Thursday, July 31, 2014

On the insignificance of this naked cosmos

"You often refer to the cosmos" my father said in an extended conversation that was about the latest collection of my blog-posts that he had read.  "You talk about the river, clouds, nature, deer ... I call them all god" he said.

Fair enough.  What's in a name, right?  Ultimately it is the cause and the effect aspect of god that bothers me, not the names of whatever is around us.  If one were to claim that praying to the clouds above caused the monsoon rains, well, then I will have to figure out an equivalent of "Houston, we have a problem!"

I like that usage. Cosmos.  It is a wonderful reminder of how insignificant you, and I, and our lives and everything else are.  Here is one measure of that insignificance:
We all reside on a small planet orbiting a single, middle-aged star that is one of some 200 billion stars in the great swirl of matter that makes up the Milky Way galaxy. Our galaxy is but one of an estimated several hundred billion such structures in the observable universe—a volume that now stretches in all directions from us for more than 270,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (2.7 × 1023) miles.
We are tiny.
We know well how tiny we are compared to the planet on which we live.
We know well that our planet is tiny compared to the sun, around which it revolves.
We also know that the sun is nothing but ... oh, well, we are damn insignificant.

In the context of such insignificance, we stress about our balding heads, our paunches, the bank balance, whether enough friends "liked" our Facebook photos, ... We fight over corporate tax rates, gay marriage, torture, when life begins and whether, therefore, man spilling his seeds is a sin ...

If we stepped back from it all, we would laugh at ourselves.  Our collective laughter will be so loud that it will rock this tiny planet.  But, we don't.
In our efforts to assess our significance, we face a conundrum: Some discoveries and theories suggest life could easily be ordinary and common, and others suggest the opposite. How do we begin to pull together our knowledge of the cosmos—from bacteria to the big bang—to explain whether or not we are special? And as we learn more about our place in the universe, what does it all imply for our efforts to find out if there are other living things out there? How do we take the next steps?
That is what education and learning are all about.  It will be a phenomenally rich experience if students at any age were to constantly reflect on how the lessons help them with the big picture.  Instead, we and they get hung up on the quadratic equation.  Or whether the A- is a reflection of one's inability to earn an A+.  The big picture gets hidden, overlooked, forgotten, when the nagging question is nothing but, "will this be on the test?"

On the other hand, if we were to cook a tasty meal, or put in a day's work, or laugh with friends, all with an understanding that these are all pieces that help us make something significant out of the insignificance as a way to understand that big picture, wouldn't that be a life that is lived and examined?

If only every single day we stopped to think about Carl Sagan's poetic "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

There is plenty to talk about ...

An elderly black man, with an Ascot cap on his head and a walking stick on his right hand, was walking in the opposite direction from me on the bike path on a warm summer morning.  The picture he presented and the way he walked made me think he would have some stories to tell.  But, what could be my opening line to stop, and chat with, him?

When it comes to small talk with strangers, I go with my gut instincts.  Some blip on my "chatdar" and the rest do not.  Which is why, for the most part, I keep to myself.  But then, I, too, do not register a blip on many others' chatdars, I am sure.

We were now only a couple of feet away.  And then the distance between us will increase as we keep going our respective ways, with our paths perhaps never to cross again. I still didn't have an opening line.  I was experiencing the small-talk equivalent of a writer's block?

"I never expected to see that" he bellowed.

I was sure he was joking about my outfit and the way I look.  A scrawny Indian man, with chicken legs, and wearing shorts that look like mini-capris, and with a wide-brimmed hat that partially covers his grey-bearded face.  I imagine I am quite a sight on the bike path.

I stopped and looked at him.  I still did not have an conversation opener, nor did I have a response for his comment.  Quite some block in my head!

"A bird flying with a fish in its claws.   What a sight!"

Aha, so it was not about me, after all.  I wonder if by my dying days at least I will overcome this middle-schoolish self-conscious insecurity!

And then he pointed towards the sky.  "There, there."  He was excited like a middle school boy who had chanced on boobs for the first time.

I turned to look.  "Not there.  That is some buzzard" he corrected me.  Little did he know that I can't distinguish a buzzard from a sparrow ;)


"I know what you mean" I told him.  "Once I saw an osprey dropping down as if it was thrown from the sky ..."

" ... and it grabbed a fish from the waters, right?" the black man finished it for me.

"Yes, it was awesome.  One scoop, and it was back in flight again with a fish."

"It is amazing that we have such a beautiful nature preserve right in the middle of the city" he was ecstatic.  So was I.  For one, to share such stories.  For another, my chatdar signal was right about small talk with him.

"Back east where I come from, all we had were rats and rabbits" he laughed.

I wondered if the rats and rabbits alliteration came naturally to him.  Was he a walking poet?  I am always jealous of people who make wonders out of simple words.

"Oh yeah, where from?" I asked him.

"Cleveland.  We had nothing like this there.  Just rats and rabbits"

"And a whole lot of snow."  Hey, in a conversation we relate to the other.  The conversation would die if, for instance, I had asked him, "where is Cleveland?"

"Way more snow than I ever wanted" he chuckled.  "Way more snow" he added for emphasis.

He read my body language that I was ready to continue on.  That too, is a part of having a conversation.  "You  have a great day" he wished me.

"Have an awesome one" I told him as I walked back home.

Shakespeare would never have written about Singapore's soulless orchids!

Back in 1986, my employer sent me to Calcutta, as the city was known then, for a week-long training.  I thought the HR folks made a mistake when they told me how to get to the YWCA hostel off Park Street, which is where they said I was going to stay for those few days. Yes, it was the YWCA--apparently an entire floor there was for men because there weren't enough single female renters.

That was my first co-ed residential life, though it was only for a few days.  I made friends with a guy there, and as we stepped out one evening to get a meal, two women were heading out of the hostel as well.  We ended up dining together.

During the conversations, when my friend lit up a cigarette, one of the women also followed suit.  I remember being way too shocked at the sight of a woman smoking a cigarette, and commented something about it.  Which is when the other young woman said that I would be even more shocked if I ever got to their floor, at the sight of women smoking and drinking.  Drinking too?

I was reminded of that image, hazy it is after all these years, when I met a woman my age at my friend's home during my recent visit.  The way she was sitting and talking made me think that she could easily have been one of those smoking and drinking young women I met in 1986.

Sure enough, soon after the introductions, there she was outside smoking.  We all got talking.  She now lived in Singapore with her family, she said.

"How do you like Singapore?" I asked her.

I have spent a day or two in Singapore, a long time ago, when I used to travel via that city en route to/from India.  And, of course, Singapore has always been a part of the academic explorations on economic development--it was one of the "tigers" we read about and discussed in graduate school.

"Let me tell you how I think of Singapore" she began as she inhaled what seemed like an eternity of a puff.  I suppose it is very much an Indian thing not to get to the question with a direct response, but to tell a story instead.  Like how this blogger does--this blog-post itself is an evidence!

"The national flower is an orchid, right?"

I nodded my head recalling all those flowers at the airport there.  My friend and his wife also seemed to be waiting to hear her take on Singapore.

"The orchid is very pretty to look at.  Wonderful colors.  But, no smell whatsoever.  We think of gorgeous flowers and their romantic smells. Nothing like that with the orchid.  To me, that is what Singapore is.  Clean, pretty, disciplined, and nice to look at. But, no life. No soul" she said and paused for another deep inhalation.

