Monday, August 31, 2015

The patient is not an object. The physician is not a technician.

A year ago, it was the death of Robin Williams, who played the role of Oliver Sacks in Awakenings.  And now Oliver Sacks has also died.

I reviewed my own posts in which I was sure I would have referred to Sacks.  I have, yes, but I am shocked that there was only one post.  Shocked because I have read quite a few essays by him and every one of them was profound.

Like many, I too read more than one obituary piece on Sacks.  In this one, at the New Yorker, I found something especially insightful:
 He resisted the powerful current of modern practice that seeks the generic. He rejected a monolithic mindset, and retrieved the individual from the obscuring blanket of statistics. This put him outside of the academy, exiled to chronic-care institutions. Through his writing, Sacks ultimately received recognition for advancing a unique form of clinical scholarship that was largely abandoned: the study of the single person within the context of his own life. Ever the acute observer, his case histories confirmed that under a single diagnostic term was a spectrum of human biology. No two patients are ever the same, he emphasized. ...
Every dimension of the patient was meaningful in his thinking.
 Against the generic.  No two patients are ever the same.

Powerful ideas.  Ideas that are relevant not only to the medical practice alone and, instead, they are applicable to every walk of life.  We often forget that no two people are the same.

In any professional practice, there is a reason, I suppose, that we go with the generic--it is "cost efficient."  But then, I have problems getting even the best fitting shoe because my feet are not the generic 7.5 size!  If that is the problem with the feet, then think about the brain, the biochemistry, the ... In the modern economy, we value and prize "efficiency" so much that we have even begun to forget that every individual is different.

In my own profession, education, this generic approach is leading us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of "cost savings."  Students are no longer individuals but are mere products to be shaped in a Fordist factory.  We put them in larger and larger classes, without any consideration of the differences between John and Jon, leave alone John and Jane.  At "prestigious" universities, we pile students in classes of 300 and 500, oblivious to the 300 and 500 different individuals that they are.

As I recall the faces of students with whom I have interacted, and whose stories I know at least a little bit, every one of them is so different.  I can see how I customized my feedback to them, even if the questions were the same.  But, of course, being in small classes, to talk with students, not to use the generic and standardized test formats, are not consistent with the favored "cost efficient" practices and, for all I know, I will soon be without a job.  It will not be "efficient" to retain me on the payroll.  How easily many educators and politicians seem to have have forgotten why they liked and appreciated and loved listening to Another brick in the wall!

Even though Sacks kept the individual patient in the front and center,
This did not mean Sacks was a Luddite. He was an avid reader of scientific journals, fascinated by scientific advancements in imaging the nervous system at work. He engaged in dialogue with Nobel laureates and lab scientists about the nature of consciousness, providing what they lacked—the insights of a naturalist, a field worker.
Indeed.  Sacks showed us that being an "artisan" didn't therefore automatically mean being opposed to scientific and technological advancements.  He made it seem easy how to use those advancements in order to make his individual-centered approach that much more rewarding to his patients.

I saw Sacks in person, and heard him, when he was in Portland on a book tour, which was soon after the publication of Uncle Tungsten.  Even from the back rows of the auditorium, it was clear that he was full of energy.  I had no idea at that time about the complicated and miserable life that he had lived in his younger years; reading about those made me appreciate his energy and commitment all the more.

His own words, from a couple of weeks ago, seem to be the best way to end this post, especially because of the references to the meaning of life and inner peace and happiness, about which I often blog:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

"What's in a name?" Try Denali and Aurangazeb!

"What's in a name?" wrote the Bard.  If he were around now, perhaps he will sue me for abusing it in this post about controversies over names--one in the old country and another here at home.

As always, the Indian story is complex.  Is anything ever simple back there? ;)  Therefore, the local story first:
President Obama will announce Monday that his administration is officially redesignating Alaska's Mt. McKinley as Denali, the original name for the 20,237-foot-high mountain given by the area's Alaskan native population.
As always, the feds are the last one to the party though.
The state of Alaska changed the mountain’s name to Denali, the native Koyukon Athabascan word for “The Great One” or “The High One,” in 1975. But the federal government retained McKinley’s moniker.
The mountain is in Alaska, and Alaskans had changed the name to Denali forty years ago.  So, did the word get to DC by Pony Express only yesterday?
Ohio's congressional delegation, among others, has opposed removing the name of McKinley, who had been an Ohio governor.
Excuse me, oh master storyteller, you ready to change your "what's in a name?" line? ;)

Giving a name for geographic feature, or renaming it, is always a political act.  Remember the controversy about the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf?  In this case, McKinley was the President from Ohio, which is why Ohioans protest the change:
Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs, a fellow Republican who has introduced a House bill aimed at retaining McKinley’s name on the peak, could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday.
Gibbs’ measure would prevent the U.S. Board on Geographic Names from considering Alaska's attempts to change the mountain's name under a policy that says no landmark titles can be considered if related legislation is pending before Congress.
Ohio representatives file such a bill every two years to essentially stymie Alaska's efforts.
That is a simple story, compared to the one from India, where Aurangazeb Road in Delhi has been renamed after a former president, Abdul Kalam.


That is one heck of a political complication.  Why?  Was Aurangazeb any beloved guy?
Aurangzeb was a despot.
Can we have some examples, please?
He not only imprisoned his ailing father, the Fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, but had all three of his brothers—the heir-apparent Dara Shukoh, Shah Shuja and Murad, murdered. ‘Murdered’ is to put it mildly.
Both confident and insecure, Aurangzeb then went on to ensure his hegemony as the Sixth Emperor by having Dara’s son Sulaiman, imprisoned and poisoned in a slow and tortuous procedure that made the future Crown Prince mad before death claimed him.
He also set an example to all dissenters by having the free-thinking mystic Sarmad beheaded at the Jama Masjid, Delhi, for blasphemy, the Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur executed for objecting to conversions and the leader of the Maratha Confederacy, Sambhaji, caught and killed for just being what he was.
By now, I have perhaps lost the couple of American readers who were struggling through the names! ;)

So, if he was a despot, then changing the road name to that of the beloved former president is a good thing, right?
Re-naming roads is about the most immature and least convincing sign of authority. It is invariably the accoutrement of new power.
Denali was the original name that is now being restored. Was Aurangazeb Road, similarly, the original name?  Of course not; it was from the time when the British Raj opted for Delhi as its capital and designed buildings and roads that would be imperial enough.  Does it mean that the political act is to erase that British Raj's evil designs?  Nope. It is a political act by the ever scheming Hindu nationalist party that figured out a way to delete Aurangazeb, put Muslims in a corner by naming it after the popular former president, and make the Hindu fanatics happy.  A political trifecta:
The Muslims cannot object. How can they ? If they do they would be both un-faithful and un-patriotic. The Hindus will never object. And after a while all will be using A P J Abdul Kalam Marg as if the road has always been named after that honest son of Rameshwaram. How utterly clever!
One final question: what is the urgency to delete Aurangazeb anyway?  It goes back to the populist one-thousand-year slavery rhetoric that Modi and his Hindu nationalist party spew.  Perhaps you are shocked about 1,000 years as a slave nation, right?
The conventional view is that it lasted 200 years—those of British raj. So where did the remaining 1,000 years come from? Clearly, Modi was propounding what Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of modern Indian history at JNU, described as the “standard Hindu communal view of history”, which regards the period of Muslim rule also as a period of slavery.
 So, we will kick the ball back to Shakespeare.  "What's in a name?"  ;)

Aurangazeb's tomb
I was there more than three years ago

Strange are the ways of the academics!

