Saturday, January 31, 2015

Nuke coal: Poverty, electricity, and the environment

The few days that I spent in Tanzania were eye-opening in many ways, including how energy-starved people were.  There was no electricity grid network in the village small town--the house where we stayed had its own generator--and women were hunched over smoke as they cooked.  It was no surprise, therefore, that upper-respiratory infections were high in the community.



Poverty and low energy consumption are highly correlated.  But, even worse is how expensive the energy that the poor consume is--the out-of-pocket expenses and the price they pay in terms of health problems.

If only electricity can be generated and delivered to them, right?  Inexpensive at that.  I wonder what that least expensive route is!  Of course, we know that answer, don't we?
While the United States is just now finding ways to try to keep coal a viable part of its power system, the rest of the world is riding even greater technological advances to a brighter future for the dark fuel.
Yep, coal.
the world today faces two contradictory and interrelated challenges: While billions of poor people in the developing world need a lot more energy to pull them out of poverty and drive economic development, improve life expectancies, and bolster human health, the world also faces a looming and possibly existential threat from climate change—caused in large part by greenhouse gas emissions that are the bitter harvest of the world’s reliance on coal and other dirty fossil fuels over the past several centuries.
Yep, all I have to do is picture that Tanzanian community for a real example of the interrelated issues those sentences highlight.
As history shows, without energy there is no economic growth. From 1000 to 1820, global growth averaged about 0.2 percent a year. Since then, growth has been 10 times higher. Modern prosperity, in other words, is built upon the vast amounts of chemical energy first unleashed by coal.
Wait, is that some empty rhetoric based on the old stories of Industrial Revolution in England and the US, or do we have any contemporary ones too?
And there has been no better student of this lesson than China. It has  relied on smoldering coal to achieve a nearly four-decade economic metamorphosis—
lifting more than 600 million people out of poverty, even as it housed them in polluted cities—that has transformed a once-backward agrarian state into the world’s second-largest economy.
But, don't economists say there is no free lunch?  So, any price to pay for that economic miracle?
Meanwhile, this economic miracle has created a large, relatively wealthy Chinese middle class that has brought an ecological consciousness to the Middle Kingdom. Environmental nightmares, especially the choking air pollution fundamentally caused by the country’s overwhelming reliance on coal, have in recent years sparked huge protests by people questioning the legitimacy of the unelected leadership in Beijing.
Damn!  No free lunch, after all.
For the developing world, as India’s struggles show, simply getting power at all is a huge challenge. Globally, for the 1.3 billion people who lack electricity of any sort, shunning a gleaming, new, reliable coal-fired power plant on climate-change grounds is almost an impossible luxury. 
So, let's recap.  There are poor people on this planet.  Their poverty and various aspects of life are interrelated and to untangle them all will require energy.  Coal provides energy at low prices, but then it also generates a whole lot of smog and godawful health issues.  Anything else at this point?

Of course, global climate change, for which burning coal is one awful contributor.  So, can we do anything as we now add climate change to all that interrelated set of issues?  I suppose that will require turning away from coal.  I wonder what the International Energy Agency has to say about this.
The International Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency suggest in a report released Thursday that nuclear will have such a significant role to play in climate strategy that nuclear power generation capacity will have to double by 2050 in order for the world to meet the international 2°C (3.6°F) warming goal.
With fossil fuels growing as sources of electricity across the globe, the IEA sees nuclear power as a stable source of low-carbon power helping to take polluting coal-fired plants offline.
No kidding!  Nuclear power.  I am sure that will, oh wait, there was that first paragraph:
Since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan chilled global attitudes toward nuclear power, the world has been slowly reconciling its discomfort with nuclear and the idea that it may have a role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to tackle climate change.
Ok, let's recap. There are poor people on this planet.  Their poverty and various aspects of life are interrelated and to untangle them all will require energy.  Coal provides energy at low prices, but then it also generates a whole lot of smog and godawful health issues.  And coal is making things worse for the global climate.  Nuclear power is more expensive, but is a low-carbon alternative.  But then something like the catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi can make people's lives godawful.
Globally, nuclear energy is already making a comeback with 72 nuclear reactors now under construction worldwide, mainly in Asia.“This marked the greatest number of reactors being built in 25 years,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in a statement. “Nuclear energy also remains the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity worldwide. And, indeed, if we are to meet our collective climate goals, nuclear energy is critical.”
You and I, dear reader, don't have to worry about all these, right?  Because, you and I are in comfortable homes, and comfortable temperatures maintained by air-conditioning or heating.  Ours, for all purposes, is merely an intellectual discussion at this point, as we sip wine or coffee: let's talk about coal and nuclear energy.  We are the modern versions of Marie Antoinette!  But, for the global poor, and those who are not poor but are energy-starved, these are real life hassles that they worry about.  

So, at the end of it all, what do you want to tell those poor folks in Tanzania, and Nigeria, and India, and Bangladesh, and ...?

I, for one, have no answer :(

Father, uber-happy, during our visit to Neyveli in 2002
(Lignite is a low-energy coal. Yep, lots of electricity generated there)

Friday, January 30, 2015

God does not care for Venezuela!

There is one huge problem that I end up with after traveling to a country--I end up worrying about that country, too.  As a kid, life was simpler for the only reason--in this context--that all I worried about was, well, India, though I was fascinated by other countries also.  Then, from the moment I landed in Los Angeles, my worries about the US began.

The first on this list of my "special" countries--other than the old country and the adopted one--was Venezuela.  In the summer after the first year of graduate school in Los Angeles, I went to Venezuela with a group of fellow graduate students.  As I have blogged more than once, I have warm memories of that country and its people, and how that experience was even a part of my growing up in so many different ways.

It pains me--and such empathy is no good for my heart--when I read about the chaos there, thanks to the resource-curse and the dirty rotten scoundrels who have governed Venezuela.  I don't know enough about its history to figure out whether Hugo Chavez was the worst of them all, but I bet he is up there in the hall of shame.
“I’ve always been a Chavista,” said Ms. Noriega, using a term for a loyal Chávez supporter. But “the other day, I found a Chávez T-shirt I’d kept, and I threw it on the ground and stamped on it, and then I used it to clean the floor. I was so angry. I don’t know if this is his fault or not, but he died and left us here, and things have been going from bad to worse.”
Indeed, from bad to worse!

