Saturday, February 28, 2015

Curvy women with long eyelashes ... break wind?

A couple of years ago, I went to an ophthalmologist to get rid of the irritation in my eye.  She looked into my eye.

As she got ready to tell me what the problem was, I felt so compelled to ask her, "doc, will I be able to play the violin?"  You know, the old joke?  The doctor replies, "of course you will be able to."  The patient then says, "wow, how about that!"  And then adds, " because I don't know how to play the violin."

But, I did not.  For once, I was "normal."

She put her gear down.  "You have two eyelashes curving inward and they are poking your eye.  I will pluck those two and you will be fine."

Imagine that!  I could have gone to a beauty salon and gotten this taken care of for less than a tenth of the cost :(

After hearing this, a friend joked, "that's what you get for having long eyelashes."  So, now I was the joke, instead of me kidding around.

Why do we have eyelashes anyway?
Surprisingly, the real reason eyelashes evolved has remained unknown. Research shows that those who lack lashes, which some people do, suffer higher than average rates of eye infection. That suggests they have some sort of protective function. But exactly what this is and how it works has been a mystery. Some people hypothesise that lashes protect eyes from falling dust. Others think that they act rather like an animal's whiskers—detecting foreign bodies before they can do harm, and triggering a protective blink.
I can add one more--to poke me in my eye!

Oh well.  So, anything new from the world of science?
David Hu of the Georgia Institute of Technology and his colleagues think they have cracked the problem. Eyelashes do not protect eyes directly, they believe. Rather, they change the flow of air around the eye in ways that stop dust and other irritants getting in, and moisture getting out.
How does Hu know what? (yes, a lame joke!)
no matter what species of mammal he examined (and he studied 22 of them), the length of its lashes was on average a third of the width of its eye.
So?
Nature has, it turns out, arrived at the optimum eyelash length to keep the cornea moist and dust-free. By reducing air flow over the cornea, eyelashes create a boundary layer of slow-moving air. That stops dust getting through, and also promotes water retention, since moisture is not blown away. Up to a point, the boundary layer grows thicker as the lashes grow longer. But long lashes also act as a funnel, channelling moving air into the eye and disrupting the protective layer. 
No kidding!
Eyelashes have, like many other bodily features, acquired a second function as a signal. But their main job, if Dr Hu is right, is to be a wind break.
So, the next time a pretty young thing flashes her long eyelashes at me, I should decode that as she is breaking wind! muahahaha ;)

Speaking of women, what's up with the curves anyway?  Why so different from men's bodies?
The simple answer, suggests Mr Bainbridge, a British reproductive biologist and veterinary anatomist, is that those curvy bums and boobs, the straight “enviable pins” that newspapers salivate over, ensure the future of humankind.
 Ah, yes, only the Economist will report about "curvy bums and boobs" when reviewing Bainbridge's book!
the book’s ultimate question, what does it mean to be a woman and to balance the “ancient conflicting demands of food, shape and success in a modern, unnatural world”, is one worth asking, even if Mr Bainbridge does not quite answer it.
Now, does the title of this post make sense? ;)

Of course, from there!

It is not merely the color of the dress. Everything is an illusion. Maya!

"Maya" is a profound thought in Hindu philosophy.  The philosophy offers plenty of metaphors to get us regular folks understand it.  In semi-darkness, we might mistake a rope for a snake and freak ourselves out.  Out in the desert, the mirage of an oasis has us rushing there for water.  Maya is that philosophical idea that such incorrect perceptions of reality lead us to nothing but immense unhappiness and misery.  It is all an illusion.

Even with my half-baked understanding of maya, it makes sense.  It has always made sense.  The discussions of a "creator" that follows all those are where I walked away from the faith.

The latest trending story to break the internet--what is the color of that dress?--is another metaphor along those lines.  In case you missed it because unlike me you have real work to do, let me first brief you on it.  Consider the image below:

source

What's the big deal, you ask?
Not since Monica Lewinsky was a White House intern has one blue dress been the source of so much consternation.
(And yes, it’s blue.)
The fact that a single image could polarize the entire Internet into two aggressive camps is, let’s face it, just another Thursday. But for the past half-day, people across social media have been arguing about whether a picture depicts a perfectly nice bodycon dress as blue with black lace fringe or white with gold lace fringe. And neither side will budge.

In that image, the original is in the middle.

So, what gives?
Light enters the eye through the lens—different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object.
What we see is not what we see until our brains tell us what it is that we are seeing.  So, how do we know for sure what we see is what is really out there?  You "see" how this dress color controversy is serving as a metaphor for maya?

The colors that we see are illusions themselves.  Is that red apple really red?
"The agreed-upon technical definition of color," says Fairchild, "is that it's a visual perception."
He should know; "Mark Fairchild, who studies color and vision science at the Rochester Institute of Technology."

A visual perception, which we think is the reality.  That is nothing but maya!
"I could change the color of illumination on that apple and make it look green or blue or something completely different," he says. "The redness isn't a property of the apple. It's a property of the apple in combination with a particular lighting that's on it and a particular observer looking at it."All three of those elements are critical to the idea of "red" or any other color, he says. "You have to have somebody looking at that in order to combine all that information and produce a perception."
It is all an illusion!
If two people are looking at, for example, a construction worker hat, and both saying, "This is yellow," are they really having the same subjective experience?
"I think we have no way of knowing. I think it's not known," says Brainard. "Each of us is essentially stuck inside our own brains with respect to the nature of that experience. So your yellow could be like my blue, your yellow could be like my experience of sound, and my experience of sound could be like your experience of color."

So, get going. Search for that whatever that is beyond what you think you see.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

If you are happy and you know it ...

A couple of days ago, I retweeted this from my favorite "academic" tweeter:
Apparently, I was not the only one who knows that I am happy.

It was a crisp morning, and the clock had yet to strike seven, as I headed out to campus.  Yes, I have a clock that strikes at the hour and at the half-hour.

Yes, I peep into my own home! ;)

It is the clock that was at grandmother's home in Sengottai.  It is one of the many tangible, tactile connections to the old country and to the people that I cherish.

I left home a minute or two before the seven strikes.  Getting up early is an advantage, dear reader.  "Dawn is breaking, it's early morn."  The air is cool.  The beginnings of movement of people and birds and critters.  Children dragging themselves to bus stops, some seemingly standing and sleeping.  Early mornings are simply divine.  Perhaps, in my own way, I commune with the cosmos getting up in the morning, similar to the people in the old country waking up early and heading to the temple after bathing.