I was drawn to the headline of a news item in the paper that I grew up reading in the old country:
Modi visit: U.S. academics sound caution
The curious me continued reading the text that followed:
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Silicon Valley next month to woo its movers and shakers to provide heft to his Digitial India initiative, has met with its first roadblock with several leading academics in American universities advising IT firms to exercise caution when engaging with the Indian Government.
So, of course, I read the statement.  It begins with:
As faculty who engage South Asia in our research and teaching, we write  to express our concern s about the uncritical fanfare being generated over Prime  Minister  Narendra  Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley to promote “Digital  India” on September 27, 2015.
It never ever ceases to surprise me when I read about academics issuing calls and signing off on statements like this.  "Oh, listen to me because I am an academic" always amuses me.  When will academics ever figure out that issuing statements from the comforts of their chairs won't do a damn thing other than the awesome boosts that they feel to their already self-inflated egos!

I am no fan of Modi.  I routinely critique him, his past, his affiliations with the Hindu nationalist groups, his fascination for the Chinese economic model, his security alliance with Israel, ... the list is endless.  But, even if I were not at a podunk university but at one of the research universities where the signatories are from (we podunks don't matter to those folks,) I ain't signing no political petition that asserts that we have to be listened to because we faculty know it best.  Intellectual arrogance!  And, worse, these are faculty here in the United States--not even based in India--and I wonder how many of them are Indian citizens!

It is not that I don't sign petitions.  I do.  But those are petitions that are not merely from academics and are, instead, open to anybody from any walk of life.  It does not matter if I am an academic or a ditch-digger or a filthy rich capitalist; those petitions are from "we, the people."  I run far, far away from "we, the academics."  Remember this one, for instance?

It is not that I am an apolitical faculty either.  I will be the first to admit that I am highly subversive.  But, I am a subversive who uses his class and his professional responsibilities with care. I have blogged enough about that and shall spare you all those posts but will quote, once again, one of my favorites:
SOME ASSUME that the only way academics can engage the politics of the day is by coming out of their ivory tower and protesting in front of the White House. But in conveying knowledge, the academy has a far more important and subversive way of dealing with political issues. Knowledge provides us with a way to perceive the world. Imaginative knowledge provides us with a way to see ourselves in the world, to relate to the world, and thereby, to act in the world. The way we perceive ourselves is reflected in the way we interact, the way we take our positions, and the way we interpret politics.
Curiosity, the desire to know what one does not know, is essential to genuine knowledge. Especially in terms of literature, it is a sensual longing to know through experiencing others—not only the others in the world, but also the others within oneself. That is why, in almost every talk I give, I repeat what Vladimir Nabokov used to tell his students: curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. If we manage to teach our students to be curious—not to take up our political positions, but just to be curious—we will have managed to do a great deal.
I scanned through the list of the eminent signatories.  It includes Wendy Doniger, whose book on Hinduism resulted in quite a bit of controversy in the old country, about which I blogged a few times.   I recognized two names from my graduate school days.   

I am reminded, yet again, of the caustic, sarcastic, and polemical essay that Robert Nozick authored on the strange behavior of the "intellectuals."  He wrote there:
The school system imparts and rewards only some skills relevant to later success (it is, after all, a specialized institution) so its reward system will differ from that of the wider society. This guarantees that some, in moving to the wider society, will experience downward social mobility and its attendant consequences. Earlier I said that intellectuals want the society to be the schools writ large. Now we see that the resentment due to a frustrated sense of entitlement stems from the fact that the schools (as a specialized first extra-familial social system) are not the society writ small.
If only "we, the faculty" realized that society is not "schools writ large."  Oh well, it is but one letter of a difference between faculty and faulty! ;)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

All languages are created equal. Some are more equal than others?

I grew up in a Tamil household, in a predominantly Tamil speaking state.  In addition to Tamil being the "mother tongue," as they say in the old country, for the first few years I formally learnt the Tamil language in school.  To use the new country's lingo, Tamil was my second language at school because, like here, English was the language of instruction.  And then from the middle school on, Sanskrit was the second language and Hindi was the third language.

All those worked out well for me.  Knowing Tamil, I read quite a few novels and short stories in the language.  Many of those novels were often in an historic context, which then made me long for the good old days of the glorious Tamil past of the Sangam literature.  Sanskrit gave me a taste of the rich history and literature that was also tied to the religion in which I grew up.

Much later in life, as an adult living in the United States, I attempted to learn Spanish.  It was an epic fail, as much as my attempt to learn German did not work out back in India.

Language is not merely about the language.  It is a portal into a culture that is different from the one in which we breathe a completely different language.  Through the language we get to know a people's history, their values, their ways of thinking about all things trivial and profound.  Thus, even a word like maidan then shows how wonderfully interconnected we are.  We can even chuckle at how an ambassador's name could make a difference enough for a country to reject him.

We get an idea of those differences--and similarities too--between people when we read translated works of literature.  All those Russian novels that I have read were not in the Russian language, of course, but were in English and I can only imagine how much more enriching it would be if I could have read them in the original.

If we truly want to understand our fellow humans, which is a critical piece of understanding the human condition and our own existence, then the more languages we know the better off we will be. Thus, if we want to understand China or the Middle East, then I would think that we would be encouraging more of our students to learn Chinese (even if it means excluding Cantonese!) and Arabic.

Let us suppose you are in agreement with me until now.  (And I hope you are; if not, we are in deep trouble!)  Then, you will be shocked at this news from last spring:
At least four states -- including Washington, home of Microsoft Corp. -- have either passed or considered measures that would delight high school students who have trouble rolling their r's. Rather than taking Spanish to satisfy their foreign language requirement, they could take a computer language.
Chris Reykdal, a Washington state legislator, said many  students are more passionate about learning code than conjugating verbs.
Pause. Think about it.  Is learning a computer language the same as learning a language that humans use to communicate in a different part of the world?  Are you happy with this development?  I hope you are not; else, we are in deep trouble!

