Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A river runs wild. Make that two. How do you say "dam(n) it" in Chinese?

This is a post that will find fault with the Chinese government, criticize the uber-prioritization of economic growth, and favor the natural environment.  A holy trifecta of a bait for this guy;)

A wild and crazy duo; no, not that kind.
Wild and crazy rivers, that is. 
Two of the continent’s wildest rivers have their sources in Tibet: the Salween and the Brahmaputra.
Are you thinking what I am thinking?  Exactly!
The Salween?
Wikipedia notes that it is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world, at 1,749 miles.  And its name in Chinese translates to "the angry river."  Looks like the Brahmaputra is a tame one compared to the Salween!

Notice the source for these two?  Tibet.  Uh oh!

The occupied Tibet + rivers with untapped potential + need for energy + communist capitalism = yes, that's where that op-ed is going.
Though they are under threat from retreating glaciers, a more immediate concern is Chinese engineering plans. A cascade of five large dams is planned for both the Salween, which now flows freely, and the Brahmaputra, where one dam is already operational.
Now, keep in mind that China's voracious appetite for energy means that it already "has more than 26,000 large dams, more than the rest of the world combined."  More than the rest of the world combined.  Re-read that and take a deep breath.  We've just begun!  What are the issues here?
  • Damming and diverting waters with impacts on the ecosystem
  • Damming and diverting waters affecting countries downstream
  • No benefit to the people of Tibet--energy exported to the east
  • Local Tibetans displaced and the “ecological refugees” are shunted into ghettos."
I have merely summarized the key points.  The details in the op-ed are not pretty.

So, can anything be done at all?
The solution to these complex problems is simple: Since these enormous projects are state-run and state-financed, China’s leaders can cancel them at will.
Fat chance of that ever happening!

I was confident that commentators in India would have written in plenty in this context.  Of the few that I scanned through, I liked this take, which ends thus:
In a letter dated 4 December 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Bertrand Russell: “We do not want to do something which will endanger our planet. I do think, however, that there will be a greater danger of that kind if we surrender to the Chinese and they feel that the policy they have pursued brings them rich dividends”.
More than 50 years later, it is fervently to be hoped that better sense will prevail in China, and the lives of millions of people of the subcontinent will not be endangered by killing the river Brahmaputra. 
I tell ya, we better get on to that energiewende fast.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Through the looking glass ... is where trouble starts?

A few years ago, when remarking in class about the role of thinking and creativity, along with science, I told them that after a while things become so much a part of our lives that we don't even bother to stop and wonder at all.

"Consider the windows, for instance.  The glass."  I told them how I am always amazed that somebody figured out how to make glass.  And we now routinely place glass beakers over flames in science labs, use glassware directly in ovens.  Right?

I asked them if they knew how glass is made.

Perhaps it is just me, who is always amazed at the stuff all around.  Every time I fly, I am even shocked that such a huge, heavy, object flies six miles above the sea level.  Six freaking miles. With 300 people, their luggage, food, drinks, and it simply floats through the sky.

Anyway, back to glass.  They did not know.  You want to take a second to see if you know?  There is a saying in the old country, வல்லவனுக்கு புல்லும் ஆயுதம், the idea of which means that for a smart person even a blade of grass can be a weapon.  I tell the class that the television character, MacGyver, is a metaphor for that thinking and creativity.

So, have you thought about how glass is made?  Yep, from sand. Sand is transformed into a clear glass.  How awesome, right?  To imagine that somebody centuries ago figured it out!  

Of course, sand is used for other purposes too.  Where there is a construction boom, there is a demand for sand.  Multistory buildings require a lot of sand.  And a lot of such buildings are rapidly being built in the fast growing and populated countries.
People use more than 40 billion tons of sand and gravel every year. 
Caption at the source:
Construction in Uttar Pradesh, India. Any building that needs concrete needs sand. 

And that is where a trouble begins:
There’s so much demand that riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare. (Desert sand generally doesn’t work for construction; shaped by wind rather than water, desert grains are too round to bind together well.) And the amount of sand being mined is increasing exponentially.
Though the supply might seem endless, sand is a finite resource like any other. The worldwide construction boom of recent years—all those mushrooming megacities, from Lagos to Beijing—is devouring unprecedented quantities; extracting it is a $70 billion industry. In Dubai enormous land-reclamation projects and breakneck skyscraper-building have exhausted all the nearby sources. Exporters in Australia are literally selling sand to Arabs.
All that means:
As land quarries and riverbeds become tapped out, sand miners are turning to the seas, where thousands of ships now vacuum up huge amounts of the stuff from the ocean floor. As you might expect, all this often wreaks havoc on rivers, deltas, and marine ecosystems. Sand mines in the US are blamed for beach erosion, water and air pollution, and other ills, from the California coast to Wisconsin’s lakes. India’s Supreme Court recently warned that riparian sand mining is undermining bridges and disrupting ecosystems all over the country, slaughtering fish and birds.
As much as  I am always amazed at the stuff all around, I am equally amazed at how careless we are with the natural environment.  Do we ever pause and ask ourselves why we do what we do?  Is it worth mining that sand when it will mess up things beyond repair?

So, you combine money with mining, and add a layer of short-term profit seeking, and package them with ineffective governments, and the result is a vast illegal and criminal landscape.
nowhere is the struggle for sand more ferocious than in India. Battles among and against “sand mafias” there have reportedly killed hundreds of people in recent years
But, of course!

Not really news to me--my father, a retired civil engineer, used to comment about this years ago, but I think even he got tired from talking about it!
Sumaira Abdulali, India’s foremost campaigner against illegal sand mining, takes me to see a different kind of mine. Abdulali is a decorous, well-heeled member of the Mumbai bourgeoisie, gentle of voice and genteel of manner. For years she has been traveling to remote areas in a leather-upholstered, chauffeur-driven sedan, snapping pictures of sand mafias at work. In the process she’s been insulted, threatened, pelted with rocks, pursued at high speeds, had her car windows smashed, and been punched hard enough to break a tooth.
As much as I am amazed by the stuff around me, by how much we mess things up, I am equally amazed at the dedication that some people have to their causes.  They are ready to risk their lives.  Talk about put your money where your mouth is!
India is fitfully taking steps to get sand mining under control. The National Green Tribunal, a sort of federal court for environmental matters, has opened its doors to any citizen to file a complaint about illegal sand mining.
Ah, yes, the National Green Tribunal.  I remember meeting with an environmental lawyer from India, who routinely presents his cases to the tribunal.  Some dedication he has, and always smiles despite the intense life.
Every day the world’s population is growing. More and more people in India—and everywhere else—want decent housing to live in, offices and factories to work in, malls to shop in, and roads to connect it all. Economic development as it has historically been understood requires concrete and glass. It requires sand.
Concrete and glass.  Both need sand.  And there is only so much of it.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

I am increasingly worried about the on-demand economy

Back in the elevator in the 37-story tower, the messengers do talk, one tells me. They end up asking each other which apps they work for: Postmates. Seamless. EAT24. GrubHub. Safeway.com.
Welcome to the on-demand, app, world.  If this is the future, then I don't want any part of it.  Because, as the writer notes:
And that’s when I realized: the on-demand world isn’t about sharing at all. It’s about being served. This is an economy of shut-ins.
Shut-ins.  