An orchid at home ... it stopped flowering a while ago :(

That lifeless and soulless place of hers is trying hard, perhaps too hard, to make it the best place:
Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society.
Yep, in a country where "electronic surveillance of residents and visitors is pervasive and widely accepted"
The system uses a mixture of proprietary and commercial technology and is based on a "cognitive model" designed to mimic the human thought process -- a key design feature influenced by Poindexter's TIA system. RAHS, itself, doesn't think. It's a tool that helps human beings sift huge stores of data for clues on just about everything. It is designed to analyze information from practically any source -- the input is almost incidental -- and to create models that can be used to forecast potential events. Those scenarios can then be shared across the Singaporean government and be picked up by whatever ministry or department might find them useful. Using a repository of information called an ideas database, RAHS and its teams of analysts create "narratives" about how various threats or strategic opportunities might play out. The point is not so much to predict the future as to envision a number of potential futures that can tell the government what to watch and when to dig further. 
Yes, that reference to Poindexter's TIA is exactly what you think it is: the US' Total Information Awareness program that Bush's man, retired Navy Rear Adm. John Poindexter, led!  So, yes, you Singaporeans, you may thank the US--if you are allowed to do so ;)
Not only does the government keep a close eye on what its citizens write and say publicly, but it also has the legal authority to monitor all manner of electronic communications, including phone calls, under several domestic security laws aimed at preventing terrorism, prosecuting drug dealing, and blocking the printing of "undesirable" material. According to the civil rights watchdog Privacy International, "the government has wide discretionary powers … to conduct searches without warrants, as is normally required, if it determines that national security, public safety or order, or the public interest are at issue."  
I wonder whether romantic poets ever wrote sonnets comparing their lovers to orchids.  Maybe a poet employed by the Singaporean government, did, eh!

Whether it is the loved one, or a country, there is nothing called flawless.  As that woman surrounded by cigarette smoke remarked, perhaps attempting to make something flawless will also make that lifeless and soulless.

I now have an additional interpretation for Shakespeare's Sonnet 130:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare  
As any she belied with false compare. 
The mistress was no orchid! ;)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Do bugs mourn the death of one of their own?

For a few months now I have been bugged.
No, not by the NSA--at least, I hope.  I am far too insignificant to even blip in the NSA's radar.
This is a living bug. No, not the much joked about mother-in-law either ;)

A real bug.
Tiny-sized.
Every day I see one or two and I kill them.

When I was gone to India for three weeks, there was a little bit of a worry in me that when I return I might find a party going on at home with the bugs and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.  But, nope.  I guess they, too, took a vacation from the daily grind and then decided to show up to work when I returned.

Every single time I wipe one off the face of the earth, I feel sorry for those critters.  I kill them when I see them inside my home.  I don't care what they do outside, or if they raid my neighbor's awesome cobblers.  Not in my home.

Of course, I am not the only one who worries himself to death, metaphorically speaking, about the killing of bugs that occasionally stray into my home.  I worry because there are larger issues at stake:
it seems to me quite reasonable to think that the death of the fly is entirely insignificant and that it is at the same time a kind of catastrophe. To entertain such contradictions is always uncomfortable, but in this case the dissonance echoes far and wide, bouncing off countless other decisions about what to buy, what to eat – what to kill; highlighting the inconsistencies in our philosophies, our attempts to make sense of our place in the world and our relations to our co‑inhabitants on Earth. The reality is that we do not know what to think about death: not that of a fly, or of a dog or a pig, or of ourselves.
We do not know what to make of death.  Death, which we know happens all the time all around us.  If we paused to think about death, then we see it everywhere. We see ourselves in the deaths that happen.
As the poet William Blake realised when he, too, carelessly squashed an insect:
Am not I
A fly like thee?

Or art not thou

A man like me?
So, ok, what do we do?  How do we figure this out?  What to make of killing a fly or a roach?  Why is it ok to swat a fly but not kosher, ahem, to kill a pig?  Or, why do we feel squeamish when we read about an execution gone wrong?

There are no answers.  Well, there are plenty of answers and, for all I know, most of them are correct answers too, even if the answers contradict each other.  To use a line from an old IBM advertisement series, "you make the call."  Because:
Philosophers academic and amateur – which is to say, pretty much all of us – prefer to think that paradoxes must have solutions, that they are somehow just the wrong way of looking at things, or a muddle of grammar and syntax. But not this one. It is, as far as I can see, part of the nature of things. To take both sides seriously and to seek some way to live with them is part of what it is to be human; part of what it means to be a guest at the party of life and death.
Struggling to answer such questions is very much a part of being human.

Being human is not meant to be easy.  Certainly nowhere as easy as squashing a bug.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Corporations are people, my friend!

Way, way, back, when I was in graduate school, I made a wonderful mistake of reading something by Ralph Nader, and even listening to him.  One of his favorites, which continues to dog me enough to even blog about it, questioned the idea of corporations as people.

Much later, another progressive, Robert Reich, articulated it well:
I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.
For all I know, Riech's thinking was influenced by Shakespeare, whose Shylock exclaims in The Merchant of Venice:
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
if you poison us, do we not die?
We people bleed, laugh, die, but corporations do not.  We people have emotions. We are tied to geography.  We identify with cultures, via the languages we speak, the foods we eat, the music we like, the sports we follow, the places we call home, and the countries that we fondly cherish as our lands.  We are people who need people.

A corporation is anything but all those.  It is an imaginary concept to which we have ascribed human qualities.  A corporation does not have any family, no friends, and no cultural identity.

Thus, a "corporation" can be here one day and vanish the next day.   This imaginary entity can easily be packed up and sent across, whereas we real people are, for the most part tied down by geography.  And now, we are increasingly held hostage by the threat of these artificial people moving to a different geography--another state or another country--if we do not give them what they demand, which is typically a regime of low taxes and regulations.  These imaginary people called corporations behave like kidnappers demanding ransom.

You can, therefore, see why I am not pleased with this leader in the Economist:
Economic refugees have traditionally lined up to get into America. Lately, they have been lining up to leave. In the past few months, half a dozen biggish companies have announced plans to merge with foreign partners and in the process move their corporate homes abroad. The motive is simple: corporate taxes are lower in Ireland, Britain and, for that matter, almost everywhere else than they are in America.
In Washington, DC, policymakers have reacted with indignation. Jack Lew, the treasury secretary, has questioned the companies’ patriotism and called on Congress to outlaw such transactions. His fellow Democrats are eager to oblige, and some Republicans are willing to listen.
The proposals are misguided. Tightening the rules on corporate “inversions”, as these moves are called, does nothing to deal with the reason why so many firms want to leave: America has the rich world’s most dysfunctional corporate-tax system.
The piece begins with "economic refugees," by which you picture in your mind images of real people who move because conditions are horrible in their homelands and they are looking for something better.

Source

The magazine even provides the readers with an image of the artificial people with a "human face" so that you may then equate those emotional images with the imaginary people called corporations who are tied down by a ball and chain and want to flee from tyranny.  What bullshit!