You need not have kept up with my rants about the deterioration in education in order to figure out what the rationale is, right?
Proponents say such an approach will help students get jobs and businesses compete internationally.
Yep, who cares about understanding fellow humans.  Who cares whether or not children develop an understanding of how to deal with differences.  As long as they can learn how to communicate with machines and earn money in the process!

A couple of days ago, a friend from the old school days had posted on his Facebook wall this news item about a survey in the island that is increasingly irrelevant in the world:
Six out of ten parents said they want their primary school age children to learn the coding language over French. And 75% of primary school children said they would rather learn how to programme a robot than learn a modern foreign language.
It is not merely an American madness but a global mania!

That news item there included the following image:

What is so special about this image?  Perhaps the editors did not realize the irony in using such an image to promote teaching a computer language.  The way the numbers keep scrolling down the screen is the motif in The Matrix --it was not a movie that favored a future world of smart computers with humans as the slaves ;)


I suppose if  all we want is for children to interact with machines and not with people, and if we want to design machines that can soon learn to think for themselves, then we should certainly get rid of teaching human languages in schools.  Perhaps soon there will even be a campaign to make Emoji a language!  It is one mad, mad, mad world out there :(

The purpose of college education is ...

Remember those "fill in the blanks" part of the tests from elementary school years?  What I didn't know was that life is all about filling in the blanks.  Not only my own life but our collective lives as well.

So, yes, go ahead and collect your thoughts on how you would will fill in the blanks that would complete the following:
The purpose of college education is ___________________
Now that you have filled out the blank, because you are a good student (otherwise you won't be reading this in the first place!) do you think your response will be the same as everybody else's?

Do not merely shake your head to signify a no, especially if you are doing that strange Indian head bobbing move;, this American can't anymore figure out whether it is a yes or a no, dammit! ;)  Ah, yes, it is such a sense of humor (huh!) that helps me navigate such issues where our views--yours, mine, and everybody else's--differ, and boy do they widely differ.

Consider this, for instance, in which a technology entrepreneur gripes about computer science students and the university curriculum:
The thing I don’t look for in a developer is a degree in computer science. University computer science departments are in miserable shape: 10 years behind in a field that changes every 10 minutes. Computer science departments prepare their students for academic or research careers and spurn jobs that actually pay money. They teach students how to design an operating system, but not how to work with a real, live development team.
There isn’t a single course in iPhone or Android development in the computer science departments of Yale or Princeton. Harvard has one, but you can’t make a good developer in one term.
It is almost like a Rorschach test; if you agreed with that excerpt, then that says a lot about your views of college education.  If you disagreed, then it means something very different.  So, did you agree or disagree with that?  You thought you would scan through this post and I am making you work, eh!

The writer is the son of a computer scientist at, ahem, Yale!  The son continues with his gripe in the Wall Street Journal:
Today we insist on higher-education for everything—where a high-school diploma for a teacher or a reporter was once adequate, a specialized degree in education or journalism is now required.
Did you catch that?  He believes that a high school diploma would be enough to be a teacher?  Hmmm, along those lines, I suppose my daughter's years of schooling and training to be a neurosurgeon is a waste of time and a high school GED can do that lobotomy? ;)

Anyway, you were saying, Mr. Entrepreneur?
A serious alternative to the $100,000 four-year college degree wouldn’t even need to be accredited—it would merely need to teach students the skills that startups are desperate for, and that universities couldn’t care less about.
Education that increasingly wants to serve only the interests of commerce is what William Deresiewicz takes on in his essay on how college sold its soul to the market.  Deresiewicz writes:
Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial.
And the tech entrepreneur questions even that commercial purpose that colleges aim for!

Deresiewicz continues:
All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. 
I find it disturbingly strange that we are so intent on reducing higher education to nothing but serving the commercial and technological interests, which these days are pretty much the same.  The net result?
If college is seldom about thinking and learning anymore, that’s because very few people are interested in thinking and learning, students least of all.
So, how do all these compare with how you had filled those blanks?  ;)


Friday, August 28, 2015

Mama said there'd be days like this

We didn't have a refrigerator at home when we were kids.  In the near-equatorial conditions, and in a vegetarian household, that meant buying vegetables practically every other day.  Because potatoes were more tolerant than most other vegetables, they were stored in a dark corner and were often the option if a guest showed up un-announced--after all, those were also the days before emails and telephones.

For whatever reason, I liked involving myself in the kitchen affairs.  Not that I cooked back then.  But, I think I had far more interest than the typical boy did in how the food preparation happened. Perhaps my mother has forgotten me asking her questions like why we needed half-a-kilo of the vegetable and not more.  I, like my grandmother, was always impressed with how my mother seemed to cook the exact quantity for a meal; rare was a day when we ended up with more food.

In that kind of an old lifestyle, only the needed fruits and vegetables and milk were purchased, and they were all consumed.  Food was never wasted.

I wonder if my interested involvement with those household affairs is also why I continue with some of those old practices.  Even in my life on the other side of the planet from the old country, I seem to do grocery shopping every other day.  Sometimes the purchases do not even add up to a double-digit expense.  I could, of course, shop once in four or five days.  But, buying huge quantities seem bizarre.  Buying only what I know I will realistically consume over two days seems more prudent.  And I find that I, too, rarely have any food to waste.  Further, I shop at a relatively small-sized grocery store--which is also why I have all those "checkout relationships" with the people who work there.

Thus, naturally, I was drawn to this report:
Two studies published this year suggest a link between how often people go shopping and the healthiness of the food they buy.
If my life experience means anything in this context, it appears that buying small quantities might be the healthy approach.  Guess what?  According to the studies:
There are many potential ways in which big supermarkets might be bad for our health. Here are a few:
• When we shop less often, we may be less likely to buy fresh food because it spoils quicker.
• We tend to buy more in bulk, bringing home more food than we need.
• Our cupboards and pantries become full of food, encouraging us to eat when we are not hungry.
• We use cars to get to large shops and to transport the food back, meaning less physical activity than if we had walked, cycled or used public transport.
• We’re overwhelmed by choice in large stores, potentially making us more susceptible to marketing tactics and displays that encourage impulse purchasing decisions.
If you re-read those bullet-points, you will agree with me that it is all common sense.  People buy a dozen apples because it is cheaper by the dozen, but then end up dumping three or four apples into the trash.  Having all kinds of foods at our disposal is nothing but a way for the devil to tempt us into eating the wrong things at the wrong time.  My grandmothers could have easily provided that advice for free! ;)

If we were smart about that, then we can easily avoid the food waste too. How much do we waste here in the US?  It is about one-third of the food supply.

Back in the old country, for more than three decades now, mother has had a refrigerator at home.  But, she still buys vegetables every other day.  And there is no food waste either.  One of those instances when being a mama's boy is a good thing, eh! ;)

Who cares!