There is something strange happening.  Back when I started teaching in California, which seems like eons ago, the business school faculty were getting all excited to offer courses with "e-commerce" somewhere in the title.  It seemed all novel at that time, when Netscape was the dominant web browser!  We were all toying with phrases like "click and order" will wipe out "brick and mortar."  Alan Greenspan thought it was all irrational exuberance; remember that?

All that was before the iPhone revolution. Before Android. Before "apps" that work on smartphones.  Now, there seems to be a new app every day that people are gushing about.  I read the other day that messages via WhatsApp and other apps, plus the good old SMS, means that the phone, apparently, is not for calling people anymore!
In total, Americans spend about 26 minutes a day texting. That compares to spending about six minutes a day on voice calls.
 What the heck are we texting about?  It could be even for things like this:
A woman hauling two Whole Foods sacks reads the concierge an apartment number off her smartphone, along with the resident’s directions: “Please deliver to my door.”
That woman is a worker bee in this on-demand economy.  Yes, this is not the first time I blogged my concerns about this trend.  
Last year the venture capital firm SherpaVentures — whose offices are just down the street from that apartment building full of Ubers and Squares and Twitters— released a sunny study on the future of our on-demand world. They have a stake in making it go big , of course: they’re seed investors in Shyp and Munchery and have $154 million to invest in on-demand businesses. As the desire for more instant, app-based services expands up the economic chain, the report argued, entrepreneurial freelancers — everyone from grocery deliverers to cleaners to accountants to lawyers — will have flexibility to monetize their time when they want to and pursue their passions. Brick-and-mortar stores die out, and so do their low-wage retail jobs, which it suggested would personalize the world, away from the sterile anonymity of big-box stores to a “21st-century village economy,” in which we’re “united” by cellphones.
So who are we uniting with in this scenario? 
Meanwhile, in the crowded less developed economies:
grocery delivery has taken off massively in hyper-dense developing countries, where huge income disparities allow upper-middle-class citizens to turn the rest of the workforce into their personal delivery network.
The WSJ has a story about India on that point:
One morning, Ashok Kumar hoisted a huge, 110-pound pack jammed with books, cellphones, bluejeans and other items onto his back and cinched the shoulder straps.
Then he donned a helmet, climbed onto a motorcycle and, balancing precariously, headed out into the traffic-clogged streets of the Indian capital for his daily rounds.
Mr. Kumar and thousands of men like him fan out across the crowded cities of the world’s second-most-populous nation every day—foot soldiers on the front lines of India’s e-commerce revolution.
This low-tech army of urban sherpas hauls bags of online purchases down narrow alleys and up flights of stairs, lugging everything from laser printers and kitchen appliances to cans of Coca-Cola for their country’s burgeoning consumer class.
So, what exactly is my worry here?
In the new world of on-demand everything, you’re either pampered, isolated royalty — or you’re a 21st century servant.
We aren't thinking this through.  It certainly has the feel of "share-the-scraps economy."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

My obsession with shit!

Regular readers, I mean "regular" readers, know all too well that I talk shit. I mean, about "shit."  From wishing you "Bristol #4" to an arty bathroom.  I tell ya, this is one stinking blog! ;)

And then there is that other shit that I am passionate about.  You know about that too--the lack of sanitation infrastructure for hundreds of millions in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.  "If only we can develop less expensive ways of processing shit."  Aha, now you remember.

Do you recall the challenge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reinvent the toilet?



In a recent entry at his blog, Bill Gates writes:
I watched the piles of feces go up the conveyer belt and drop into a large bin. They made their way through the machine, getting boiled and treated. A few minutes later I took a long taste of the end result: a glass of delicious drinking water.
Yes, things are happening, even if only slowly.   It is "part of the Gates Foundation’s effort to improve sanitation in poor countries."
Because a shocking number of people, at least 2 billion, use latrines that aren’t properly drained. Others simply defecate out in the open. The waste contaminates drinking water for millions of people, with horrific consequences: Diseases caused by poor sanitation kill some 700,000 children every year, and they prevent many more from fully developing mentally and physically.
If we can develop safe, affordable ways to get rid of human waste, we can prevent many of those deaths and help more children grow up healthy.
The system that we have in this country, or many other countries, is expensive.  It requires sewer lines, sewage treatment plants, qualified personnel, and--to get the system running--electricity, which itself is in serious shortage.

So, if only a re-invented toilet will extract the water from shit and make it potable, and use the carbon in the shit to generate electricity.  My, won't that be multiple birds with one stone?
The project is called the Omniprocessor, and it was designed and built by Janicki Bioenergy, an engineering firm based north of Seattle. ...
Through the ingenious use of a steam engine, it produces more than enough energy to burn the next batch of waste. In other words, it powers itself, with electricity to spare.
 If it were not for Gates Foundation providing the seed money, such efforts to reinvent the toilet might not have even begun?  Isn't that a depressing thought?  To me, this is an example of how we misdirect our talents and capabilities.  We spend enormous amounts on wars.  We develop technologies to send humans to the moon and bring them back. We spend gazillions on sports stadiums that consume more electricity than entire countries in sub-Saharan Africa do.  All these mean that we have the know-how and the resources.  But, we merely choose to spend on things than what are really, really important for humans.
The next step is the pilot project; later this year, Janicki will set up an Omniprocessor in Dakar, Senegal, where they’ll study everything from how you connect with the local community (the team is already working with leaders there) to how you pick the most convenient location. They will also test one of the coolest things I saw on my tour: a system of sensors and webcams that will let Janicki’s engineers control the processor remotely and communicate with the team in Dakar so they can diagnose any problems that come up.
When we talk about the "internet of things" we are only fascinated with examples like how our refrigerators can keep track of the inventory and how an automated drone can deliver milk that a robot will load up in the fridge.  Because, all we do is gaze at our own navels!  What a contrast the Dakar project is--the connectivity that the internet offers is put to such a constructive use.

I will leave it to Bill Gates to wrap this up:
It might be many years before the processor is being used widely. But I was really impressed with Janicki’s engineering. And I’m excited about the business model. The processor wouldn’t just keep human waste out of the drinking water; it would turn waste into a commodity with real value in the marketplace.
Here's the video of the project and Gates drinking the potable water that was once a part of shit.  Give this man a Nobel Peace Prize already!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Call your doctor if symptoms last longer than four hours after reading this ;)

I am certifiable. I should be locked up by myself and not allowed to mix with people.  Oh, wait, I already live that way!  I say ashram, you say asylum ;)

Allow me to present today's evidence for that mental certification.