In the old days, we used to joke about life in the Soviet Union, with its shortages.  Like this one:
A customer walks into a shop and says, "oh, you don't have any fish".
The shop worker angrily retorts with, "you have come to the wrong shop, comrade.  This is a butcher's shop where we don't have any meat."   And then he adds "the store where they don't have any fish is in the fish shop across the road!"
Those were the days that I was sure we would not return to.  But then, well, there was Hugo Chavez!
Venezuelans have put up with shortages and long lines for years. But as the price of oil, the country’s main export, has plunged, the situation has grown so dire that the government has sent troops to patrol huge lines snaking for blocks. Some states have barred people from waiting outside stores overnight, and government officials are posted near entrances, ready to arrest shoppers who cheat the rationing system.
Lines and crowds like in this photograph:



What a tragedy!

Chavez died and made sure that his chosen successor would further screw things up for the people:
President Nicolas Maduro stuck to the party line, blaming oil's ruinous price plunge on the global capitalism "of the north.""The capitalism of the world of the north is trying to destroy OPEC, to control sources of energy, to destroy the just prices that we need and have been assimilated by the entire world," said Maduro. 
As in the old Soviet Union, Chavez and Maduro have no understanding of price.  All they know is the empty flame-throwing rhetoric attacking "capitalism," whatever that means to whoever listens to them!
Venezuela has the world’s largest estimated petroleum reserves, and when oil prices were high, oil exports made up more than 95 percent of its hard currency income. Mr. Chávez used the oil riches to fund social spending, like increased pensions and subsidized grocery stores. Now that income has been slashed.
“If things are so bad now, I really cannot imagine how they will be in February or March” when some of the lowest oil prices “materialize in terms of cash flow,” said Francisco J. Monaldi, a professor of energy policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Mr. Maduro spent 14 straight days in January traveling the globe in an effort to court investment and persuade other oil-producing nations to cut production and push the price back up.
“We have serious economic difficulties regarding the country’s revenue,” Mr. Maduro said to the legislature during his annual address, which had to be pushed back because of the trip. “But God will always be with us. God will provide. And we will get, and we have gotten, the resources to maintain the country’s rhythm.”
Aha, so there lies the difference between the Soviets and the Chavistas: at least the Soviets didn't believe that god will provide and rescue them from their terrible sins!  

Two boys who wanted to pose for me during that trip in 1988

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life is not about "disdain." Not at all!

I re-read her email.  "social science colleagues' disdain for your input and perspectives"

Disdain. Was it for my thoughts, or for me too?  All because I am not a " unionist"?  But, seriously, disdain?  Contempt for me?

The human that I am, it bothered me.  But, not for long.  I know that life can be worse.  Way worse.  After all, my intellectual interests are mostly about the global population to whom my life would be way beyond their wildest dreams.

I got back to my work.
Went home.
Cooked.
And ate and chatted with the friend.


I woke up to a new morning.

I was just about settling into the beginning of the drive along the long and winding road to campus when I spotted brake lights in the two cars ahead of me.

I slowed down.

The road was blocked.

A cop was there by her car with the lights flashing.  She motioned us to take the detour, and we proceeded along.

Of course, I had to find out right away what the reason might be.  But, nothing along the drive.  I turned the radio on.

An accident.
No, two of them.
Three dead.
In the morning.

If ever I had any lingering emotions over the "disdain," the deaths of three in road accidents put that in perspective.

After I returned home, I checked the news:
Three people died this morning in two separate vehicle accidents on and near Highway 99 West.
The first accident occurred just before 7 a.m. on the highway near Milliron Road when three vehicles collided, killing two people, Oregon State Police said.
The two victims were identified as Brandon J. Foster, 25, of Junction City, and Danielle M. Roberts, 25, of Springfield.
The second crash was reported just after 8:30 a.m. on Meadowview Road and Prairie Road, the detour route around the first accident. One person, 62-year-old Eugene Wong of Eugene, died in that crash, sheriff’s officials said.
I wonder what dreams the two 25-year old men had for the rest of their lives that they thought they had until the minute of that accident.  The 62-year old was my age not many years ago.

I am here. 
I am alive.

I want to enjoy the remaining third of my life.  Like how I enjoyed the view outside my office as the sun made the campus come to life.



Why care about the "disdain" and the hate and the animosity!


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This I learnt about life ...

I learn a lot about the dignity of labor and the importance of doing even a small thing really well at a place that you might think there is not much to learn about--the gas station.

Here in the great state of Oregon, it is illegal for us to pump gas on our own.  Only the authorized attendant can.  There are some who complete the task making it clear that they would rather be somewhere else, and then there are the few who are meticulous even in the gas pumping.

The meticulous ones are courteous, to begin with.  They smile and wish me.  Sometimes I catch them whistling or singing a tune as they go about the task.  They make sure I understand that there is no such thing as a small job.  It all depends on how we do what we do.

One such teacher of mine is even older than I am.  With a pony tail that brings together the hair from his balding head.  He is always upbeat.  He always, always cleans the front windshield--something that the I-wish-I-were-somewhere-else attendants never, ever do.

He got the pump going, handed the credit card back to me, and grabbed a squeegee and walked to the front.  He noticed a big blob of bird-dropping.  He paused.  He decided to clean that up first.  He cleaned it like it was his own car.

He then proceeded to clean the windshield.  Starting with the passenger side.  Then the driver side.  And then the wiper blades. He stood back to take a look.  Satisfied, he walked to the pump that had meanwhile clicked off after the tank was filled.

He handed me the receipt.

I leaned over to get the receipt and was about to roll up the window.  "Do you have a minute?" he asked me.  And before I could answer, he said, "I can then get your rear windshield also."

"That'll be awesome" I replied.

Again, his methodical work.  He gave me a thumbs-up when he was done.  I yelled out a thank-you as I drove away.

Dedication to whatever work that we do is becoming increasingly rare anymore, it seems.  It does not matter if it is a gas station attendant, or a university professor, or a student, or a retail clerk.  I rarely witness the kind of pride in one's work that this gas station attendant always, always demonstrates.

Is it because he is from an older generation?  Is he himself an outlier?  I don't think filling gas is what he has been doing his whole life.  He has seen the world, so to speak, I think.  Or, in the case of my favorite grocery store checkout clerks, they have literally been to other parts of the world.  They, too, have nothing but courtesy for the customers and dedication to their jobs.

