday, appa."  Well, I stole the title. From a poem. You will see why.

Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 
When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 

Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Friday, January 24, 2014

What is this life if we have no time to stand and stare

The fog was not as intense when coming back from Seattle unlike its misty tentacles when I was driving up.

It seemed like there was nobody on the road either.  It was a peaceful zen drive.  The little bit of sunlight that managed to diffuse through the fog made it clear that the sun would soon call it a day.

And then all of a sudden, the fog lifted. The colors of the sky were divine even for this atheist. I moved over to the slow lane so that I could drive at a leisurely pace and enjoy the scenery.

It became even more charming and I slowed down even more.  The railroad tracks between the highway and the river, with the colors of the setting sun on the horizon.  I decided that life was not worth it, and it was not worth driving, if I didn't stop to take it all in.

Hazards on. I checked the temperature--40 degrees. I pulled over to the shoulder. Stopped.  Got out of the vehicle.

The cold wind felt like the warm embrace of a friend. Everything looked and felt friendly. I grabbed my camera.

A few minutes later, I was back in the vehicle, and resumed the drive home.

As we rush through life, I suppose not often do we pause to appreciate the very life we live. The people we see and meet. The flowers. The smells. The foods. At least the river seems to know where it is rushing towards; what do we know!

Earlier this evening, I decided to play vinyls on the turntable and read sitting on the cold floor there. As music filled the room, the home, and my mind, my hand reached out for a book that I had long forgotten--a collection of 500 poems. It was a coincidence, and a sheer delight, when I came across this poem, which convinces me that pulling over by the freeway side to stand and stare was the best thing I could have ever done that evening.

I wish you a rich life of standing and staring.

William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The best thing you can do: choose your parents well

President Harry Truman apparently asked for a one-handed economist because he was tired of the "on one hand" and "on the other hand."  Economists, even the Nobel laureates, rarely seem to agree on the issues of the day, which makes the rest of us--practically the entire population--wonder if there is any science at all behind the conclusions that economists reach.

Here in the US, we are now getting into discussions and debates and yelling matches on whether we ought to increase the minimum wage.  And, often, related to this is the larger context of rising income and wealth inequality.  Economists being economists, well, you can pick and choose any one leading scholar who might support your own gut feelings on this, which might also make you wonder whether you can always then pick the correct answer to questions in economics simply based on your own gut feelings and later have it legitimized by quoting a leading economist!

The Economist--not the person but the magazine that calls itself a newspaper--offers, or attempts to offer, an explanation for why some economists oppose minimum wages.  Read the entire piece and decide for yourself whether you get it or whether you need to move to Colorado or Washington in order to inject some dope into your system and then read it!  The comments are the most interesting there, and say a lot about personal feelings leading to conclusions no different from what a real economist might have. This comment by a A. Andros summarizes it:
I am not a trained economist but can, like Beatrice, see a church by daylight.
So, ok, academic economists do not have their personal money at stake, right?  What if you had to think about it as a real investor, entrepreneur, business owner?  Here is Bill Gates (who is, of course, not a trained economist):
You have to be a bit careful that if you raise the minimum wage, you’re encouraging labor substitution, that you’re going to go buy machines and automate things or cause jobs to appear outside of that jurisdiction.
Which is true. The labor substitution via automation happens all the time. At the most basic levels too.  Think about this small piece--we now have plenty of grocery and box stores that have self-checkout lanes. That means a couple of checkout clerk positions, which might have paid minimum or near-minimum wages, have disappeared. And, of course, outsourcing is nothing but jobs appearing outside of the jurisdiction.

Now, one thing is for real--the growing inequality. I followed up on Greg Mankiw's post and tried to read this paper.  But, it had way too much technical discussions for my preference. I liked this there:
income inequality increased over time in our sample, consistent with prior work. Hence, the consequences of the “birth lottery” – the parents to whom a child is born – are larger today than in the past. A useful visual analogy is to envision the income distribution as a ladder, with each percentile representing a different rung. The rungs of the ladder have grown further apart (inequality has increased), but children’s chances of climbing from lower to higher rungs have not changed (rank-based mobility has remained stable).
Yep, make sure you choose your parents well!

This finding is not a real surprise to me because Branko Milanovic wonderfully articulated the importance of the parents' background as a predictor for economic success.

The New Yorker's John Cassidy summarizes the study, and writes:
the new study doesn’t mean that the effects of inequality aren’t more serious than they used to be. With inequality rising, particularly at the top, the rewards for clambering up the income distribution are greater, and so are the costs of getting stuck at the bottom. “The consequences of the ‘birth lottery’—the parents to whom a child is born—are larger today than in the past,” the paper notes. Or, as Saez said to the Times, “The level of opportunity is alarming, even though it’s stable over time.”
So, will increasing the minimum wage do anything to this inequality?  Will that help with evening out the uneven levels of opportunity?  You know what will happen when you ask two economists, right?  So, yes, do not ask them--unless it is a one-handed economist!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Too much emphasis on disease, not enough on managing risk

Every once in a while, I swing by Wal-Mart (yes, you liberal readers, I go to Wal-Mart!) and use the machine there to check my blood pressure.  I don't take one measurement.  I take three. And, of course, I walk away with a smug relieved feeling that I am doing ok.  (Btw, it turns out that these machines typically report numbers that are higher than the ones when the nurse checks using the old style sphygmomanometer.)

I have been doing this for a number of years now.  It is because of a deep-seated conviction that physical health includes a great deal of personal decisions on managing the risks that are within our control.  One of the risks that I (and you, too!) need to manage is blood pressure. Periodic measurements then gives me an idea of that particular risk.