The problem has been exacerbated by countries that have bought into this idea that by slashing taxation rates they can then attract the imaginary people and real money to their respective geographies:
Twenty years ago inversions were rare. But as other countries chopped their rates and America’s stayed the same, the incentive to flee grew.
The inversions--the movement of the imaginary paper people--were rare back then is an important fact.
Mr Obama insists that corporate-tax reform must also raise more money to spend on things like public infrastructure, which the Republicans oppose
I suppose only we real humans who bleed, laugh, and die use public infrastructure and, therefore, the imaginary people do not need to be taxed at all!

I second the notion that "I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

We are missing the story on a country called Africa

A plane goes down in Ukraine. We seem to kind of sort of know where that country is.  A plane goes down somewhere in that area bordering Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso and, as the friend alerted me, even the Los Angeles Times then produces map about the country of Africa!
Of course, this is not the first time it has ever happened--if I had been paid a dollar for every time I corrected a student who incorrectly referred to Africa as a country, I would be a very rich man by now.

Whether it is students or reporters or the general public, the continent is nothing more than a big blob to most of us. A messed-up "country" out there somewhere.  Clueless we almost always are!  We do too little for the place we should all call home, right?


Plenty has been said and written about this atrocious marginalization of the vast geography and its people.  Anjan Sundaram adds to that commentary and he understates it when he notes:
Our stories about others tell us more about ourselves.
Yes! :(

A few weeks ago, NPR reviewed Sundaram's book, which was my first ever introduction to his work.  In his op-ed, Sundaram writes about his background, which I recall from that NPR report and this interview with Jon Stewart.
As a student in America, where I was considering a Ph.D. in mathematics and a job in finance, I would read 200-word stories buried in the back pages of newspapers. With so few words, speaking of events so large, there was a powerful sense of dissonance. I traveled to Congo, at age 22, on a one-way ticket, without a job or any promise of publication, with only a little money in my pocket and a conviction that what I would witness should be news.
I am always way impressed with people like Sundaram, who choose to walk away from the safety and comforts of the well-traveled roads--especially in his case after an undergraduate degree from the IIT at Madras, a graduate degree from Yale, and a job offer from Goldman Sachs.  Next to people like Sundaram, I am nothing but a facade, if at all. Always lacking his kind of a drive, determination, and dedication, it is no surprise that I am forever wondering whether I coulda been a contender!

As Sundaram writes about the news organizations and his life as a stringer for the AP:
Reporters move like herds of sheep, flocking to the same places at the same times to tell us, more or less, the same stories. Foreign bureaus are closing. We are moving farther away.
News organizations tell us that immersive reporting is prohibitively expensive. But the money is there; it’s just often misallocated on expensive trips for correspondents. Even as I was struggling to justify costs for a new round of reporting in Congo, I watched teams of correspondents stay in $300-per-night hotels, spending in one night what I would in two months. And they missed the story.
Parachuting in with little context, and with a dozen other countries to cover, they stayed for the vote but left before the results were announced. A battle broke out in Kinshasa after they left, and I found myself hiding in an old margarine factory, relaying news to the world, including reports to this newspaper.
And after he left?
For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves. Stories from there, and from places like the killing fields of the Central African Republic, are still distant, and they are growing smaller.
The vast "country" of Africa is getting more and more distant and smaller even as we talk about how the world is shrinking thanks to all the interconnectedness.  "Our stories about others tell us more about ourselves." Indeed!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Walk like an Egyptian. Or an American. Or an Indian. Walk!

The summer weather has been unpredictably up and down like a teenage girl's moods ;)  Last week, we flirted with triple-digit temperatures but fell short by a degree.  And then came a cold front from Alaska, which brought down to the high to the low sixties and dropped some record-breaking rain.  Well, the twentieth of an inch was a record for the calendar day.

Today, the weather was just perfect, like that teenage girl in an angelic mood.  (I know I will be in trouble with the female readers. hehe!)  My neighbors, who I rarely see going for a walk, were there as a lovely couple out on a midday stroll.  "What a lovely day" she said.  "Awesome" is what I told them.

I love the walk by the five-mile walk by the river.  Ok, it is a little more than four-and-a-half, which I round off to five. Try saying "I went for my four-and-a-half mile walk by the river" and then utter "I went for a five-mile walk by the river" and tell me which one is easier for the tongue and the brain!

That five-mile walk, I have always believed, is the most important factor contributing to my health.  Ok, there is no other physical activity and that makes it the only factor; happy now?  It is not merely the walking.  It is the time away from the gadgets. No reading.  No talking.  Listening to the sounds all around. Watching the goslings.  All add up to a relatively healthy body and mind.

And now I have evidence to back me on this: Doctors are prescribing a walk in the park:
[Dr. Robert Zarr] told me that exhorting patients to “get more exercise” was too vague. Last year, he decided to start trying something different. He stopped asking his patients, “Do you move?” and began asking “Where do you move?” He discovered that many spent very little time outdoors, and he began prescribing time outside for conditions as wide-ranging as ADHD, high blood pressure, asthma, obesity, anxiety, diabetes, and depression.
How about that!  If only more doctors prescribed walking, right?
The scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century put a premium on treatments that could be tested in a lab. “The half-page advertisements for the Glen Springs Sanitarium gave way to the full-page advertisement for the anti-anxiety drug meprobamate,” Selhub and Logan write. Today, the idea of a doctor telling you to spend time in a pleasant climate seems like something out of Masterpiece Theatre, a quaint tonic from a bygone era available only to those of the leisure class.
How terrible!
Intuitively, it probably doesn’t seem surprising that kids who run around in the woods are less fidgety when they do have to pay attention. Or that the smell of a pine forest is so pleasant that it soothes anxiety. But even if the mechanisms aren’t entirely clear, a steadily growing stack of scientific evidence suggests that time in nature is really good for you. Why don’t we embrace this idea of healthy nature more fully? Perhaps popping a pill is less daunting than an overhaul of our daily routines.
Or maybe we don’t think that our environments matter.
One of the best things that the corrupt government in Chennai did was to invest in the dilapidated parks.  As my blog posts from my visits to Chennai show, I am not the only one at those parks--if I don't go there early enough, then it gets crowded, which is wonderfully heart-warming to the intellectual in me but the crowd itself is not what I can handle ;)
So far, Zarr and his team have given out 600 prescriptions for nature. “It’s not a panacea,” he said, “but we’ve touched on something exciting.”
Surely you don't need Zarr's prescription, right?  Then, why are you still reading this?  Get up and get going.  Go for that  four-and-a-half mile walk ;)

Without our traditions ... are we fiddlers on the roof?

I always knew it was only a matter of time.  Time to graduate from wearing shorts at home to wearing dhoti.  I do not recall when exactly that happened, but it did.

I loved wearing a dhoti.  It worked well.  There was something special about it as long as it was clean and white.  When it got dirty, however, there was no way to camouflage that.  Eventually the white became off-white and then an inevitable yellowish-brown.  The attempts to whiten that and make it look new all over included dyeing it with Robin Blue and that always made it worse.

As the charm of the newness of wearing a dhoti wore off, and into the teens, I suppose wearing a lungi was how we teenagers and young men rebelled within this dhoti-world.  A lungi, also called a kylee, was a horror to the traditional elders.  Disgusted they were with what they considered to be trashy.

Which is why it came as quite some shock to me when I came across a photo of my grandfather wearing shorts in his adult life.