I decided that I needed to find out what were some of the interesting historical events that occurred on March 27th.  (So, this is what happens when the friend leaves me alone in the ashram?)  How difficult such a question would have been in the old days before the web!  Now, you ask questions, the web has answers. The problem is that we don't know how to ask questions; but, enough about that one.

Anyway, of the few that were listed here, this one caught my attention:
1998: The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug Viagra, made by Pfizer, to fight male impotence.
I suppose the first "Vigara" spam email went out on March 28, 1998 ;)


But, seriously, 17 years of the famous blue pill?  There could be young people who were a result of Viagra-triggered fertilizations?

Back when it was new, everybody from stand-up comedians to the humor-challenged like me were making jokes with Viagra as the punchline.  Now, nobody cares to even joke about it.  Remember how Bob Dole served up ads for Viagra?  You forgot already?



Only in America--one day a presidential candidate to become the most powerful person on the planet, and the next day selling Viagra.  God bless the country and its multi-faceted entertainment theatre! ;)

And, of course, the "Puritanical" political party--you know, the one Bob Dole belongs to--had no problems with insurance companies paying for Viagra.  I suppose it is one thing to get the penis all pumped up, but another should the penis impregnate an unmarried woman who couldn't pay for birth control pills.  Remember the kerfufle when yet another Republican Senate old man ran for the presidency?  You forgot already?

So, back to Viagra.  We live in a world where we demand equality.  Well, how about equality in remedies for sexual dysfunction, too?
“Aren’t women’s sexual needs as important as erectile dysfunction in men?”
Where is that damn female Viagra pill, right?  Well, it has been around for years already.  You surprised?  You know it exists--it is called the headache pill.  Get the joke?  ;)

Ok, seriously though, it is not as simple as that.
Viagra, for example, doesn’t cause a man to want sex. The drug only works if a man already feels aroused, by helping blood flow into the erectile tissue of his penis.
The brain, my friend, is the biggest sexual organ. If the brain doesn't care, well, no awesome plumbing will do the trick.  If so, then how about for women?
On October 27, the Food and Drug Administration invited women to a public summit on female sexual dysfunction—and what the medical community should do about it. The FDA heard directly from women about losing their desire for sex and the daily experience of living with, according to the agency’s invitation, the most common form of sexual dysfunction for women: female sexual interest/arousal disorder, or FSIAD. The following day, the FDA held a scientific workshop on the challenges of diagnosing and measuring FSIAD, reigniting a public debate about whether there’s a need for female dysfunction drugs in the first place.
While ED is so simple an abbreviation, even that is so complex for women--FSIAD.  I guess everything about women gets damn complicated! ;)

So, the latest on the "female Viagra" is that it is a no-go:
Flibanserin is not "female Viagra." Viagra is a drug for men whose spirit is willing but whose flesh is weak. "Female sexual dysfunction," however, is usually not a matter of ability to get aroused but a lack of interest in having sex in the first place. As Daniel Bergner explained in 2013 in the New York Times, the prevailing research suggests that much of what gets labeled as female sexual dysfunction is actually more just a reluctance to have sex with your particular husband. "But for many women, the cause of their sexual malaise appears to be monogamy itself," he writes. 
Women! ;)


So, there you have it folks.  It has been 17 years since the blue pill was introduced, which has since caused millions and millions of erections, and yet no pill for women.

And to think that such a post was triggered by a simple curiosity about some of the interesting historical events that occurred on March 27th.

ps: the cartoons are from here

This "conservative" loves his hometown(s) ... and wishes others loved their's

It will not be an exaggeration by any means when I assert that I am emotionally invested in, tied to, very, very specific places.
My grandmas' villages.
The town where I grew up.
The city where I earned my doctorate, and then the city where I worked and lived.
And, for thirteen years now, this wonderful place by the Willamette in a gloriously green state.

Growing up in Neyveli, there was a distinct sense of home being there, while grandmas' villages were the "native places"--the places from where our people were from.  In contrast, the city where I went to for my undergraduate degree was not "home."  I always knew it was only a transit stop.

I write and talk with fondness for very few places in the old country and those places were home to me.  In my adopted land, I love Los Angeles even when I know I don't ever want to go there again to live--the fondness from it being my first home away from home.

All these are more than mere fondness for the place though.  It is good to have such a geographic rootedness, I would argue.  A belonging to a place.  A place that is home.   Maybe this wannabe philosopher thinks like this because, as a quote that I recently came across said, “philosophy is really nostalgia, the desire to be at home.”

It is not without reason we have idioms that even refer to the geography.  Like, "down to earth" or "well grounded" or "both feet on the ground."

I love staying put, knowing that I belong to a place.
Staying put—fully inhabiting, loving, and stewarding the place in which you live—is a conservative idea in many respects. It’s interwoven with the idea of civic care and involvement, the importance of commitment to the political, economic, and cultural wellbeing of a community.
It is that sense of commitment to the community that drives me to write op-eds.  Not op-eds for newspapers in the Timbuktus of the world, but for papers in the community where my life is.  Thus, after moving out of California, I never cared to send an op-ed there, as much as back then I did not submit an op-ed to the three Oregon papers where I have been published, more regularly in one compared to the other two.  In fact, in one op-ed, I noted that writing is my civic responsibility.  Such a civic sense would not be there if I didn't have any geographic rootedness in the first place.

However, we live in a world where people move from rural to urban areas, from city to city, from state to state, and even from country to country.  I have always wondered if that meant that some of these moves are always in transition.  I am sure this guy knows plenty about these feelings from his own experience.  In those transitions, is there ever a commitment to a place and its wellbeing?  Or will it be a mere shrug about a senior center that might need help, or a school that might be shutting down, or the whatever it is ...?

These days, with the (un)employment crisis here in America,
Many people have realized that mobility takes a long-term toll on their family and community life. Not only that, moving to a place for recreational or consumeristic purposes is a sapping and exorbitant lifestyle choice, in a time when employment opportunities are still tenuous, especially for younger Americans. Staying “close to home” is more attractive when you know that there will be a safety net, a support group, and a community in that place—to help you even through times of financial difficulty.
A mighty toll.  Understandable--there is no free lunch in life, and there are costs associated with this mobility.

May you always be at home wherever you are!


Thursday, March 26, 2015

So, your reusable grocery bags will kill you in the long run?

If you live in the USA, then there is one more hazard that you need to worry about if you are one of the conscientious who takes reusable bags to the grocery stores.

First, why one more hazard?  Because, I already blogged about this one, and that was more than two years ago!

Second, why in the US and not elsewhere?  Because, ahem, we are all being very fashionable about it, as if we care more for the environment than others, when the reality is that in most countries, people almost always take their own bags.  Now, thanks to us, others are also picking up this bad plastic bag habit.

