Thursday, March 31, 2016

April is not the cruellest month

I am re-posting this from two years ago.

Why this recycling?  I will be away for a couple of days at a conference.  Too bad that I am leaving the Valley when it is going to be awesomely sunny, warm, spring days.  And the clouds and rain will be back when I return!  Oh well, a man has got to do what a man has got to do ;)
*************

April is National Poetry Month.

Did they choose this month in order to counter TS Eliot's "April is the cruellest month"? ;)

Here are thirty different things you can do to observe, celebrate, a month of poetry.

This dull, boring, prosaic person will sample a verse or two.


K. 453

By Karl Kirchwey

On May 27, 1784,
as he followed Vienna's back streets home,
Mozart paused, startled, by a pet shop door
and listened to the allegretto theme

from his own piano concerto in G-Major
repeated by a starling in a cage.
He'd written it only five weeks before—
had God given them both the same message?

He counted out thirty-four copper Kreutzer.
Pleasure was like the iridescent sheen
in the dark plumage: an imagination livelier,
perhaps, more fecund and ready than his own!

He entered this in his new quarto accounts ledger,
but where the price should go, he wrote the tune
instead—transcribed it a second time, rather—
and then, in his small hand, wrote Das war schön.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The largest democracies have mainstreamed hatred!

Back in graduate school, Steve, who was a big guy from Canada, joked about how his family seemed excited whenever they came across names of people in sports and other entertainment, or politics, or journalism, or anything for that matter, if the name sounded Jewish.  Oh, yeah, Steve was Jewish.  He even had a joke about how he and his high school coach wanted him to play hockey and how his mother refused to because she had paid for his expensive orthodontic work and there was no way she wanted that to be smashed up.

The more I have lived here, the more I am reminded of his comment because I seem to always get a kick of noticing Indian-American names. Especially in journalism these days, which is a huge marker of how much the Indian immigrant ethos has shifted away, thankfully, from a focus on engineering, medicine, and business.

One of the commentators, from a libertarian perspective, is Shikha Dalmia, who thinks and writes clearly that it is a pleasure to read her commentaries even when I disagree with her.  And when I agree with her, it is all the better, like in this essay where she comments that "America may have lucked out" with Donald Trump's crass statements and behavior:
The only thing worse than an ill-read, repulsive, sleazy Trump becoming the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination may have been a well-read, likable, upright Trump becoming the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.
If history was going to hand America a demagogue, Trump might be the best kind.
I agree with her.  Because if Trump had advocated for the kinds of things he is drawing the big crowds--like building a wall, keeping Muslims out, deporting 11 million Mexicans, etc.--"with the appropriate-level of chin stroking" then, ahem, Trump would have been a winner all the way to his second term in the Oval Office.

Dalmia's arguments get even more interesting when she contrasts with the slick demagogue from half-way around the world:
Democracies are not immune to demagogues and, in recent years, the world has witnessed its share of them. India has elected Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi and Turkey Islam-booster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The difference between them and Trump is not that they had less extreme views than him, but that they communicated them with more civility, decorum, and command of the issues. Modi, in particular, argued his positions with such rigor and wit that people up and down the social strata from peasant to pundit forgot that thousands of Muslims were slaughtered on his watch when he was chief minister of a state. India handed him a landslide victory.
Of course, Dalmia is not the first one to compare Trump with Erdoğan, Modi, Putin, and other such "strongman" leaders.

This essay is focused more on Modi and less on Trump--naturally, because the author is an Indian journalist in India:
In both nations, the stigma attached to openly professing hatred for the “other” seems to be disappearing. Xenophobia is being embraced by at least a segment of the population that has taken its cue from Trump and Modi.
The open and loud display of negative attitudes have been mainstreamed in the old country and the adopted country alike.
It is true that Modi and other top leaders of the Indian government or the ruling BJP haven’t been seen indulging in Trump-ist instigation during the string of violent incidents—be it “beef lynchings” or the “nationalism” debate—that have rocked India since Modi took power.
However, that could be deceptive. Calculated silence at the top during social crises is often a tacit approval of the lower rungs’ intrigue and provocation. And this has been rampant in the recent past, with even ministers and senior BJP members openly indulging in rabble-rousing or insensitive commentary during tinderbox situations.
In short, from fanning the flames from under his breath during campaigning, prime minister Modi shifted gears to maintaining strategic silences, playing wink and nudge. So, unlike Trump, whose depraved exhortations have a direct causal relationship with real physical violence in the US, there’s been a time lag between Modi’s rise and its repercussions.
I like that phrasing of "depraved exhortations."
When punctuated by chants of “USA! USA!” or “Vande Mataram”, the worst forms of bigotry gets camouflaged under nationalist jingoism.
America and India now have top mainstream politicians who have mastered that lesson—adding a whole new spectre of political malevolence to the world.
What an unfortunate turn of events!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

King Leopold’s Ghost

Terrorism strikes. 35 people killed and more than 300 injured.
Terrorism strikes again five days later.  On Holy Easter Sunday.  At least 72 killed, many of them children.

One received extensive front page news coverage for a couple of days, and the other was barely mentioned in the front page on the day after.

From the BBC

It is the same old story all over again.  When terrorists strike in Western Europe or North America, it is serious news.  When terrorists strike and kill way more people in the brown-skinned world, the attitude is pretty much along the lines of "who cares!"  As Rafia Zakaria notes in this op-ed:
 Two days after Sunday’s attack, Lahore has disappeared from the top headlines. Pakistan’s pain has already been extinguished from the global news cycle, its catastrophe a news item and not — as in Paris or Brussels — a news event. 
A hundred, two hundred years ago, it was the white skinned who terrorized the brown skins.  Take the case of Belgium, which was the recent site of terrorism in Western Europe, and Leopold,who was its king towards the end of the 19th century.  Even a simple Google search attempt results in this autofill:


Why is it referred to as a genocide in the Belgian Congo?  I have excerpted the following from an old (1998) New York Times article that I tracked down; it is a review of the book that I have also used as the title for this post:
 Under the reign of terror instituted by King Leopold II of Belgium (who ran the Congo Free State as his personal fief from 1885 to 1908), the population of the Congo was reduced by half -- as many as 8 million Africans (perhaps even 10 million, in Hochschild's opinion) lost their lives.
Some were beaten or whipped to death for failing to meet the rigid production quotas for ivory and rubber harvests, imposed by Leopold's agents. Some were worked to death, forced to labor in slavelike conditions as porters, rubber gatherers or miners for little or no pay.
Some died of the diseases introduced to (and spread throughout) the Congo by Europeans. And still others died from the increasingly frequent famines that swept the Congo basin as Leopold's army rampaged through the countryside, appropriating food and crops for its own use while destroying villages and fields. 
Perhaps based on all the data, somebody has already done calculations somewhere on how many brown skins equals one white skin.