As always, I took the roads that meander along the green fields with the hills in the distance.  It was a series of dry days without the rains and with clear skies.  The sky was huge and I could see hill ranges that I rarely ever see.

A few miles away from campus, I inserted the only CD that I had in the car.  When I bought the CD a a couple of years ago, I found it a tad jarring whenever this played.  But, now, I look forward to this cover version.  I sang and drummed along.



I played one more, and then powered it off as I got closer to town.  I opened up the sunroof.   I wished that I had this song to play; but, it was at home.  No problems; I belted out the few words that I knew from the song.

I parked the car--yes, after closing the sunroof.  And was walking towards my office when an older woman said something to me.  "Pardon me?"

"You look happy" she said.

"Yes, I am always happy.  Thanks."

Life is good.

Academic freedom is dead. Long live academic freedom!

The more "funny" things happen at my college and elsewhere in academia, the more I worry that "academic freedom" has been hijacked to mean things very different from what it really means.

We will begin with the first principles--on how Academic Freedom was/is defined by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) :
1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
How simple and yet lofty in its ideals, right?

That was the statement in 1940.  As valid then as it is now.

Here is where it gets even more profound:
Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.
That is from the opening paragraph before those three points about Academic Freedom were listed out, and before the statements on academic tenure.

How many faculty and administrators truly understand that academic freedom and tenure are not about the individual nor the institution but for the common good?

It is perhaps always depressing to look at how far we stray from what we thought we were setting out to do.  When a student complains that most of the time in one of their classes the faculty was ranting about something political that had nothing to do with the course, that is not a freedom that the faculty thinks (s)he has.  When a faculty engages in lewd conduct in a public park, (s)he forgets that "the public may judge their profession and their institution" and the "academic freedom" comes with obligations toward that public good.  When faculty have on their office doors and walls cartoons and statements that put students who have differing views on the defensive, they fail to "show respect for the opinions of others."  Academic freedom is not to simply offer courses on whatever, when its contribution to the public good is questionable.

Yet again, I feel like I was born thirty years too late. I am not cut out for this contemporary world where faculty and universities do not care about the public good and, instead, seem to only "further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution."

Here's to hoping that tomorrow is another day!

Yep, from there

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

When the Best Sex Is Extramarital. Again?

"If I eat meat, I feel like I am cheating" said a colleague who tries to stick to a vegetarian diet.

We make promises all the time.  To our kids. To our neighbors. To fathers, mothers, friends, neighbors.  Yes, even to ourselves.

And, then we cheat.  The colleague ends up eating smoked salmon!

But then there is that mother of all cheating--the sharp deviation from a marriage contract to be faithful.  Remember that joke about Tiger Woods?  That he became a "cheetah"--get the pun? ;)  Speaking of Tiger Woods, boy has his career crashed after that headlines making crash!

I blogged about Murakami's story, but with the title that might have sounded a tad incongruent.  Well, life is incongruent; deal with it! ;)

It merely worked out that way.  I read the story, fell asleep.  After waking up in the morning, when scanning through my news sources, it seemed like a pretty darn coincidence that I had read that short story--yes, there is life issues there related to extramarital sex--and then to read today about extramarital sex in the NY Times. What was the cosmos telling me? Remember, it is always, always about me in this blog! ;)
At our best we learn to refrain from doing things that would make our spouses jealous and insecure, despite our temptations, and when they make us jealous we try to restrain our hostility, despite our hurt.
That is one heck of a difference between cheating to oneself about food habits, versus cheating on a spouse, eh!

It only took ten days after Valentine's Day for the opinionator piece on extramarital sex! ;)
Freud claimed that people often split love and lust. It is not uncommon to have great sex with someone who isn’t lovable, or to have a trustworthy loving relationship with someone with whom the sex is boring. Recent empirical research shows that individuals who exhibit high degrees of narcissism, like Neal, have difficulty integrating love and lust in a single relationship.
Way back when I was an undergraduate student, the fact that there were no girls to distract us in an all-male engineering college did not mean that we didn't talk about our future selves.

I recall that in one of the discussions sitting on the railway tracks, a friend argued that infidelity was not a big deal and he compared it to home-cooked food that we might soon tire of, which is why we go restaurants and have the rich and decadent dishes there.  That never appealed to me--even now, I am very happy to make the same ciabatta sandwich every day for lunch.  Hmmm, I am already drooling thinking about the sandwich ;)



Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, "could there be patterns in who is mostly likely to cheat?"  Oh Yes, there are, says the WSJ:
Have you ever wondered if you’re in danger of being unfaithful? The experts advise you to look at these risk categories. People who engage in infidelity typically fall into more than one.
Yes, gender is a category:
If you are a man, you’re more likely to cheat. ... The gender gap isn’t as big as it used to be
Of course, I know that the gender gap is not as big as it used to be.

So, what are the other categories, you ask?  Don't be lazy--do at least that much reading in your life! ;)

Oh, btw, I did have rich and decadent food at a restaurant and, my god, it was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious , and the "cheating" colleague stayed faithful to vegetarianism! ;)

Fried Gnudi:
Fried naked ravioli, mushrooms, caramelized fennel, sauce sugo, Romano cheese & chives



Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When the Best Sex Is Extramarital

I have always loved fictional works.

In the early years, I feasted on generous servings in Thamizh and English.  The more I read, the more I enjoyed the serious works in both those languages because they made me think about, and understand, what it meant to be human.  Fictional worlds they might be, but they provided insights into how we humans behave and, more importantly, what kind of a human I wanted to be.

Contemporary fiction seem to always fail in that category.  I don't want stories to entertain me--I had plenty of those from my great-aunt who was a wonderful storyteller.  Especially as I race towards the end, I want to understand myself, understand my fellow humans, and understand the big picture.

Sometimes, the short stories in the New Yorker have enough of an oomph to make me think.  This week was one of those.
A story by Haruki Murakami.
Every one of his stories in the past issues of the New Yorker was awesome.
Give him a Nobel Prize already!
Did I tell you that I loved them all.
By extension, I knew I would enjoy this story too.