Once, when I told my daughter about this practice of mine, she warned me that I stand the risk of crossing over the dark side and obsessing about personal health. So, I don't tell her this anymore ;)  Well, she has a valid point there, and I am hoping to stay clear of the line that separates the light from the dark.

I worry, however, that we are increasingly living lives where we don't pay enough attention to managing risk.  The sedentary population ignores it as much as the overly active population overlooks the risks. Years ago, I asked my doctor whether he thought that people who jog and run a lot could affect their knee joints more than people who only walk a lot (like me!) because we humans are, after all, not designed to run like cheetahs but to only wander around like cows on meadows.  At least that is my risk management reason for not jogging--what's yours?

Only rarely can we truly eliminate risks, and those are often in the contexts of infectious diseases. Otherwise, it is all about managing risks.  Prevention of diseases, as the old saying goes, is immensely less expensive than curing them later on.  The expense of dollars as well as the expense via a diminished state of health.  But, could we also go overboard with this preventative approach?

Maciej Zatonski writes in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer (not online yet?) that a major problem with modern medicine is that it needlessly treats "everyone's "abnormal" findings" that results in:
Treatments are often expensive and can make previously healthy people feel sick--both physically (from side effects) and psychologically (due to their changed perception of their own health.
Why?  Simple: "The closer we look, the more "diseases" we find."
We scan, screen, and diagnose more and more individuals using the most advanced technology. But are we always helping our patients? Who actually benefits from early treatments? How many suffer complications? How many are harmed, physically or emotionally?
My mother has a long-running case of anemia. Recently, when father suggested that she undergo more tests, she flatly refused it, based on her own estimates of benefits and costs related to this risk management, given her age and the life expectancy at this stage of her life.  Father made the mistake of asking for my opinion--he was not happy that I supported mother ;)

Zatonski concludes:
My impression is that we need to redefine our conception and definition of health and disease and introduce the concept of "risk management of possible future health benefits."

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The question is more important than the answer

As much as I was effortlessly earning the high grades in math and science--high marks, as it was referred to in the old country--I knew even during my high school days that my career would not be in anything related to science and technology. I knew there was something missing, but I did not know what it was.

Decades have passed since those angst-filled days and months of what I wanted to do.  I am now one of the lucky few on this planet who does what truly interests me and I get paid for it!  Yet, I doubt that I could have clearly articulated in a couple of sentences like the following from Alan Lightman:
At any moment in time, every scientist is working on, or attempting to work on, a well-posed problem, a question with a definite answer. We scientists are taught from an early stage of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.
But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. … For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.
 It is that wonderful ambiguity of life, of humanity, of this world, that has always fascinated me.  Even in this fascination, I am not at all keen about the answer. Instead, I just want to be breathe and drink and eat this ambiguity.

No wonder then that even with the courses I teach, I seem to always force students to think about the possible multiple interpretations. I even tell them sometimes not to expect a definitive answer from me.  I suppose my pedagogical goal, if I were to think about it that way, is that if I can help students understand that life itself is all about dealing with ambiguity, then they will know how to deal with specific instances whatever they might be.

So, yes, the questions themselves are immensely more exciting than to figure out what the answers are because, after all, the answers are what we end up trusting to be the answers.  We love somebody more than we do any other person because ...?  We love a certain music more than other types of music because ...?  Or the god we prefer. Or the place we prefer. There is simply no single answer, right?  You come up with your own answers, fully aware that you chose one answer out of a gazillion.  How fascinating!

More from Lightman:
We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing.
My greatest concern and worry, from my pedagogical perspective, is that despite the high levels of literacy that humanity has achieved, there appears to be a decreasing interest in exploring and understanding and discussing the ambiguity that life is.   The humanities, as we refer to them in the academic world, are increasingly marginalized, in favor of intellectual inquiries that drive towards definitive answers.  And then the academics themselves are making the situation even worse by offering courses that have very little, if any, for students to contemplate on, writes the ever blunt Heather Mac Donald:
Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin. ...
Today’s professoriate claims to be interested in “difference,” or, to use an even more up-to-date term, “alterity.” But this is a fraud. The contemporary academic seeks only to confirm his own worldview and the political imperatives of the moment in whatever he studies. 
I recall one student who angrily asked me, back when I was the director of the Honors Program, why he had to read some dead people's philosophical works from centuries ago, and why we compel students to take such courses.  Contemporary higher education legitimizes such grievances from students, who are the customers who bring in the money, and then offers courses where students can supposedly understand the ambiguity that life is by watching contemporary movies!

Heather Mac Donald puts it well:
We have bestowed on the faculty the best job in the world: freed from the pressures of economic competition, professors are actually paid to spend their days wandering among the most sublime creations of mankind. All we ask of them in return is that they sell their wares to ignorant undergraduates. Every fall, insistent voices should rise from the faculty lounges and academic departments saying: here is greatness, and this is your best opportunity to absorb it. Here is Aeschylus, whose hypnotic choruses bear witness to dark forces more unsettling than you can yet fathom. Here is Mark Twain, Hapsburg Vienna, and the Saint Matthew Passion. Here is the drama of Western civilization, out of whose constantly battling ideas there emerged unprecedented individual freedom and unimagined scientific progress.
Instead, the professoriate is tongue-tied when it comes to promoting the wonders of its patrimony. These privileged cowards can’t even summon the guts to prescribe the course work that every student must complete in order to be considered educated. Need it be said? Students don’t know anything. That’s why they’re in college, and they certainly don’t know enough to select courses that will give them the rudiments of culture. The transcripts that result from the professoriate’s abdication of its intellectual responsibility are not a pretty sight, featuring as many movie and video courses as a student can stuff into each semester. 
Her clearly articulated sentences, and the reference to Mark Twain, remind me about this that I read earlier today:
As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Maybe I should end this post, which is already way too long, with another set of wonderfully chosen right words, which together further drive home the point about the ambiguity of life. Here is a poem by Oregon's own William Stafford, whose birth centenary was the front page story of our local paper:
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
A winter evening in my part of the world

Monday, January 20, 2014

A spoon is more than a spoon

We do not always toss away things once they become useless. We might hold on to them because that "useless" stuff means something significant. Something profound.