Looking back at events from nearly thirty years ago, I am pleasantly surprised at the decisions that I made.  One of those was to walk away from all things math, and I am all the happier.

Math came easily to me; not only did I not have anxieties, I enjoyed learning and doing math.  In school, I routinely did the classwork way ahead of the rest and then used up the remaining time to finish the assigned homework. (Which explains why my mother claims, and rightfully so, that she has never ever seen me do homework or study.)  I understood  the abstraction when in engineering too, though by then I knew for certain that my heart was not in math.

When I switched out of engineering to study the subjects that I wanted to know more about, it was clear that most faculty expected me to put my math and engineering background to use.  The social sciences were getting heavily into math and statistics and those who could play with numbers had an easier time publishing papers, which was all that mattered.

But, I couldn't care.  Because, I could not be convinced that mathematical and statistical modeling would explain the human and social dynamics that I was interested in and, I was even more confident that those models could never predict anything into the future.  Instead, I chose to transition into the methods that have been used for centuries--thinking and writing.  It was a difficult struggle because the years of schooling in India had screwed up my thinking abilities and had not given me any sense of how to write.

I even made fun of the articles in journals.  They were all gobbledygook.  Plenty of data but minutiae. Greek symbols expressing statistical modeling of social issues.  And sentences that rarely made sense.

The net result of all that?  I was a loser out of graduate school!  A loser I continue to be.  At least, I am my own loser, eh! ;)

Thus, I chuckled when reading this goofy and satirical proposal to abolish the social sciences.  
Social science was — it is best to speak in the past tense — a mistake. The dream of a comprehensive science of society, which would elucidate “laws of history” or “social laws” comparable to the physical determinants or “laws” of nature, was one of the great delusions of the 19th century.
It is one crazy physics-envy.  Physics--my high school intellectual love affair that I have written about--was the giant among the sciences in the 19th and early 20th centuries, has a bunch of laws that explain quite a few things.  Those laws are applicable to processes here in the US as they are to anywhere else on the planet, and even beyond earth.  So, the crazies who wanted to study the problems that humans and societies face decided to develop models to explain the problems.  And to develop laws and theories.  Madness, I say, madness!
While “physics envy” has been most pronounced and destructive in economics, pseudoscience has infected other disciplines that study human behavior as well. The very term “political science” betrays an ambition to create a study of politics and government and world politics that will be a genuine science like physics, chemistry or biology.
There is only one reason why economics has become so influential--it is a reflection of how much  we humans have made money to be the most important aspect of our lives.  As individuals and as societies, we apparently care more for money than for anything else.  Hence, anybody who claims to divine trends in that moneymaking becomes the modern day high priest at the holy altar.  Economists, therefore, have been placed on the highest pedestals--never mind the fact that economists have successfully predicted ten of the last five recessions ;)

But, all this is for naught.  I am even more of a loser than what I was back in graduate school.  A loser I might be, but I am confident that all it will take is one look around the world in order to understand that developing mathematical and statistical models will do nothing to help us with the problems all around.  Oh well.  Losers don't get to write history! ;)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dear Venezuela: "I wish I knew how to quit you"

In a national survey, the pollster Consultores 21 found 30% of Venezuelans eating two or fewer meals a day during the second quarter of this year, up from 20% in the first quarter. Around 70% of people in the study also said they had stopped buying some basic food item because it had become unavailable or too expensive.
That is in Venezuela, not in some stereotypical sub-Saharan African country ravaged by decades of civil war after gaining independence from the colonial White supremacists!

I am not even from Venezuela and I get worked up reading such news--all because it was the first ever country that I visited after leaving India and making myself at home here in these United States.  In many posts, the last one in April, I have written about my intellectual and personal experiences in Venezuela, and about my utter disappointment with the recent developments.  I suppose for my own health, I should cease my relationships with countries and people; but then, to quote that wonderful line from Brokeback Mountain, "I wish I knew how to quit you."  Thus, here I am reading up and blogging about Venezuela!
Food-supply problems in Venezuela underscore the increasingly precarious situation for Mr. Maduro’s socialist government, which according to the latest poll by Datanálisis is preferred by less than 20% of voters ahead of Dec. 6 parliamentary elections. The critical situation threatens to plunge South America’s largest oil exporter into a wave of civil unrest reminiscent of last year’s nationwide demonstrations seeking Mr. Maduro’s ouster.
Even as I read that, I recalled a colleague rambling on and on a few years ago about how Hugo Chavez--Maduro's predecessor and mentor--was the best thing that ever happened to Latin America.  "He is not any dictator like how he is presented here" she--an uber-left White American academic--argued.  I suppose every sociopath has his defender!

Caption at the source:
A woman holds up a giant hundred Bolivar note with the word, “Hungry” written on it in Spanish during a gathering to protest the government of President Nicolas Maduro, as well as economic insecurity and shortages, in Caracas, Venezuela, August 8, 2015.
The messed-up Chavez policies that Maduro has continued with were underwritten by high oil prices, which have fallen way down from their triple-digit highs.
A year ago, the international price per barrel of oil was about $103. By Monday, the price was about $42, roughly 6 percent lower than on Friday.
Indications are that the oil prices will not bounce back up any time soon.
David L. Goldwyn, who was the State Department special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs in the first Obama administration, said that if the Brent global oil benchmark price stays below $45 a barrel, that is “a red flag for stability issues across the oil producing world.”
“The hemorrhaging of government budgets reliant on oil will force dramatic cuts in spending or dangerous increases in borrowing, if not both,” Mr. Goldwyn said. “The countries without significant foreign exchange reserves are most at risk, and they include Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, Venezuela and Iraq."
So, what is Venezuela doing?  Adding more zeroes to its currency in order to counter hyperinflation! 
Many Venezuelans have to carry wads of cash in bags instead of wallets as soaring inflation and a declining currency increase the number of bills needed for everyday purchases. The situation is set to get worse. Inflation, already the fastest in the world, could end the year at 150 percent, said the official.
Larger denominations will help those people from having to carry bags of cash to buy bread and milk!
The new notes -- of 500 and possibly 1,000 bolivars -- are expected to be released sometime after congressional elections are held on Dec. 6, said a senior government official who isn’t authorized to talk about the plans publicly.
When oil prices were high, Venezuela's Chavez sent highly subsidized oil across the waters to his pal, Castro.  What an irony that the Castro brothers have all but ditched their socialist rhetoric and now want to make friends with the US, while Venezuela is adrift in a hyperinflationary socialist mess where supermarket shelves are bare.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Not going postal at the grocery store

"Hey, I haven't seen you for a while," I told her as I started placing the groceries on the belt.

"I have been taking a few vacation days here and there."

She looked at me and smiled.  And then continued with "I needed those days. For my own mental health."