The guy tells an awesome story, which ends with a phenomenal image:
The willow branches swayed in the early-summer breeze. In a small dark room, somewhere inside Kino, a warm hand was reaching out to him. Eyes shut, he felt that hand on his, soft and substantial. He’d forgotten this, had been apart from it for far too long. Yes, I am hurt. Very, very deeply. He said this to himself. And he wept.
All the while the rain did not let up, drenching the world in a cold chill.
I closed the magazine, turned the light off, and was ready for sleep.  Content and happy, and at peace with the world.  I felt "the early-summer breeze" of the fiction gently rocking me to sleep on a mid-winter night.

What a joy it is to realize that I am a human, alive, and thinking and feeling, on a tiny part of "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Monday, February 23, 2015

The tyranny of tiny tasks that screws up what it means to be human

Readers of this blog--yes, there is more than an audience of me alone--know well that I have a love-hate relationship with technology.  While I appreciate, and am thankful for, the ways in which technological advancements have made my everyday life immensely easy than it would otherwise be, I always worry about the downsides--not unusual, given that I worry even when good things happen to me!

Another interesting nuance here is easy technologies versus demanding technologies.
The choice between demanding and easy technologies may be crucial to what we have called technological evolution. We are, as I argued in my most recent piece in this series, self-evolving. We make ourselves into what we, as a species, will become, mainly through our choices as consumers. If you accept these premises, our choice of technological tools becomes all-important; by the logic of biological atrophy, our unused skills and capacities tend to melt away, like the tail of an ape. It may sound overly dramatic, but the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.
Indeed, I worry about technology because I am not entirely at ease with how technologies seems to determine what it means to be human.  I want humans to consciously think about this ongoing redefinition.  Whether it is in what we eat, how we meet up with people, how we have sex, I worry a lot, perhaps unnecessarily, that we humans are not thinking through enough.
The problem is that, as every individual task becomes easier, we demand much more of both ourselves and others. Instead of fewer difficult tasks (writing several long letters) we are left with a larger volume of small tasks (writing hundreds of e-mails). We have become plagued by a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive. And, when every task in life is easy, there remains just one profession left: multitasking. 
What then is a demanding technology?
Three elements are defining: it is technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure. By this measure, a piano is a demanding technology, as is a frying pan, a programming language, or a paintbrush. So-called convenience technologies, in contrast—like instant mashed potatoes or automatic transmissions—usually require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.
I like automatic transmissions.  I have heard from people about how they hate automatic transmission because it makes us passive. It makes us, well, idiots, according to the passionate ones.  I hate instant mashed potatoes, and make them from raw potatoes.  But, I do thank the technology that has made possible growing potatoes in plenty and bringing them to the store right by my home.

source, via

The advantage with demanding technologies is that "they constantly require new learning."
The brain is stimulated and forced to change. Conversely, when things are too easy, as a species we may become like unchallenged schoolchildren, sullen and perpetually dissatisfied.
Why is all this discussion important?
we must take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.
All those excerpts are from the series of essays that Tim Wu--a law professor at Columbia--has at the New Yorker.  In one of those, he writes:
If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.
The sofalarity (pictured memorably in the film “Wall-E”) is not inevitable either. But the prospect of it makes clear that, as a species, we need mechanisms to keep humanity on track. The technology industry, which does so much to define us, has a duty to cater to our more complete selves rather than just our narrow interests. It has both the opportunity and the means to reach for something higher. And, as consumers, we should remember that our collective demands drive our destiny as a species, and define the posthuman condition. 
Which is why I am glad there are people growing flowers and vegetables in their yards.  Which is why I spend time putting together my own meals, even if only from step 8.  Which is why some prefer to buy handmade carpets.  We are all, in our own ways, "trying to work out the future of what it means to be human, and, along the way, trying to find out how to make that existence worthwhile."


Sunday, February 22, 2015

I worry even when good things happen! What's wrong with me?

I printed the boarding passes for the flights back to Eugene.  The first--for the long four hour leg--had me in a row that was not the same as what I originally had.  I looked closer.  "First."

I had been upgraded all the way from economy to the front of the plane.

You would think that I started celebrating, right?

I worried.

The last couple of times I was upgraded to first/business class, well, the cosmos made me pay big time.  The latest was the awful experience at Denver.

Which is why I worried that I would have to pay for it.  There is no free lunch, after all!

I suspected that the cosmos would strand me in San Francisco.  My connection was a late in the night flight, after which the next flight home was in the morning. I was convinced that it would be a replay a la Denver.

Seated directly across from Gate 67, I booted up the laptop.  No wifi in the airport.  So, now, two hours to kill, without wifi, and with increasing level of worries over my free upgrade.

Turns out that I am one bad luck charm. No wonder at work and in personal life, nobody wants to be around me.  In this case, it was in the form of an announcement--the flight out of Gate 68 was cancelled because of the bad weather in the northeast.  I felt bad for the passengers; after all, the plane was there, the crew were there, ... but, a no-go.

But, life is all about me.  I now wondered if the cosmos had exacted the price for my upgrade via canceling the flight out of the next gate.  I know, I know, it is all a coincidence and there is no causation at all.  But, hey, whoever said emotions are triggered by logical thinking!  Check with any woman ;)

I boarded the plane. The flight steward seemed surprised that I didn't care to have wine or beer.  He kept coming back to me with "are you sure you don't want anything?"

As the plane neared San Francisco, the setting sun produced impressive sights.  I looked around--it seemed like most of my people--as in we first-classers, hehe--were focused on their devices, reading or watching.  Like even the passenger in the seat that was in front of me--the reflection provided the evidence:


I wondered whether she was aware of the phenomenal colors in the horizon right outside her window.  Perhaps not; after all, this not a first experience either of passengers entertained by devices and not knowing about the fabulous show outside.

As the plane started descending, the sky turned dark, and so did my optimism.  I was reminded of the price that I had yet to pay for the free upgrade.  I wondered what awaited me.

The plane taxied and almost reached the gate when it stopped.  A minute later came the announcement: another plane was parked at the gate and that we would have to wait for at least twenty minutes.



So, was this the price that I had to pay the cosmos?  With this and the canceled flight, was I even with the cosmos?

I really didn't care because the the connecting flight was more than two hours away.  We finally reached the gate thirty minutes after wheels-down.

After grabbing dinner, brushing my teeth--a good student I am--I settled by the gate.

Fifteen minutes before boarding time, the guy at the adjacent gate cleared his throat and made an announcement.  About a flight cancellation "because of a crew situation."  Aha, so this was the Denver replay that I was sure would happen.  But, I lucked out--my bad karma had been transferred on to yet another flight.