Like this spoon here.

Looking at it, you might think there is no reason for me to even consider it as useless. After all, it looks like a spoon that is functional.

But, appearances can be deceptive.

I don't use this spoon because it is all wobbly and with even the slightest of pressures, it breaks down to its parts:

I don't use the spoon. Yet, I have not tossed it away. All because of memories that are now a quarter-century old.

In 1989, before heading to India for the first time since coming over to the US for graduate studies, I thought I had an understanding with another student that we would share an apartment. Apparently he thought otherwise!

It was a crude shock that I had no place to stay when I returned. I had to search for a place to live and for another student who would share the costs with me.

It was thus that I met GB, who was a newbie from India, thanks to a postdoc I knew who was friends with GB's cousin.  GB came over with his cousin and cousin's wife, and brought with him his couple of suitcases, and the minimum kitchen stuff.  We became roommates.

If I thought I was introverted, GB made me look like I was a party animal at a fraternity. He rarely spoke. He walked alone to the university. After a couple of weeks, it was clear that he had not made any acquaintances.  The weekends, his cousin came to pick him up and GB was gone.

A couple more weeks in, GB was gone even on weekdays to his cousin's. He was gone for stretches for four and five days.

There was something that was not adding up.  But, I didn't know what it was.

The semester ended. GB went to his cousin's for the break.  And did not come back.

The spring semester began.

I got a call from his cousin to tell me that it might be a while before GB returned to the apartment and that I didn't have to worry about GB's share of the rent and utilities--they would send me the checks.

And then the reason for GB's absence.

GB was not well.  He had been undergoing psychiatric treatment, and was on medication as well. And, no, it was not a result of coming to the US--he was unwell even back in India.

I was shocked.

A few weeks into the second semester, GB came with his cousin-couple.  While he was packing up his stuff, the cousin and I traded stories about our respective beards. He told me that I didn't have to struggle with the trimming with a comb and scissors and that instead I could use a beard trimmer similar to how there were electric shavers. I remember feeling surprised there was a gadget to trim beards!

GB was all packed up. The cousin's wife told me that they were leaving behind GB's kitchen stuff, and that I could use them or do whatever I wanted.  They left.

I now had an apartment all to myself. But, I could not be happy about it.

The year ended.  As always, it seemed like only we students from other countries were around during the summer months. It also meant that we often met with other international students over coffee and dinners. I think it was towards the end of the summer that I ran into that postdoc friend. I asked her about GB.  She said that GB had returned to India.

It was clear that the postdoc had something else to add. And she did.

Not too long after going back home, GB had committed suicide by hanging himself.

I still have a couple of plates of GB's.  The spoon I retain because of an important lesson that I learnt in the process about the invisible mental health. A fracture, a cut that bleeds, a cough, or any such health issue are out in the open and we check with the people if they are ok. How would we ever know about the mental health of others when it is all hidden within their heads?  And, even worse, how do we know we are not making their conditions worse?  Even now, I wonder if there was something that I did or said that could have aggravated GB's conditions.  Or, perhaps I could have said or done something that could have helped him.

Now, with the last of GB's spoon's breaking apart, the image of the whole spoon serves as a metaphor as well that something that looks normal doesn't have to be normal, and that it could be all be broken up within.

Life is immensely complex. As I get older, it only seems to get even more complex.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

On the salaried profundity of university professors

It is almost always the case that we humans are way more quick and eager to complain than we are about appreciating and thanking.  At work, or at home, or at stores, or wherever.

Which is why I watch out for what students have to say about me.  After all, if the negative feedback is what is usually expressed, then it is all the more easy for me to get an idea of patterns and common threads in those complaints about my teaching.  Which can then be the basis of a better and improved version of me, right?

Maybe we ought to have such mechanisms for friendship, for family relationships too.  Imagine a website where your friends can give you feedback, and anonymously. "The jokes you had on Jane Doe were below the belt" can make you reflect on whether you are always having jokes at somebody else's expense.  "I hate the purple dress you wore to the party because you looked like a cartoon dinosaur" could potentially make you re-think your idea of dressing up.

But, then a friendship or a relationship is not based on an economic exchange.  Teaching is an economic interaction, as much as I hate to think about it that way.  As this essay, which is a review of a book on Adorno's life and thoughts, notes (ht):
we live in a “false society”, where everything is “totally organised” and people are treated as things, and things as people. There was no value except exchange value, and it had infiltrated our lives so completely that we had forgotten how to love anything for its own sake. We had even lost the ability to give thoughtful presents: the act of making a gift had degenerated into a tactical ploy, a grudging exchange of objects executed with “careful adherence to the prescribed budget, sceptical appraisal of the other, and the least possible effort. 
But, false or true society, it is what it is and there are people paying for a service.  If I am lousy at providing that, well, it is not the best deal for students, yes?

Thus, every once in a while I go to I go there fully expecting dissatisfied students complaining about me.  Over the years, I have picked up plenty of feedback from students and, I often joke with students: "if you think I am a horrible faculty now, you should be glad you were not in my classes even a few years ago!"  I even have a videotape from one of my old televised classes as evidence of how much worse I was back then--thankfully, nobody has VCRs anymore to play that tape!