Grandfather during his undergraduate years at Varanasi (Benares) in the early-1930s
notice his socks/stockings?
Imagine that!  No dhoti but in a pair of shorts.

I did bring a dhoti with me to the US.  Not because I had planned on wearing that to campus, though that would have been par in graduate school in Southern California.  It was one of the few artifacts, so to speak, that connected me with the old country.

Once, when a couple of fellow Indian grad students asked me to go with them to the Indian store to pick up groceries, and was in no mood for that, I told them I would go only if they were ok with me wearing a dhoti.  It became a dare, and I did.  Turned out it was the best thing I could have done that evening--the store owner was so impressed by me wearing a dhoti that we each got for free a sweet of our choice!

In the town where I grew up, there were a couple of professionals who wore dhotis even to clubs.  A favorite memory is of one gent, with a dhoti and the traditional kudumi rushing around town on his Lambretta.  And, even more surreal the imagery when he was at the bridge table in the smoke-filled cards room at the club--apparently he was sharp at bridge.

Dhoti and kylee and kudumi stand out in a world that has become globalized.  In the old country, wearing a dhoti--yes, the traditional male attire of the land--is even cause for exclusion, thanks to the British legacy:
Politicians in Chennai got their dhotis in a twist over private club dress codes, after D. Hariparanthaman, a local judge, was denied entry to a book launch at the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association because he was wearing a dhoti—a starched, white piece of cloth worn wrapped around the waist.
“The club rules say you must come decently dressed: no lungi, banyan (tank top) and colored chappals (sandals). How can you say a dhoti is not decent dress?” said attorney R. Gandhi, who was with Mr. Hariparanthaman at the time.
The clash between the tradition and the "modern" continues.

The older I get, the more I tire of the modern,  especially when the world begins to look the same.  I suppose the old rebel in me wants to rebel against this "modernity."  Oh, rest easy, I have no plans to wear a dhoti to work, or anywhere for that matter ;)

Thus, when I travel, men and women wearing clothes that reflect their respective cultures and traditions fascinate me.  When in India, I am impressed with the sight of half-sari wearing girls. Or, the women in their traditional outfits in Ecuador. It will be a sad, sad day when the old traditions die out.  Yes, I realize the contradictions in plenty in writing about the dhoti and the half-sari when I ditched the traditions of the old country a long time ago.  But, hey, aren't we all bundles of contradictions?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I have no idea for a title here! It is on India, Israel, and Palestine.

As a young reader of The Hindu, I was tremendously impressed with Moshe Dayan.  Dayan was Israel's foreign minister as I was getting into my teens and he was in the news a lot thanks to the Israel-Egypt peace negotiations.  It was not the prospect of peace that drew my attention to Dayan--it was his eye-patch!  The guy looked like he had had quite some past and that he meant business.  If I had known then the power of the word "awesome" I definitely would have used that ;)  It does not take much to impress a budding teenager!

Israel was in the news quite a bit those days.  Even though nobody I knew had a passport at that time, it intrigued me that the Indian government did not allow its nationals to travel to Israel.  Indian politics, which was dominated by Indira Gandhi's Congress Party, the various flavors of communist parties, and a few regional ones, was overwhelmingly against Israel and pro-Palestine.  That approach had been in place ever since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, who " was an outspoken partisan of the Palestinians."

As a teenager, I felt torn between an admiration for Israel's achievements and enormous sympathies for the Palestinians.  "If only India could be well organized and focused as the Israelis are" was a thought that often crossed my mind.  But, simultaneously, I was drawn to the Palestinian cause, and the PLO, as well and simply could not understand why there was this bitter conflict.  There is a good chance that many thinking people in my demographic group had similar experiences.

As I transitioned out of the teens, and was a tad more informed about the world, the admiration for Israel lessened, and the sympathies for the PLO significantly diminished.  There was nothing but violence from both sides, which did not appeal to my pacifist sensibilities.  Dayan and his eye-patch rapidly faded away.

Over the years, India's politics has also dramatically changed.  The fall of the Soviet Union and the changing global order also coincided with India's near-bankruptcy that triggered economic reforms.  A relatively liberal India began to look at the world differently.
Congress Party Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ended India's Cold War hostility toward Israel by establishing full diplomatic relations in 1992
By then I was  easing into a life in the adopted country where politics was almost overwhelmingly pro-Israel while academe was (and is) predominantly in support of the Palestinians.  In one of the graduate school classes, Professor Lowdon Wingo even brought into the discussions the intifada.  Wingo walked a fine line expressing neither support nor criticisms for either side.  A wonderfully committed academic he was.

Since then, India has rapidly expanded its economic and military relations.
In terms of military cooperation, few countries have backed New Delhi as Israel did by supplying artillery shells during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. Since then, Israel has emerged as India's second biggest arms supplier after Russia. 
It is a different India now.  Especially with the Hindu nationalist BJP in power, and with a government led by Narendra Modi.  The old political calculations of empty rhetoric favoring the Palestinians as a way to appeal to the Muslim vote has been replaced by ache din aane wale hain.  So much has the political atmosphere changed that:
The NDA government came under sharp attack in parliament for refusing to allow a resolution condemning Israel for the strikes on Gaza even as the death toll crossed 500 on Monday. In particular focus is the BJP’s top leaderships’ close ties with Israel, given that Prime Minister Modi had travelled as Gujarat Chief Minister to Israel in 2006, promising to return if he became Prime Minister. As Home Minister, L.K. Advani was the first senior Minister to visit Israel in 2000, and External affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj once chaired the India-Israel parliamentary friendship group and led a delegation there. 
That same essay notes this about India's radically different stance on the Israel-Palestinian issue:
Former diplomat and UN official Chinmaya Gharekhan, who was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy to West Asia and the Middle East Peace Process, told The Hindu, “There is no doubt that India’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict has moderated gradually over a period of time, from its once categorical support for the Palestinian cause.” Mr. Gharekhan says the game-changer in this regard was Israel’s assistance to India during the Kargil war, when it supplied much needed artillery shells at short notice. “It was gratitude for this act and our growing defence relationship with Israel that made the difference in later years. Even at the UN, while we still support statements in favour of Palestine, we no longer co-sponsor such resolutions.”
 In the old country, it is not uncommon for seasoned commentators and intellectuals to look at what the "father of the nation" opined on this geopolitical struggle:
Writing in the Harijan newspaper, which he edited, in November 1938 on the vexed Palestine issue, Mahatma Gandhi declared that "my sympathies are all with the Jews... but my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice." World War II was a year away and the world was yet to become aware of the scale of the persecution that befell the Jews and the enormity of the Holocaust and the Gandhi view merits recall.
In the same article, he continued: "Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs."
Much water and blood has flown since 1938 and the Jewish state is a reality, in much the same manner that Pakistan is - even though Gandhi was opposed to the idea. 
Hopefully, within my lifetime, everlasting peace will descend upon the troubled Israel-Palestine area, between India and Pakistan, and all around.  If nothing works, I will wear metaphorical patches over both my eyes and pretend that everything is well and good with the world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

High crimes and misdemeanors ... in an Atlanta middle school?

The older I get, the less I find most of the happenings in the world to be Manichean, binary, as in good or bad. Of course, there are instances when I have no doubts whatsoever--like how President "Dubya" Bush and his minions ought to be tried for war crimes and torture.