"Yes, we all do" I added.

The truth is I have no idea about her life and the stresses.  I know about one stress, which is more than what I can handle if I were to face such a situation.  All said and done, despite the crappy people that I run into, I have always known that I have a pretty darn good life.  It is because I am a mere mortal, and not a Buddha, that I, too, like most of my kind, like to complain about this and that.

"So, all good now?" I asked her.  To some extent, it was a defensive mechanism by asking her whether she was doing well. Because, if I asked her about the problems that were stressing out, I know that I will get jolted.  I am a wuss.  A big time wuss.

"Oh yeah, much better" she said as she laughed a hearty laugh.

That laughter provided me with the opening that I needed to thread in comic relief.  After all, it is not only the place for small talk but also that I can easily get amused.

"So, you won't go postal on me then?"  I grinned.  Well, I hope that she was able to decipher from my expression that I was grinning and not clenching my teeth ;)

Apparently that was exactly what she needed.  She rolled with it.  "I can see it now.  "Grocery store cashier goes postal."  Oh, I need to tell Lena this."

I wondered who Lena was.  Lena couldn't be the cause of her stress is all I could infer.

As she punched the last of the keys to complete the transaction, she pointed to the mung beans that I had purchased.  "How do you cook them?"

"With onions and tomatoes."

"All together?"

"Oh not that way.  I boil the beans until they are about three-quarters done.  Meanwhile I sauté the onions and tomatoes with spices.  And then I dump the beans into the party and let them have a good time."

"No meat or anything?"

"Nope.  This is a wonderful source of proteins by itself."

"I should try it sometime" she said.

"Good to see you" I told her as I carried my bag to the car.

I am tempted to go there after I cook it and give her a sample to taste.  I can only think that it will ease her stress.  But then there are others at the store with whom I have developed a "checkout relationship," and they have their own problems as well.  Handing out samples to all of them as I walk about in the store seems odd, very odd!  Thus, I will do the next best thing: I wish them all well.

I made this dish today:
with potato, red bell pepper, edamame, ginger, and coconut milk

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Climate change is a moral issue. Ergo, it is a bigger problem than it would otherwise be.

There is that wonderful scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, when Paul Newman's character traces with his shoe the symbol π on the dirt.  I am trusting my memory on this and refuse to Google for confirmation ;)

Oddly enough it was that movie scene that I was reminded when I came across the following image in yet another wonderful essay in the New Yorker by the Pulitzer-winning Elizabeth Kolbert:
Unlike Iron Curtain, Kolbert's essay is no spy thriller.  It is a rather depressing thriller in its own way--about the world's failure "to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”"  Kolbert explains in plain English those words in quotes:
In plain English, it means global collapse.
I suspect that Kolbert intentionally used the word collapse--in discussions on climate change, collapse might remind us about Jared Diamond's book that was titled Collapse.  Anyway, Kolbert's essay is about the upcoming global meet in Paris, later in December, to arrive at a path that will be a lot more constructive than the environmental path that we are currently on.  The meeting will determine "the fate of the planet."

The person whose responsibility is to coordinate all these is profiled in Kolbert's essay--"a Costa Rican named Christiana Figueres."
Of all the jobs in the world, Figueres’s may possess the very highest ratio of responsibility (preventing global collapse) to authority (practically none). The role entails convincing a hundred and ninety-five countries—many of which rely on selling fossil fuels for their national income and almost all of which depend on burning them for the bulk of their energy—that giving up such fuels is a good idea.  
We could have been doing something already by now.  But, remember how the politics in DC began after the contested Bush v. Gore?
It was the United States that helped rescue the protocol—Vice-President Al Gore flew to Kyoto when the talks appeared to be foundering—and it was also the U.S. that very nearly killed it. The Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and shortly after George W. Bush entered the White House, in 2001, he announced that his Administration would not abide by its terms.
“Kyoto is dead” is how Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national-security adviser, put it. In fact, the treaty survived, but in a zombielike state. The U.S. ignored it. The Canadians blew past their target and, midway through the period covered by Kyoto, withdrew from the agreement. Only the Europeans really took their goal seriously, not only meeting it but exceeding it.
Since then, the US got itself in quite some mess in Iraq and Afghanistan and seemingly everywhere, while China puffed out quite some smoke as the world's factory.
In the mid-nineties, China was emitting nearly a billion metric tons of carbon a year. By the mid-aughts, its output was twice that amount. In 2005, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter on an annual basis. (The U.S. still holds first place in terms of cumulative emissions.) Nowadays, China’s per-capita emissions are as high as Western Europe’s (though not nearly as high as those in the U.S.).
The net result?
During the last ice age, when much of North America was covered in glaciers a mile thick, carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere were around a hundred and eighty parts per million. For the ten thousand years leading up to the industrial revolution, they hovered around two hundred and eighty parts per million. By 1992, when the Framework Convention was drafted, they had reached three hundred and fifty parts per million. As MOP followed COP, carbon-dioxide levels kept rising. This spring, they topped four hundred parts per million.
China and India and all the developing countries want economic growth.  The world wants economic growth.  That is the straight line going up in that graphic.  The downward sloping arc?
The straight line was supposed to represent economic growth, past and future, the curved line the rise and fall of greenhouse-gas emissions.
“That’s where we are,” she said, drawing a dot right at the point where the two lines were about to diverge.
If Figueres is correct that we are about to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions, then our future looks good.  But, I think Figueres is being optimistic.  Overly optimistic.  But, hey, the world needs such optimists.

However, what if the December meeting fails, like how all the previous ones did not bring about real and significant changes?
“Ask all the islands,” she said finally. “Ask Bangladesh. We just can’t let that happen. Do we have the right to deprive people of their homes just because I want to own three S.U.V.s? It just doesn’t make any sense. And it’s not how we think of ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as being egotistical, immoral individuals. And we’re not. Fundamentally, we all have a morality bedrock. Every single human being has that.”
Actions in response to climate change are moral decisions, indeed.  I have been arguing along those lines forever, it seems.  I searched through my emails because I remembered having argued that point with a colleague, well before he launched his divestment campaign on campus.  In that email back in February 2008, I wrote:
 As long as we folks in the rich countries are not willing to change our ways, we have absolutely no moral ground from which we can preach the right thing to the billions who are slowly clawing their way out of dark economic conditions.
Will the seven-billion-plus "egotistical, immoral individuals" work out a way to prevent a collapse?  I suppose I will find out, in the remaining twenty-four years that I have.

Life transformed. By big decisions, and by small decisions too.

One of the many long-running threads in this blog: I apparently exemplify my old graduate school professor Martin Krieger's advice that it is not what you say but who you are when you say it.  A nobody is not heard and valued.  Guess who is Mr. Nobody here!