So, it was after a long time that I checked in with that website.  Turns out that it is not only complaints there.  Positive feedback, too.  Maybe I have become a better teacher, after all.  Fat chance, you say?

The first comment includes this:
I had never had a prof. who encouraged critical thinking so much. This is one class where it was worth paying for the college class.
Awesome. I can call it quits on this high note. Mission accomplished if even one student got that message about critical thinking.

The rest of the comments there didn't even register in my mind.

If even a couple of students become independent, original, critical thinkers, I think I would have done enough and more to keep my salary, right Adorno?
The strenuousness of original thinking had been replaced by the “salaried profundity” of university professors, who train their students to harmonise their judgements with those of their colleagues so as to earn a living as “spokespersons for the average”.
When the term ends, and when the academic year ends, I bet I will get more feedback from students. If jams and chocolates and tea and thank-you notes and wedding invitations are useful and reliable indicators, then they and the website seem to tell me I am doing alright.

The salary is almost a bonus, which I cannot live without ;)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

For a brief moment under the sun ...

The older I get, the more I notice lessons in everyday life.

It was another foggy day when I left home for the long drive north to Seattle. "At least it is not a ground-level fog" I told myself.  Driving for a long stretch in limited visibility is a pain and, thankfully, this was more like very low hanging clouds.

A few miles out of Eugene, I set the cruise control at 70. I was almost immediately reminded of the conversation I had with an old high school friend a couple of days ago when I told her about my travel plans for the weekend.

"How far is Seattle from your place?" she asked.

"Oh, about 300 miles, I think.  I typically take five, or five-and-a-half hours.  Sometimes even six, if I end up stopping to admire the scenery."

She seemed intrigued.  "Why that long for 300 miles?  At what speed do you drive?"

I suppose it is all a part of my personality. I don't care about speed.  It is not a competition.

Going from one place to another is also a metaphor for the journey that life is.  We are not racing towards the ultimate destination of our deaths, are we, when we live?  Life is that fascinating experience of what happens between the origin--birth--and the destination.  But, we often tend to use phrases like "I want to get on with my life" as if the current experience is some kind of an out of body experience!

But, no, this was not today's lesson. This is old for me.

It continued to be foggy.  There was no change whatsoever in the conditions. Given how much we talk of the similar geographic attributes along the continuum from Eugene all the way up to Vancouver in British Columbia, I wondered whether the fog and clouds will be my travel companions all the way to Seattle.

Fog or not, there are always a couple of maniacal drivers on the road. When I spotted in my rearview mirror a car that was weaving in and out of lanes, I hoped that the cops would nab that driver. Oh well ... I bet the cops were at the donut shop!  I try to move out of the way of these maniacs on the road because it seems like they get pissed off at the slow ones like me. Even when we go about minding our own business, there are people who get annoyed at what we do. It infuriates them. Such is life.

No, this was not the lesson either.

As I neared Portland, the fog seemed to lighten. The temperature gauge display flirted with 40. I rounded a curve. And like that the fog was gone.

Blue sky. Wispy white clouds. Bright sunlight. A chilly 39, yes, but no fog. Life cleared up.  The river and the skyline with the buildings seemed magical.

I was thankful that I had with me in the car the CD that had the song for the moment. I played it. I sang along with it.

I crossed into Washington.

A few miles later, just like that, the sun was gone. The blue sky disappeared. It was foggy, again.

It was only a matter of minutes. A brief ten or twelve minutes of sunlight.

When we are in a fog, it could very well be that going a few miles is all one needs to do in order to get into the clear. In the fog of life that we sometimes find ourselves trapped in, well, perhaps a slightly different way of thinking about our existence can clear our troubles?

By the same token, when everything is going well in life, it could very well be that we have no idea of the fog bank that is only a little bit away in the direction that we are headed.

We simply have no idea what awaits us in the journey that life is. All we can do is be good drivers, with reliable vehicles that we maintain well, watch out for maniacs ... and then, shrug our shoulders as the French might and say C'est la vie.

For now, enjoy that moment under the sun.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Where are we humans in the pecking order, and does it matter?

"I eat eggs" my father remarked to his cousin sister, which made her laugh in her typically loud laughter.

"Not just now. Right from when I was a child. My mother was told by the doctor to give me eggs because of my health complications when I was young."  The cousin's mother and my father's father were siblings, and I bet the aunt thought this was strange that a traditional brahmin woman in a small little village willingly bought eggs and made her son eat them, much against the traditions.

Which then led us to wonder if the thou-shall-not-kill philosophy will accommodate the eating of eggs that are not fertilized. After all, if the eggs are unfertilized, then there is no "life" in them, which means that breaking those eggs does not lead to any killing.

Given my personality, I would think that I would have worried about such issues even if I had not been raised in a cultural background that emphasized a vegetarian lifestyle and against killing of animals.

I suppose only the darn mosquitoes were mercilessly killed by my grandmothers. And, of course, the lice on the young girls' heads. Other critters, even the roaches, were simply pushed away.  Once, when a mouse was making a habit of getting into the pantry, we had no option but to trap it, which we did. And then the question came up: what to do with the small little animal that was now in the trap?  None of us, especially us kids, wanted that mouse to be killed. So, it was set free in the backyard. For some reason, it didn't want to come back again into the house. Or maybe a cat nabbed it when we were not looking?

I live in a cultural context that is very different. Because I have adopted the new country as my, perhaps many in the old country automatically assume that I have adopted the eating and drinking life here.  Especially when I identify myself as an atheist, when I am asked.