I was at the grocery store the other day.  At Wendy's lane.

"I am reading a book on Auschwitz" Wendy said.

I bet there are not many grocery stores on this planet where the checkout clerks talk about reading books and about Auschwitz.

"That's intense" I replied.

"How could those people have done what they did and then turned around and gone to church?" she remarked in a low voice as if she were mourning right there for those who suffered at the hands of those who did what they did and continued with their church visits.

I realized that as long as the world has people like that gas station attendant and Wendy, we humans will be allowed to take up space on this lonely, pale, but wonderful, blue dot that floats around in the cosmos.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

There are gifts ... and there are gifts!


That CD with the note on the content will not mean anything to you.  But, to me, it is nothing but a wonderful story.  A story on why it is so awesome to be a university teacher; did I ever tell you that I love what I do? ;)

The day began on an awful note though.

There was a book in my campus mailbox.  Which puzzled me because the publishers' representatives know that I don't use formal texts in my courses and a long, long time ago they stopped sending me their sales pitches.

Let me put it this way--that book was a "gift" from a colleague but it was really not a gift.  Well, ok, it was a gift if you think that this scene is also about nothing but a friendly gift ;)

But, by now I am used to bizarre things said and done.  After all, that is academia.  And that is how most faculty apparently want to behave.

I went about my business.  I had an awesome lunch that I had brought with me--a panini that I made in the morning (grilled ciabatta with garlic-infused olive oil, swiss cheese, fresh black pepper, leftover chicken, and spinach leaves) and a honeycrisp apple to finish that off!  I brushed my teeth (am afraid of my teacher!) and kept the door open for office hours with students.

A student walked in.

Correction--a young man who was a student in one of my classes four or so years ago walked in.

He was pleasantly surprised that I recognized him.  "I wanted to stop by my superstar professors and say hi" he said.

He made my day.

We chatted for more than half an hour.  I would have spent more time with him, but for an appointment that I had.  During that conversation, I told him that I still have at home the CD that he had burnt for me to listen to a couple of "Radio Lab" segments--which itself was a result of a chat that we had had in class.  "That is a tangible piece of evidence that I have not forgotten you" I told him.

Those are the kinds of gifts that I cherish.  I retain them.  I love those memories.

The "gift" that was in my office mailbox?  Return to sender, of course ;)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Two ways to use a pencil. I know which one I prefer.

I read the news today, oh boy ...  RK Laxman died.

Source

The death was not unexpected--he had been unwell for a while and, hello, he was 94.

I, like hundreds of millions of Indians, instinctively know that the odds of another one like him are practically zero.  He was it.

If only cartoonists and satirists adopted Laxman's way ... and what a contrast to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which I even became aware of only because of the awful terrorism!

Laxman showed how to do satirical cartoons so well that he was loved even by the very people he lampooned.  Simple images that told us a lot.  Unlike the terribly sophomoric Charlie Hebdo cartoons that did not do anything at all to educate us, and nor did they entertain more than a handful of French.
He would walk up the stairs to his office and had no use for the lift. A brisk, no-nonsense man, Laxman in his white, short-sleeved crisp shirt and black trousers was as much a trademark of the newspaper as was his cartoon of the Common Man with a moustache and spectacles. His devastating humour trashed politicians while looking at the pathetic plight of common persons who still do not have the basic necessities. His humour did not always make you laugh: it was often grim, ironic, and impaled politicians for their generally corrupt and exploitative ways.
“Laxman established a routine at work that remained consistent throughout his brilliant career. He would wake up at around 7 a.m. and be at the drawing board in his office at 8.30 a.m. every morning. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., he would read newspapers, concentrating on news items, political analyses, editorial commentaries and opinions. From 2 pm to 5 pm, he would torment himself, waiting for the muse of satire to oblige him with an idea for the next day before the deadline. “It was like shooting a movie,” according to him, “choosing a suitable setting, selecting the characters and compressing the script into a brief caption.” He swiftly sketched the idea in pencil, used ink and brush, wrote the caption and added final details. By then Laxman would have put in eight to ten hours of continuous work.” 
That was some dedication to his work, to his craft, and to the people he was serving.  They don't make people like him anymore.

A few years ago, when walking along the waters as the sun was setting in Mumbai , my uncle--a Mumbaiar like how I am an Oregonian--grabbed my hand and asked me pointing away the waters "you see there?"

I thought I saw something in the dimly lit condition.  "Is that RK Laxman's man?" I asked him.  My uncle helped me refresh my memory--"yes, the Common Man."

I was sure that Twitter would have photos of crowds by that very statue.  Of course, yes:



We are seven billion-plus on this planet, but can't even come close to equaling one RK Laxman.  Such is life!

Even Democrats are taking on teachers and their unions? Good for them!

Reading this in the Economist reminded me of the election-time strike in Chicago by members of the teachers union there and had lost track of whatever happened after the strike; now, I know at least this much:
Some of the toughest decisions Mr Emanuel had to make in his first term concerned schools. He demanded merit pay for teachers and a longer school day (Chicago’s was only 5 hours 45 minutes) and earmarked for closure 50 half-empty schools in poor districts. Teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years, but Mr Emanuel got the longer day and the closures went ahead in 2013. The teachers kept their seniority-based pay system.
Mr Emanuel ploughed some of the money saved by closures into charter schools, which made him even more unpopular with the teachers’ unions. But charter schools have worked well in Chicago.
 Emanuel was, if you recall, the aggressive White House Chief of Staff in the first couple of years of Obama's presidency.  Chicago pols are some tough people, I suppose.

But taking on that safe Democratic votes of teachers and unions?

It turns out that Emanuel is not the lone Democrat on this issue.  Consider the following that was directed at "a teacher union member who said he represents the students":
“You represent the teachers. Teacher salaries, teacher pensions, teacher tenure, teacher vacation rights. I respect that. But don’t say you represent the students.”
Ouch!  And that was not from Wisconsin's Scott Walker, but from, get this, Andrew Cuomo!  Yep, from that blue state of New York.   The son of Mario Cuomo.

And, he said more:
Cuomo referred to the teacher unions and the entrenched education establishment as an “industry” that is more interested in protecting the rights of its members than improving the system for the kids it is supposed to be serving.
“Somewhere along the way, I believe we flipped the purpose of this,” Cuomo said. “This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers.
“This was a program to educate kids.” ...
Ouch!