I am, yet again, reminded of the narrow-minded empathy that we often tend to display:
It favors vulnerable children and animals, and discriminates against unattractive people. You’re more likely to sympathize with someone in your social group rather than an outsider, especially one who looks different.
The typical European looks more like the majority American and, thus, they are all in the same "social group" that triggers the tsunami of empathy?

At some point, the earlier the better, we need to truly, genuinely, understand that a human life somewhere in the world is as much a human life in any other part of the world.  The more we fail to even acknowledge this, and the more we continue to behave as if some humans are infinitely more valuable than others, I worry that we will face decades of bloodshed ahead.


Monday, March 28, 2016

Emotions trump logic

It is not unusual for a couple of students every term to bring up the issue of trade deficits and the government debt and, therefore, the compelling urgency to get rid of the welfare programs.  I would try to explain to them that we need to systematically parse all those in order to begin to understand if there is any causal relationship among them.  But, I almost always lose them even as I start going down that path.

Logical understanding of issues involves hard work.  Even if the world's best expert is there to answer the question, the listener has to think along as well.  And when that audience completely shuts off, even Einstein can't win them over.  

At least in my classroom, I have a captive audience that I can work on.  But, when those topics, and more, are discussed as hot political issues, the ongoing campaign season is fully exposing a deep flaw in the democratic process--logic be damned; it's about the voters' emotions!

Consider the case of the trade deficit.  Of course, the US runs deficits with a bunch of countries.  But, does it matter and, if so, why?  Before we can even begin to lecture about this, the frontrunner of the party--which the "local" and the "foreign" frequent commenters ardently support--has staked out his position:
Donald Trump believes that a half-trillion-dollar trade deficit with the rest of the world makes the United States a loser and countries with trade surpluses like China and Mexico winners.
“They’re beating us so badly,” he has said. “Every country we lose money with.”
You think that the nearly forty percent of the party faithful who support Drumpf care about parsing through that claim about winning and losing?  You think they will patiently scroll through the multiple screens of explanation?  Imagine sitting them down and saying, "let me explain to you the Triffin dilemma."  

To re-work an old campaign slogan that worked to elect the man whose wife is now--for now--the front running candidate in the other party. it's the emotions, stupid!

The trouble is that decisions based on emotions will likely cause way more problems than thoughtful decisions can.  Especially over the long haul.  But, almost always, emotions trumps logic.  Which is why even a significant percentage of evangelical voters have favored Trump thus far, even though the thrice-married guy has a long track record of pooh-poohing the very religious values that evangelicals supposedly hold dear.  If it comes down to Trump v. Clinton in November?
GOP-registered evangelicals will not vote for Hillary. You could make a very good argument that Hillary is much more a person of faith and closer to evangelicals on her understanding of God than Trump. But voters aren't moved by logic; they are moved by emotions.
Talk about strange bedfellows! 

Of course, intellectually we have been aware of voting as an emotional act.  What is new is how that visceral nature has been fully exposed this time around.
 Imagine a world in which ideology was ruled by rationality without any biases. In such a world there would be little room for political debate among intelligent people. If we were all exposed to the same facts we would end up reaching the same conclusions. We would still need parties and elections since our interests are not identical. But we would never remain split over questions such as which economic policy would benefit most British people, or which policy would be most effective for tackling terrorism.
The fact that we continue to debate these issues endlessly, and yet never seem to agree, suggests that there is something in ideologies far beyond rationality. This other thing is subjective taste, which, to a large extent, is shaped by our emotional being. De gustibus non est disputandum (In matters of taste, there can be no disputes), as the Latin idiom goes
Meanwhile, there is a petition drive "for allowing the open carry of guns at the Republican convention this July in Cleveland."   It might have started as a satirical statement, but has gained serious attention from Drumpf:
While proclaiming himself "a very, very strong person for Second Amendment," the Republican front-runner told ABC's This Week that "I have not seen the petition. I want to see what it says. I want to read the fine print."
Surely combining emotions and guns in a crowded and contested convention will be uber-rational!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

God is neither a question nor an answer. God is irrelevant

It was a tad cool and overcast.  The flag atop the neighbor's was furiously fluttering in the wind.  But, no raindrops. As long as it was dry, well, I couldn't justify not going for a walk.

The full river.
The green shoots of spring on trees.
Daffodils.
People jogging.

One does not have to believe in a god to appreciate life.  This is paradise on earth.

I passed a homeless man who was lugging his belongings on an overfilled backpack, with his dog walking alongside.

What is my obligation to that homeless man?

One does not have to believe in a god in order to answer that question.  Bringing god into this is a distraction.  I could choose to help him.  Or, I could ignore his very existence.  I could try convincing myself that it is somebody else's problem.  God is irrelevant to figuring out how to react to the sight of a homeless man in this paradise.

If the case of the homeless person is not convincing enough, consider the following:
•            It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.
•            It is wrong to enslave people.
•            It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.
•            Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required
to try to stop it.
Aren't all those true.  Well, a Dick Cheney or Donald Trump will favor torturing prisoners of war.  But, an overwhelming majority of us--irrespective of what we think about god or any religion--will agree with those statements, right?
To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists.  That seems to me to be a remarkable claim.  If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.?  There’d be nothing wrong with torture?  The pain of another human being would mean nothing?
So, then, what has god got to do with any of those situations?

Over the years, I have come to understand that it is a humongous waste of time to argue over whether or not god exists.  It does not matter one bit.  What matters is how we live our lives, which includes our relationships with fellow humans and with other life forms and non-living matter all around us.  Consider the flowing river.  Will it be ok for me to dump sewage or factory waste into that river?  Or, the joggers.  Would we want to prevent them from enjoying their activity?  Whether it is about slavery or about dumping sewage, why worry about whether or not god exists?

So, back to the homeless person.   He makes me feel uncomfortable.  Not because I worry about the safety of my life or my property, but because I do not know how to react.  Should I ignore him?  Shrug my shoulders and move on?  Should I engage with him and try to help?  Should I donate to the organizations that help the homeless?  If I do not donate, does it make me a bad person?  Do I want to be a good person?  What does it mean to be a good person?  Why have I not figured out the answer despite all these years?

God is irrelevant in trying to sort out these questions.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Master of my domain

Last term, during an exercise in which I forced students to think about their progress towards the undergraduate learning outcomes, one student who will be graduating in June said that she and most students were not prepared for the world outside the classroom.  Her point was something like this: "Here, we are told what we need to get done, and we do it.  But, at work, we have to show some initiative."

Most other students nodded in agreement.  I asked, "what prevents you folks from taking charge of your own education?"