But, living here has made me think about these issues a lot more than when I was a kid.  When we are in contexts where there is no choice, well, there is no tough decision to make. When there are no temptations, well, no harm done, right?  We cry foul when politicians are corrupt, or have sexual relations that we don't approve of. But, how do we know that we, too, would not have done that?  After all, in our regular lives, we are not presented with that kind of power, and how sure are we that we will take the moral high road if we are also presented with money and if women (or men) want to sexually please us?

Thus, here I am, and eating becomes an existential question. It is a restatement of that fundamental Hindu philosophical question of "who am I?"  The "who am I?" is not merely to explore our relationship with god--that is a screwed up way to think about that question. Instead, it is about understanding who we are, how we ought to relate to fellow humans, and how to relate to other life and non-living forms as well.

Somehow, we have come to operate with a conviction that we humans are way up there in the ranking.  We then go about "making use" of everything around us in any manner that we think benefits us. Thus, we also kill and eat other animals.

In his regular column in the Scientific American, Michael Shermer writes about speciesism when reviewing the ideas articulated in Mark Devries's Speciesism: The Movie:
In the film, [Peter] Singer and Devries argue that some animals have the mental upper hand over certain humans, such as infants, people in comas, and the severely mentally handicapped. The argument for our moral superiority thus breaks down, Devries told me: “The presumption that nonhuman animals' interests are less important than human interests could be merely a prejudice—similar in kind to prejudices against groups of humans such as racism—termed speciesism.”
Indeed. Think about this: we spend enormous resources to support a human life in a vegetative state, even as we kill everything from an ant to a cow without any second thought. A human life is that much vastly superior to every other life form?

Shermer recalls his own experience:
While working as a graduate student in an experimental psychology animal laboratory in 1978 at California State University, Fullerton, it was my job to dispose of lab rats that had outlived our experiments. I was instructed to euthanize them with chloroform, but I hesitated. I wanted to take them up into the local hills and let them go, figuring that death by predation or starvation was better than gassing. But releasing lab animals was illegal. So I exterminated them … with gas. It was one of the most dreadful things I ever had to do.
I could never have worked in any of those labs. Impossible!

Shermer concludes:
Mammals are sentient beings that want to live and are afraid to die. Evolution vouchsafed us all with an instinct to survive, reproduce and flourish. Our genealogical connectedness, demonstrated through evolutionary biology, provides a scientific foundation from which to expand the moral sphere to include not just all humans—as rights revolutions of the past two centuries have done—but all nonhuman sentient beings as well.
If you prick them, do they not bleed?

If only we could get every human to think about these, first, before they make their decisions on what to eat, right?  It is the mindless approach that bothers me. Perhaps it is the teacher in me that wants humans to think about everything and then make informed decisions, whether it is about eating or about higher education.  Is that too much to ask?

Am I being, ahem, pigheaded? ;)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

In the waiting room with Alice

It was foggy. Again. For the third consecutive day. And freezing cold. I wished it would start raining, and get rid of the damn fog.

Fog or rain or sun, a man has got to do what a man has got to do.

The man had to get the oil changed in the car.

I drove to the dealership, handed them the keys, and sat down in the waiting room with the New Yorker in hand.

To go with the foggy day, even the New Yorker's pieces were blah.

An elderly couple walked in one door as the supervisor came in from the shop.

"Are you Alice?

"Yes, I am."

"Is our key ready?"

"Lemme check."

"Can you also help me with the settings for the phone's black tooth in the car?"

"For a black tooth, you have to get to a dentist. I can help with the bluetooth" she replied with a smile.

The couple laughed, and so did I.

The woman continued to explain the problem. "Now when I say "call Bob" it doesn't work."

"No wonder my phone rings all the time" I said.  I mean, come on, how long can a man sit there without being funny when he is being presented with punchline after punchline!

We all laughed.

The supervisor went to check on the vehicle, while the couple and I chatted. "It is difficult to keep up with the technology and the problems" she said. I agreed.

"The other day, I called up the cable company to complain that my email isn't working. The computer was saying something about Java script and cookies."

No, I didn't wisecrack about her baking cookies. That would be a bad joke on the person. Decency requires that the jokes be about myself or about stuff in general.

"She then says that it is all fixed and that I will get an email from her. But, I had called to tell her that I can't access my email!"  We chuckled at the irony.

"Who knows if even that person was for real" chimed in the elderly man, who was rolling a toothprick between his teeth.

The supervisor returned and updated about their status. "Did you know you have a recall notice on your vehicle?  Only a software update?"

Now, was another chance for me. "They probably sent you an email" I told them.

The couple laughed. "Why let a funny line die, right?" the man said.

He paused for a while. And then said, "this is a comedy show right here. We should call it 'In the Waiting Room with Alice'"

Thanks for watching the first episode! ;)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

You're toast. Er, your toast!

I suppose it is a sure sign that I am getting old when I don't seem to get bored about eating a slice of toast every morning. The only question is whether I should spread peanut butter on it, or Nutella, or that rare day when I reach for butter and jam.  But, like my dog who always seemed happy to eat the same food every time, I am, too, happy to have the toast with coffee every morning.  So, maybe it is contentment and not aging, eh!