You think that maybe, perhaps, even the Democrats are beginning to wonder if the teachers' unions have drifted far from their mission?  Even if you had doubts, all you had to do was read the opening lines in a powerful essay in the New Yorker a few years ago, in 2009:
In a windowless room in a shabby office building at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street, in Manhattan, a poster is taped to a wall, whose message could easily be the mission statement for a day-care center: “Children are fragile. Handle with care.” It’s a June morning, and there are fifteen people in the room, four of them fast asleep, their heads lying on a card table. Three are playing a board game. Most of the others stand around chatting. Two are arguing over one of the folding chairs. But there are no children here. The inhabitants are all New York City schoolteachers who have been sent to what is officially called a Temporary Reassignment Center but which everyone calls the Rubber Room.
These fifteen teachers, along with about six hundred others, in six larger Rubber Rooms in the city’s five boroughs, have been accused of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or, in some cases, of incompetence, in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent. The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.
“You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it,” says Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seven years ago.
Yep, that was the Rubber Room!

That same essay noted:
Leading Democrats often talk about the need to reform public education, but they almost never openly criticize the teachers’ unions, which are perhaps the Party’s most powerful support group.
And now it is happening. In Chicago. In the state of New York. And more.

As Reason observes:
The fact that this fiery anti-union tirade passed the lips of a blue state Democrat tells you everything you need to know about just how thoroughly teaches union have alienated many of their natural political allies. And this isn't merely some quirk of New York politics, as the same thing has happened on a local scale in numerous cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Democratic politicians everywhere are more willing to take on teachers unions than ever before.
I bet this will be some interesting political theatre. Get ready.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

I am pissed off that Modi's RSS goons killed a Tamil author!

I was in India when the editor/publisher of Ananda Vikatan died.  He was my father's age and belonged to an era that seems ancient whenever I visit India.  An era when Tamil literature was alive, and rich, and entertained and educated the youth and the old alike.

The magazine devoted an issue to the editor's demise.  One contributor was the author Jayakanthan, who reminisced about how the editor boldly published Jayakanthan's stories, even though they were considered troublesome to the establishment.  Jayakanthan went on to write quite a bit, grew in stature, and has been recognized with awards galore.

That era seems even more ancient than ancient history when I read about the recent developments in the land that was once home to me, whose literature and language will always be a part of who I am. Even what I wear sometimes!  What happened for me to lament like this?
"Author Perumal Murugan has died"
Source
The author was the latest victim of the provincial, parochial, ill-informed, goons, also known as as the Hindu right-wing group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who are making the best use of the opportunity now that one of their favorite and well-known is India's prime minister.

Ok, the RSS didn't kill the person.  The person lives:
"Author Perumal Murugan has died," the Tamil writer and professor posted on Monday. "He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as the teacher he has been."
Why kill the author?  For a book he wrote. Not now, but back in 2010!
"Madhorubagan" is set about a century ago near the author's native town of Tiruchengode in southern India. In the book, a childless couple from the land-owning Gounder caste contemplate participating in a local temple festival ritual - during which a childless woman has sex with a man other than her husband in order to conceive a child.
Last month, unexpectedly, local groups led protests about the book - they said the "fictitious" extramarital sex ritual at the centre of the plot insulted the town, its temple and its women. Copies of the novel were burnt, residents shut down shops, and a petition sought the arrest of the author.
Yep, these goons conveniently forget that love and sex, and god, have been a wonderful tradition in the rich literature and arts in Tamil and throughout India.  But then when were goons ever seriously interested in knowledge!

The author is no bloke. Not any pretentious professor like this blogger. No, ma'am:
Perumal Murugan has been a professor of Tamil for the past 17 years, during which time he has developed considerable expertise in three different areas: building a lexicon of words, idioms and phrases special to Kongunadu; researching Kongu folklore, especially the ballads on Annamar Sami, a pair of folk deities; and publishing authoritative editions of classical Tamil texts. Murugan’s output in these areas over the past decade has been substantial. 
His knowledge led him to something that absolutely fascinated him:
It was his continuing interest in Kongu folklore that prompted him to apply for and obtain a grant from the India Foundation of the Arts, Bangalore, to undertake research on folklore surrounding the temple town of Thiruchengodu, a town he knew very well from his childhood but, in another sense, did not know at all.
There are many idols on the Thiruchengodu hill, each one capable of giving a specific boon. One of them is the Ardhanareeswarar, an idol of Shiva who has given the left part of his body to his consort, Parvathi. It is said that this is the only place where Shiva is sacralised in this mythical form. Murugan was intrigued on encountering several men in the region past the age of 50 who were called Ardhanari (Half-woman) or Sami Pillai (God-given child). On digging further he found out that till as recently as 50 years ago, on a particular evening of the annual chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, childless women would come alone to the area alive with festival revelries. Each woman was free to couple with a male stranger of her choice, who was considered an incarnation of god. If the woman got pregnant, the child was considered a gift from god and accepted as such by the family, including her husband.
He then worked this into his fictional work. All done. That was in 2010.

In 2014, the RSS darling, Modi, was elected India's prime minister.  Now, the goons got bolder.  Which is why it has taken the idiots this long to go after Perumal Murugan and kill the author--ironically, after the English translation of the novel came out!

The NY Times expresses worries over the trend of silencing authors.  But, you think President Obama will bother to pressure his new friend, Prime Goon Modi, about such issues?  Heck no. After all, the attraction is all because Modi talks the business language and money talks, while everything else takes a walk!  As Shikha Dalmia writes:
Modi will use Obama's visit as the West's vote of confidence in himself, and pooh-pooh growing domestic alarm over his creeping Hindutva agenda.
Yep! :(
Obama can't ignore the political forces he'll be aiding and abetting in India.
India is a young democracy whose commitment to religious liberty is still fragile. On its Republic Day, President Obama should do nothing to undermine it.
Like Obama cares about any of these!

I did something that I did once before when the RSS/Hindutva assholes went after a book and its author.
I have bought myself a copy of Perumal Murugan's novel.




Saturday, January 24, 2015

This too shall pass--this material life, that is

After days of getting things together for a long and tiring India trip, as I finally head to the airport, I tell myself that it would not matter if I have forgotten anything as long as I have my passport, my wallet, my cellphone, and my travel computer.