I am glad I am home to tell this yawner! ;)


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Blogging for an audience of one

When I started blogging way back in 2001, I had grand ideas.  But then I was so young.  I suppose if one cannot have grand and foolish ideas when younger, then those years are wasted.

My grand idea was to make this blog a space where others would also contribute.  It would be an intellectual cyber-cafe.  It never came to pass.  As with most grand ideas, this one too died a bloody death--I finally killed it sometime in 2007.

A year later, I simply had to start blogging again.

I had to because, well, I realized that blogging, writing, is an integral part of my identity.  I didn't care anymore about any grand idea.  I didn't care if anybody read the posts.  I didn't care if anybody engaged with me.  I would blog for an audience of one--me.  Everything else was pure gravy.  (And, has there been some gravy since then; thanks, folks!)

I keep to my own schedule of blogging every single day.  With rare exceptions.  I mean, from my blogging, you would not have known that I was away from home and campus for four days, right?  Blogging, expressing ideas, commenting, or creating something new, is not easy.
Writing is hard. For most writers, the financial rewards are few. I know the best I can hope for—and I hope for this daily—is a nice email from a stranger letting me know that something I wrote helped. Or moved them. Or made them laugh.
Yet, I feel compelled to do only because, hey, that is who I am.  As simple as that.
If you want to craft something that people will want to read, you’re going to have to work hard, and in ways that put callouses on your brain. You have to get used to the feeling of stuckness. You have to show up and do the work even when it feels stupid and meaningless.
I agree with that, but with one exception.  About the callouses on the brain.  I think it is the other way around.  The hard work reinvigorates the brain.  Creates new synapses.  And also prepares me for that reward that might not be always there--the randomness of an appreciative email or a comment makes it that much more exciting.  Like when I was a teenager waking up thinking that maybe that was the day when that girl would find me exciting, appealing ;)

It is not that I have all the time in the world to write every single day.  When at the conference, with a two hour time-zone difference, and with activities from breakfast time all the way through dinner, it was exhausting--physically and mentally.  Yet I blogged.  I simply had to. It is who I am.
You can find time to write, if that’s what you really want to do.
There is a catch:
That may require some sacrifices or changes in your priorities.
You see how this is linked to one of my favorite themes that I explore here: about priorities in life?  I am amazed at how so many aspects of life neatly fall into place once I figure out what my priorities are.  It is so darn simple.

As I continuously evaluate my life against my experiences and against what I read, hear, and see, I do not rule out changes in my priorities.  But, I know this for certain: I will always have to find the time for whatever I consider to be my priorities.  If not, it is a life that is not worth living.  I will write about that too ;)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Are the feds helping students with easy loans? Hint: NO!

I always worry about my paycheck.

No, not the way the "comrades" do.  But, I worry that my paycheck is dependent more and more on the tuition and fees that students pay.  "Blood money" as I have referred to it in the past.  Over the years, I have started worrying that I am less an educator and more a mercenary.

As I have often blogged here, and written in op-eds, we are unnecessarily pushing students to college.  Right from the middle school years, we make sure to convey to students that not going to college is a sign of a loser, and that picking up a trade is evidence of being a loser.  Simply awful.  Just awfully distorted and condescending this is.  And so destructive to the human that a young person is.

The federal government does not help when on top of all the screw-ups it has managed to create in K-12 and higher education.
The federal government will lend money to anybody who goes to school, no matter how poor their chances of completing their degree and finding a job that will position them to repay their debt.
That is no exaggeration.  It is true.

The more the government says it will loan, well, is it any mystery that the costs continue to go up?  And, therefore, should it surprise us that the student debt is shattering records month after month?

Even worse--yes, there is even more of a horror story here--is the default rates in student loans.  Consider this chart:


You see how bad a story this is?  A horror story!
Of borrowers who began repaying their debts in 2009, 26 percent have already defaulted—meaning they fell at least 270 days late on their debt—according to new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Of those who went into repayment in 2005, when the economy was somewhat decent, 25 percent have defaulted.
You see why I am worried and guilty about my paycheck?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Face to face with dying."

I read the news today, oh boy!  Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer.  He is dying :(

Of course, he is not a young man.  At 81, well, one is expected to be closer to the end than is a 21-year old, yes.  But, death at any age, and the process of dying, is not easy to deal with.  "I cannot pretend I am without fear" Sacks writes in that piece.

It was in graduate school that I came to know about Sacks.  Through a fellow-Indian student, who was doing his doctorate in the engineering school.  He told me about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales.  I then read it as much as I could understand the intricacies there.  (Even sweeter was that he--the student, that is--met a friend of mine, at a gathering at my place and they remain married to this date!)

And then, of course, was the movie Awakenings.  A few years ago, Sacks was in Portland, on a book-tour-lecture.  About his childhood and science and experiments.

He is dying.
my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.
The very reflective person and writer that Sacks has always been, well, it is no surprise when he writes:
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.
For many of us, it might be a neat way to spend time at a party pondering over "if you knew you have only six months more to live, what will you do?"  But, in Sacks' case, as is the story with many others, it is a real deal. The timer is on.  A timer than cannot be reset.
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment
As much as I think about death and dying and about how I am mindful of the remaining third of my life, I know I will feel sad to exit this stage.  I like being in this wonderful play, even if sometimes the roles I get to act simply suck.  But, I hope to have that combination of "full of life" and "detachment" that Sacks writes about.
But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
It is, indeed, an enormous privilege to be a thinking animal, an animal with feelings, especially "on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Thank you, Dr. Sacks!


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The cosmos' answers to my nagging Ed Koch question: "Hey! How'm I doing?"

The human that I am, there are days when I feel let down that the faculty life that I live---which I thoroughly enjoy--is not rewarded and appreciated the way I feel it ought to be.  Hey, if you prick me do I not bleed?

But, fully knowing that the cosmos doesn't care, I go about it anyway.

After reaching the campus, I was walking towards my office and was practically at the building entrance door when I thought I heard a voice yelling "Dr. K."  I thought the sound was coming from a certain direction and looked that way. Yes, I hadn't imagined anything--a former student was walking towards me.

It is always a pleasure to see her.  To talk with her.  I wish I had her level of energy, enthusiasm, and positive attitude towards life.  Even when I was her age, I had become who I am now--a curmudgeonly old man!

"Guess what?" she asked as she produced some bureaucratic paperwork for me to look at.  "I am starting full-time work, which will more than pay the bills and I can then continue to enjoy my dance and piano."