However, we hoi polloi don't get to positions of power and privilege, which means we have no idea how we might act if we, too, could bomb a country back to the Middle Age.  Criminal acts and high offices go together, I suppose!

Now, it is not as if we do not face moral questions day in and day out; we do.  It is just that our decisions influence the lives of very few others and, thus, we don't get accused of war crimes.

I urge you to read this essay in the New Yorker and judge for yourself whether the various characters mentioned there are guilty or innocent.  It is not an essay that deals with war. Nor is it about any form of violence as we would typically define violence.  It is all about a middle school cheating scandal.
(Btw, the magazine has opened up its entire content, archives included, in a summer-free-for-all. Read up all you can before the paywall goes up.)

So, a cheating scandal at a middle school. Given that it is a middle school, what can be the biggest scandal there that could merit a lengthy essay in the New Yorker?  It is not about misappropriation of money.  It is not about sex.  It is about, get ready, teachers and administrators fudging and manipulating the standardized testing so that their schools will not be dinged, and that the teachers and principals will not be fired from their jobs.  Slate described the plot well:
The story paints a portrait of how the pressure to meet unreal expectations on standardized tests drove teachers to cheat in order to save their jobs and prevent their school from shutting down.
If it were a work of fiction, we would refer to the teacher, Damany Lewis, as a protagonist.  Is he a hero?  A bad guy?  Do not jump into any conclusion until you have read that essay.  To quote from Slate, again:
Teachers at Parks Middle like Aviv’s protagonist, Damany Lewis, were forced to recalibrate their moral compasses to justify changing test answers on student papers or giving them test questions in advance.
Yep, "forced to recalibrate their moral compasses" because of the standardized tests that resulted from the highly controversial No Child Left Behind, which was the passionate domestic project of the war criminal, er, Bush.

Those war criminals didn't even get a rap on their knuckles, thanks to the snooper-in-chief who declared that "we need to look forward."  But, of course, the protagonist in this story loses his job, his marriage, his home ...
Lewis was the first to be fired. “I felt like someone had hit me with the butt end of an axe,” he said. He shaved off his dreadlocks, which, in Rastafarian tradition—a culture with which he sporadically associated—signalled the loss of a child. What troubled him most, he said, was that “I was fired for doing something that I didn’t even believe in.”
He applied for jobs at charter and alternative schools, community centers, and jails, but he didn’t get any of them. “Education let me go,” he finally concluded. He broadened his search, applying for positions that required manual labor. In interviews, he promised employers that he had the “persistence and tough skin of a middle-school teacher to bring to the workforce.” He applied for a job installing cable, and, after getting a nearly perfect score on the applicant test, he daydreamed about how he would use his teaching skills to help employees streamline the process. But a few days later the company told him that he didn’t have enough experience.
His house was foreclosed on and his car was repossessed. ... He supported his wife, their newborn son, and his daughter from his previous marriage by working as an auto mechanic.
Meanwhile, those war criminals are enjoying luxurious lives and spending hours painting awful art pieces!

Whoever said life is fair, eh!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Peacefully exiting when there is no exit

I have always strongly held on to an understanding that India is beyond understanding.  Things happen and  all I can do is merely try to follow the developments.  This is the case for me, who was born and raised in that old country; I have nothing but sympathies, therefore, for the true outsider, whether in love with India or filled with nothing but hate for it.

Thus, I felt blindsided when a friend asked me what I thought about India's supreme court's ruling on euthanasia.  "I was reminded of what you blog about in your Oregon" she said.  Of course, I first had to clarify that what we have in Oregon is not euthanasia but terminally ill patients having the option to call it quits on their own terms, death with dignity, without having to suffer through it all until the bitterest of all ends.

But, euthanasia in India, and its supreme court has asked for a debate? Seriously?
The issue concerns the rights of a terminally-ill person, after doctors unanimously rule out chances of survival. Active euthanasia would involve a doctor injecting a lethal medicine to trigger cardiac arrest. In passive euthanasia, doctors, with consent from relatives, withdraw the life support system of a person being kept alive with the help of machines.
Very different from the Oregon protocols.  But, am shocked that India is now engaged in this discussion.  The India of the sacred cow when governed by the saffronists?
Union health minister Harsh Vardhan here on Sunday said there should not be any rush to decide on euthanasia and efforts should be made for a national consensus on it.
"A consensus should be developed on whether to allow killing of terminally-ill people with no chances of revival. It is a complex issue. There should not be any hurry to decide on this highly emotive subject," the minister said, responding to a query on the July 16 Supreme Court decision to adjudicate legality of euthanasia.
An open discussion despite using phrases like "allow killing of terminally-ill people"?  Only in India!

Even stranger is this: the newspaper reporting on that, the Times of India, has set up a website exclusively for this discussion!
The Supreme Court has in the past acknowledged that the right to dignity in life also extends to the right to a dignified death, though that ruling applied this principle only to ‘natural death’. It is time now to extend it further and adjust the law to the reality and to a more modern moral sensibility by allowing people to choose to die peacefully.

This paper has in the past campaigned in favour of passive euthanasia and decriminalization of attempted suicide. Besides allowing passive euthanasia, the Supreme Court recommended in the Aruna Shanbaug case that the provision penalizing attempt to suicide should be deleted by Parliament. We believe that the time has come not only to do away with Section 309 IPC but also to enable active euthanasia.

In line with the Supreme Court’s  decision to throw the issue open for debate, The Times of India is launching an online campaign so that those who favour active euthanasia can signal their informed support.
Only in India!

Of course, India is not the only country struggling with policies on end-of-life.  For that matter, in the US it is even more of a struggle about the beginning of life itself!  The Economist also has taken a principled stand on this:
Death is a fearful thing, but it is the pain of life that leaves many ill people in despair. Like Nicklinson, some people would like to die peacefully, at a time of their choosing and with the assistance of a doctor. Their desire for a humane end should not offend liberal societies, which rest on the principle of self-determination, so long as one’s actions do not harm others. This newspaper supports making assisted suicide legal. So, according to polls, do more than two-thirds of Americans and western Europeans.
Assisted suicide.
Active euthanasia.
Looks like we in the US are wimps who way prefer euphemisms instead of the brutally honest descriptions.

Whatever be the language used, I hope we will get into honest discussions on this profound public policy issue.  After all, we might even be able to get away from the taxman, but there is no escape from death.  Here is to hoping that death with dignity will become a human right.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Life is some serious shit. So, joke around, dammit!

"I have been saving two jokes for you" she said as she started scanning my groceries at the checkout counter.

"Why does a doctor always carry a red pen?"

I repeated the question.  I asked for the answer.

"Anytime he might have to draw blood" she said.

"Cool.  What's the next one?"

"Have I told you the one about the roof?"

"No."

"That's ok. It is way over your head."

Even before I could respond, a female customer who was right behind me in the line chuckled and said "good one."  I looked at her and said "I pay for the jokes. They throw in the groceries for free."