During the long plane ride, I often amuse myself thinking how much that list is a metaphor for life itself--most of what we worry about is, well, excess baggage that is not going to affect us, and yet it is on that baggage that we spend our time, money, energy, and emotions.  What if we asked ourselves every morning when we wake up, "what is most important to me in life and how do I want to spend my time, money, energy, and emotions?"

What is even more amazing and amusing to me is how invested--in many ways--we are in all things material.  Our homes. Cars. Computers. Phones. Clothes. Shoes. Even our hair!  When all those are transitory.  Heck, even we are nothing but transients in this universe and we worry about our balding heads?  Imagine, if every morning we were to, instead, draw up a list equivalent to my travel essentials of passport, wallet, cellphone, and computer.  Will my balding head feature on that list?  Not a chance.

The older I get, the more irrelevant many things in life are becoming.  I suppose the experiences in life are like series of filters that continuously remove the unwanted and irrelevant, and help me get to what might be the equivalent of passport, wallet, cellphone, and computer.

Somewhere into the remaining third of my life, the computer will be be off that list.  Gone will be the phone. The wallet will become thinner and thinner as the extraneous stuff gets tossed out.

So, what might be the important things into my future?

I wonder if people ask themselves that question.  I worry that people do not ask themselves that question.  I am concerned that there is not enough attention being paid to that question.

If only all of us got to thinking about this, even via the sand mandalas.  I love how the Buddhist monks remind us about the transitory nature of the material life.  The lamas work for days and weeks and create beautiful and colorful elaborate pieces of art, only to methodically erase them away.

So, what might be the things that I might take along for that ultimate travel of all?

"When you are lying nearing your death, you cannot take your car or house or clothes.  You have only your memories with you when dying" said my accidental travel partner during that day trip in Costa Rica.  And then even those memories are gone.

Yet, we are invested in our homes. Cars. Computers. Phones. Clothes. Shoes. Even our balding heads!

I suppose to struggle through all that crap is what life is all about.  We will be smarter if we understood that all we are doing is constructing our own sand mandalas. And, whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared or not, all that investment over one's life will be gone, like the lamas brushing away the sand.

Nothing really matters at all.

Life is but a fleeting illusion.

Source

Friday, January 23, 2015

Warning: this is one shitty post!

I certainly would not have imagined a classification of, get this, shit.
Yes, poop.
Crap.

Source

The periodic table was a classification. The different blood types, I can understand somebody being interested in. But, seriously, there was a person who decided to categorize different types of poop?  I used to joke that my humor is scatalogical.  But, I can't anymore; those scatalogists will sue the, ahem, crap out of me! ;)
poops come in all shapes and sizes — as shown in the Bristol stool scale, created by the University of Bristol's Ken Heaton, at right — but Chutkan says the ideal poop is a three or four on the scale.
So ... which type are you? Pay attention from now on.  hehehe!

So, is there any good, clean kind?
A very fiber-heavy diet — the type eaten by many people in developing countries, and by some vegetarians in the US — leads to much denser and bulkier poops. "They're bigger movements that come out more easily," she says. "And there's very little need to wipe — it's a much cleaner evacuation."
"Evacuation" is the best possible euphemism here.  "Honey, I will be back after I evacuate" sounds much more confident and purposeful in life than, "Hey, I am going to take a shit."

The piece ends with what, you, and I are familiar with: fecal transplant.  Remember the post from two months ago?  Care to revisit that shitty post? I dare you!  Oh, this includes a warning that fecal transplant should not be tried at home.  Gee, thanks for that!

May you be regular with Bristol #4! ;)




Thursday, January 22, 2015

What I have lived for ... is to stay away from savants?

I know for sure that this guy will agree with the following quote:
I've made an odd discovery. Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I'm convinced of the opposite.
That put down of the savant was by one of the greatest thinkers in modern times: Bertrand Russell.  This pretentious thinker agrees with Russell.  Which is why, for instance, I avoid faculty meetings ;)

In  the prologue to his autobiography, Russell wrote:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy - ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness--that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what--at last--I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
It will be extremely hard to discount the importance of those three that were Russell's passions.

Source

It is a wonderful reminder that giants like Russell have paved the very path that I travel.  How foolish of me to even think that I am traveling a road that is not taken!

As I ease into the final third of my life, looking back at the years that have gone by, I, too, would gladly live it again and take those same paths.  Of course, there have been disappointments and frustrations along the way.  But what is life without them!


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Stranger ... along the road not taken

There are lots and lots of days when I wonder if the manner in which I approach my professional responsibilities towards students and taxpayers is worth all the hassles that I bring on myself.  The road not taken is not always easy to travel--way too many potholes that Robert Frost did not warn me about.  Those damn poets and their wild imaginations about beautiful grassy paths that exist only in their minds!

Yet, I continue along that road in my professional obligations. Almost always alone.  Because, every once in a while, somebody pops up to encourge me that I am on the correct path after all.  Like today.

What happened, you ask?  Pull up a chair. Sit down with a cup of coffee and hear me out.

My latest column was in the paper today.  Of course, I was as excited to see that column with my photo as I was when the first of those happened more than two decades ago.  It is always a feeling of "hey, really, I wrote this?"

In this modern age, I tweeted that. Right from my bed.

And then I tweeted again, after having that glorious morning coffee.  I told you I am one excited fellow.  Hey, you will also be that way if you travelled an offbeat path.
A couple of emails from strangers, appreciating my column. Very exciting, of course.  But, what really convinced me today that I am doing alright is an email that the newspaper's editor forwarded me.  An email from a person who is a stranger to me. The email to the editor noted:
Thanks for Dr. Khé's columns. His writing expands our understanding of the world in an interesting, readable style. His students are fortunate, and so are we, his readers.
Note: This is not necessarily for publication I just wanted to express my appreciation to the RG for printing the comments of this brilliant writer.
After reading that email, more than once, for now I am ready to pretend that there are no potholes.  It is a state-of-the-art road that I am on.
Hey, Frost, thanks!  And a special thank-you to that newspaper reader.

The Road Not Taken

By Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The big question of the year is on ... the machines that think

No, not my question.  Though, I have obsessed enough over it, even right here in this blog.

It is Edge's annual event--the big question for the year.  For 2015, it is: What do you think about machines that think?

As always, it is an impressive lineup of thinkers who respond to that question.  The ideas there are way more than my limited understanding capacity can handle.  So, I picked my way through that intellectual smorgasbord.