Yes, you regulars liked my observation there.  So, ok, it is not that I am a nobody.  But, then even the editor of the local newspaper where I have written columns for nearly a decade doesn't publish my pieces, like this, anymore! ;)

A couple of days ago, after attending a wedding, I wrote:
Which is all the more why the moments become so special.  The moment of the wedding.  The moment of the first job. The moment of the childbirth.  Life-changing moments.
Which leads me to Krieger's observation in the context of life-changing moments.  In the NY Times (which means it won't be my column, hahaha) David Brooks writes:
In her book “Transformative Experience,” L. A. Paul, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says life is filled with decisions that are a bit like this. Life is filled with forks in the road in which you end up changing who you are and what you want.
People who have a child suddenly become different. Joining the military is another transformational experience. So are marrying, changing careers, immigrating, switching religions.
In each of these cases the current you is trying to make an important decision, without having the chance to know what it will feel like to be the future you.
It is not even Brooks' original thoughts--he is merely channeling what he read!

Ok, enough about me!

The philosophy professor takes off on a direction that is different from what I had written about in that post, but is an idea that I have often blogged about:
Paul’s point is that we’re fundamentally ignorant about many of the biggest choices of our lives and that it’s not possible to make purely rational decisions. “You shouldn’t fool yourself,” she writes. “You have no idea what you are getting into.”
Recall that Chinese parable that I love quoting, when it comes to how we have no idea how our decisions will play out in the future?  Mao--yes that Mao--might have even drawn from that parable when he responded to what he thought of the French Revolution with "It is too early to say."

Ok, enough about me! ;)

It maybe that the big decisions are a tad easier when we are young.  Because, when young we have that daring spirit and we act out of instincts than after thinking through.  Which is why we get the young to sign up with the military--the older and more thinking one becomes, chances are that we will understand the horrors of war.  People who marry young seem to be more inclined to have more kids--the older we get, we realize that babies are not all fun and wonderful smells, but that they can be stinky midnight criers.

Perhaps that is also what I saw on display the other day when the friend and I went hiking.  At one point along the hike, where the creek curved, the water was like the deep end of a swimming pool.  A few youngsters were diving into it from the boulders on the side.  And then there was a young woman who showed the boys how it is done.

The friend's click

In her two-piece bikini, the young woman swam across to the other bank of the creek. And walked up to the tree and climbed high up on it.  She didn't even pause when she reached the launch pad, so to speak.  She jumped.

In her case, the youthful daring worked out well.  In the case of another young woman, who went rock climbing, the adventure has left her paralyzed from the waist down.  A transformative moment in her life, but not the kind we wish for.

Every moment that we live represents a fork along the road of life, for we can never go back in time and to that other fork.  Every mundane moment is precious and transformative, too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Breast milk for the brain

There is a reason why I don't summarily dismiss the concerns that people--typically the sincerely religious--have about issues like contraception, abortion, blood transfusion, organ donation, and more and, hence, their opposition to them.  I understand their worries that all those--and more--further diminish our existence to a mere composite of materials.  An assembly of components that then dilute, or even wipe away, the meaning of our existence and the answer to fundamental questions about life and the universe.  After all, like them, I too often find myself questioning what this is all about, even through my secular and atheistic progressive lenses.

Inquiring into our existence means that I am left wondering about a whole bunch of things, every single day.  To such an extent that sometimes I wonder if I will be better off if I stopped thinking.  I watch a movie and I think.  I listen to a song and I think. I read something and I think.  I think about what I think.  Of course, all the thinking is for naught when I am but a wannabe.  But, I think about that too--on how much I am a wannabe, a fake! ;)

In trying to make meaning of this existence, I have a hard time understanding many of the "developments" like the market for breast milk.  We live in strange times of sperm donors, egg banks, breast pumps, and now even frozen breast milk. It appears that an overwhelming majority are accepting of these new material constructs our existence, while I--an atheist--am with a minority, who are usually uber-religious, thinking and worrying if all these are, ahem, kosher.

So, yes, in this scientific and technological world of ours where capitalism governs our lives, a market for human breast milk has been created.
What are the sources of supply to meet this demand? One source is donations that happen though the 19 locations of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, as well as other donor organizations. But there are also for-profit companies emerging like Prolacta Bioscience and International Milk Bank which buy breast-milk, screen and test it, sometimes add additional nutrients, and then sells it to hospitals. There are also websites that facilitate buying and selling breast-milk.

This market is one where prices are fairly clear: the for-profit companies typically offer moms $1.50- $2 per ounce for breast milk, and end up selling it to hospitals for roughly $4 per ounce. Quantities are less clear, although for a rough sense, the nonprofit Human Milk Banking Association of North America dispensed 3.1 million ounces of breast milk in 2013, while a single for-profit firm, Prolacta, plans to process 3.4 million ounces this year.
Seriously, you don't think this is one strange world that we have created, and will be passing it along to future generations?  We spend a lot of our time on all things trivial, but we don't pause to think about what it means to the meaning of our existence if there is a market for breast milk?  Either I am messed up, or we are all messed up ;)

Consider the following from that same source:
Earlier this year in Detroit,  a company called Medolac announced a plan to purchase breast milk. It received a hostile open letter with a number of signatories, starting with the head of the Black Mothers' Breastfeeding Association. The letter read, in part:
[W]e are writing to you in the spirit of open dialogue about your company’s recent attempts to recruit African-American and low-income women in Detroit to sell their breast milk to your company, Medolac Laboratories. We are troubled by your targeting of African-American mothers, and your focus on Detroit in particular. We are concerned that this initiative has neither thoroughly factored in the historical context of milk sharing nor the complex social and economic challenges facing Detroit families. ... Around the country, African-American women face unique economic hardships, and this is no less true in our city. In addition, African American women have been impacted traumatically by historical commodification of our bodies. Given the economic incentives, we are deeply concerned that women will be coerced into diverting milk that they would otherwise feed their own babies.
The breast milk market is then ripe for "outsourcing"?  Similar to how there are wombs for rent in India, will the market then establish a breast milk supply chain?  

I worry that most fellow-humans do not seem to want to think about such trends that are overwhelming us.  Perhaps because most people do not want to think about why we exist?  They don't care about all these?  It is not that I have answers to most (all?) of the questions that pop up in my head.  I have no answers at all.  None.

Hmmmm ... wait a second.  Maybe I am messed up because of the breast milk that nourished me.  Which means, we know who is to be blamed for my thinking about all these--the same one who is to be blamed for my fascination with coffee, with cooking, with cleaning, ... ;)


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Neither god nor capitalism works in mysterious ways!