Come on, you know where this is from!

So, after those clarifications, may I bring to your attention that latest hazard if you take reusable bags to grocery stores?
It was clear that shoppers who brought their own bags were more likely to replace nonorganic versions of goods like milk with organic versions. So one green action led to another. But those same people were also more likely to buy foods like ice cream, chips, candy bars, and cookies. They weren’t replacing other items with junk food, as they did with organic food. They were just adding it to their carts.
Yep, that's right. You take those bags and you end up buying more junk food.  How about that!
In consumer psychology the word “licensing” is the key. If I behave well in one situation, I give myself license to misbehave in another, unrelated situation. Similar research has also been done on health decisions. I get a Diet Coke; I treat myself to a hamburger. In this case bringing a bag makes you think you’re environmentally friendly, so you get some ice cream. You feel you’ve earned it.
Apparently we have decided that we either litter the world with plastic bags, or litter our digestive systems with junk food.  We litter, therefore we are!
I suspect that as bringing reusable bags becomes a widespread practice, it’s likely these effects will change. Look at bottle recycling. It used to be that you felt as if you were doing a good thing by recycling bottles. Now it’s to the point where you don’t get a cookie for recycling them; you just get penalized if you don’t. You get nasty stares.
Oh, ok, we just need to ride out the temporary issues then.  There is hope?  Not so fast, because:
The dollar value of the indulgence relative to the entire basket’s value tends to be low. But the nature of the food—high calorie, high fat—may be the more important factor, not how much it costs. The effect does dissipate as indulgences get more expensive. Then there’s a whole other, nonfood aspect to it. Is lavender-scented laundry soap an indulgence? Maybe. We limited our focus to food.
In this research, they looked only at food items purchased.  So, who knows how much we truly indulge ourselves just because we feel awesome at having been environmentally responsible enough to take reusable bags!

We humans are one interesting bunch of animals, yes.  An orangutan wouldn't be this fascinating.  Wait, are we being manipulated by Dr. Zaius?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why the Rockefeller and Bush boys don't play pro football

Of course, it takes skill to play sports; I know it all too well.  But, there is more than mere skill:
[college athletes] who don’t come from dire poverty will in greater and greater numbers choose to do something else with their minds and bodies. Many NFL players began their lives in destitute situations defined by hardship, but many others come to the league from stable, middle-class backgrounds as well. That middle-class player, especially those like Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick who played multiple sports, will become scarce. Meanwhile, as ticket prices rise, we are facing a sport ready to go “full gladiator” as poor people, disproportionately black, damage one another’s brains for wealthy, disproportionately white crowds.
Yep, when I blog like this, you can see that the old commie, leftist, me is very much alive and well.  Tell you what, I am always glad that part of me is alive and well.  If I didn't think about the race and class and gender implications, then I will worry about me.  It is just that I don't like the idea of always, always, viewing the world through a race or class or gender issue.

Anyway, that excerpt is from that old commie rag, for which I always have a soft spot--The Nation.  It is in the context of San Francisco 49er linebacker Chris Borland walking away from gazillions of dollars.
source
He is only 24, and has some years left banging his helmeted head against other plays.  But, that is exactly why he called it quits.
Untold legions suffer from CTE, a brain ailment that affects motor skills, memory and impulse control. Early onset dementia and ALS can result from the kinds of repeated blows to the head that happen on every play of every game. The ignominious history of head injury casualties includes high-profile suicides of Hall of Famers Mike Webster and Junior Seau. It includes Dave Duerson who like Seau put a bullet in his chest instead of his head so his CTE-wracked brain could be studied. It also includes icons of the 1980s like Jim McMahon and Tony Dorsett struggling with basic life-functions. History shows that playing NFL-level-football is like playing Russian Roulette with your future, and Chris Borland decided to do what so few have done and put the gun down. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
When the NFL fights a very good fight downplaying the long-term health issues of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE,) Borland makes this compelling point even when talking about "his passion for the “visceral” violence of the sport":
That doesn’t mean football players are pieces of meat. I think the most important people to convey that message to is the football player himself. You’re not a commodity, you’re a person.
I hope that this madness that is called a "sport" is sent to a dark corner as was that other brain-damaging sport of the past--boxing.  The sooner the better.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In energy, too, it’s the water ... again!

About this time six years ago--ok, ok, April 7, 2009, if you want me to be specific--my newspaper column was titled "In energy, too, it's the water."  I noted there:
instead of urging countries, particularly India and China, to stop using coal, perhaps we ought to focus on how to a large extent it is all about water. Many parts of India, China and other countries have low levels per capita of available water. For instance, while the United State has about 1,600 cubic meters of water per person, the average in China is about 400 cubic meters, and even less in India. This immensely valuable resource can be put to better uses than in coal-fired power plants.
This is but another incentive for us to explore alternative energy sources that do not impose additional demands on water, which will then also mean lesser reliance on coal. Water-constrained countries such as China, India and Israel ought to encourage innovation on this urgent issue.
But, hey, when was the last time anybody ever listened to me, right?  

Today, I read this about a town in Texas:
Last week Georgetown, Texas, a town of about 50,000 about 30 miles north of Austin (and the home of Nolan Ryan) announced that the utility that it owns, Georgetown Utility Systems, would soon get 100 percent of the electricity it provides from renewables.
What is the connection to my column from six years ago?  "because it will save on electricity costs and decrease our water usage.”
creating electricity from fossil fuels doesn’t simply require lots of natural gas and coal. It requires a huge amount of water. “Production of electrical power results in one of the largest uses of water in the United States and worldwide,” the U.S. Geological Survey notes in this infographic. At power plants, water is heated to make steam and huge amounts of water are needed to cool the equipment. Producing the fuel that powers these plants—mining coal and fracking natural gas—also consumes a huge amount of water.
But creating electricity from wind turbines and photovoltaic panels requires virtually no water. 
Ahem, is it ok to say "I told you so?"

BTW, such developments via the marketplace are yet another reason why I am not a big fan of the rah-rah fanaticism about fossil fuel divestment.  Other than a few nutcases who continue to believe in coal and petroleum, most of the corporate world is fully aware of the issues, and put their money where their mouth is--after all, that bottom-line is always their guide!  (A post for another day.) 

But then, at the end of it all, nobody listens to me. I don't get no respect.  The story of my life; what a Cassandra Curse! ;)  


Monday, March 23, 2015

On the meaning of death ... and life

I asked Google, on an average "how many people die a day?"

A strange question to ask on a Monday morning, yes.  Google recommended this simulation to visualize the deaths that happen every second.  Take a look at that simulation. It is a reminder that so many fellow humans die every second that we are alive, right?

Yet, for the most part, none of those deaths matter to us.  Those deaths do not affect us one bit.  We do not even think about them.  And, even when presented with such a reminder, we merely shrug and keep going.  "Tell me something I don't know."