Given such a daily morning toast ritual, should you be surprised that I am looking forward to checking out cafes that specialize in, yes, toast? (ht)
The coffee shop, called the Red Door, was a spare little operation tucked into the corner of a chic industrial-style art gallery and event space (clients include Facebook, Microsoft, Evernote, Google) in downtown San Francisco. There were just three employees working behind the counter: one making coffee, one taking orders, and the soulful guy making toast. In front of him, laid out in a neat row, were a few long Pullman loaves—the boxy Wonder Bread shape, like a train car, but recognizably handmade and freshly baked. And on the brief menu, toast was a standalone item—at $3 per slice.
It took me just a few seconds to digest what this meant: that toast, like the cupcake and the dill pickle before it, had been elevated to the artisanal plane. So I ordered some. It was pretty good. It tasted just like toast, but better.
I can easily imagine that even a plain old toast can taste heavenly when done well.  I wish I could have that divine taste every morning!  It is like how a simple idli in India can be done amazingly at some places.  We vastly underestimate the powerful effect a tasty simplest of meals can have.  We tend to think that the best dining experience can result only from complex preparations and high prices.  Not always.
WHEN I TOLD FRIENDS back East about the craze for fancy toast that was sweeping across the Bay Area, they laughed and laughed. (How silly; how twee; how San Francisco.) But my bet is that artisanal toast is going national. I’ve already heard reports of sightings in the West Village.
Again, if I relate it to the idlis back in India, I can visualize how a simple idli shop that sells nothing but plain old idli--but the tastiest idlis ever--and no fancy coffee will be a huge hit among city slickers used to highfalutin talk and food. The humble toast is that same way.  When traveling, sometimes I long for a simple toast and coffee when I wake up. But, of course, getting that toast is almost always next to impossible.

The complaint about the difficulty in getting a decent toast of bread is not anything new. Remember that wonderful scene with Jack Nicholson?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Is holy cow an udder waste?

Over the years, my parents and my sister have gotten into an interesting way to mark birthdays and other events--they donate money to institutions whose missions they are passionate about.  One of those is a goshala that is a little outside of Chennai.

Cows are, of course, sacred animals in the Hindu faith.  That upbringing is also why when I was walking around in Costa Rica, I was reminded of the kamadhenu. Despite my atheism! 

The reverence for the cow is more than for any utilitarian calculations of milk and manure. The belief is that the animal represents life itself. The mother of life.

When we impose an utilitarian calculation on such a value for a cow, well, of course we might then conclude that a cow is not worth the investment:
India is home to more than a sixth of the world’s population and also more than one quarter of the world’s estimated cattle population. The study’s authors Santosh Anagol, Alvin Etang and Dean Karlan analyzed data from a sample of households in northern India that were asked questions about livestock, farming practices, land holdings, assets, household consumption and income history, savings, borrowing, and shocks. The survey data also provided information on the costs of milk production and data on animal outputs such as milk and calves.
The researchers found that when valuing labor at market wages, these households earned a negative 64% average return for holding cows and a negative 39% return for buffaloes. If the household’s labor is valued at zero, these estimated average returns increase to negative 6% for cows and positive 13% for buffaloes.
Yes, we might want to highlight such a result to those thinking of buying a cow or a buffalo (water buffalo, for you Americans reading this!) with a calculation that selling milk from these animals will lead them to unimaginable riches.

A goshala, on the other hand, is not about making money at all. It is simply a sanctuary of sorts for the cows.  And, yes, the cows are milked as in any other dairy.  But the enterprise is not to make money from the milk.

What I like about the concept of the goshala is that it is a voluntary effort.  If people like my parents want to contribute to it, they do. If they don't, well, there is nothing to force them.

And then there is the insane Indian politics.  Which makes a mockery of anything!
Rajasthan’s right-wing Hindu administration is set to establish a government department for the preservation and protection of cows and to start research institutions, or cow science universities, focused on the rearing and health of the animal.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in the desert state, India’s largest by area, in December, is fulfilling a key pledge from its manifesto and plans to declare the cow as the state animal.

Doesn't Rajasthan have a lot more pressing problems, like this one?
In Rajasthan, where cow slaughter is banned, the ruling BJP wants to review and toughen up the existing laws governing cow smuggling for slaughter and plans to give up to 3.5 billion rupees ($57 million) every year to nonprofits and government agencies running cattle smallholdings for feed and upkeep.
To protect cows reared in cowsheds, there will also be a state-wide  campaign to provide them proper health care with clinics held twice a month for cattle, according to the states’ animal husbandry department’s plan for its first 60 days in office.
In other words, government subsidized goshalas. Which will then slowly become government run goshalas. Which will eventually lead to government ill-treatment of the cows themselves!

India is one strange place!

Monday, January 13, 2014

We chat. We message. But, ... Do we converse?

Because Ramesh's blog is about business-related matters (or so, he claims!) they are usually topics that I don't blog about even if I am interested in them.  And, of course, I comment on his posts, whether I know anything about it or not.

Over the months then, if what I read reminded me of one of his posts, then I have gone back to his blog and commented yet again, often citing the new source as well.  It is not that I am being pedantic.  There is something more. More profound than that.  To me, a blog and commenting is conversation, and me going back to his blog is my way of continuing with that conversation.  Conversations we would have in the real world if only he were not far away in some remote Bangalore but here in Eugene!

Real world conversations seem to be getting rarer by the day.  For instance, even until a decade ago, the break during class time was when the room was noisiest thanks to students conversing with each other.  Calling the class to order typically ended that noise and it was back to me droning on and on and students trying their best to keep awake.

It is a different world, and a different classroom setting now.  The break time is often quiet--students are almost always hunched over their smartphones, texting and chatting.  Sometimes, I joke that they are probably texting students sitting only two seats away!

Such behavior is not unique in the classroom alone and is played out seemingly everywhere, sometimes even among family members in the same home.

Perhaps an irony that an introverted blogger worries about the death of conversation.  But, keep in mind that introvert does not mean anti-social ;)  While I might not be the nonstop chatterbox like, well, you know who you are (!) I love conversations.