It is not that I want students to set the curriculum and design courses.  But, there is a sense of agency that is missing in most students, especially the good ones who merely follow the orders.  In the post-industrial digital economy, there are fewer and fewer rewarding opportunities for those who merely carry out what the boss tells them--those are the jobs that are easily outsourced and offshored.  Loius Menand also writes about this, in an entirely different context however:
Today, if you were starting up a tech company (hey, maybe you are!), you would simply outsource your customer relations. In house, you would want your employees to be innovative and flexible, able to work in teams and adjust to new goals as they arose. You’d want to encourage your employees’ creativity by making them feel valued partners in the enterprise, active agents rather than code-writing drones. You’d be looking to maximize the ratio of brains to adaptability. You’d try to insure your employees’ commitment by making them feel that they were generating their own tasks and measures of performance, by having them “take ownership” of the workplace. You’d want reliable people who can also think “outside the box,” not people who think that successful performance means merely meeting preset goals. You would reward the most loyal employees with stock options.
Menand, unlike me, is a real thinker and writer, who has been an academic forever at a real university.  He is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard, and has been a writer for the New Yorker for more than a fifteen years.  Borrowing from the math concept that Vimala Sitaraman taught us decades ago, I like to think that Menand and I are similar triangles--his triangle is way, way, way bigger though.  Menand writes:
I don’t work in a startup. I work in a brick-and-mortar university, one of the most institutionally conservative workplaces in the world outside North Korea. But my colleagues and I all value flexibility and innovation. We are against routine thinking and rote learning. We teach our students to think outside the box and to be comfortable with failure. We stress the importance of teamwork and interaction; we seek to have our students take ownership of the classroom and to insure that they have a psychologically safe space in which to discuss their ideas. We want them to be smarter, faster, better.
Exactly!  (Though, I am not sure about "my colleagues" aspect.)  If students are even barely attentive in any of my classes, then they would have easily understood my comments on flexibility, innovation, rote learning, failure, teamwork, interaction, and--yes--ownership.  But, hey, when has the world ever paid attention to me and why should students, right?

At a higher education conference that I attended not too long ago--perhaps  the university regrets having sent me there--the presenters at one session emphasized "intentionality and reflective action."  As we got into the discussions, I asked them for tips on how to develop in students a sense of agency, so that they can take ownership of their education.  Of course, there is no easy formula for that.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Higher education as a snake oil business

A few months ago, I expressed my worry to my department colleagues over what I believe was a sure downtrend in university-wide student enrollment and, therefore, the revenue stream in the very near future.  In one of those emails, I wrote:
particularly against the background of demographics in the K-12 pipeline, the economic chaos in Saudi Arabia and the uncertain transition issues in China--the two countries that send students to WOU
The good thing is that I can look at the trail of evidence--in emails, in the blog, and in the op-eds--and feel good that I was on the right track.  But, that does no good at all.  Living a version of the Cassandra Curse is no fun.  When my worries come true, well, it ain't the time to celebrate!

Many public universities, like the one where I teach, have for a few years now been actively recruiting students from China and Saudi Arabia in order to improve their finances.  It is a simple  formulation that international students equal money.  It is not that I am opposed to international students; after all, decades ago I was one.  But, my worry has been that universities were not seeing these international students as individuals but as $$$.  In disgust, I have on more than one occasion complained that the university is treating them like walking ATMs.

Such misery loves company.  The New York Times quoted a physics professor who is quitting Idaho State University:
They viewed these students as A.T.M. machines,
The "these students" he refers to are also students from Saudi Arabia.
By some estimates, the one million international students in the United States generate a $30.5 billion boost to the economy. The largest group comes from China, but Saudi Arabia, the fourth-largest country of origin, supplies more than 70,000 students to schools like Arizona State, Western Kentucky, Cleveland State and Southern Illinois.
Some of these institutions are particularly concerned about the impact of a recent announcement by the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which supports most of the students from Saudi Arabia. The program is facing “deep funding cuts,” according to Moody’s Investors Service
Even worse than treating them like ATMs, the universities do not seem to care that there is very little interaction between the international students and the natives.  Even at our campus with a very small percentage of foreign students, the Chinese students seem to hang out with fellow Chinese, the Saudis with their own, and the university officials apparently do not see anything to worry about because the financial bottom-line looks healthy, for now.

If you felt like discounting the NY Times because it is a liberal rag, then here is the mouthpiece of the business world, the Wall Street Journal, reporting on similar issues while focusing on the Chinese students:
A decade ago, facing falling state financial support, Oregon State decided it needed to attract more students from outside the U.S. State appropriations per full-time college student have fallen 45% in the past five years. ...
Oregon State’s international population surpassed 3,300 last fall, up from 988 in 2008, the year before INTO began operating. The revenue has enabled the university to add 300 tenure-track professors and expand overall enrollment to nearly 29,000 from about 19,000 during the same period.
It is one thing to bring in those students and, thereby, vastly improve the budget.  It is another when students and their learning, which is what a university should be about, become roadkill.  
One concentration, the school’s accountancy masters of business, now has more Chinese than American students, says senior professor Roger Graham Jr. That raises questions, he says, such as, “Do I stick with the original learning objectives or modify them” to suit the needs of Chinese students?
And the need for modification?
On the ground, American campuses are struggling to absorb the rapid and growing influx—a dynamic confirmed by interviews with dozens of students, college professors and counselors.
Students such as Mr. Shao are finding themselves separated from their American peers, sometimes through choice. Many are having a tough time fitting in and keeping up with classes. School administrators and teachers bluntly say a significant portion of international students are ill prepared for an American college education, and resent having to amend their lectures as a result.
But, who cares, right, as long as the money keeps rolling in!  Except that the ATMs are leaving:
For Idaho State, it is a moment of truth, with a loss of more than $2 million a year in tuition alone from 100 students who left last summer. More declines are expected.
“We’re preparing for the worst,” said Scott Scholes, the associate vice president for enrollment management.
As colleges across the country, including prestigious universities like the University of California, Berkeley, second-tier state universities and little-known private institutions, look to make up for budget cuts and declining enrollment by accepting more foreign students, the situation at Idaho State is a cautionary tale, an example of the complexities of integrating foreign students into a campus and a community.
If only people listened to me!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

This examined life

The last few posts were not accidents, but were by design.  Let me remind you about those posts:
  • On Sunday, I wrote about the important conversations that we do not have with friends and family, and then wonder and worry about the missed opportunities after they are dead.
  • Monday's theme was "love is wise, hatred is foolish."
  • I followed those up with living a life through the filters of truth and conscience.  
  • And then I blogged about empathy and how to help fellow humans.
While the contents reflected materials I came across, I had decided earlier that I would use the start of the Holy Week of the Christian calendar to think about what it means to be human and what it means to lead a good life.  Atheist I am, but I feel constantly driven, sometimes a tad too intensely, to understand these.