Death somewhere, to somebody, does not affect us at all.  How fascinating, right?  Which means, we are not really concerned about death.  Or, are we?

Yes, we are.  Death concerns us, upsets us, even makes us all depressed, when the person who died matters to us.  As I quoted in this post from a while ago,
When you lose someone very close to you, the very fabric of your life is ripped to shreds.
Interesting, right?  A simulation that shows how many people die every second and, therefore, a confirmation that we humans are mortals, does not affect us one bit.  Yet, the death of a single person has the power to bring our lives to a near standstill.  Which means, is it death itself that we are concerned about?  Or is it the loss of that person?  Or, is a death really about us and not the one who died?
There are, of course, plenty of other things about a death to get upset about, most obviously our sadness for the person who has died. However, philosophers have struggled to make sense of this and, as a result, have often concluded that there is simply nothing to be concerned about. The person has died. He cannot suffer in any way. There is no point in feeling sorry about what he might have missed out on because there is no longer anyone there to feel sorry for. The only people who can feel any pain are those who survive.
 We feel the pain only because we survive. Because we are alive. We are alive to know and feel that the person who was close to us died.  That person is not around anymore.
The most common, and accurate, way of describing this is as a loss of a part of yourself. This is more than just a metaphor. When someone is close to you, his way of thinking, his thoughts and his biography become inextricably linked with yours. Where you end and he begins is not clear. No one would think it controversial to say that when you lose such a companion, then a part of your life is lost too. If, as I and many wiser minds have concluded, you are the sum of your experiences, thoughts, projects, plans and so on, then to lose someone who is such a big part of these things is indeed to lose a part of yourself.
I.e., the death of a person who died this very second in Malawi does not affect me one bit because that person was not a part of my who I am, via my "experiences, thoughts, projects, plans and so on."  But, when my grandmother died, well, now that part of the very fabric of my life has now been torn, shredded.  So, wait a second; it then means that it is not the grandmother's death itself as much as how her death affects me. We live such a life in which I think or do not think about somebody's death unless it is about me?

Which is exactly why one Hindu philosophical thought is that we do not need to get all wrapped up in emotions over the death of a member of the family.  It suggests that we think of that death just like how we would think of a death at the neighbor's house.  The philosophical idea here is to separate out the "me" from this entire understanding.  The phenomenally profound idea that "I," "mine," "me" and the likes are the cause of all miseries that we experience--including the emotions from the death of one who was a part our "experiences, thoughts, projects, plans and so on."

So, finally, if you read until here, why all this on a Monday morning?  As always, I woke up (I am alive!) had coffee with toast while I read the paper, and then booted up the computer to check my email.  One had the subject line "Sad news."  I knew right then it was about a death in the extended family.  I opened that email first.  The death of a 67-year old:
Massive cardiac arrest with no suffering or notice. Blesssed in a way but very very sad indeed
Such is the unpredictability of life and its end, as this couplet from the old country makes clear:
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.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A college without free speech is nothing but a kindergarten

A few years ago, before the faculty colleagues' behavior made me quit my position as director of the university's Honors Program, I required students to read Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit.  Not only did I love it (as I continue to do so even now) quite a few students loved it as well.  Some even wrote to me about it; like this email that I dug up from my archives:
I have learned far more than I ever wished to about bullshit from your philosophic analysis, "On Bullshit". I feel like there is so much more to bullshit than I ever realized. No wonder you enjoy it so fully.
The world is full of bullshit and bullshitters, and I am one with close to zero tolerance for bullshit and bullshitters.  Which is all the more why when Vox offered a link to write up bogus job descriptions, I crafted this bogus description for myself:
But then there was one student who wrote to me that his background and values did not permit him to use the word "bullshit" and that, therefore, he would not be ok with reading On Bullshit.  I explained to him that this was a serious book, authored by an Ivy League philosopher.  The student wanted an exemption and some other book in place.  I didn't budge.  The student then wrote in an email to me:
 after careful prayer and consideration, I have decided to withdraw from the Honors program
That was ten years ago.  Thinking back about it, it seems like over the decade higher education has become increasingly worried about making sure that students do not feel offended by the discourse.  Ideas cannot be challenged, can't even be presented, because those ideas might upset students.  It is all about triggers in the syllabus and safe spaces anymore:
Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.
You see what a dangerous path higher education is on to now?
I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable. Now students worry whether acts of speech or pieces of writing may put them in emotional peril.
Whatever happened to colleges and free speech?
It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?
I, too, would prefer a world filled with compassion and empathy, and with no place for hate and cruelty.  But, working towards such an ideal is different from understanding the harsh reality of the world as it is.

But, colleges have only amplified their "student life bureaucracy," as I refer to them, which is what the op-ed author explains as:
Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like. This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, suggested in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.
Shapiro calls it "self-infantilization" and I use a simpler word: bullshit!

While the following might be an extreme and isolated example, the underlying issues have become all too prevalent:
A few weeks ago, Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo, spoke at the University of Chicago, protected by the security guards she has traveled with since supporters of the Islamic State issued death threats against her. During the question-and-answer period, a Muslim student stood up to object to the newspaper’s apparent disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase “I am Charlie.”
Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, “Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,” and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.
Re-read that.  A journalist whose life is under threat and, therefore, is protected by security guards even when on a college campus, versus a student feeling "threatened" because of the "I am Charlie" statement.  Who is really under threat and who really needs that safe space, you think?

Such is the state of higher education today!  Bullshit it is :(

I wonder what my favorite public intellectual would say about all these.  Wait, she already did! ;)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

So it is spring ...

When a term ends, students perhaps forget their remarks in the classrooms and move on.  Perhaps they forget them even before the term ends.  Perhaps most faculty forget the remarks.  But, I don't! ;)

About the middle of the term it was when a student asked me something like this: "you seem to believe that there are different narratives out there and are always questioning us.  Then, how do you know which one is the correct narrative?  Does it mean you have to seek out different ones all the time?"

A wonderful question, right?  I could have ended the term right then and there.  Mission accomplished--for real!

There is no way but to seek out the different takes.  That's what education is about. That's what an examined life is all about.  Well, as long as we keep this out of the radar forever. ;)

Consider the vernal equinox and the spring time.  The usual narrative is of spring being life appearing again after the long winter. Green shoots.  Daffodils and tulips.  Lambs and rabbits representing fertility and continuation of life.

That is one narrative.



And then there are others.  Like the poem "Spring" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Spring
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.


Isn't that a narrative that is completely different from the typical gushing about "ah, spring!"?

"I know what I know | Life in itself is nothing."  Spring, in this narrative, forces us to question our very existence.  What is the point?  "To what purpose, April, do you return again?"