She has understood really well, at a young age, that not many can sustain themselves simply by following their passions. More often than not, there is that job that people do so that they can keep doing what they really like to do.  Sometimes, I wish she could talk about such aspects of life to incoming freshman students.  Heck, even to some forty-year olds!

"We need to do lunch soon" she said as she walked away.  I know we will.

The cosmos was reassuring me that I am immensely appreciated.  And rewarded.

I felt relieved and happy.  That moment of doubt passed.

The day progressed.

Another student showed up for her appointment with me--a minute early. As she sat down, she said, "this is for you, from my island."  Shortbread dipped in chocolate!



The cosmos made sure to smack me on the head for the doubt that I had.  I am all set for the next few months of confident, self-assured, existence.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hey, we are better humans than those in the past. Seriously, we are!

It's hard to accept the notion that people in the early 20th century were moral idiots, two standard deviations dumber than us. Their attitudes about race and gender sure seem morally moronic to us today, but does that mean in another half century our descendants will look at us with equal moral dumbfoundedness?
Perhaps you are feeling defensive after having read that.
Don't.
It is not about you or me.
It is about all of us.
Feeling better?

I think about the old country.  Even my own folks in the past.  Brahmins they were, which means they, for all purposes, were bigots with their Brahmin-supremacy and the awful caste system.  It is strong language, yes, to refer to the past, which includes people like my grandmothers, when we say "moral idiots."  But, compared to them and their practices, aren't we at a much better place now with people treated far less unequally than ever before?

Michael Shermer writes that we are becoming morally smarter, from where I had excerpted those couple of sentences.  He observes, and I agree with him, that:
Since the Enlightenment, humans have demonstrated dramatic moral progress. Almost everyone in the Western world today enjoys rights to life, liberty, property, marriage, reproduction, voting, speech, worship, assembly, protest, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberal democracies are now the dominant form of governance, systematically replacing the autocracies and theocracies of centuries past. Slavery and torture are outlawed everywhere in the world (even if occasionally still practiced). The death penalty is on death row and will likely go extinct sometime in the 2020s. Violence and crime are at historic lows, and we have expanded the moral sphere to include more people as members of the human community deserving of rights and respect. Even some animals are now being considered as sentient beings worthy of moral consideration.
It is remarkable that we have reached this stage.  Not merely in the US or India but throughout the world.
Evolution endowed us with a natural tendency to be kind to our genetic relations but to be xenophobic, suspicious, and aggressive toward people in other tribes. As our brains become better equipped to reason abstractly in such tasks as lumping dogs and rabbits together into the category "mammal," so too have we improved in our capacity to lump blacks and whites, men and women, straights and gays into the category "human."
Isn't that a phenomenal development that we should celebrate?

Shermer also makes this claim that will make the two argumentative readers of this blog very happy, if they ever get to reading it!  With literacy and education, people become fans of democracy and freer markets:
Intelligence predicts economic attitudes, most notably abstract concepts such as the way that free trade is a positive-sum game. This runs counter to our folk-economic intuitions that most economic exchanges are zero-sum in a fixed pie of wealth. The economists Bryan Caplan and Stephen Miller culled data from the General Social Survey and published an article in a 2010 issue of the journal Intelligence tellingly titled "Intelligence Makes People Think Like Economists." They found a correlation between intelligence and openness to immigration, free markets, and free trade, and a reluctance to endorse government make- work projects, protectionist policies, and business interventionism.
I better wrap this up before I comment anything about the "comrades" ;)

Shermer notes that when it comes to such abstract problem solving,
"Our improved ability to reason abstractly may also be the result of
the spread of scientific thinking-reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism"

Monday, February 16, 2015

So, does that mean a robot will have virtual orgasm?

Even normally I feel like I don't belong to this age--I should have been born like, oh, thirty years ago at least, I think.  I am an old-fashioned guy trapped in a world that is not for me.  And then there are days like today when reading this in the WSJ makes me feel like I am Andy Rooney ready to complain about what the world is coming to!
Is another human being necessary for satisfying sex?
You see why I am feeling like I am the Andy Rooney incarnate?
Today’s sex robots are so rudimentary that they are essentially unusable. But as sex-robot enthusiasts are quick to point out, the shoebox-sized cellphones of the 1970s were nearly useless—but they were the first prototypes for today’s ubiquitous smartphones. Eventually, sex robots will have reasonably humanlike facial expressions, limb movements, voices and even odors. The futurist Stowe Boyd has predicted that by 2025, “robotic sex partners will be…commonplace, although the source of scorn and division.”
Ah, yes, the big sized cellphones of the old days.  But, robotic sex partners?  Commonplace by 2025?  So, then swingers will be swapping their robots?  What the hell is going on, right?

The author of that piece is a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins, which means that unlike me he is a real professor who knows what he is talking about.  He writes there:
Though the engineering challenges of simulating human sexual interaction are difficult, there’s no reason to believe that they are impossible to solve. Sex that entirely lacks human feeling and attachment may sound unappealing or even repugnant to many people, but at some point in the future, sex robots will become viable. A central question is whether that arc of progress will take so long that they will be leapfrogged by a different technology: neural virtual reality.
The neuroscience aspect reminded me of a post from about a year ago, in which I quoted about "connectome":
In 2005, two scientists, Olaf Sporns, professor of brain sciences at Indiana University, and Patric Hagmann, neuroscientist at the University of Lausanne, independently coined the term ‘connectome’ to refer to a map or wiring diagram of every neuronal connection in a brain. By analogy to the human genome, which contains all the information necessary to grow a human being, the human connectome in theory contains all the information necessary to wire up a functioning human brain. If the basic premise of neural network modelling is correct, then the essence of a human mind is contained in its pattern of connectivity. Your connectome, simulated in a computer, would recreate your conscious mind.
 Which means these neuroscientists are damn serious that they can track down the neurons that make use feel, well, ready for the hanky-panky:
The Holy Grail in neural virtual reality—for simulated sex or any other experience—involves the ability to precisely sense and control the electrical activity of many individual neurons in the brain with a device located outside of the skull. Even if we had this technology today, we would not yet be able to synthesize sensations with great finesse. No one yet knows the precise group of neurons in your brain that we would need to stimulate to make you see an attractive human face smile and wink at you. Nor does anyone know those that would give you the sensation of a warm hug.
When such a neural virtual reality device finally becomes available, it will be the ultimate feedback-driven experience.
Andy Rooney here is getting really agitated at where we are headed!  But, he feels a tad comforted with this:
Such technology raises profound ethical issues, even beyond those raised by sex robots.
That is a tad understated!
For now, it is just a speculative fantasy, and the best apparatus for physical intimacy remains what is has been for millennia: human touch.
True.  