When I was a believer, and a sincere one at that, it occurred to me that religions set aside days and times to worship, but it was more than merely to pray to god.  It was essentially to take a detour from the grinds of daily life in order to figure out if we are doing the right things and whether we needed any course corrections.  The near miss with dog shit was merely a metaphor for one of those evaluations.  If it turns out that we do have to adjust the path, or if we feel completely lost, then any religion suggests to the believer to pick up a holy book and to figure out a new path.  If for whatever reason we are incapable, then the believers can always seek the guidance of the religious leaders.  But, ultimately, the quest comes from within; a quest to find out whether one is doing alright.

Over the years of being an atheist, I find that I am all the more keen on making sure I establish for myself what it means to do the right thing and whether I am consistent with my own understanding of the right thing.  And this time, I thought I might as well parallel the Christian believer's Easter Week and engage in that introspection.  Especially because after a long time I was staying put at home for the break, instead of being on the road like I was the last two years.

It is tiring, draining, to always inquire into doing the right thing.  And even more so when I knowingly do the wrong thing.  But, life does not seem worth without such a constant examination.  As the Nobel-winning Steven Weinberg put it,
Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God
Satisfaction is an understatement.  It is a rich life.  And, yes, there is a certain honor in realizing that doing the right thing means simply for the here and the now and not because of a fear of the unknown.  Doing the right thing not because of any calculations on maximizing the odds in the after-life.

As this essay pointed out a few years ago:
[There] are things one loses in giving up God, and they are not insignificant.  Most importantly, you lose the guarantee of redemption.  Suppose that you do something morally terrible, something for which you cannot make amends, something, perhaps, for which no human being could ever be expected to forgive you.  I imagine that the promise made by many religions, that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry, is a thought would that bring enormous comfort and relief.  You cannot have that if you are an atheist.  In consequence, you must live your life, and make your choices with the knowledge that every choice you make contributes, in one way or another, to the only value your life can have.
To be one's own prosecutor, jury, and judge, without any possibility of a presidential pardon, well, there is no other way to live life.

"May peace be with you!", is a way to wrap up this post consistent with the Holy Week approach.  Or, as in the religion in which I was raised, "Sarve Jana sukino Bhavantu!" (let the world's people be happy!)



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

On getting the head and the heart to work together

To observe important dates such as birthdays and death anniversaries, my parents make donations to charities, like goshalas, public feeding at temples, facilities for the disabled, etc. It is a good thing that my parents do not wonder if their donations will deliver the maximum possible benefits compared to giving to other causes.  If they did, then odds are that they will be disappointed.

In order to get to that point, let me start with the summer of 2014, when the social media fad was to challenge friends to a ice-bucket challenge.  Remember that?  It was to raise funds for the terrible Lou Gehrig's Disease (medically known as ALS).  I turned down a friend's challenge.  Because, as I wrote then:
 I am far from convinced that ALS ranks way high among the gazillion problems that humans experience on this planet and, therefore, it is more important for me to spend whatever that I can on issues that are of much higher priority.
It might have seemed like I am heartless.  A horrible monster.  But, I am not.  I am, in fact, worried about my sense of empathy that often emotionally drains me.  So, here I am with a high level of empathy but being cold-hearted?

The ice-bucket challenge was not any individual giving but was a public policy drive.  A public rally for allocating money for a specific issue.  Especially when it comes to public policies, the highly empathetic me wants to make sure that the money we spend will be on the highest priorities.  Such an approach is what the philosopher Peter Singer refers to as "effective altruism."

Purely guided by empathy means that we could individually and collectively make a whole bunch of wrong choices.  Take the Syrian refugee crisis, for instance.  We apparently couldn't care for about the humanitarian issues, despite being informed about it, until we saw the photograph of a toddler dead on the beach with his face down.  The momentary empathy is not what drives public policy nor should it.

Or, consider the latest extremism in Europe--the bombs in Brussels.  Our empathy is well warranted.  The people behind those bombings are evil, no doubt.  But, is that the greatest humanitarian crisis that should command all our attention and resources?  How about the chaos in Syria where the civil war has entered the sixth year?  Or, the crisis in Yemen?  Or, the Boko Haram-triggered violence and rape and everything else?  Or the incidents beyond our wildest imaginations that have been going on in South Sudan?   And, btw, why is the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan not even on the international radar?

Source

Those are geopolitical issues.  Will a focus on Brussels and the resultant public policy resource allocation decisions deliver more than some of the global health issues that we have continued to ignore for decades?  Like tuberculosis, malaria, Ebola, and now even Zika?  And given all the talk related to World Water Day, how about the benefits of clean water supply and sanitation?

There is a role for empathy, yes.  But, it is often "biased and parochial."
It favors vulnerable children and animals, and discriminates against unattractive people. You’re more likely to sympathize with someone in your social group rather than an outsider, especially one who looks different.
Empathy is also innumerate, Dr. [Paul] Bloom notes, which is why you may care more about one girl stuck in a well than thousands of war refugees or millions of people who will be affected by climate change.
Even that toddler who was face down on the beach, well, would that image have triggered the outcry if it were a black South Sudanese kid?  Or, did most of us in the advanced economies empathize because the kid did not look that different from one of our own?

Source

When my parents make those charitable contributions, is it the familiarity-triggered empathy? More important than any of the issues that I have listed here?  Should they think about it?   

There are even more problems with empathy:
In his current research, Dr. Bloom and a colleague are finding that the more empathic people feel toward victims of terrorism in the Middle East, the more they favor taking military action.
“If I want to do terrible things to a group, one tried-and-true way is to arouse empathy for victims of that group,” Dr. Bloom said in an interview. “Often the argument for war is rooted in empathy for victims of the enemy.”
So, driven by empathy, if you want to donate in order to make this world a better place for humans anywhere--not only those who are in your own social group--then what can you do?  Here is a place you can start.

Click here if you want to listen to a short three-minute video/talk by Bloom.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Life through a truth filter

"Watch out" the friend tried to warn me as we walked.

"Good thing you missed the dog shit" she added.

I checked the soles of the shoes.  Nothing.  All clean.

That literal act of not paying attention to where I was going also serves as a metaphorical and philosophical reminder in life, as this following couplet from the old country advises:
दृष्टिपूतं न्यसेत्पादं पस्त्रपूतं जलं पिबेत् ।
सत्यपूतां वदेद्वाचं मनःपूतं समाचरेत् ॥
- मनुस्मृति
One must set foot only after seeing (cleared after an inspection by the eye).
One must drink water only after passing through a cloth.
One must utter words that pass through the truth filter.
One's actions must pass the conscience test.
Truth filter.
Conscience test.
If only!

Add those two to "love is wise; hatred is foolish" and it feels like a perfect formula for living a good life, right?