We wake up. We eat, drink, work, fight, chat, tweet, travel, pee, ... a full day of inane activities.
We then go to sleep.
And we then wake up. We eat, drink, work, fight, ..... only to die and become "the brains of men
Eaten by maggots"?
To what purpose does a new day return again?

Find your own narrative that provides you with an answer that convinces you.  But, keep in mind that there are other narratives too.


Forget and forgive? That is crazy talk!

Remember this post on an "unfinished business" from last September?  "All the king's horses and all the king's men | Couldn't put Humpty together again." Remember?

So, that was in September. It was wonderful to read later in November this personal history in the New Yorker, about a "writer spends forty years looking for his bully."  The author, Allen Kurzweil, wrote there:
Without time, we cannot learn. Without time, we cannot heal.
In his case, it took him four decades of maniacal devotion to track down his bully and make peace with that past.  Thankfully, I do not have that mania nor do I have that need to settle that business before I die.  If left unfinished, so be it.  It will be a long list of unchecked items on my to-do list.  This unfinished business is simply not that important.

The world is full of assholes who love to mess around with the lives of others.
What’s the use of getting over things? Wrongs have been perpetrated: assaults on your dignity, your self-image, your fragile well-being. And they’ve gotten away with it—they’re reveling (no doubt prospering), smug in their galling impunity, probably laughing at you even now. Bullies, critics, snobs, the so-called friend who slept with your one true love in college and has now tried to friend you on Facebook as though it never happened. Shitty parents, lecherous mentors, crappy former spouses: It’s a world of assholes out there. Fuck them all.
Forget and forgive, the old saying goes.  I could never understand those two.  Why forget?  Why forgive?  "It’s a world of assholes out there. Fuck them all" doesn't mean I should forget nor forgive those who did me wrong.  More so when my blood pressure is normal ;)
Especially if you’re a writer: Consider it as the raw material for your next book, for an entire oeuvre, even.
Or, raw materials for the blog-posts for this wannabe writer!

"wallowing is one of life’s great unacknowledged pleasures" as that author puts it in the introductory paragraphs where she reviews Kurzweil's book, from which that New Yorker piece was excerpted.  

There is a huge difference, however, between wallowing and viewing the world as a worthless place, versus wallowing while enjoying the world and the vastness of this universe.

Forget? Never. 
Forgive? Never.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Through the looking glass. A broken looking glass.

One moment you are enjoying life and the blue sky with puffy white clouds. And the next moment, well, shit happens. Sometimes. Like this:


I suppose the cosmos determined that it was time that I paid up, some more.  Can't fight that cosmos.

"You have to pay a $100 deductible."  Not that bad a deal to replace the windshield, I figured.  I was even Polyanna-ish thinking that it could have been worse.

The auto repair folks gave me a ride.  It turned out to be more than a ride.

"How has your day been thus far?" the young fellow asked me.  He didn't look older than twenty-five.

"Looks like I am draining my wallet today. Other than that, things are well. Thanks."

Conversation is not a solo act.  I followed up with "How about you?"

"Am looking at a long day" he said. But, he continued to have a pleasant expression on his face.  Not like me, who was born with a face that apparently cannot even convey a smile!

"Oh yeah?"  That was the cue for him to continue.  And he did.

"After a full day here, I head to work four hours at UPS."

"Wait a sec, are both part-time jobs, or is one full-time and the other part-time?"

Turns out that the UPS job is a part-time one on top of the full-time job.

"That is a long day.  An exhausting day, I imagine."

"Yes, tiring sometimes."

"I teach at Western Oregon.  A few weeks ago a student was describing the tiring job he had at UPS, sorting boxes and loading trucks" I told him.

"Hey, if people are ready to hire you, then I bet you have a very good work ethic."

"I suppose so. I think I have a good work ethic.  That matters a lot" he said.

For a second he seemed to think about his life and experiences.  "It worked out well because I am not the scholarly type" he said.  "I love the trades."

I was yet again reminded that we do a huge disservice to the young by pushing an unhealthy ambiance right from elementary school years that those who don't go to college are losers, and that the trades are only for the ones who can't make it.  This young man is yet another evidence in my pile that there are plenty of people who love what they do, enjoy their lives, understand the world, are wonderfully articulate, and all of that without ever stepping their foot on a college campus.  Life is not about piece of paper that the college diploma is.

The ride ended.  "Thanks for the ride, and the chat."

He put his hand out.  "Thanks. I am ___."

"I am sriram."

"Srilam?"

"Sriram."

"Got it. Sriram."

I wished him well.

I got more than $100 worth out of the shit that the cosmos flung my way.
The score: Cosmos 0 versus sriram who is a gazillion dollars wiser after chatting away with a twenty-five year old young man.  The cosmos lost big time! Again!!!  I am all set for the next round with the cosmos.


Microsoft Ebola

I know, after reading the subject line, you are thinking that I have indeed gone completely insane.  But, there is a method to my madness, if you pardon the atrocious pun here ;)

Recall the names of the dudes who founded Microsoft?

Source

Sure, you know that guy on the right as Bill Gates.  The co-founder?  Ok, ok, you know it is Paul Allen.  (Do you know the names of the two dudes who started Google?  Aha, I got you there!)

So, what about Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Ebola?  I told you that there is always a method to my madness.

In the NY Times, Gates had authored an op-ed:
The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has killed more than 10,000 people. If anything good can come from this continuing tragedy, it is that Ebola can awaken the world to a sobering fact: We are simply not prepared to deal with a global epidemic.
More than 10,000 dead.  From a disease. Caused by a virus. Yet, we--in the US and the rest of the world as well--pretty much don't care.  Which is all the more why Gates reminds us even if we care not about the 10,000 dead, and the epidemic that continues to infect people, well, perhaps we will at least take notice if we think that we too might get affected by some global epidemic.
Of all the things that could kill more than 10 million people around the world in the coming years, by far the most likely is an epidemic. But it almost certainly won’t be Ebola. As awful as it is, Ebola spreads only through physical contact, and by the time patients can infect other people, they are already showing symptoms of the disease, which makes them relatively easy to identify.
Other diseases — flu, for example — spread through the air, and people can be infectious before they feel sick, which means that one person can infect many strangers just by going to a public place.
Are you listening now?
I believe that we can solve this problem, just as we’ve solved many others — with ingenuity and innovation.
As committed as he is to the cause, it requires more than well-funded nonprofit organizations and foundations.