Apparently such playfulness helps:
People who exhibit high levels of playfulness—those who are predisposed to being spontaneous, outgoing, creative, fun-loving, and lighthearted—appear to be better at coping with stress, more likely to report leading active lifestyles, and more likely to succeed academically.
Wait, there is more:
As British researchers Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin argue in their 2013 book, “Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation,” it’s crucial to distinguish between engaging in behavior that is technically play—battling it out in an intense game of tennis, for instance, or wasting time on an addictive iPhone game—and doing it in a way that is actually playful, which for Bateson and Martin means “cheerful, frisky, frolicsome, good-natured, joyous, merry, rollicking, spirited, sprightly [and/or] vivacious.” An important challenge facing researchers in this field is figuring out how to isolate and define playfulness as an internal state of mind rather than a mere description of how someone is acting.
 I ain't acting. I swear. If you don't believe me, I will knock your teeth off ;)
Growing up, in other words, doesn’t have to mean cutting fun and lightheartedness out of our lives. On the contrary, it may mean realizing that engaging in such childishness is an excellent use of our time.
I now have more reasons to use those groaners in my classes; I feel sorry for the students.  But then they need to understand that being playful helps with academic success too! ;)

So, why blog about all these, right?  Is it some kind of a thumping of my chest to expound to the world how awesome my mind works?  To take off from a Woody Allen line, I was born into the Hindu persuasion and now I am into narcissism? Is this part of that playfulness? Does it help with deal with the stresses of life?  Or, will blogging make me unhappy?
Today, each of us can build a personal little fan base, thanks to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like. We can broadcast the details of our lives to friends and strangers in an astonishingly efficient way. That’s good for staying in touch with friends, but it also puts a minor form of fame-seeking within each person’s reach. And several studies show that it can make us unhappy.
Phew! I am safe, for fame is not what I am seeking here.  I blog and you treat me to free dinners, right Ramesh? ;)
We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. This paradox has a word in Sanskrit: upadana, which refers to the cycle of craving and grasping. As the Dhammapada (the Buddha’s path of wisdom) puts it: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life... Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.” ...
it requires a deep skepticism of our own basic desires. Of course you are driven to seek admiration, splendor and physical license. But giving in to these impulses will bring unhappiness. You have a responsibility to yourself to stay in the battle. The day you declare a truce is the day you become unhappier. Declaring war on these destructive impulses is not about asceticism or Puritanism. It is about being a prudent person who seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering.
In other words, being playful is how I deal with the unpleasant aspects of life, like that favorite topic of mine.  No wonder that my blood pressure was a calm 125/73.  But, that means that I will be that much more stress-free and will end up living until I am 120?  Damn!  I better start drinkin' and smokin' and cussin' ;)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ramadan slows us down ... to think, again, about "why this competition?"

Taking the back road is always wonderfully scenic in this part of the world.  A writer's paradise. Well, a paradise for this wannabe writer too ;)

But, there are reasons why a back road, with only one lane in each direction, might not have been taken even by Robert Frost. The sight of dead deer is not for the faint of the heart.   Traffic, however feeble a trickle that might be, can come to a stop if there is any mishap on the road. Or, even when the traffic moves, it can be at a snail's pace because of farm vehicles, like what happened the other day.

I was about six miles away from the destination when the smooth drive was interrupted by brake lights ahead. And then we crawled at between fifteen and twenty miles per hour.  Five miles more and my mind worked out the math of the additional time this stretch would take because of the differential of forty miles an hour. (We will find out how good you are at math.)  I tell ya, there is no shortage of materials to keep my mind occupied!

Some of us take life the way it unfolds, and then there are others.  The driver in the vehicle that was immediately behind me was one of those others.  He (yes, it was a male driver) made clear he wanted to pass me by edging the nose of the vehicle into the other lane and then pulling back because of oncoming traffic.  I wondered what he could possibly achieve by passing me when there were at least six other vehicles in between me and the farm vehicle in the lead.

And then, just like that he shot into the other lane and jumped back in immediately in front of me.  I hit the brakes. I grabbed my cellphone. And clicked.


It was a long line of vehicles behind me.  Nobody was going anywhere until the farm vehicle was off the road and, yet, the impatient driver couldn't be patient.


Thus it was on a hot summer day that I was, yet again, reminded of Rumi:
Inside the Great Mystery that is,
we don't really own anything.
What is this competition we feel then,
before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?
Perhaps the driver of that Suburban has never thought what Rumi wants us to reflect on.

If only all of us thought more about that competition in daily life at least during the scheduled calendar dates of a Christian's Sunday, or a Hindu's Ekadasi, or a Muslim's Ramadan.

Caption at the Source:
In this photo taken in Sarajevo on Tuesday, July 15, 2014
a restaurant waitress dressed in traditional clothes of Bosnian Muslims prepares food for iftar

If only the Central American immigrant children knew programming!

A few days ago, when I read this op-ed by a powerful trio--Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Sheldon Adelson--this insignificant commentator was so tempted to blog about it.  But, recognizing the limits to how much I can put up with the Rodney Dangerfield-like "I don't get no respect," I let that pass.  What was my problem with it?  In that op-ed, they argue:
Most Americans believe that our country has a clear and present interest in enacting immigration legislation that is both humane to immigrants living here and a contribution to the well-being of our citizens. Reaching these goals is possible. Our present policy, however, fails badly on both counts.
We believe it borders on insanity to train intelligent and motivated people in our universities — often subsidizing their education — and then to deport them when they graduate. Many of these people, of course, want to return to their home country — and that’s fine. But for those who wish to stay and work in computer science or technology, fields badly in need of their services, let’s roll out the welcome mat.
In the first place, this immigration op-ed seemed like the authors were making use of the big time immigration crisis at the border in order to promote their own immigration agenda.  The latest border crisis is not about engineers and computer scientists, but is about children who are rushing to the US for whatever the reasons might be.  The debate on the undocumented immigrants has nothing to do with the engineers and computer scientists and investors.  Thus, "Most Americans believe that our country has a clear and present interest in enacting immigration legislation" is nothing but a sleight-of-hand approach.

And then came this news:
In his first major organizational move since becoming Microsoft CEO in February, Satya Nadella announced Thursday that, over the next year, the company will cut 18,000 jobs — about 14 percent of its workforce. That represents the largest layoff in Microsoft’s history and a more aggressive cut than many had expected.
The global presence of Microsoft means that there is a good chance that many of the layoffs will be outside the US.  But, given that offshoring is to take advantage of the cost differentials, I would assume that a majority of the layoffs will be within the high-cost US.

Even as I was contemplating writing about this interesting juxtaposition of news stories, a politician beat me to it.
A Senator.
A Republican Senator.
A Republican Senator from the Deep South!
On the floor of U.S. Senate Thursday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) delivered a scalding and sarcastic attack on the use of highly skilled foreign workers by U.S. corporations that was heavily aimed at Microsoft, a chief supporter of the practice.
Sessions' speech began as a rebuttal to a recent New York Times op-ed column by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, investor Warren Buffett and Sheldon Adelson, a casino owner that has chastised Congress for failing to take action on immigration reform.
But the senator's attack on "three of our greatest masters of the universe," and "super billionaires," was clearly primed by Microsoft's announcement, also on Thursday, that it was laying off18,000 employees.
"What did we see in the newspaper today?" said Sessions, "News from Microsoft. Was it that they are having to raise wages to try to get enough good, quality engineers to do the work? Are they expanding or are they hiring? No, that is not what the news was, unfortunately. Not at all."
My reaction to reading what Sessions said was:
The senator said:
Sessions' points were broad and didn't get into the mechanics of visa granting, but were clearly, though indirectly, aimed both at the H-1B visa and automatic green cards for foreign workers with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, degrees.
H-1B and STEM are not what "most Americans" have in mind when they think about immigration and the need to reform it, right?  But, that is what Gates & Co's op-ed is about when they write "Most Americans believe that our country has a clear and present interest in enacting immigration legislation."