Perhaps humans have always behaved in ways such that truth was not a primary concern, and the conscience did not always dictate actions.  After all, if humans had behaved well, then why would they have even thought it was necessary to compose such verses, or draft the Ten Commandments, or ...

Oddly enough, all those structures that were packaged into religions did not make truthful and conscientious humans.  Through the centuries, we humans have been awfully untruthful without worrying about the conscience.  So atrocious is the human trait that we require one testifying under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Apparently we are well aware that we humans, including the believing kind, are capable of telling the truth, but only a partial truth while conveniently omitting certain parts of what would otherwise have been the whole truth!

The disregard for truth and the conscience manifests itself in daily life, in matters trivial and profound alike.  Maybe to be human means that we often step on dogshit.  But, wherein lies the value of such a life?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Love is wise, hatred is foolish

During my formative years, back in the old country, I doubt there was any concept of counselors. For all the trials and tribulations that everyday life dishes out--sometimes more than one can handle--there were no professional counselors.

Obviously, not all of us have the Teflon coating of inner strength and wisdom to fend off those challenges.  Thus, it was not unusual for the elders of the family to be pressed into service.

But, that was mostly for troubleshooting.

During crises, people, in the Hindu faith within which I was raised, went to temples and to their favorite religious leaders.  Of course, no idol in the temple listens and responds, but people submitted their petitions anyway.  Personal meetings with religious leaders were next to impossible, unless one was wealthy or well-connected.  Rarely did such visits relieve the stresses, but perhaps people got used to their miseries as the old joke goes.

When religious leaders did address a gathering, they often spoke in broad philosophical terms.  And they often employed the puranas (mythology) in order to make those philosophical observations relatable to daily life.  To the audience with their varied and unique problems, well, these were like group therapy sessions.

In this Aeon interview, Jules Evans says this about ancient Greeks and Romans and many Indian philosophers--they approached it as a therapeutic way of life:
They developed various practical techniques which they said would help transform suffering, that were part of a comprehensive ‘philosophy of life’. These techniques weren’t simply positive thinking, rather they argued that we need to see the world as it is, in all its instability and adversity, and accept it.
I was curious about this Jules Evans, who is "policy director at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London."  I looked up for additional information on his website:
My practical wisdom approach combines the teaching of evidence-based well-being techniques from ancient philosophies, with open group discussions about ethics and values. I embrace a pluralist and eclectic approach – participants are encouraged to bring in their own opinions and experiences and to explore different ways of thinking about flourishing.
I agree with Evans that the Hindu philosophers (I think he means Hindu when he says "Indian"--I am not sure if he includes there the Sufis, for instance) provided frameworks that comforted us into accepting the world as it is and life as it unfolds.

I like the way he summarizes the following as well:
I approach philosophy as a sort of pragmatism – I have a set of values and an idea of how the world is, and I try it out and see if I can live by it, if it fits reality, if it leads to an expanded sense of flourishing. And reality (including other people) feeds back to me, lets me know if I’m living wisely or foolishly. That two-way process is always changing, you’re always adapting and revisiting assumptions. But no one can be entirely anti-dogmatic – one needs a set of values and opinions to live by. I think you must have one too, no? I’m sure it has changed over time but if you were a complete skeptic, like Pyrrho, you wouldn’t know whether to get out of bed or not.
Even though I am a skeptic, it is not as it I don't have well-defined values.  My philosophy of life, too, is one based on constant iteration with the real world.

The interviewer, who is a "a writer, philosopher and podcaster", quotes Bertand Russell's philosophical values to live by:
He boiled down his philosophical values to two principles. First, try to look solely at the facts on any issue, rather than at what you would like to be true. No easy task, of course. Second, and this is another hard one to live up to: ‘Love is wise, hatred is foolish.’ We have to learn to put up with the fact that people will say things that we don’t like, detest even. To live together, we need to be able to speak freely, and tolerate others who do that too. 
Of course, this is not the first time that I am awed by Russel's words.  I am even more impressed with that simple formulation by the atheist Russell; a formulation that is no different from what the old religions also attempt to teach us: Love is wise, hatred is foolish.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

I'm dying to talk to you ...

"my dad passed away today after a long stay in ICU
Funeral on Monday"

It has been a month since my old high school pal's sister sent me that message about their father.  A couple of days ago, another classmate from the high school days lost her father whose last days were in the hospital.

We are in that stage in our lives when our parents--if we are lucky enough to have them around until now--are beginning to remind us that we are mortals.  Mere mortals.

After they are gone, we can no longer ask them questions.  We perhaps continue to ask them--in our minds--and wonder what their responses might be.  Or, worse, we begin to think about the questions that we never asked and then regret the very fact that we always knew we had those those questions but never asked them.

My father was a forty-day infant when his father died.  Throughout his life, father apparently wanted to know about grandfather.  But, growing up in a culture in which one did not ask questions, especially about one who died young, father did not engage in conversations with grandfather's cohort of family and friends in order to understand his own father.  Over the past few years, he has often wondered aloud about having missed the opportunities.

The author of this New York Times essay writes about not having had the opportunity for conversations with her father, who suddenly died of a heart attack:
Part of the problem is that some silences are too wide to narrate. Words, even if the right ones miraculously presented themselves, would not be enough. 
Why is it that when we are so eager to talk about politics and sports--and even the weather, over which we have no influence--we shy away from having conversations about things that really matter to us?

As one who has always been interested in old family stories, I cannot imagine there is anything more for me to ask my father or mother or the few remaining ones from their generation.  I suppose I have been lucky in this, too.

It is only a matter of time before all of us from the old school in the old country become orphaned.  We would move to take the places that were vacated by our parents.  Perhaps we will wonder not only about the conversations that we did not have with our parents and grandparents but also about the conversations that we did not have with our children and grandchildren.  I suppose such strange practices, too, are very much part of what it means to be human.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Free to choose

"Here's your reward" I told the student as I handed her a chocolate bar.

"Do you always have stuff like this in your office?" she asked.

"Yes.  Snacks. Candies.  My office is not for books" I chuckled at my own joke.

I rarely ever do not have chocolate at just an arm's length away.  In my office and at home.  But, even though the sweet brown thing (no, not me--I am referring to the chocolate!) is right there, it does not mean that I compulsively devour it out of some Pavlovian response to the sight.

Chocolate is but an example. Even now, I have ice cream in the freezer.  For that matter, even the tasty jack halva!  Tasty potato chips in the pantry.  A salty/spicy snack that I picked up from the Indian store awaits my attention.  But, I don't even hear any call from the sirens..

I am eternally thankful for this ability to just say no, and to eat them in moderation when I do get to them.  I suspect it is all a part of the regimented lifestyle that perhaps came from listening to the instructions that grandmothers and parents always had (even if they did not always practice them.)