This fascination with the trend in decreasing levels of conversation is the focus of this piece in the Atlantic:
Turkle is at work on a new book, aspirationally titled Reclaiming Conversation, which will be a continuation of her thinking in Alone Together. In it, she will out herself again, this time as “a partisan of conversation.” Her research for the book has involved hours upon hours of talking with people about conversation as well as eavesdropping on conversations: the kind of low-grade spying that in academia is known as “ethnography,” that in journalism is known as “reporting,” and that everywhere else is known as “paying attention.”
“I can’t, in restaurants, not watch families not talking to each other,” Turkle tells me. “In parks, I can’t not watch mothers not talking to their children. In streets, I can’t not watch mothers texting while they’re pushing their children.”
Her methods are contagious; once you start noticing what Turkle notices, you can’t stop. It’s a beautiful day, and we walk past boutiques, restaurants, and packed sidewalk cafés. The data are everywhere: The pair of high-school-age girls walking down Boylston Street, silent, typing. The table of brunchers ignoring their mimosas (and one another) in favor of their screens. The kid in the stroller playing with an iPad. The sea of humans who are, on this sparkling Saturday, living up to Turkle’s lament—they seem to be, indeed, alone together.
We are chatting, messaging, updating the Facebook status, tweeting, yes. But, ...
The conclusion she’s arrived at while researching her new book is not, technically, that we’re not talking to each other. We’re talking all the time, in person as well as in texts, in e-mails, over the phone, on Facebook and Twitter. The world is more talkative now, in many ways, than it’s ever been. The problem, Turkle argues, is that all of this talk can come at the expense of conversation. We’re talking at each other rather than with each other.
When I teach a class online, it is that conversation with students in the classroom that I miss.  The dialog in the classroom, the tangential comments made, the jokes, and even the wide yawns of students, make up the valuable Socratic conversation.
Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.
Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.” 
Oh well. Maybe some day when there is a severe electromagnetic storm and we lose electronic communication, we might be forced into re-learning the art of conversation.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem likely that we can teach the art of conversation either!

For now, I wonder if my iPhone is a tad too old and whether I need to upgrade mine so that I can ...


Sunday, January 12, 2014

That's what friends are for?

When we are familiar with the routines that our families and friends have, and when we notice a deviation from those routines, we watch out.

"Where is the blog" messaged an old high school friend.  In addition to replying to her, I thought maybe I ought to preempt another from my school days, to which he responded with "I was wondering what happened."

In the age of Facebook when "friends" has come to mean something vastly different from what the word would have meant to generations past, it is gratifying to know there the old meaning continues to be valid. I wrote to two other high school friends thanking them for meeting with me; silent readers they are of this blog. Two friends had a wonderful gift waiting for me.

"It is a break in the rain. Go for your walk" suggested another friend.

I did.  I am old and wise enough to act on any good friend's suggestions.

Plus, it would be my first hello to my two other friends--the Willamette River and the bike/walk path--in the new year. After that eventful snow and ice event of last year.

The river was brown as it always becomes after the rains.  Very few people out on the path.  A young couple was walking slowly ahead of me.  The woman seemed to have a colored hijab on and as I passed them, they were certainly whispering, perhaps sweet nothings, in some language other than the ones that I can easily identify.

A wet and shaggy dog kept going into the river and then rushing back to the path in order to be with the man and wife who were pushing a stroller from which an infant was taking in the whole world.  I was reminded of my father's joke about rebirth. His old joke was that when Hindus did enough good things in their lives, they would be then be rewarded with a rebirth in the United States.  But, after his stay in the US, and after observing how my dogs were treated with beds and treats and foods and comforts, he modified his joke that the reward will be rebirth as a dog in the US.

The sun briefly came out. As it faded back behind the clouds, the landscape looked like a painting. I hurriedly clicked.

I nodded and smiled at the few people on the path.  As I neared home, I saw a neighbor in his backyard enjoying his cigar and watching the football game. "Happy new year" I yelled.  He waved back.  He is not a "friend" in the old meaning of the word. Nor are we Facebook friends. But, I know he always wishes me well.

Will you not be happy and content with such a day?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Roma get harassed in France. Again.

Something new every day.

Today's installment?  I had no idea that Inspector Javert--you remember him from Les Misérables, right??--"seems to have been born Roma."  Did you know that before?
The son of a fortune-teller, he spent his life "with an inexpressible hatred for that bohemian race, of which he was one."
No, I am not reading Les Misérables. That note on Javert's background was how this essay in the New Yorker ends. (Sub. reqd.)

No, the essay is not about the Victor Hugo classic.  It is about the Roma in contemporary France--a topic that I have blogged about before (here, and here.)

Of course, it is always a reflex response to think of my old high school friend, Srikumar, whenever I come across anything about the Roma.  For two decades now his work has been about improving the conditions for the Roma and for developing an understanding between the Roma and the rest, primarily in the Czech Republic where he lives.  Perhaps it should not surprise any that we people from India are drawn to the Roma; the New Yorker also notes the geographic origins:
The Roma do seem to have emigrated, as they have always claimed, in a distinct wave, perhaps a thousand years ago, from Northern India. 
Yep, the wandering Indians we are.

I wondered whether the essay would make any reference to Srikumar.  But, the story is tightly focused on France and, hence, no place for him, I suppose.

The essay is about the same old issues that have dogged the Roma forever.  They are viewed as thieves and pickpockets and abusers of the social welfare system.  From the manner in which one views the Roma "problem" one might think that they are immigrating in huge numbers from Romania.  Nope!  Leave it to an ailing French philosopher to put matters in perspective that it is a "racist and xenophobic obsession":
it is absurd for twenty thousand misérables to exasperate sixty-five million French.
If this obsession "is not about fear of the other," what might be the reason for this obsession with the 20,000?
It is the fear of the self--of what we might become.
And what are the French worried that they might become?  Misérables!
For the first time in thirty years, the standard of living in France is declining.
Victor Hugo's Misérables  meet Bill Clinton's "it's the economy, stupid!" equals beating up on the Roma, it seems.