The hippie, er, Pope, is on a tear talking up the environment and criticizing capitalism, which will certainly make the right-wing Catholics wonder if Francis is some kind of a Manchurian Candidate ;)  One of the problems I have with the faith-based people, which includes not only the religious but also those who make religions of their favorite causes, is that they often tend to obfuscate facts or even try to hide them.  Ricardo Hausman goes after the Pope with facts.  But, first, what was the Holy See's problem with capitalism?
Pope Francis said in a recent speech in Bolivia: “This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable. The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”
Typically, this is what happens when preaching to the choir--there is no dissent. The audience, in fact, leaves even more strengthened in their "faith," which in this case is that all the problems of this world can be attributed to capitalism.

Except for an inconvenient truth--our lives have become way more tolerable than conditions have ever been only thanks to capitalism.  If the Industrial Revolution marks as an easy to reference starting point for the economic system that we now practice, all one has to do is think about life as it was prior to that time period.  How many among us would want to live in the conditions that existed, say, 300 years ago?  (The Pope would, I am sure, because the Vatican was immensely more powerful and influential back then!)

Hausman writes:
In poverty-stricken Bolivia, Francis criticized “the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature,” along with “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”...
Francis is right to focus attention on the plight of the world’s poorest. Their misery, however, is not the consequence of unbridled capitalism, but of a capitalism that has been bridled in just the wrong way. 
I am no rah-rah fan of capitalism, as the regular readers know all too well.  But then there is no way I will engage in a rhetorical wholesale condemnation either.  Because, there are far too many nuances to think about.  Consider one of the many sweeping accusations of "profit at any price."  Of course, there are atrocious practices like pollution or ill-treatment of the workers, primarily thanks to how those with money are able to rope the government in and get away with such crimes.  But, there is also the other side of the same system that encourages investments even when they do not generate big time profits at all.

You are perhaps thinking that it is so un-capitalistic for the system to voluntarily support when we think it is always "profit at any price."  James Surowiecki writes about " two common but ultimately questionable assumptions":
 The first is that corporate decision-makers care only about the short term. The second is that it’s the stock market that makes them think this way.
Quick. Can you think about capitalistic behavior that has resulted in strong support for companies that don't seem to generate profits?  Stumped?
Of course, there’s no shortage of investors who are myopic. But the market, for the most part, isn’t. That’s why companies like Amazon and Tesla and Netflix, whose profits in the present have typically been a tiny fraction of their market caps, have been able to command colossal valuations. It’s why there’s a steady flow of I.P.O.s for companies with small revenues and nonexistent earnings. And it’s why the biotech industry is now valued at more than a trillion dollars, even though many of the firms have yet to bring a single drug to market. None of these things are what you’d expect from a market dominated by short-term considerations.
Back when the Pope ruled the world, freedom was not known to most of the world, except for a tiny few who were the rich and the powerful.  It was a world of slavery and diseases and tortures and short-lives and poverty and starvation.  We have a lot more to do in order to address diseases and poverty and starvation and many more human sufferings.  But, no soaring rhetoric condemning capitalism will deliver any miracles, even if the faithful blindly believe in the power of miracles.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Are humans also genetically modified organisms?

Not many days go by without GMO appearing in my Facebook feed.  Almost always, those are to oppose GMO (like here.)  Ironically, those comments are from friends who are otherwise trained in the sciences and in technology, and champion other scientific ideas that typically generate controversies--the GMO-opposing friends often post worrying about global climate change, and make snide remarks on the strange American fixation on denying evolution.

I have struggled to understand why people oppose GMOs even when an overwhelming majority of scientists around the world support GMO. I have blogged about this issue in the past, but it continues to be incomprehensible. So, here I am again on why people oppose GMO even though science says it is safe;)
negative representations of GMOs are widespread and compelling because they are intuitively appealing. By tapping into intuitions and emotions that mostly work under the radar of conscious awareness, but are constituent of any normally functioning human mind, such representations become easy to think. They capture our attention, they are easily processed and remembered and thus stand a greater chance of being transmitted and becoming popular, even if they are untrue. Thus, many people oppose GMOs, in part, because it just makes sense that they would pose a threat.
"intuitively appealing" is the key idea here.  Before we continue on with the GMO, think about that "intuitively appealing" again.  A narrative of a creator who created life is "intuitively appealing" and, therefore, people have a tough time letting go of it.  To think that the sun goes around the earth is "intuitively appealing" because, after all, we see that happening day in and day out.  To think that women are dirty because they bleed every month is "intuitively appealing."  To think that people who don't look like us are inferior is "intuitively appealing."  It is an endless list of "intuitively appealing" aspects of life, right?

Rational thinking and science are all about eliminating that "intuitively appealing" explanations.  Of course, we continue to refer to the sun rising and setting, but we also know that it is merely a part of the idiom.  Yes, there are societies that continue to shun women, especially during their "periods" but most of the world operates otherwise.  As I often remind students, education itself is all about questioning the "gut instinct."  If we lived by our gut instincts, you think we would have developed a protocol to eliminate smallpox, which required us to knowingly inject a mild version of that disease into our systems?

Yet, in the case of GMO, quite a few people--even the scientifically trained ones--vehemently oppose it.
Intuitions about purposes and intentions also have an impact on people’s thinking about GMOs. They render us vulnerable to the idea that purely natural phenomena exist or happen for a purpose that is intended by some agent. These assumptions are part and parcel of religious beliefs, but in secular environments they lead people to regard nature as a beneficial process or entity that secures our wellbeing and that humans shouldn’t meddle with. In the context of opposition to GMOs, genetic modification is deemed “unnatural” and biotechnologists are accused of “playing God”.
I suppose we should remind the GMO opponents that wiping out smallpox is "unnatural" and "playing God."  Ebola?  Hey, it is just nature that doesn't want us to live.  We humans are not like birds and, therefore, for us to fly is so "unnatural."  Space exploration is to intrude on the gods up in the heaven.  Speaking into the air and my father responding to me in real time from the other side of the planet is so "unnatural" and almost like we are gods with such abilities.

Oh well ... for now, my gut instinct directs me to go eat and I don't care whether it has any GMO in it ;)


Friday, August 21, 2015

Pulling up the ladder does not help the young down below :(

Funding ran out when I was in graduate school.  I then did what many graduate students did--I looked for an internship.  It was an internship that paid a little bit more than the minimum wage back then.  I was not the only intern at that agency; there were, as I recall now, at least ten to twelve others, one of whom was the Jewish fellow whom I mentioned in this post from a few weeks ago.

Later, when I started working full-time, even at the much smaller outfit that it was, we routinely had one or two interns throughout the year.  They were paid, of course.  One of those interns, Robert, asked me whether I would like to guest-lecture in one of the classes that was taking at the local university.  That then led to part-time teaching and the rest unfolded on its own--I became a university faculty member. 