It is all a structured daily existence.  From waking up during the cow-milking time to eating the same lunch on most work days to ... and, of course, a clean and uncluttered kitchen that is on the healthy side of an obsessive compulsive approach.  Research agrees:
And a study published this month in the journal Environment and Behavior points to another factor that can nudge us to eat: clutter.
"The notion that places — such as cluttered offices or disorganized homes — can be modified to help us control our food intake is becoming an important solution in helping us become more slim by design," report Brian Wansink of Cornell University and his colleagues in their write-up of the study.
"It's important to know whether a food environment can actually cause you to, unknowingly, overeat," Wansink told us.
That is not news to me by any means.  It is so intuitive.  But, of course, a scientific understanding means that we do not rely on intuition but we look for evidence that others cannot refute.

A different study also suggested a similar bottom-line:
"The results confirmed the prediction that an orderly environment leads to more desirable, normatively good behaviors," she and her co-authors write in their study published in Psychological Science.
It makes sense, if we think about it.  When a place is litter-free, we don't feel like tossing out the banana peel or the candy wrapper.  But, if we see that the street or the beach has all kinds of crap already, then we too contribute to the mess.  The inverse works--provide a clean, regimented structure, which is different from a sterile environment--and we can motivate healthy behavior.  Chocolate bars that sit in the bowls and desk drawers for days, while apples and oranges and bananas are being consumed.

This swami deserves a chocolate-break now ;)



Friday, March 18, 2016

Truthiness, facts, and the asshole

I am, yet again, reminded of my grandmother's caution that while we might laugh making fun of something, we will cry when that something becomes real.

Back when the Bush/Cheney/Faux News collaborative venture called the Republican administration created their own reality and assured themselves that they were creating heaven on earth, Stephen Colbert made us laugh our way out by the news that he reconstructed in his show.  In this reconstruction, Colbert invented a word that has also entered popular culture: truthiness.
American television comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word in this meaning[2] as the subject of a segment called "The Wørd" during the pilot episode of his political satire program The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005. By using this as part of his routine, Colbert satirized the misuse of appeal to emotion and "gut feeling" as a rhetorical device in contemporaneous socio-political discourse
So, where from did Colbert get the word?
 Colbert explained the origin of his word as: "Truthiness is a word I pulled right out of my keister".
We all laughed.  It was funny.

Except that now even Faux News is now apparently stunned by the reality that Donald Drumpf has created.  The Republicans who used Faux News as their propaganda machine have now been outslimed.  In this rapid descent facts no longer matter.

Jill Lepore writes about facts in her latest essay in the New Yorker.  How does she manage to be so productive?  I hate such people ;)  Speaking of Lepore, finally I could take it no more and I emailed her an appreciatory note a few weeks ago.  Guess what?  She wrote back an email that was even longer than my lengthy email.  I suppose it is true that the really busy people have time for everything.  Which makes me hate her even more ;)

Anyway, Lepore writes in her latest essay:
Michael P. Lynch is a philosopher of truth. His fascinating new book, “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data,” begins with a thought experiment: “Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and hooked directly into a person’s brain.” As thought experiments go, this one isn’t much of a stretch. (“Eventually, you’ll have an implant,” Google’s Larry Page has promised, “where if you think about a fact it will just tell you the answer.”) Now imagine that, after living with these implants for generations, people grow to rely on them, to know what they know and forget how people used to learn—by observation, inquiry, and reason. Then picture this: overnight, an environmental disaster destroys so much of the planet’s electronic-communications grid that everyone’s implant crashes. It would be, Lynch says, as if the whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know anything anymore, because no one would know how to know. 
So, what comes next?
People who care about civil society have two choices: find some epistemic principles other than empiricism on which everyone can agree or else find some method other than reason with which to defend empiricism. Lynch suspects that doing the first of these things is not possible, but that the second might be. He thinks the best defense of reason is a common practical and ethical commitment. I believe he means popular sovereignty. That, anyway, is what Alexander Hamilton meant in the Federalist Papers, when he explained that the United States is an act of empirical inquiry: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” The evidence is not yet in.
Well, the evidence comes right from your butt, notes Nicholas Carr, whose writings on technology and the internet have been sharply critical--which means, of course, I have quoted him in plenty in this blog.  Carr writes about a latest gadget, which is "a rectal thermometer with a Bluetooth transmitter":
Along with a speedy network connection, the Vicks SmartTemp Wireless Thermometer comes with a smartphone app that allows you to track your or your child’s body-temperature stream, share the data with Apple Health and other commercial services, and upload the readings to the cloud for safekeeping and corporate scanning.
I suppose that will be a fact from an asshole that you can trust! ;)


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Paying for the ancestors' worst mistake ever!

I have often wondered, in this blog too, why we humans tend to work so hard.  Sometimes, if the context ever comes up, I even bug students in my classes about this.  I tell them that biologically we are animals, and that for the longest time we even lived like that--the hunting/gathering ancestors of ours worked enough to get food for the day and then they called it quits. I tell them that the settled agriculture ruined it for us because ever since then we have been working hard from dawn to dusk and now we work round the clock thanks to artificial lighting and heating!

Of course, when I criticize the permanent agriculture, I am merely channeling Jared Diamond, who called that the worst mistake ever!
How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they abandoned hunting and gathering for farming?
From the perspective of hard work and very little down time, the "progress" is questionable:
 Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn't emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"
Imagine a 14-hour work week.  Oh, wait, that's the faculty life! ;)

In the contemporary world, in a life that the hunter-gatherers would not remotely relate to, we are proud of working hard.  We are even suspicious of those who seemingly do not want to work as hard as some do.  Ryan Avent has a lengthy essay pretty much defending himself while explaining why he--and many others like him--love to work hard and long hours.

BTW, perhaps you recognize the name Avent from having been a subscriber to the Economist.  What I didn't know until I came across that essay by Avent is that the Economist has launched another periodical, called 1843.
The Economist’s bi-monthly magazine of ideas, culture and lifestyle. Aimed at the globally curious, every issue includes in-depth features, as well as culture, design, technology, travel, style, food and drink, and body and mind.
You can guess what the significance of 1843 might be to that publication, right?

Anyway, back to Avent's defense of his long work days:
You might have thought that whereas, before, a male professional worked 50 hours a week while his wife stayed at home with the children, a couple of married professionals might instead each opt to work 35 hours a week, sharing more of the housework, and ending up with both more money and more leisure. That didn’t happen. Rather, both are now more likely to work 60 hours a week and pay several people to care for the house and children.
Why?
And that is exactly what Avent attempts to answer.   Read that engaging piece.

I am not sold on the long, long work days.  I remain convinced that it is pretty darn stupid to spend a good chunk of one's life merely working away.  But, hey, if ever you are frustrated by all that hours of work and no leisure, then curse our ancestors whose brilliant idea it was to settle down and start farming and domesticating cattle more than 10,000 years ago!