But, I worry this is not for long.  My best hope is that all these will come to pass after I am dead. 


Sunday, February 15, 2015

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic…but the problems aren't over

In my Twitter feed, there was one from the Scientific American--that it was Richard Feynman's death anniversary.

That prompted me to read my own posts on Feynman and I tweeted my favorite one, on his "The pleasure of finding things out."

Re-reading, even if they are my posts, is joyful and, strangely, insightful in ways that I might not have known the first time around.  I re-read there Feynman's comment that ""nature cannot be fooled" and connected back to yesterday's post that “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”

All that re-reading, which reminded me of that Nabakov quote, led me to thinking about Freeman Dyson.  I wondered whether the old man had died when I was not looking.  Thankfully, he is alive and well.  And writing and talking.

When asked whether he was optimistic given the state of the world, Dyson replies:
You have to be optimistic if you grew up in the 1930’s because so many bad things were concentrated in the 1930’s. You had the huge economic depression, much worse than now with huge numbers of unemployed people, the environment was much worse than now – England was absolutely black, you went to London in the morning and the white collar was black by the evening because the air was so full of soot – and then we had Hitler threatening to kill us (laughs). So I think that having survived all of that, you can’t help but being optimistic. The problems we have now are certainly real, but not any worse than we had then.
It takes a living old man to put things in perspective.  To remind us that the old days were far worse.  Our greatest problem of the day is ... wait, what is our greatest problem that can compare with the combination of the Great Depression and Hitler and Stalin?

So, hey Professor Dyson, can you tell us more from the life that you have so richly lived?
 I lived through the demolition of the British Empire, which I thought was a great thing. I remember the first election that I took part in, it was in 1950 and I was in England at the time. That was five years after World War II and Attlee had been the Prime Minister replacing Churchill. He was running for re-election in 1950 and I was living in Birmingham when Attlee actually came to a big open-air political gathering and made his campaign speech and the whole population of Birmingham came out to listen to him, so it was a big deal. So he talked away about all the great things that his government had done, that he had brought people back from the war and resettled them with jobs and provided people free education, that he’d established a national health service and one or two other things…the public was pretty much bored, not much in the way of cheers. Then, at the end, he said, “And we gave freedom to India!” And there were huge cheers from the crowd. I found that very impressive, that that was a thing that people really understood and cared about and that was much more important, giving freedom to India. So I felt very happy for those people then, they understood that this was something that was historically very important. Churchill would have held onto India until the last possible moment, so I voted for Attlee (laughs).
It is interesting, right, that Churchill is considered a great statesman, when the guy was awful to the non-whites?  Churchill was, for all purposes, a white supremacist.  He couldn't even care that a million people in Bengal would die in the famine and overruled his own cabinet's recommendation to re-route a ship to India; remember?  The food shortage in India:
was caused by large-scale exports of food from India for use in the war theatres and consumption in Britain - India exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943, even as the famine set in. This would have kept nearly 400,000 people alive for a full year. Mr Churchill turned down fervent pleas to export food to India citing a shortage of ships - this when shiploads of Australian wheat, for example, would pass by India to be stored for future consumption in Europe. As imports dropped, prices shot up and hoarders made a killing. Mr Churchill also pushed a scorched earth policy - which went by the sinister name of Denial Policy - in coastal Bengal where the colonisers feared the Japanese would land. So authorities removed boats (the lifeline of the region) and the police destroyed and seized rice stocks.
Oh well!

Any final thoughts, Professor Dyson?
Of course, India as its own country has its problem, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than being part of the British Empire. And that’s not just India, the whole world has begun to stop being part of empires and I think that that’s good, the collapse of the Soviet Union was another wonderful thing that happened which we did not expect. So there are lots of reasons to be optimistic…but not to believe that the problems are over.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, yes.  Thanks for that reminder!


If ever you need proof that deep down we are animals ...

The students who make the ultimate mistake of listening to me know how much I emphasize that education, all of it and especially the sciences, challenges the gut-instincts we might have about many aspects of life.  About this planet and elsewhere.  Think about it--our gut instincts will tell us that the sun moves around the earth.  Our gut instinct will lead us to resist the idea that injecting a small dose of a virus in kids will help them develop immunity against diseases that could even kill them.

Education nukes that gut instinct.

But, deep down, we are animals.  And, like other animals, we rely on our instincts.  Right?

Ah well, I am merely channeling an essay by Isaac Asimov that was a part of our curriculum back in the high school years in India.  I remember how I was impressed then, as I am even now, that the progress humans have realized over the centuries has been through a systematic inquiry into those gut instincts and to essentially destroy those ideas.

Yet, science is hard to believe.  Those damn animal instincts just don't die ;)
We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge — from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change — faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative.
Science is more than learning the periodic table, or mouthing off how humans evolved.
In this bewildering world we have to decide what to believe and how to act on that. In principle, that’s what science is for. “Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”
Our continued reliance on our gut instincts essentially means that we do not choose to believe in the laws of nature.
we subconsciously cling to our intuitions — what researchers call our naive beliefs.
They say "naive beliefs" but I prefer gut- or animal-instincts.
as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely. They nest in our brains, chirping at us as we try to make sense of the world.
Most of us do that by relying on personal experience and anecdotes, on stories rather than statistics.
While our instincts provide us with narratives that absolutely convince us, "science tells us the truth rather than what we’d like the truth to be."
Scientists can be as dogmatic as anyone else — but their dogma is always wilting in the hot glare of new research. In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.
Aha, now I have one more argument in favor of continuing to operate outside of tribes.  
On my own, if needed. 
In my ashram ;)

Friday, February 13, 2015

This highly unequal world where the rich get richer!