Even this STEM is way overblown.  As I noted in this blog-post, less than a year ago, which became an op-ed later:
I was glancing through the September 2013 issue of IEEE’s magazine, Spectrum, and was drawn to a lengthy essay because of its title--”The STEM Crisis Is a Myth.”  I wonder how the STEM proponents will respond to the IEEE publication featuring an essay with a tagline of “Forget the dire predictions of a looming shortfall of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians.”
The essay notes this--“What’s perhaps most perplexing about the claim of a STEM worker shortage is that many studies have directly contradicted it, including reports from Duke University, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Rand Corp. A 2004 Rand study, for example, stated that there was no evidence “that such shortages have existed at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon.”
Oh well ... at least this post has provided me with a cathartic outlet.  The problem is now yours, given the mistake you made of reading this post ;)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Of course, climate change is for real. But, I simply don't care.

A few years ago, when it was not uncommon for me to have conversations with faculty colleagues, I ticked one off (so what's new, eh!) by commenting that while climate change was a real problem, it did not rank on the top of my list and that there were far more urgent problems that I was way more worried about.

He wanted an example, as if he could not believe that there could be anything more important than climate change. Acute poverty for one, I said.  And I went on to list a few more like illiteracy in the developing world, especially among girls and women. Public health and sanitation. Wars and refugees.  And then to top it all off, I quoted Bjorn Lomborg. I don't think I have ever been asked since what my thoughts are about climate change.

Lomborg has been one fascinating intellectual, ever since his Damascene Conversion in what began as an attempt to bury Julian Simon's optimism.  Which, of course, does not agree at all with environmentalists who believe it is their mission in life to save the planet.  One can easily imagine then why quoting Lomborg did not win me friends ;)

While we might have our own romantic notions of academe as a place where ideas are debated, perhaps that ideal has never existed.  The like-minded get together and discuss only to agree even more that they are correct, it seems.  Thus, even with all the credentials, if one is in the intellectual minority, then, well, tough luck.
John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, says he remembers the morning he spotted a well-known colleague at a gathering of climate experts.
“I walked over and held out my hand to greet him,” Dr. Christy recalled. “He looked me in the eye, and he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Come on, shake hands with me.’ And he said, ‘No.’ ”
Oh, yeah, I have quoted Christy, too, in the past in those faculty conversations.  I should write a book that will be an inverse of Dale Carnegie's How to win friends and influence people!
Dr. Christy is an outlier on what the vast majority of his colleagues consider to be a matter of consensus: that global warming is both settled science and a dire threat. He regards it as neither. Not that the earth is not heating up. It is, he says, and carbon dioxide spewed from power plants, automobiles and other sources is at least partly responsible.
But in speeches, congressional testimony and peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, he argues that predictions of future warming have been greatly overstated and that humans have weathered warmer stretches without perishing.
The science that Christy deals with is well above my abilities.  Whether that science is settled or not is relatively immaterial to me.  The implications of Christy's arguments are no different from Lomborg's (and mine, too)--we are focused way too much on climate change and global warming, which then leads to wasteful allocation of resources that could otherwise be spent on more important problems.  

Which is also what the "Skeptic" columnist at Scientific American, Michael Shermer, notes:
In the second edition (2014) of his book How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, Bjørn Lomborg reports the findings of a study sponsored by his Copenhagen Consensus Center 2012 project in which more than 50 economists evaluated 39 proposals on how best to solve such problems as armed conflicts, natural disasters, hunger, disease, education and climate change. Climate change barely rated a mention in the top 10, which included, in order, malnutrition interventions, malaria treatment, childhood immunization, deworming of schoolchildren, tuberculosis treatment, research and development to increase crop yields, early-warning systems for natural disasters, hepatitis B immunization, and low-cost drugs for acute heart attack. Number 12 was R&D for geoengineering solutions to climate change, and number 17 was R&D for green energy technologies. The rest of the top 30 were related to disease, water and sanitation, biodiversity, hunger, education, population growth and natural disasters.
If you are not convinced, try this. Ask yourself, or ask your "save the earth" friend, questions like this:
Is spending money on malaria treatment, and developing a vaccine against it, more or less important than dealing with climate change?
Is spending money on educating girls and women in Afghanistan, more or less important than dealing with climate change?
Is spending money on sanitation projects in India more or less important than dealing with climate change?
The list of such questions is pretty long.  I am far from convinced that climate change is the world's biggest problem today.  It is not.  So, then what?
Whatever we do about climate, we should recognize that the world has many problems. If you are malnourished and diseased, what the climate will be like at the end of the century is not a high priority. Given limited resources, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the apocalyptic fear generated by any one threat.
But, that requires a lot more skeptics than there are on this planet :(

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"மெட்ராஸ்ல மூணு வாரமா?"

"You will most likely use kiosks at immigration" came the announcement as we were preparing to land at Chicago.  "There will be staff to help you with the touchscreen" she added.

I was utterly disappointed.  Not because I don't like those touchscreen systems.  For the most part, I love to use those machines.  And, in the case of immigration, I can then even avoid the gazillion questions from officers who think my brown skin and a beard and traveling to a neighbor of Pakistan's adds up to a huge red flag.

I was disappointed because despite the poker-faced, stone-cold, officers, I hope against hope that I will encounter a warm and friendly face who will scan my passport and say "welcome home!"  No kiosk can provide that kind of a warm welcome.

The neon-art at Chicago's O'Hare

I stood in line after we deplaned. It looked like a crew of trainees or college interns guiding us to the kiosks.  She saw my US passport and pointed towards a machine that looked like an ATM.  Perhaps at the end of the transaction it will even dispense cash?  Nah, this is the US--no free money! ;)

I went through the questions, which were the same ones as in the form that the cabin crew had given us just in case it was not going to be the kiosks.
I was asked to look straight into the camera.
Click.
My photo appeared on the screen, and the system asked me to confirm the image.
I did.
I grabbed the receipt it printed, which included that photo, and walked to join a couple of others who were in line.

I noticed that the officers were merely checking that the photo in the passport matched the person carrying the passport and the photo in the receipt.

It was now my turn.

The officer gave me the widest grin a human--not merely an officer in uniform--could have given anybody.  He looked like he, too, was from the old country.  His badge said "Philip."

"Where were you in India?" he asked me with a smile.

"Madras" I said.  I know, I know, it is Chennai.  But, instinctively I always say Madras.

"மெட்ராஸ்ல மூணு வாரமா?" (three weeks in Madras?) he asked me in Thamizh.

I could have hugged him right there, but I didn't.

"That's not a typical South Indian name" he said, obviously referring to my last name.

"Yes, I was K. Sriram back in India ..." and he finished it for me with "oh, so you made it Sriram Khe."  I smiled a yes.

"Welcome home!" he said as he waved me through with the best smile ever.

I wish I had given him a hug.  Nah, this is the US--you would never have heard from me had I done that ;)

I grabbed a salad before boarding the connecting flight to home, sweet home.



So, why blog about it now?  So many days since I wrapped up the India blogging?