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

An honest day's work

By now, it should be clear to regular readers that I don't waffle and use euphemisms.  Right?  Mine is a Socratic approach.  In fact, the older I get, the less I am able to argue for anything that is way off the truth--I cannot even imagine how lawyers and accountants do that lying day in and day out!

So, in that Socratic spirit, let me share with you something that has baffled me throughout my career as an academic.

I find it bizarre when faculty talk about preparing students for the workforce, and when they give career advice to students.

It is bizarre because most of them--not all, but an overwhelming majority of them--have never been gainfully employed outside the walls of the ivory tower.  I do not mean working summer jobs as students.  I am referring to real jobs with real responsibilities.  Yet, they give career advice to the youth?  And students listen to them?

Most of the faculty were good students who went to college right after graduating from high school.  And almost always, even as they were wrapping up the undergraduate programs, they applied to graduate school, earned their doctorates, and then started working as faculty.  If not for the odd summer jobs, they might not have had any exposure to the real world at all.

My neighbor/friend jokes often that I am like any professor who has never done an honest day of work, by which he means the real world working experience.  But, of course, he knows he is exaggerating.  I worked as an engineer in India.  A real job.  Well, make it three real jobs with three different employers in India.  And then here in the US, I worked as a transportation planner, for almost six years.  The six longest years ever.  A grand total of seven years of work in the world that was far away from higher education.

The more I observe the faculty in higher education, the more I am convinced that most of them should simply admit to students that they have no idea about jobs and careers.  Even worse are the deans and provosts.  All of them should do a full disclosure like "to be honest, the only thing I know is how to prepare for a career in higher education."  As Ken Robinson remarked in this awesome talk that is also hysterically funny, the entire point of education, right from kindergarten, seems to be about preparing clones of teachers.
 If you were to visit education, as an alien, and say "What's it for, public education?" I think you'd have to conclude, if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this, who does everything that they should, who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners -- I think you'd have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn't it? They're the people who come out the top. And I used to be one, so there. 
Which is all the more why I felt awesome on reading a student's email of thanks in which he writes:
The advice you gave was based on your understanding of who I am as a person and what I value, not on some intellectual or scholar you are trying to forge into your own image.
It is unfortunate that most of higher education today is neither about the intellectual aspects of understanding the world nor about workforce preparation.  It has become a self-serving business.  How awful!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Let them eat cakes ... made only by us!

Consider this:
[The] decision to manufacture in the U.S. isn’t solely about dollars and cents. Rather, it’s a function of the quality of the U.S. workforce—its noteworthy productivity and its easy familiarity with lean-factory principles—as well as the need for companies to react quickly to changes in domestic consumer demand. As Jeff Immelt, the C.E.O. of General Electric, put it in 2013: “Today, the product is the process, more or less. If you look at an aircraft engine, the content of labor is probably less than five per cent. We have two hours of labor in a refrigerator. So it really doesn’t matter if you make it in Mexico, the U.S., or China. Today it’s really about globalization, not about outsourcing; it’s how do I capture markets faster than the competition?”
Two hours of labor into the making of a refrigerator.  Just two hours of labor?  If you are like me, you have never thought about how much labor goes into the making of a fridge, right?  The fridge that has revolutionized our lives.

America manufactures a whole lot of stuff, yes.  It is not the strength of the manufacturing sector that is the problem, but the fact that the strong manufacturing sector does not generate the kinds of jobs that it used to in the past.  A point that Dan Drezner makes with data:
The problem isn’t that the United States doesn’t have a vibrant manufacturing sector. The problem is that sector does not generate the job numbers that used to be associated with manufacturing:

I wish politicians will make this distinction clear.
Both Trump and Sanders downplay the enormous economic benefits of globalization for American consumers of all incomes, and their proposed solutions are vague and could well be harmful if implemented. But their words resonate with many voters, because they articulate an important truth: free trade has created major winners and major losers in the U.S. economy, and the losers—mostly blue-collar workers—have received little or no help.
I have often blogged about my own stand on these: to a developing country, manufacturing and exporting provides the economic ladder going up.  To tell them that they should not "compete" against us seems like a variation of let 'em eat cakes.  Thus, if they manufacture stuff that then displaces workers here, then what is required is a new social contract that reflects a new reality, as much as the New Deal was in response to the economic situation of those times.  However, reworking the social contract requires thoughtful and responsible politics, which apparently is rarer than a unicorn!


Monday, March 14, 2016

How far away is India from Indonesia?

My first newspaper opinion piece--not any short letter to the editor--was when I was a few months away from wrapping up graduate schooling in Los Angeles, which was my port of entry to life in these United States.  The op-ed was, in retrospect, a terrible piece.  But, hey, if my writing and I are works in progress, you can easily imagine that I and my writing sucked big time more than two decades ago.

It was published in the Bakersfield Califiornian--by then I had transitioned to life in Bakersfield.  Soon, it was a second opinion piece in that same paper, after I had managed to find gainful employment in the city.  A day after that second opinion essay, when the phone rang at work, it turned out to be the beginning of a productive association and friendship.

The caller was a professor at the local university.  He was pleased that the opinion author was from India and wanted to contact me right away.  He was also from India, and chose to go with a short version of his multi-syllable Indian name.  At the end of the brief phone conversation, he invited me and my family over to his home for dinner with him and his wife.

A few days later, we met in the real world.  That was the first of the many dinners with Kris and Kirsten.  He was only a few years younger than my father.  Kirsten was from Denmark--they had met when he was a graduate student in Copenhagen.

Not too long after that, Kris invited us to join them at the local Danish association's potluck gathering.  In his uniquely funny manner, Kris added that he was the president of the Danish Association.  Only in America can an Indian be the president of a Danish association!

It was but a small gathering.  Most of them were even older than Kris.  They were all familiar with India as well.  One of them, a much older woman, quizzed me about the Danish connection with India.  She asked me if I knew about the Danish colonies there.  I was so thankful that I knew about Tranquebar--it was not far from where we lived in India.  The old woman was pleased that I knew.  She then talked about how in their schooling they had learnt about the Danish East India Company, and the Nicobar Islands.  She regretted not having been to India.

All the way from tiny Denmark a colony in the Nicobar Islands.  Imagine that!

I was reminded of those old stories when I read this lengthy report in the New York Times, about the ethical and legal issues relating to a dead baby among one of India’s last intact Paleolithic tribes in the Andamans. Reading that will be well worth your time, I assure you.

So, why Indonesia in the title of this post?  It is easy to forget that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are way, way out there from the Indian mainland.  So much out there that the southern end of this archipelago is less than a hundred miles away from the northern tip of Indonesia's Aceh Province.


It is a small world after all.