Why stray away from higher education, when writing about it is such a stress reliever! ;)

As if I needed yet another piece of evidence that we ain't no Harvard comes this report:
Harvard, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and founded in 1636, is the oldest and wealthiest college with an endowment valued at $36.4 billion as of last June.
$36.4 billion.  Billion!  And two days ago, I had a tough time imagining what $17 million means!
The gifts to Harvard show that the nation’s wealthiest colleges are attracting a disproportionate share of higher education philanthropy, cementing their competitive positions, even as less fortunate universities find their finances weakening as they look for customers to afford soaring tuition. Such inequality is growing, said Ronald Ehrenberg, an economist at Cornell University.
Yep, "attracting a disproportionate share" is nothing but an euphemism for what we who are down in the trenches refer to as "the rich get richer."
“The richer institutions are pulling away from everyone one else in terms of their endowment resources and the vast annual giving sums they generate, much of which goes towards building their endowments,” Ehrenberg said. “At poorer places, you need the money for current operating and also for construction projects.”
 Yep, at poorer places--like the university where I work--there is always that problem with not enough money for operations, leave alone the endowment.

How rich are these elites?
Of the 832 total isntitutions [sic], the top 10.9% with endowments of more than $1 billion each hold 74% of all endowment assets.
At least Harvard correctly refers to the governing board as Harvard Corporation.  The best and longest running corporation ever!
Harvard is a real-estate and hedge-fund concern that happens to have a college attached. It has a $32 billion endowment. It charges its rich students — and they are mostly from rich families, with many destined to be rich themselves — hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition and fees. It recently embarked on a $6.5 billion capital campaign. It is devoted to its own richness. 
And, as any corporation, it knows well that its "nonprofit" status is a wonderful tax-shelter!
If the school lost its nonprofit status, it would owe the state of Massachusetts $80 million a year. (The $350 million donor owns $100 million of real estate in Harvard Square, by the way.) For now, it owes close to nothing on its land or its investment portfolio. 
The richest get insanely even richer.

Source: seriously? You need me to tell you, again?


Meanwhile, the tired student at my university juggles being full-time at school while working nearly full-time at a little more than minimum wages.


Source: oh, come on!


Of course, if I were to compare Harvard with a typical college in, say, India, it might seem as if the two institutions are on two different planets.  Oh well.  Such is life.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Baptists and Bootleggers rallied at the capitol, which means that you and I are screwed!

A talk by a faculty, originally scheduled for today, was cancelled.  I wonder how many students showed up for a panel discussion on liberal education that was also scheduled for the same time.

All because of a rally at the capitol to seek additional funding for higher education.  The one that I was alerted about a few days ago; remember?
Your salary, your benefits, your retirement, your class size, and your teaching load are all at stake.
I wonder if the comrades waved banners about their salaries, benefits, and retirement.  My guess is that they would not have; what says you? ;)  It makes for bad PR to speak the truth, right?  Am guessing that the rally was all for students.  Because, their hearts bleed for students.  If you believe that, well, I have so many things I can sell you!

But, the comrades are better.  Than one guy here:
UO interim President Scott Coltrane and Portland State University President Wim Wiewel — and many students — wore big green buttons declaring “755.” The figures 755 and 550 were the numbers of the day. Oregon’s seven universities want the Legislature to spend $755 million on them over the next two budget years, up from the $685 million that legislative leadership have proposed and the $594 million in the governor’s budget.
Which one you ask?  The UO interim president, of course.  He is the same guy who just inked the 17.5 million dollar salary, plus fringe benefits, for "the best professor" at his campus.
Universities have only so many sources to look for money — state spending, tuition and donations. State spending and tuition are the bread and butter of college operations, Coltrane said.
If he can pay that kind of salary to a damn football coach, I don't want a nickel of my taxes going to that university.  (Of course, they will engage in accounting gimmicks of how tax dollars are not used to pay the coach.  But, those are gimmicks. Well, that is plain and simple bullshit!)
Coltrane said that, in terms of normal operation, “we really do look to the state and look to tuition. (Donors) are not big on that.”
Oh, my!  The president of the flagship university of the state openly says that donors are not big on normal operations of the university?  And, neither the press nor the politicians care to grill him on that?

So, the comrades and the administrators, who are usually at each others' throats, come together for more money from the state, which reminds me of the Bootleggers and Baptists analogy.  Of course, the comrades are also big time sports enthusiasts and, therefore, they don't care about the 17.5 million dollar waste.

Nothing makes sense anymore.

I am wasting my time and energy thinking and writing about all these.  I wish I were smarter and had gotten aboard the gravy train to retirement :(

I will never learn.  And one of these days I will be kicked out of my job too.  Even then I might not learn the lessons.  Oh well; stupid is as stupid does!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The older I get, the more I hate college football

In the market economy, we certainly know how to put a price on anything and everything, irrespective of how much we value that item or the work that a person does.

Take for instance the snow that has been piling up in Boston.  Imagine if the workers whose job it is to clear the roads and streets did not show up for work. Or threatened to go on a strike.  We immediately see the value of the work they do, right?  These are real services they provide, without which quite of bit of life in Boston will come to a standstill.  One would think that they will be highly paid.

source

Or, take elementary school teachers as an example.  We trust them with what pretty much every parent would consider to be the most precious in life--their children.  Teachers who have immense opportunities to shape or ruin their children's futures.   One would think that they will be highly paid.

Instead, you and I and the other billions of humans collectively prefer to pay people for services that we could easily do without.

Take, for instance, the latest news about a college football coach. At the university in the town where I live.
The University of Oregon will pay at least $17.5 million to keep winning football coach Mark Helfrich on his home turf for another five years.
$17.5 million!  Other than this guy who is now spending some of his fortunes on a road trip, I doubt whether any reader of this blog really knows what $17.5 million mean.  I have no freaking clue how to understand that kind of a money.

$17.5 million for coaching a football team.

The market, my friend, knows how to put a price but has no fucking understanding of value!  This is the system that we are stuck with.  Especially when the people can't get enough entertainment in their lives.  To heck with the children in the second grade, but goddammit we shall have entertainment 24x7!

You want more references to understand the distorted and screwed up emphasis on entertainment?
Helfrich’s annual salary is now about six times the UO president’s compensation.
Let me recap.
The coach is for a football team, whose existence is made possible by the university whom the players represent.
Without the university, there will not be students.
Without students, no football team.
The university is there to educate students.
One would think that, therefore, the educator-in-chief, the university president, would be the highest paid officer, right?
But, the coach earns six times what the president is paid!
According to the USA Today coaches salaries database, Helfrich — whose previous annual salary of $2 million ranked 52nd nationally and 10th in the Pac-12 — is now fourth among his Pac-12 counterparts and tied for 22nd nationally with an immediate base-pay raise to $3.15 million.
That, my friend, is how "the market" works!  But, we are stuck with it because the great alternative was infinitely worse.