The answer is plain and simple.  I thought Philip deserved a special, a very special, post.

A requiem for coal. Rejoice!

Two summers ago, I authored an op-ed on the issue of exporting coal from Montana and Wyoming via ports here in Oregon.  In arguing my case opposing the idea, I wrote:
 [Coal's] obsolescence is well under way. We need to start thinking about coal the way we think about wood as a source of fuel. Three centuries ago, wood was by far the dominant source of energy, but we don't harvest trees in order to export them as firewood, do we?
The coal exporters were motivated by the combination of falling domestic demand and China's endless demand for coal, especially the low-sulfur carbon.

The export terminal/port idea is far from dead here in Oregon.  But for the public opposition and politicians sympathetic to the opposition, the terminals would have started operating a long time ago.  However, the case for export terminals now has gotten weaker, and I am doubly excited because the logic for my opposition is also justified and validated.  Here is the Wall Street Journal:
China's once insatiable appetite for coal is cooling, raising questions about mining companies' big bets on new projects.
Beijing's figures on coal imports and domestic production this year indicate sharply weaker demand, which experts say stems from slowing growth in the world's No. 2 economy. Longer term, factors including new policies to curb air pollution by limiting coal use are likely to keep growth in coal consumption far below the double-digit increases of the past.
Ta-da!

To be a commentator is one thing.  It is awesome when it turns out that I was right all along.  Unlike those pundits who earn gazillions of dollars for being wrong all the time ;)

As the WSJ notes, Australia and Indonesia--China's leading coal suppliers--have to quickly rethink their bets on projects.  If that is the case for those two countries far away from us, then what is the story with the American coal export to China?  No different:
The mud-colored air that blankets Chinese cities these days is bad for the people who live there. It may prove unhealthy for U.S. coal producers, too.
Intense opposition on the U.S. West Coast, over climate change, rail congestion and damage to Native American fisheries, already is blocking new export terminals designed to ship coal across the Pacific Ocean. Now, China -- which consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined -- is accelerating a planned switch to cleaner fuels, including a possible cap on carbon emissions and limits on new coal-fired plants.
Even if such changes don’t occur as fast as environmentalists might hope, Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to scrap the economic strategy that spawned coal-eating steel plants in every province.
When demand falls, well, prices fall.  "[Even] if you could sell the quantity, you’re not going to get nearly the same price as in the past."  The love-affair fizzles:
China's boom gave the international coal market a new hope. Miners expanded thermal-coal capacity to 10% more than what is needed this year, according to Wood Mackenzie. A changing China now means coal will remain unloved.
I tell ya, if only the world would listen to me! ;)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Stop lecturing me" he says.

Who you gonna believe--a Nobel Laureate or me?

Not a hard question to answer, eh!  I know what you're thinking: who cares for the Nobel winner! ;)

What if the Nobel Prize winner that I am going to quote here essentially says the same things that I have been blogging about for years, and practicing for even longer?  Intrigued?

Carl Wieman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001, writes about "a fundamentally flawed understanding of learning":
Most people, including university faculty and administrators, believe learning happens by a person simply listening to a teacher. That is true if one is learning something very simple, like “Eat the red fruit, not the green one,” but complex learning, including scientific thinking, requires the extended practice and interaction described earlier to literally rewire the brain to take on new capabilities.
See, I told you that a Nobelist and I are on the same metaphorical page.  And, yes, Wieman is the "he" in the title of this post.

Universities continue on with the old, old, idea of lecturing despite all the evidence one would need on why lecturing does very little to student learning when compared to an educational environment in which students are active learners.  Why the heck don't they change?
Part of it is just habit; lectures began at universities because they did not have books, and so information had to be dictated and copied. Teaching methods have not yet adapted to the invention of the printing press.
I tell students all the time that they now have access to information that even the brightest minds of the past could never have imagined. Class meetings are not at all for me to transmit information to students.  Instead, well, let me quote myself here:
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.
By now you are thinking, "if that is the case, then why do insist on continuing with some Middle Age practice of lecturing?"  Good question.  The answer is simple.  "There is no incentive."
Faculty and universities are recognized and rewarded only for how successful they are at pursuing the $40 billion a year of federal research money. There is zero incentive to use effective research-based teaching methods rather than pedagogical superstition and habit, and in fact, very few, if any, universities in the U.S. track what teaching methods are being used in their classrooms. As long as this holds true, prospective students have no way to compare the quality of education they will receive at different institutions, and so no institution needs to improve.
No institution needs to improve. So long, suckers!

Monday, July 14, 2014

If robots write, will we read?

Yes, we will.  In fact, we already do.

We are speeding towards that singular moment when machines will think like humans that we won't be able to spot the difference.  Yes, some ways to go, but don't put your feet up and relax because the bots are coming.  Some are already here.  Especially at the one place with which we are all familiar: Wikipedia!
Bots have long been used to author and edit entries on Wikipedia, and, more recently, an increasingly large amount of the site's new content is written by bots. Their use is regulated by Wikipedia users called the "Bot Approvals Group."
Did you know this already?  I sure did not.  News it is to me!  And a "Bot Approvals Group"--is it run by humans or bots? ;)

That WSJ piece reports that using bots, Sverker Johansson, a 53-year-old Swede, has authorship credit  for "2.7 million articles, or 8.5% of the entire collection" at Wikipedia.  News to you, too, right?
Mr. Johansson says his bot could be an inspiration to future authors who have knowledge outside the typical interests of standard Wikipedia contributors. He says a computer program can't write about everything.
"Wikipedia also needs writers to describe sentiments, literary quality, those kinds of things—my bot won't ever be able to do that," he says.
I suppose it is all a variation of what I routinely tell students, when it comes to their term papers--I am not looking for factoids, but for evidence of thinking through.  

Now, most of the news is facts, right?  So, bots beat journalists?  
The Associated Press announced last month that “the majority of U.S. corporate earnings stories for our business news report will eventually be produced using automation technology.” In the coming weeks, its first machine-written articles—written with software supplied by the Durham, North Carolina­–based startup Automated Insights and corporate earnings data from Zacks Investment Research—will go live on the AP’s global news wires.
So, the next time you read an AP story, you might wonder if Wall-E that wrote that.
Given the proper algorithms, they can turn inputs (like a 40-page spreadsheet) into outputs (like a 150-word news brief) faster than a human reporter can say to her editor, “Oh, hey, maybe I should write something on this.” One more thing: Once you’ve built the software, the marginal cost of producing each story approaches zero. That’s how Automated Insights churned out 300 million reports last year for its various clients—a rate of 9.5 reports every second. This year it’s aiming to more than triple that output.
Holy crap!

We--humans--for now have an edge over these software agents, whether in journalism or at Wikipedia: 
The human-written earnings story feels more natural, and it weaves the “why” into the lede, whereas the bot’s report is limited to the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when.”
How long can we maintain this advantage?  I am pretty confident that singularity will not be within my lifetime, and certainly not before I become useless in my profession.  I am safe!  As for the youth, maybe I should remind them to get ready to serve our computer overlords--and then I will wonder why enrollment further decreased!

If only such news reports make us reflect more on what it means to be human ... no such luck, when seemingly everybody, from a five-year old to a 75-year old, is keen on chasing the almighty money when not sitting stupefied in front of a digital display of one sort or another!