I decided that I would read contributions from non-white males.  Why?  This is a field that has been the domain of white males.  Slowly females and other males are cracking through it all and, thus, I figured it might be interesting to read their perspectives.

Even that was one too many people.  I figured I would develop another filter based on the names that I read: there were two Marias and one Mary.  So, hey, responses by three Marys.  There was one Indian name; so, of course, yes to that.  And then one of my all-time favorite polymaths ever: Freeman Dyson.

I had a game plan.  I went in.

First up, the Indian, Satyajit Das, a "former banker."
I read his piece, re-read it, and wondered why he was in the lineup.  A rambling, broad, blah response.

Will Mary save me?
Nope. More blah!

I bet that this Maria will have something profound; after all, I have often read her blog-posts and they have always been insightful.
Thinking is not mere computation—it is also cognition and contemplation, which inevitably lead to imagination. Imagination is how we elevate the real toward the ideal, and this requires a moral framework of what is ideal. Morality is predicated on consciousness and on having a self-conscious inner life rich enough to contemplate the question of what is ideal.
The famous aphorism often attributed to Einstein—"imagination is more important than knowledge"—is thus only interesting because it exposes the real question worth contemplating: not that of artificial intelligence but that of artificial imagination.
Of course, imagination is always "artificial" in the sense of being concerned with the un-real or trans-real—of transcending reality to envision alternatives to it—and this requires a capacity for holding uncertainty. But the algorithms that drive machine computation thrive on goal-oriented executions, in which there is no room for uncertainty—"if this, then that" is the antithesis of the imagination, which lives in the unanswered and often, vitally, unanswerable realm of "what if?" As Hannah Arendt once wrote, to lose our capacity for asking such unanswerable questions would be to "lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded." 

Score!

Off to the other Maria then.  What does the Caltech professor has to say?
I for one, am more concerned about humans who drop thinking or are brainwashed, than smart thinking machines taking over.
I, too, worry about humans who are ready and willing to be brainwashed and do not care to think for themselves.  Go on, professor.
 I foresee the emergence of hybrid human-machine chimeras: human-born beings augmented with new machine abilities that enhance all or most of their human capacities, pleasures and psychological needs. To the point that thinking might be rendered irrelevant and strictly speaking unnecessary. That might provide the ordinary thinking humans a better set of servants they have been looking for in machines. 
Oh, no!  This is the kind of a scenario that worries me.

Finally, Freeman Dyson.  I can always count on him to be clear and direct.  No blah. No unnecessary qualifiers.  No hedging.  A wonderful thinker.  Will he let me down?  I hope not.

Turns out that Dyson had the shortest response of all, which I provide you in its entirety:
I do not believe that machines that think exist, or that they are likely to exist in the foreseeable future. If I am wrong, as I often am, any thoughts I might have about the question are irrelevant.
If I am right, then the whole question is irrelevant.
Awesome!  I knew that they guy would be direct.  Maybe two generations from now, we will find out Dyson was way wrong.  I don't care.  I love the way he clearly articulates his thoughts based on a remarkable knowledge-base.

Here's to hoping that "nature cannot be fooled."

By now, you know where this is from, right?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Laughter is the best medicine. Yes, but, ... what is the disease?

I was lost in thoughts in the grocery store even as my legs propelled me along.  It is fascinating how our bodies can be on some kind of an autopilot mechanism even as our minds are somewhere else.  If only we knew how to always live the "here and the now" philosophy.  But, we don't.  Our minds keep wandering, like in the milkmaid story that we read in elementary school.

So, where was I? ;)

Ah, yes, in the grocery store.

"Sriram" called out a voice.

I have always been impressed with how so many Oregonians pronounce my name so well.  All it takes is for me to tell them once and only once how the string of letters is not all that difficult as one would imagine that to be.  Perhaps because it is Oregon.  Will I have had such positive experiences in Alabama, or in Oklahoma?

So, where was I? ;)

Ah, yes, somebody calling out my name.

I turned towards that direction.

The body-builder, "W," was walking towards the back end of the store.

"How are you?" I asked her.

She didn't even bother to reply.

"I have a question for you" she began.

I knew it was something humorous that she was going to tell me.  Perhaps she had been waiting for my face to appear in the store. She told me something like that once before--about how she had been making sure that she didn't forget a joke that her stand-up-comedian husband had told her and that she couldn't wait to tell me that.  I suppose a reputation that I love puns and awfully silly jokes is a healthier reputation than anything else that I can hope for.  I imagine a service after my death where people take turns delivering the silliest of punchlines.

So, where was I? ;)

Ah, yes, W's setup for the funny line.

"What is the one food that has caused the greatest grief and misery to humans?" she asked with a huge grin.

It had to be funny.  It was obvious from her face.  Not like mine--students tell me that they have a tough time figuring out whether I am being serious or funny.  No funny face mine is!

"The one food?"

"Yes."

"I don't know ... potato?"

She seemed all the more tickled at my boring response.

"Wedding cake" she said.

I burst out laughing.
Right there in the middle of the store.
Loudly, as she walked away.

Yes, yes ... from that source ;)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

I worry about the unholy mix of big data and higher education

I often remark to students--well, the few who register for my classes anymore--that one of the biggest advantages of teaching in higher education is that I deal with people who are legally adults.  Sometimes I share with them the comments I have heard from teachers in the K-12 system: according to most, teaching the lower elementary years is the best because many, many kids show a great deal of excitement and interest in learning new stuff.  Teaching high school children is not that great.  The worst, the nightmare of all, is teaching those in that transition--the awful middle school/junior high years of life.

Those K-12 teachers have that heavy, heavy responsibility of taking care of young minds, whose lives could be shaped/mis-shaped by what teachers do and don't do.  I, on the other hand, deal with adults.  Well, adults in the legal sense--there is an increasing worry that there seems to be a protracted teenage mentality well into the early twenties as well.  The law says they are adults and I am relieved.

Relieved because, as I often remind students, adults are responsible for the consequences of their actions.  Kids can always claim that they were being kids after all.  But, not so with adults.

Which is why I don't care whether they attend classes--only to sleep--or party or work, as long as they understand that they are responsible for the consequences.  As simple as that.  Of course, I remind them that studies have consistently demonstrated a high correlation between attending classes and successfully completing them.  But then, I add, correlation is no causation either.