The Economist also has a lengthy piece on the effect the economic conditions are having in countries like France, and notes the gains that the populist, nationalist, right parties are experiencing.
For the time being, however, a battered Europe is fertile terrain. There is little sign yet of a sustained drop in joblessness, nor decisive economic recovery.
It will be a while before the Roma's plights go away.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Are we there, yet?

Life is always full of surprises.

As I walked towards my seat, I noticed that the business class was full.  Not an empty seat.  Maybe this is why I no longer get those free upgrades anymore--at least, I can console myself that way!

We left the gate on schedule. I decided to watch a movie even as the plane was taxiing.  Enough Said.  Turns out that the movie title was apt was for the rest of the journey too!

As we neared what should have been close to the takeoff stage, the pilot cleared his throat.  I bet most of us in the plane immediately knew that we were not taking off. Some technical glitch, which required that we taxi back to a gate whenever one opened up.

No point fretting and fuming, I decided. Apparently that was the thought that the other 300-plus also had.  Even the kids didn't make any noise.  I had never before seen such a calm and disciplined crowd.  Life is always full of surprises.

I continued on with the movie, about which the title says everything one needs to know.  The engines revved, giving me hope. A few minutes later, the pilot's update--more time needed for repairs.

I was done with the movie, and walked about in the plane. Did some stretching routines. More than two hours had passed and it continued to be a quiet crowd, other than the occasional chattering, especially on the cellphones. Mighty impressive!

The pilot had good news and bad news.  The good news was that all the repairs had been completed. The bad news was that the delay required a change of crew and we had to wait for the new personnel.

Thus, it was four hours after the scheduled time that we took off.

I would miss the connecting flight. And going home would be at the mercy of the air schedule gods.

After we landed and collected our bags, the voucher in hand, I waited for the ride to the hotel. Along with a whole crowd. The temperature display read 30 degrees. It was windy too.  Most of us were shivering because we were not prepared for this.  Life is always full of surprises..

A shuttle came and my suitcase was one of the many that was loaded up. As I was getting ready to board the bus, a woman approached. A gentleman that I like to be, I let her get in.  When I boarded the bus, there was no seat--the woman had taken the last seat. I figured I would stand during the short ride to the hotel.  A few others boarded after I did.

Life is always full of surprises.

The bus driver scanned the inside and asked the standees--including me--to get down because it was against the law to exceed the licensed capacity. So, it was back to the 30 degree cold and the wind.

Next time, no chivalry. No gentleman attitude. I should simply push grandma away and keep going.

Well, that is not me!  I am a born loser; no surprise there! ;)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

At what point do we stop thinking of college “as a path to prosperity”?

Those familiar with my posts here or my op-eds will know what my answer will be to the question in the subject line.  But, enough about me; let's bring in some real experts!

That question in the subject line of this post is a part of the interview with Glenn Reynolds, who replies:
REYNOLDS: As soon as possible. Some students do better by going to college. Others do worse. Four out of ten students, according to Gallup, wind up in jobs they could have gotten without a college degree. That makes the time, and money, spent in college a waste, at least as far as prosperity is concerned. And some students actually do worse by going to college, developing problems with drugs, alcohol, or sex that may plague them for years, or a lifetime. Then there’s the debt, which can run into six figures, and isn’t dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Of course, I agree with Reynolds.

Now, one could remark that the interview is in a publication that is clearly identified with the right side of the political spectrum and that, therefore, this is a biased and ideological position.  So, what does Camille Paglia, who is nowhere and everywhere on the political spectrum, think about this push for college?
" Michelle Obama's going on: 'Everybody must have college.' Why? Why? What is the reason why everyone has to go to college? Especially when college is so utterly meaningless right now, it has no core curriculum" and "people end up saddled with huge debts," says Ms. Paglia. What's driving the push toward universal college is "social snobbery on the part of a lot of upper-middle-class families who want the sticker in the window."
At a college like ours, where most students do not come from affluent backgrounds, the push for college is increasingly a financially disastrous outcome for many students who graduate with debt and no real jobs that will pay those promised middle-class wages.  We faculty and staff don't seem to worry about where our salaries come from!  Reynolds addresses that aspect too:
LOPEZ: You point out that you may be a potential loser in education reform — as a tenured professor “who is making out all right as it is.” You’re okay with that?
REYNOLDS: Yeah. The current professoriate has had a good ride, but in the past decade or two in particular, that ride has been mostly on the backs of increasingly indebted students and parents. That can’t go on forever, and shouldn’t.
Meanwhile, at the other end--at the graduate studies end of the continuum--the promise of the good ride of the professoriate means way more PhDs are being produced compared to the academic jobs, which means there is an army of unemployed and underemployed doctorates.  I have blogged enough about the ponzi scheme that graduate school has become.  So, again, enough about me. Here is Megan McArdle:
The fundamental issue in the academic job market is not that administrators are cheap and greedy, or that adjuncts lack a union. It’s that there are many more people who want to be research professors than there are jobs for them. And since all those people have invested the better part of a decade in earning their job qualifications, they will hang around on the edges of academia rather than trying to start over. Such a gigantic glut of labor is bound to push down wages and working conditions.
Unfortunately, I’m essentially arguing that professors ought to, out of the goodness of their heart, get rid of their graduate programs and go back to teaching introductory classes to distracted freshman. Maybe they should do this. But they’re not going to.
Happy new year!

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