Keep this in mind the next time you try to convince me, or somebody else, or even yourself, on the glories of the market!

BTW, because a $17.5 million can barely cover the caviar bill:
Some of the fringe benefits in Helfrich’s contract include:
Two courtesy cars.
Membership to the Eugene Country Club and the Downtown Athletic Club.
Use of a skybox suite and 12 tickets to home football games; four tickets to home games of Oregon’s other varsity sports.
Travel for his spouse to regular-season road games and for his spouse and children to postseason games.
Meanwhile, the road cleaning crew in Boston gets ready for another dump on Thursday.  The elementary school teachers spend their own money for supplies.  We pay bullshit jobs quite a bit, and make sure we would attack the real value adders if they asked for an Oliver Twist-more!
in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.  Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.
We are fucked up!

ps: I am sure there will be some who will claim that these are not representative of a free market.  But, hey, that claim is no different from die hard Marxists' claim that the USSR was not practicing true Communism.  So, no point talking about some Utopian version of anything that does not exist on this planet.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Life is good!

"Why do you wake up so early?" asked my neighbor, when in our conversation I told him that I typically wake up sometime before six.  "Do you have to go milk the cows?"

No milking cows, but early do I get out of bed.  Old habits are hard to shake off.

"But, why that early?" is perhaps a question that is in your mind too.

Every once in a while, I, too, ask myself that very question.  Why not take it easy?  Why not sleep in?  Especially when the weather is so conducive to that activity.  It is not as if it is unbearably hot and humid, which makes any activity unbearable.

I get rewarded.  Rewards that one cannot possibly earn by sleeping.  Heck, rewards that one cannot earn even by earning gazillions of dollars.

Like the reward earlier today.

It was a pleasant 49 degree early morning as I pulled out of the garage.  The first thing I realized was that it was not raining, after all the gallons that poured out of the sky yesterday.  I opened the sunroof.

And, a sun that was fighting a good fight to break through the cloud cover.

I started humming "I can see clearly now, the rain is gone."  It was going to be a great day.

Even the traffic lights were all green every time I neared them.  Come to think of it, I should perhaps have bought myself a powerball ticket, given the start to the day.

Oh, but, no powerball winnings would have ever equaled what I did earn.

A few minutes into the drive, the sun broke through an opening in the eastern sky.  The sky immediately lit up with colors that I didn't even know were possible.

The sights were awesome in the side view mirror, and I kept looking over my shoulder to get a glimpse of the real thing.

"I wish I had listened to Joe" I thought to myself.

Why Joe?  He is meticulous about car maintenance.  Rain or shine, his cars are spotless, as if they just rolled off the showroom.  I, on the other hand, rarely ever even dust my car.  If I had paid attention to his comments, then I would have had nothing but awesome views in the side-view mirror, through the passenger side window.

I didn't care.  I continued to drive and fished for my iPhone.  I got to the camera function and clicked as I drove.


But, the human that I am, I was not content with that.  I looked up through the sunroof.  It was spectacular.

The problem with driving along a country road, and not on the interstate, is that often there is no shoulder space to pull over.  But, I needed to record my reward for waking up early.

I held the camera in one angle,with my eyes on the road, and clicked.

I picked up another evidence of the reward that I enjoyed throughout most of the drive.



I wonder what tomorrow will bring!  Perhaps a tasty pasta dinner, with a salad on the side, and a tiramisu with decaf to wrap up the day?

Hey, a man can dream, can't he, even though he woke up many hours ago, and bedtime is a couple more hours away?

Monday, February 09, 2015

TV spying on us. Phones tracking us. Robots attacking us. Help!

Back in my grandmothers' villages, there was no privacy--everybody was in everybody else's business.  Thus, one can easily understand why there was that old saying, "பேர சொன்னாலும் ஊற சொல்லாதே" (when introducing yourself to a stranger while in a different town, do not say where you are from.)  One could, thus, become anonymous in the big city, and visit the village once in a while and even spin stories of life in the city.

It appears that all we have done, in the name of progress, is to trade that kind of village-level invasion of privacy with a global one.  A horrendous loss of privacy in which there is no possibility of being anonymous anymore, whether in a big city or in a village!

Even before the GPS-enabled smartphones, the cellphone data gave away our location information.  The smartphones made that all the more easier.

When we read books--the old paper kind--nobody knew if we read only the first seventeen pages of Ulysses or lasted until the very end.  Now, ebooks routinely keep track of that information and relay that to their bosses, along with data like whether we highlighted or bookmarked anywhere in the book, and more.  Heck, they can even make the ebook you purchased disappear!

If we didn't want to talk to anybody and did not want to read any book, we might have turned the telly on and cursed at the dull and boring shows while rapidly changing channels.  Smart TV with voice recognition will bring you the internet right to the TV and you can even bark your commands, they say.  Apparently, they didn't tell us this part:
Samsung privacy policy warns: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of voice recognition.”
Ray Bradbury warned of a future when the walls at homes would be nothing but television screens to entertain us and we slowly start enslaving ourselves.  George Orwell warned us that those screens will not be passive devices:
Parker Higgins, an activist for San Francisco-based advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation who brought the privacy policy to light, compared the feature to the telescreens in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
Orwell wrote: “Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.”
PC Magazine reminds us that it is not merely with Samsung TV.  There are all kinds of devices always lying in wait for our voices.  The GPS navigation systems in cars to which you can talk your commands. Or your smartphones to which you can talk your commands.  Or the ... We have been trading away our privacy.  Gizmodo sums it up well:
Depressingly enough, all of this is just more evidence that "yes, if your smart gadget is connected to the internet, then it's probably collecting data on you." 
Meanwhile, how about this news story about a robot attacking its owner?  Ok, it wasn't like HAL.  And to some extent, well, funny.  But, hello!
When a South Korean woman invested in a robot vacuum cleaner, the idea was to leave her trustworthy gadget to do its work while she took a break from household chores.
Instead, the 52-year-old resident of Changwon city ended up being the victim of what many believe is a peek into a dystopian future in which supposedly benign robots turn against their human masters.
The woman, whose name is being withheld, was taking a nap on the floor at home when the vacuum cleaner locked on to her hair and sucked it up, apparently mistaking it for dust.
You, too, should be worried at all these developments.

Remember, these are all private corporations.  And then there is the government.  Be afraid. Be very afraid ... so, party like it is 1984 ;)


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