I so miss Calvin. Damn you, Bill Watterson! ;)

You can, therefore, imagine why I find it awfully bizarre that universities are now tapping into technology and big data in order to track student attendance:
At Villanova University, student ID cards track attendance at some lectures. Administrators at University of Arkansas last semester began electronically monitoring the class attendance of 750 freshmen as part of a pilot program they might extend to all underclassman. And at Harvard, researchers secretly filmed classrooms to learn how many students were skipping lectures.
There is only one way I can possibly respond to this: WTF!

I understand the intention: we want students to complete their undergraduate education on time and with success.  But, hey, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  That road includes things like:
The latest entrant into the market of tracking student’s whereabouts: Class120, a $199-a-year notification service that tracks a student through the GPS in their smartphone and alerts their parents (or another third party) in real time if their child isn’t within a geofence mapped around the classroom where they are scheduled to be.
WTF!

A student is no different from a prisoner released on parole with a monitoring anklet on?  OMG!
schools have realized they have a trove of new data to look at, such as how much a student is accessing the syllabus, taking part in online discussions with classmates and reading assigned material. Such technology “shows faculty exactly where students are interacting outside as well inside the classroom,” said Stephen Fugale, Villanova’s chief information officer.
Yes, we now have plenty of data and inexpensive computing to analyze the data in no time at all.  But, does it therefore mean that we ought to use them like this?
University of Arkansas began experimenting with mandatory attendance as a way to boost its 62% six-year graduation rate, said Provost Sharon Gaber. “We talk about helicopter parents,” she said. “Well, some of these kids haven’t learned how to get out of bed on their own yet.”
Ahem, somebody ought to remind Sharon Gaber that they are not "kids" but adults. Adults according to the law.  The same law that even forbids me from discussing anything about the student even with the student's "helicopter parents" who might even be paying for everything.  I wish I had been able to talk some sense into Sharon Gaber when we were fellow graduate students at USC's School of Urban and Regional Planning, as it was called then! ;)

But, this, too, will be a losing battle for me, and I will add it to the long and ever-growing list of windmills that I have charged against.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

The death of Toystory is no bull. But, questions do arise!

Toystory is dead.

News reports suggest that he was one of a kind, and there might never be one like him, ever again.  Who was he?
an ornery, 2,700-pound bull named Toystory—a titan of artificial insemination who sired an estimated 500,000 offspring in more than 50 countries.
Imagine that!  half-a-million calves, and in fifty countries.  You think you can beat that record?
Rare is the bull with the genes and testicular fortitude to sell a million units of semen, known among breeders as the millionaires club.
Over nearly a decade, Toystory shattered the record for sales of the slender straws that hold about 1/20th of a teaspoon and are shipped using liquid nitrogen to farmers around the world. A unit fetches anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred.
After joining the millionaires club, Toystory surpassed Sunny Boy, a Dutch bull who sold more than 1.7 million units in the 1990s and is memorialized with a life-size statue at the headquarters of his owner in Arnhem, Netherlands.
Are you wondering how the 500,000 offspring qualified Toystory for the millionaires club?  Read carefully--the 1/20th of a teaspoon of his semen is one unit, and this bull went past two millions of those units!  Well, more than 2.4 million, to be precise.

If you are like me--and thank your stars that you are not, especially given what is coming up next--you will wonder about the simplest of questions here: how do they get the semen from a bull?

We routinely read and hear about artificial insemination of cattle.  How do they get the semen in the first place, right?  Of course, my junior-high school mind imagined the bull going into a closed room with a small cup and then looking at the mammaries in the soiled issues of Playcow!

Wasn't your life better until you read his post?

It is a strange world in which we live.  We broke down the making of new life into its components of semen and egg, and then have developed the science and technology, and the profitable industry, of how to fertilize eggs with tiny doses of extracted semen.  Whether it is for the holy cow or the human, we have been marching along shattering the old ideas of how to create life forms.

As much as an atheist I am, I have never cared for such baby factory approaches that we have engaged in.  Thus, I find it awful that a cow is now nothing more than a milk factory, and the bull is nothing more than a sperm machine.  Test-tube babies, similarly, have completely redefined what it means to be human. Since then, we have gone down many other routes, including rent-a-womb and fertility-tourism.  Yep, some of us atheists, too, are immensely uncomfortable with life being reduced to such material terms.

Oh well.  The genie, as they say, is out of the test-tube!

Which means, there is only one way ahead for me--find out how they extract the semen.

Reading this made me all the more uncomfortable about this whole thing.  Why read it, and why think about all these, right?  The world is one messy place, my friend and, whether we agree with things or not, we need to try to understand them.  As simple as that.

Now, my curiosity got even bigger.  Of elephantine proportions.  I was sure the mad scientists have gone about collecting semen from an elephant.  Google answers.  With this video too, from Channel4.com!  With a note that the video is not suitable for children less than 16 years old.  For some reason that video didn't play in my computer; if you experience similar problems, head to the Daily Mail note with the same video.

Seriously, this is where we are now?  And things will get only more bizarre?  Is it all worth it?

My "guardian angel" in Costa Rica 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Here today ... gone tomorrow?

Every time I say goodbye to the folks and the aunts, I always think, "what if it turns out to be the last time ever that I see them?"

Death can happen any moment.
At any age.
You think that the passengers in that Air Asia plane considered the possibility that they were departing forever?

But, we don't seem to live our life with an understanding that death awaits us.
Awaits each and every one of us.
Rich or poor.
Young or old.
Healthy or otherwise.
Death awaits.

The following couplet from the old country says it best:
नाकाले म्रियते जंतुः विद्धः शरशतैरपि । 
कुशकंटकविद्धोऽपि प्राप्तकालो न जीवति ॥ 

When your time is not yet up, even if one throws a hundred arrows at you – nothing happens to you.
However, when it is up, even a blade of grass can kill you.
Or, to put you at ease (!) we could say it in a different form:
मृत्योर्बिभेषि किं बाल न स भीतं विमुंचति । 
अद्यवाब्दशतांते वा मृत्युर्वै प्राणिनां ध्रुवः ॥ 

Oh boy! why are you afraid of death? Death does not spare those who are afraid. 

It may happen right now or after a hundred years. But it is certain. 
I would think that there will be wonderful clarity about one's life if only we viewed our existence that way.
Would we really care to spend that additional hour at work?
Would we bother to yell at the driver who sped past on a foggy early morning?
Or the shopper who jumps into the line ahead of those waiting?
Who cares, right?  Because, we have much better things to do with the precious few seconds or decades that we have.