As for Kris, one evening he poured wine in two glasses for Kirtsen and for himself while she was making a pizza for dinner.  Kris told his wife that he was going to lie down for a few minutes.  He never woke up again--a massive heart attack ended his life.

Are you not entertained?

Yesterday, the Statesman Journal, to which Anne who has become a frequent commenter/debater here is a subscriber, published an op-ed of mine.  In that, I argued how the minimum wage increase will affect the public higher education budget and how, as a result, universities will  chop down education in order to ensure that the highest priority suffers no consequence.  And that highest priority is?  Athletics, of course!
That op-ed will further ensure that the administration and the faculty union alike will not like to listen to me at all.  I can easily imagine that their "disdain" for my "input and perspectives" will only increase ;)  When it comes to abusing the taxpayer and student monies, the faculty and administration that otherwise are at loggerheads will come together and have quite a party, and will even shamelessly ask for more money!  

Today, the Register Guard published the op-ed essay that I had sent them quite a few days ago.  Drumpf has been sucking the airwaves and the op-ed space too ;)  I suspected as much, which is why I blogged that essay here almost a month back.
Read 'em and weep, as we say here ;)


Sunday, March 13, 2016

On living a happy AND meaningful life

Perhaps I will continue with the theme explored in the previous post and comments--happiness.

When we discuss poverty and economic development, I can always count on a student to thoughtfully remark that people in the video and photographs of the "poor" Sub-Saharan or South Asian countries seem happy.  Genuinely happy.  Which is when I give them my usual spiel that once we go beyond the absolute poverty (those rates have been falling) we notice that getting rich is not the same the as being happy.  I discuss that without the academic language behind the Easterlin Paradox.

A psychology professor at Florida State University observes in this essay that "happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning":
To be sure, happiness and meaningfulness frequently overlap. Perhaps some degree of meaning is a prerequisite for happiness, a necessary but insufficient condition. If that were the case, people might pursue meaning for purely instrumental reasons, as a step on the road towards happiness. But then, is there any reason to want meaning for its own sake? And if there isn’t, why would people ever choose lives that are more meaningful than happy, as they sometimes do?
These days, I am suspicious about anything that psychology researchers have to offer based on the experiments that they conduct. There is a "reproducibility crisis" in psychology:
A study out last summer tried to replicate 100 psychology experiments one-for-one and found that just 40 percent of those replications were successful. A critique of that study just appeared last week, claiming that the original authors made statistical errors—but that critique has itself been attacked for misconstruing facts, ignoring evidence, and indulging in some wishful thinking.
But, we will set that aside for now and consider the essay, which argues that "happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning"--after all, this is also something that I have been talking, and blogging, about for years.  If it agrees with my view, then--of course--the research is true ;)

Kidding aside, the author writes:
If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.
Increasingly, it seems like people would rather focus on the present and seek a meaning of happiness that comes via instant gratification.  So much so that they even use technology that helps them assemble a past in order to tell a story that airbrushes out the misery.  Is all that really happiness, and is the meaning thus created really any meaning at all?  Ah, I digress.  Back to the essay at hand.  Why do we care about meaning anyway?
Perhaps the idea is to make happiness last. Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable. For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time. Those of us who are happy today are also likely to be happy months or even years from now, and those who are unhappy about something today commonly turn out to be unhappy about other things in the distant future. It feels as though happiness comes from outside, but the weight of evidence suggests that a big part of it comes from inside. Despite these realities, people experience happiness as something that is felt here and now, and that cannot be counted on to last. By contrast, meaning is seen as lasting, and so people might think they can establish a basis for a more lasting kind of happiness by cultivating meaning.
You are perhaps thinking, well, what is the meaning of life then?  That is for you to figure out.
People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer. There is no one answer: there are thousands of different ones. A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to the four questions of purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth. It is these questions, not the answers, that endure and unify.
Find your meaning. And be happy!


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Be still, I am content

I appreciated the sense of humor that the class had.  "A sense of humor is so valuable" I told them.  "The older we get, life can get more sucky.  With a sense of humor, we will be able to laugh them away" I told them.

I have no pretensions that anybody cared for what this most interesting old man had to say. The few students who want to engage with me find that I am a happy guy who laughs at his own jokes even when they are about him.

The silly happiness, I have come to realize, lies on a foundation of contentment.  A peaceful sense of contentment even when I drown in my own sorrows. Even when I read, and blog about, depressing Russian literature.

I wondered whether a poem might say all these and more.  Well, not about the sense of humor but about feeling content.

I went to my go-to-site for poems.  A link there "poems for women's history month." I was reminded of the female poet's verse that we read back in high school.

I scanned the poems.  I read a couple.  I felt like the women poets were letting me down.

And then I came across this one. Perfect!



Yes, "Be still, I am content ... joy [is] a flame in me"


  

Friday, March 11, 2016

Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

"I used to think that I want to buy only goods made in America" a student said as we were wrapping up the academic term.  "But, now I think that I will be helping people in Bangladesh and Vietnam when I buy stuff they make" she added.



I am confident that any honest and thinking person will understand such a level of global inter-connectedness even if their gut instincts initially led them down a different path.

The gadget that no student would even dream of going without--the smartphone--is almost always one of those "Made in China" goods.  In commenting about Apple's products being manufactured overseas, Steve Jobs made headlines when he flatly stated : "“Those jobs aren’t coming back,”  President Obama had to reconcile with the fact that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

That was four years ago. It is now the campaign season all over again.  A candidate who wants to take over from Obama loudly proclaimed:
We're going to get Apple to build their damn computers and things in this country instead of in other countries.
The candidate thundered why imposing a 35 percent tax on goods manufactured overseas is good:
Free trade is good. But we have to do it [force them back to the US]. Or we won't have a country left,
You are perhaps thinking that this is so typical of that damn socialist Bernie Sanders.

Except that it was not Sanders who said all that.  It was the capitalist billionaire Donald Trump!
Trump promises to bring Third World jobs back to an advanced economy, and millions of voters—left and right—find this emotionally satisfying and politically reasonable. Many of these people just want to find work, so it's understandable. And when the economy is stagnant, you're not going to allay working-class anxiety by pointing out that capital account surpluses matter more than trade deficits or that productivity, not foreigners, is realigning the workforce—even if it's all true.
People just don't care.
The support for Trump's economic rhetoric reflects a dangerous combination among his supporters: ignorance and apathy--don't know and don't care.  Try telling that to trump and his Trumpeters!

Of course, Sanders has offered his own wise economic policies as well.  Angry that we no longer make stuff here in America, he:
pushed the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to only sell bobble-heads, T-shirts, snow-globes, and other souvenirs that are made in America.
An honest and thinking person will immediately see that manufacturing all that "stuff" here is not worth it.  But, try telling Sanders that!

Imagine it it became a Trump versus Sanders fight in November :(


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