Meanwhile, the other co-founder, Allen, has been spending on Ebola, according to this piece that the friend passed along to me:
Paul Allen reportedly began tracking the current Ebola outbreak before a lot of governments saw it as a serious threat because of his work on wildlife conservation in Africa. As well, Allen’s philanthropic focus has been shifting and expanding over the last few years to include new issues, which makes sense for a guy who has $17 billion, has signed the Giving Pledge, and isn't getting any younger. So, all in all, it wasn't so bizarre that Allen jumped into the Ebola crisis with a boatload of cash for frontline work to contain epidemic. 
Yep, the same Paul Allen who makes the road-tripping sports maniac all pumped up ;)
By late October, Allen had upped his commitment to $100 million, making it the largest private contribution to combat the Ebola crisis. Allen’s big give was surprising and a bit shocking because his previous philanthropy had never touched humanitarian or global health issues before.
Allen and Gates understand all too well that to fight Ebola means more than merely fighting the virus alone.  So,
Paul Allen is not going to pocket the unspent Ebola money now that people aren't dying anymore and move on to something else. On the contrary, he may dive deeper into the troubled healthcare systems of West Africa, spending even more money. 
Aren't you now happy that these two nerds founded a small little company called Microsoft?

If only the local business billionaire, who has more money than Allen, funded worthwhile causes like this instead of this!


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Guess what? This term, too, is a success!

It is final exam week.  No, that's not why I call this term a success.  I am not that insane to even remotely consider grading essays as a cause for celebration!

After a long, long time, there was stuff in my campus mailbox.  Rarely ever this happens anymore.  Nothing from publishers--they figured out years ago that I do not generate any business for them.  Nothing from faculty because, well--oh, come on, don't you know by now that their "disdain" messages are only via emails? ;)

So, why am I jumping up and down claiming that the term is a success?

Yes, I had wonderful students who turned in wonderful papers.  A couple of essays that I even shared with few others.  But, they wrote those quality essays because those students are capable of writing quality essays.  There is nothing special about me.  Yes, this blog is always about me, only me, and nothing but me!

Kidding aside, if you recall my past posts on why some terms were more memorable and successful than others, you might recall the posts about cookies or chocolates or cards.  Right?  And then there is that uber-special one.  Which is what happened today.

There was a card in my mailbox.

A card that had arrived via USPS.  The "from" address had a name that I recalled as a former student. A wonderfully polite, soft-spoken, earnest, hardworking, and sharp student.  She always smiled at my jokes.  People talk about the Midwestern values; they ain't seen nothin' till they have seen some of the students I have had the pleasure of working with.  She was one of them.  She was from a small town south of here. If the world were full of young people like her, there will never be any war, any hatred, anything negative at all in the future.

She graduated three years ago.  And a card from her now.
As I walked back to my office, I wondered, "could it be?"  Could it really be?

I opened the office door and partially closed it behind me. Now for the envelope, please.
Turns out that I was Karnak the Magician.
The card was what I thought it could be.
It was.
A wedding invitation.
I have been invited to that former student's wedding.

Readers in the old country might not appreciate the importance of this--there, a gazillion people get invited to weddings.  Not here.  It is a small group that gets invited.  To be a part of that select few, when all I have done is worked with the bride, means that I made that much a contribution to her life?  Isn't that enough and more for me to conclude that this term is a success?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

We humans are ugly and imperfect. So, we take it out on fruits and veggies?

I was no different from the kids I knew--we didn't want bananas with blemishes on them.  We wanted only the perfect looking ones.  The elders tried convincing us that the ones with dark spots were really the tastier ones, but we said "no, thanks." Well, we never said "no, thanks" because the old culture did not have a place for "thanks" in everyday conversation.

Banana with blemishes. 
Cauliflower with worms
Carrots that were bent. (Thankfully, that led to the baby carrots!)
A never ending list, it now seems like.

As if the "fair skin" weren't enough of a discriminatory practice, we were highly superficial in judging even vegetables and fruits simply based on how they looked!

Yes, a real tomato. Misshapen. Not perfect. But, a tomato. Source

Now, with more fruits and vegetables than we can ever possibly eat, we consumers are even worse--we demand nothing but perfection in the fruits and vegetables that we purchase.  But, it doesn't take even half a brain to figure out that nature always does not turn out perfections.  I am a living proof of that ;)

So, whatever happens to the imperfect produce?
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that high cosmetic standards in the retail industry exclude 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce from the market. Sometimes farmers can sell those unwanteds to processors making jam or cider or pickles, but as those systems rely increasingly on mechanization, they become less flexible when it comes to shape and size. Tons of food — 800 to 900 million tons globally each year, the weight of 9,000 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers — rot in storage or don’t make it out of the fields because farmers can’t find a market.
Aha, you didn't think about this, eh!
Cucumbers should be straight, cauliflower florets should be tightly held, and rhubarb stalks should be ruby red. If not, retailers tell farmers, consumers won’t buy them.
A couple of years ago, a friend gave me a couple of cucumbers harvested from her own garden. They were misshapen. I would never have bought that kind of cuke at the store.  But, because it was from my friend's garden, and it was a friendly gift, I ate those cukes.  Boy they were tasty!
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global food wastage, about half of which occurs during production and post-harvest handling and storage, was responsible for 3.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available; that’s more CO2 than Brazil, Japan and Australia together emitted in 2011. Wasted food also takes 250 cubic kilometers of water to produce every year, which is 38 times the amount used by all households in the United States combined.
By now, are you also feeling guilty like I am?  No?  Ok, there's more then:
By insisting on perfect-looking produce, customers also cheat themselves of taste and variety. Apple breeders used to select specifically for russetting because it was associated with longer shelf life. That’s how we got Hudson’s Golden Gem, a delicious variety that’s a favorite among my farmer friends. But you’ll never find a Gem in a standard grocery store today, precisely because of that russetting. We’ve decided that apples should be shiny, not rough; large, not small; and red or green, but definitely not brown; so now what we find in stores are piles of uniform Red Delicious apples with latex-like skin, mealy flesh and no complexity of flavor. Customers are missing out on the pleasures of a russetted apple: the coarse texture against the tongue and the concentrated flavor of the dense flesh that accompanies it.
Are you thinking what I am thinking?  What the heck is a russetted apple, right?  Hey, I can't tell you everything--do some work on your own, at least some time! ;)

If only we can learn from the French, who have made a fashion campaign out of this issue:

Source

What is the deal?
One French grocer, Intermarché, began buying “ugly” produce in 2014 and selling it at slightly reduced prices at several locations; the success prompted the company to expand the initiative to all of its stores.
That's the deal, dear reader: charge more for the "perfect" ones and less for the "imperfect" ones.  The market system works, even if we cannot access the inner morals!

Now, you know what to do the next time you are in the grocery store.  Yep, search for the imperfections--you won't find them because they never even make it to the store!


Monday, March 16, 2015

On the "attempts to make India a saffron Pakistan"

As India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, approaches the completion of the first year in office, there are certainly a few trends that will worry everyone except the Modi fans.  One is about the sense of a de-secularization of the public space and the uneasiness among the Muslims and Christians in particular.

I often think that this was to be expected.  After all, Modi has never hid from the public his allegiance to the divisive RSS and to the idea of Hindutva.  The leopard, as they say, doesn't change its spots, and Modi has never seemed to even try changing his spots!