The department where I taught had a bulletin board where we routinely posted announcements about internships--rare was the unpaid internship.  One of those students, Chris, whom I helped land an internship, emailed me a few months after I had quit that university and moved to Oregon:
I just started an internship at Kern Cog in the GIS department, thank you for emailing the job opportunities you came across. I was wondering if you come across any good job openings if you could email them to me since I will be graduating in June. Hope things in Oregon are going good. Thank you.
Despite the recessionary times when I moved in 2002, in Oregon too we routinely received information about internships.  In one of those classes, I casually announced to students about an internship.  I told them about the hourly wage.  Nobody seemed interested.  A day later, a female student, Lisa, asked me for details.  She applied.  She started working there.  The internship helped her understand what it would mean to have a career in that field.  She then went on to graduate school in that professional program and returned to a full-time job in that very place where she had worked as an intern. 

Society apparently never likes it when things go well.  Because of worries over abuse of interns--and many of those concerns were for real--the law came down with a heavy hand on working conditions for interns.  Meanwhile, funding for public agencies rapidly diminished thanks to nutcases who wanted to drown the government in a bathtub.  And the private sector honchos couldn't care for paid interns even as their compensation kept increasing by dizzying amounts.  Thus, the richest country that the planet has ever known no longer has the kind of paid-internship opportunities that once existed even for "aliens" like me.

I am not exaggerating when I write that for the past few years students and I have had enormous difficulty finding paid internships.  Slamming the door shut on paid internships in the public and private sectors, even as corporate executives fatten themselves up, is one of the many ways in which we are screwing our own collective futures.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Keeping time as people leave

If she were alive, she would be 102.

She died 35 years ago.  

"I cannot believe it has been 35 years already" mother said.  "Time goes by really fast" mother added.

"As has been the practice for many years now, I gave money to the temple" father chipped in.  "I spend a few minutes in the morning remembering her, and say a few prayers."

In our own ways, the three of us recalled her; she was:  
My grandmother;
My father's mother;
My mother's mother-in-law.  

The cosmos handed her an extremely raw deal.  Misfortunes upon misfortunes.  The eldest child in the typically large family of those days, she was the beloved sister to her siblings and practically the mother for the two youngest sisters.  A pretty girl she was when she was married.  A girl--not a young woman--as was the custom for centuries until recently.  She was only fifteen when she had her first child, and barely seventeen when the second--my father--was born.

So, there she was all of seventeen, a mother of two boys of whom one was only forty days old, when her husband died.  He died far away from her village, in the big city of Madras where he had gone to participate in political meetings and make his contribution to India's independence movement that was gaining strength.  She never even got to see her husband's dead body.

She was now a seventeen-year old widow, with a two-year old son and a forty-day old infant.

The unexpected death of the son was traumatic to the husband's parents.  Within a year, the mother died.  And then the father also died.  

She was now about twenty, with two young boys, without the father-in-law and the mother-in-law.  A couple of years later, her mother also died and her father became senile.

Meanwhile, society compelled her to shave her hair, and wear the plain beige saris that marked women as widows.  That is the how even my father remembers her.  Father has no idea how his mother looked as a woman with hair and wearing regular saris and clad in jewels as young women would typically look.

And there were more mishaps, big and small.  As I recall grandmother and her life, I am all the more impressed that she was, by and large, an optimistic and fun-loving woman--despite all these setbacks.  Maybe that's what we literally saw in her--an enlarged heart.  Yes, a heart that was enlarged.  It started slowing down.  Nearly forty years ago, India didn't have any treatment for her enlarged heart.

One day, she seemed to be more than a tad short of breath and even the oxygen at home was not helping her.  Mother and I rushed her to the hospital.  I was in the front with the driver and mother was in the back with grandmother.  We were not even halfway to the hospital when my mother said that grandmother had died.

That was in 1980.  Thirty-five years ago.

The street in Pattamadai, where our ancestral home (sold a few years ago) is located

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What would Coriolanus eat at the Iowa State Fair? Caprese Salad On-a-Stick?

The ultimate reality show has begun: Who wants to be America's next president?  It is one heck of a freak show in the early stages, until it comes down to something like a semi-final.  This being the dog days of summer, the reality show was recently hosted at the Iowa State Fair.
The internationally-acclaimed Iowa State Fair is the single largest event in the state of Iowa and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. Annually attracting more than a million people from all over the world, the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is Iowa’s great celebration, a salute to the state’s best in agriculture, industry, entertainment and achievement.
And well known for the political reality show where the presidential wannabes show up in their summer, casual, regular-person, attires.  It is like how beauty pageants have swimsuit competitions ;)

It is all a part of the pretense that the regular Joe and Jane matter to those patricians.  They need to put on a jolly good show that they defer to us, the plebians.  And they want to make sure that they don't make the mistake that Coriolanus did:
Coriolanus is a patrician warrior who serves Rome with unequalled military prowess and bravery, but he is devilishly proud and utterly disdainful of the lower orders. He even blames them for smelling: which brings to mind a German saying, ‘It smells of poor people here,’ and George Orwell’s observation that to accuse people of smelling is the most hurtful insult that you can direct at them.
Unfortunately, after his great victory at Corioli (hence his honorific title), Coriolanus stands for the office of Consul, one of the most important political offices in Rome. To be elected he needs the approbation of the plebeians: and, rather as in a general election in a western democracy, to obtain it he has to abase himself before them for a short time.
He has difficulty in doing even this because he is so haughty; for although the plebeians know full well he has fought many battles and been wounded many times, they want him to expose his scars to them in person. This, of course, is much beneath his dignity, but Coriolanus manages to come to some kind of accommodation with the plebeians, until their own representatives, the tribunes, inflame them against him by telling outright lies about him. They do this because they see it as a way to increase their own power, to which Coriolanus is an obstacle. They succeed in having Coriolanus exiled from Rome. 
Shakespeare does a masterful job, as he always does.  Oh, incidentally, the story does not end with the exile--watch the play; it is phenomenal.

One of ways that the patricians, er, the presidential wannabes abase themselves before us plebes is by going to the Iowa State Fair and eating crap, er, food that they would normally run away from.  Not merely eating but making sure that the photos and the videos are transmitted all around, even to the plebes in other countries who cannot vote here anyway!  Apparently most of them chose to eat pork chops on a stick:


There are, count 'em, 75 foods that one could eat while holding them on sticks!  Seventy-five!  I could not imagine how they get to serve fried butter on a stick; so, I checked it out on YouTube and I am grossed out already ;)

I suppose a modern day haughty Coriolanus would not care about the regular folk who eat all things fatty and rich in cholesterol.  He would not be a wimp like that other patrician who wisely walked away from his arugula comment.  Instead, Coriolanus would arrogantly order a Caprese Salad On-a-Stick and tell the people to go to hell, or even deliver that awful Dick Cheney line! ;)

A final note: are you also wondering how they make a Caprese on a stick?

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