Life is one game of probabilities, my friend, over which you have no control.  You think otherwise and want to comment?  There is no certainty that I will even be around to read your comments on this post--though, I am fairly confident that I will be around to debate with you!

Because there is no certainty that we will be around, let the people you care for know how much you really care for them.
Right now.
Stop reading this post.
Go, go, go ... shoooooooo ...


Thursday, January 15, 2015

On the Swiss Franc and Euro. I demand a refund of my school fees. Wanna join me?

Yes, I have been a nerd all my life.  Now, keep in mind that there is a huge difference between a nerd and a geek.  Or a nerd and a dork. Definitely no dweeb, as this playful Venn diagram explains:

Source

The nerd in me remembers a whole lot of ideas and concepts, while maintaining a selective amnesia about people and events.  Thus, I remember about a play called Refund that was a part of the curriculum years ago in high school. Or, was it The Refund, I wonder.

A wonderful farce the play is, for which the setup is a chance encounter that two old high schoolmates have two decades after graduation.  A Google search provides me with the full text of the play; how about that!  Anyway, the setup is this--the protagonist, Wasserkopf, says:
Here I was walking along the street, fired from my last job, and wondering how I could get hold of some cash, because I was quite broke. I met Leaderer. I said, ‘How goes it, Leaderer?’ ‘Fine!’ he says. ‘I’ve got to hurry to the broker’s to collect the money I made speculating in foreign exchange.’ ‘What’s foreign exchange?’ I said. He says ‘I haven’t got the time to tell you now, but, according to the paper, Hungarian money is down seventy points, and I’ve made the difference. Don’t you understand?’ Well, I didn’t understand. I said, ‘How do you make money if money goes down?’ and he says, ‘Wasserkopf, if you don’t know that, you don’t know a damn thing. Go to the school and get your tuition fees back.’ Then he hurried away and left me standing there, and I said to myself, ‘Why shouldn’t I do that?’ He’s right, now that I’ve thought it over. 
Of course, the principal and teachers make sure he does not get a refund, by explaining that his bizarre answers are all correct.

I, too, want to get to get a refund because I, too, cannot fathom what the hell is going on with the Swiss Franc-Euro foreign exchange thing that has been in the news all day long.  Somebody made money and that wasn't me!  To add insult to the injury, when I read this in the Economist, it seemed to me that understanding theoretical physics will be immensely easier.  The WSJ tries to be helpful by dumbing things down, but that puts me only closer to asking for a refund of my fees.  Forbes makes it worse.

To this guy, whose favorite dreams are about money and taxes, well, I am sure he needs no refund, especially given his immense wealth.  I suppose I can console myself that my school fees at least paid for his understanding of all this money-mumbo-jumbo! ;)

Oh, wait ... does this mean that I was never a nerd but only a dork? ;)

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future

Yes, that was one of the classics from the one and only Yogi Berra.  If only many important aspects of life can be so easily articulated (even if it fails a formal grammar test.)

For years, I have heard enough and more left-leaning people, especially within academia, beat up on oil companies and their profits.  (Meanwhile, I was beating up on the company that makes the computers that the left-leaning people love to use--for the sheer audacity with which it earns gazillions while portraying a saintly image!)  The evil oil corporations, the story went, did everything possible to increase their profits.  Even launched wars, with the government as their proxies.  The bad oil companies did their best to stifle innovation with the development of the electric car, they argued, because the electric cars will not need oil (gasoline.)

I wonder what they will complain about now, with oil prices tumbling to levels that nobody predicted.  "Peak oil" and the evil corporations together means soon we will be looking at $200 per barrel, they warned us.  The cold, hard, news of today is this:
Brace for $40-a-barrel oil.
So, whatever happened to that framework of the evil oil corporations that want to earn those huge profits?  Why are they now practically giving away gasoline at the pump?

Meanwhile, the company that I love to beat up on is as busy as ever storing its gazillions at tax havens, far away from the taxman and gets a free pass from the left-leaning folks who continue to target the oil companies.  Oh well, a strange world this is!

So, about that oil price.  How come from the experts to the conspiracy nutcases, everybody got it so wrong?  Well, re-read the Yogi Berra quote in the subject line!

Of, if you want an oil-specific quote:
When contemplating the future of oil prices, one should always keep in mind U.S. foreign service officer James Akins’ observation, “Oil experts, economists, and government officials who have attempted in recent years to predict the future demand and the prices of oil have had only marginally better success than those who foretell the advent of earthquakes or the second coming of the Messiah.” Akins wrote that in 1973.
Isn't that a lot more words than the simple Yogism? ;)

Ron Bailey, whose note in Reason is where that quote is from, includes another quote there from a Saudi billionaire who claims that oil will never go back up above $100 a barrel.  Say what?

In a commentary at Project Syndicate, is another interesting question:
should we expect $50 to be the floor or the ceiling of the new trading range for oil?
Say what?  This commentator expects oil prices to go well below $50?  Whatever happened to greedy oil companies and their profits?
economics and history suggest that today’s price should be viewed as a probable ceiling for a much lower trading range, which may stretch all the way down toward $20. 
Are you kidding me?
the marginal cost of US shale oil would become a ceiling for global oil prices, whereas the costs of relatively remote and marginal conventional oilfields in OPEC and Russia would set a floor. As it happens, estimates of shale-oil production costs are mostly around $50, while marginal conventional oilfields generally break even at around $20. Thus, the trading range in the brave new world of competitive oil should be roughly $20 to $50. 
Don't bet your farm on this, as they say.  Why?  I refer you to the Yogi Berra quote in the title.

A couple of years ago, I received a snarky email from a former student.  In the email, she referred to the stepped up production in the US thanks to fracking up the Bakken oil as evidence that I was bullshitting in the class.  (Ok, she didn't use the BS word.)  I wrote back to her that my worry has never been about exhausting the oil supplies or the price, but about the continued and expanded use of carbon as the source of energy and its impacts on global climate.  Even now, though it is awesome to fill up a tank at a remarkably low price, I do worry about the long-term consequences of a delay in energiewende.

Maybe I should not worry about tomorrow and, instead, seek consolation in the Yogism, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."


Posts popular the last 30 days