What was surprising was to read an opinion piece that simply went for the jugular.  But then the author, Julio Ribeiro, too hasn't changed his spots.  A former pull-no-punches high ranking, and highly decorated, police officer, stays on character when he writes:
Today, in my 86th year, I feel threatened, not wanted, reduced to a stranger in my own country.  The same category of citizens who had put their trust in me to rescue them from a force they could not comprehend have now come out of the woodwork to condemn me for practising a religion that is different from theirs. I am not an Indian anymore, at least in the eyes of the proponents of the Hindu Rashtra.
That ought to hurt the RSS fanatics; but then they don't care.  After all, if they cared, they would not be fanatics, right?

Ribeiro adds:
Is it coincidence or a well-thought-out plan that the systematic targeting of a small and peaceful community should begin only after the BJP government of Narendra Modi came to power last May?
Of course it is no coincidence.
It is tragic that these extremists have been emboldened beyond permissible limits by an atmosphere of hate and distrust. The Christian population, a mere 2 per cent of the total populace, has been subjected to a series of well-directed body blows. If these extremists later turn their attention to Muslims, which seems to be their goal, they will invite consequences that this writer dreads to imagine.
That atmosphere of hate and distrust that has been created since last May won't easily go away.  A tragedy, indeed!  It didn't take much time to destroy even the little bit of trust that was built slowly over the years.

In another interview, Ribeiro says:
People need to know that attempts to make India a saffron Pakistan will not work and should not be encouraged. India is where people from different religions, communities live. We are not Pakistan but we can get there if certain people and their actions are not opposed. I may be over reacting but I feel it is my responsibility to oppose this openly.
As one who has been observing the trends from the outside, I don't see anything in what Ribeiro says to think he is over-reacting.

It is a shame that India's politics have gone this route.  And an awful tragedy!


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mind your manners. Table manners, that is.

Way back, in the prehistoric era before the internet, when I was mentally getting ready to come to the US for graduate studies, I spent quite a bit of time at the library in the American consulate.  I was certain that I would have quite some problems transitioning to life in America and wanted to get a head-start.  If only I hadn't been a commie-sympathizing teenager--I could have prepared right from my younger years then! ;)

One of the books advised that we should not be shocked to see Americans not only holding the forks in their right hands but if they used that to also cut food to small pieces.  As one who had only eaten with my hands, and maybe a spoon on occasions, I couldn't understand what the fuss was all about.  Americans are practical, that book said.  Aha; I felt comforted that my transition on this issue at least might not be that rough.

How far I have come since then.

Lunch served on a banana leaf, at niece's wedding

Table manners are cultural and contextual.  Wait a second.  For many years, we didn't even have a dining table--as was the cultural tradition, we sat on the floor.  And, even after we got a table and chairs at home, floor was the norm at grandmas' homes.  And in the tradition there, men and boys--sometimes young girls too--sat down and ate first, and then women--young and old--ate.  How atrocious, right?

So, table manners in that tradition were very different from what I read in the book, which made it clear that American manners are different from those in Europe.  Good thing I was not going to Europe!  Somewhere along the way, after humans settled down to have dinners, I suppose they found other people's habits to be annoying.  And they started developing rules:
Throughout history, there have also been good rules, important reminders of things we often forget. The very first book of manners, a papyrus by the Egyptian Ptahhotep around 2350 B.C., included the sound guidances to wait to be served by your host, and to resist staring. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, there is “Eat as it becometh a man, those things which are set before thee; and devour not, lest thou be hated.” Erasmus says not to lick your fingers, but use a napkin, and to give up your seat to an elder. Brunetto Latini, whom Dante learned from and then satirized, wrote in his poem “Tesoretto” that good manners should always be there, even when no one else is.
America itself has changed over the years that I have been here.  Now, I feel like I am one conservative fuddy-duddy when I feel appalled at the table manners, or lack thereof.  It is a postmodernist anything goes anymore.
In the democratic present, perhaps the way to distinguish useful etiquette from frippery is to discern which rules help us be good rather than seem good. Serving others first is plainly charitable. Filling companions’ glasses, waiting to eat, giving another the last of the stew, chewing with a closed mouth — each is a basic acknowledgment of togetherness.
 Yes, that is what I too refer to--those simple acts.  But, when kids grow up with a drive-through eating habits, or mindlessly swallowing food while being entertained by the television, well, is it any surprise that there is very little respect for food itself, leave alone table manners!
True courtesy will instinctively check faddish manners at the door in the interest of kindness — which is the root from which the entire family tree of courteous behavior, from the noble Egyptian’s papyrus on, has sprung.
Courtesy?  In today's world?  Hah!


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Beware the ides of March

March 15th was a fateful date in my life.  Well, unlike Julius Caesar, I live to tell the tale of what happened. Remember Shakespeare's setup?
Soothsayer 
Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR
What man is that?
BRUTUS
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
To which then Caesar says "He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass."

We know how that turned out for Caesar.

Back in 2002, March 15th was when I interviewed for the job in Oregon.  Yep, the very job that I have been at since.  Of course, in my talk, I joked about the "ides of March."

So, was it all for good?  For worse?

Isn't that the question of life itself?

To answer that, I must quote you a Buddhist parable that I came across a few years ago, in a wonderful essay that was about a specific political development.
A poor farmer whose only worldly possession is a mare wakes up one morning to discover that the mare has gone. He runs to his parents’ house and breaks the terrible news. When he’s finished, they ask, “Are you sure it’s bad news?”
“Of course it’s bad news!” he replies, stomping angrily away.
Ten days later, his mare returns, bringing with her a magnificent stallion.
The farmer runs to his parents and tells them the wonderful news.
“Are you sure it’s good news?” they ask.
“Of course it’s good news,” he declares, leaving in a huff.
Days go by, and the farmer decides to try to break the stallion. He bridles the beast, climbs on its back, and is promptly thrown to the ground and trampled. The village doctor informs him that he will be a cripple for life. When he can do so, he makes his way to his parents and tells them the dreadful news.
“Are you sure it’s bad news?” they reply.
He doesn’t answer, but he mutters to himself all the way home. Two weeks later, a detachment of the Emperor’s army arrives to draft all the able-bodied men of the village. Of course, they pass over the crippled farmer. He hobbles to his parents’ house to share his joy.
“Are you sure it’s good news?” they ask.
The story has no end, of course
Life is what it is as we experience it.  It is all about the here and the now.

But, yes, life as it is was certainly influenced by the "ides of March" thirteen years ago. In an email after I was all done at the old place, the department secretary wrote in her email to me:
 I know that the people at WOU will be very thankful that you have accepted the position.  I will miss you very much.  You always had a smile on your face and willing to help in any way
As long as I have a smile on my face, have my sense of humor--however warped it might be--and am willing to help, life will be well worth it, despite any ides of March.


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