Saturday, April 30, 2016

Money stinks? Look who is talking!

There is no free lunch.  Which means, something offered for "free" has some hidden cost that perhaps we do not think about.

Think about the old days of television.  No, not in the old country, where in the old days there was only one channel--the government channel.  I am referring to the old days in the new country, before my time here.  The old days before cable.  As long as people had television sets at home, they could watch the shows for "free."  Except, well, they had to put up with the advertisements.

So, let us see how that business model worked.  A bunch of people got paid to air the programs and they made money from the advertisements that were targeted at the viewers who were paying for it with the time that they wasted watching the shows that ranged from the inane to the profound. Time is money, folks!

Now, consider a different business model that is contemporary.  There is only one thing that people need to do--sit around and waste their time.  It does not matter how they waste their time as long as they waste it.  They can talk about the food they ate, the music they listened to, the politician they hate, or watch cats playing pianos.  Or, heck, even complain about their constipation!  All they have to do is waste their time talking.  Of course, they don't have to pay anything other than with their time.  This is Facebook's business model:
Your addiction is making Facebook astonishingly profitable. Put a little more kindly, your emotional and intellectual interactions on the social network are creating a great place for companies to advertise.
Facebook does not judge you for the high-calorie food that you ate, or the expensive shoes you bought, or whatever it is that you did;  all the creators of that medium want is you wasting your time and other people's time talking about it in Facebook.  What a simple business model, right?  Highly profitable too because we humans love wasting time talking shit!
Pundits made a big deal this week about how Facebook excelled as Apple stumbled. But there was a warning for Facebook in Apple’s results. Apple has relied heavily on one product — the iPhone — for much of its revenue, so when sales of the device slowed, there was little Apple could do to keep growing. Facebook is even more reliant on a single element: advertising revenue. If people spend markedly less time on Facebook — because an enticing new network comes along, for example — the company’s revenue growth could slow.
"If people spend markedly less time on Facebook" is where everything hangs.  It does not look like the trend curve will shift anytime soon.  Which means, yep, people talking shit makes Mark Zuckerberg stinking rich.  Ah, yes, there's a sucker born every minute ;)

Full Disclosure:
While I have vastly cut down my Facebook time, my account is alive
Yesterday, I posted there this photo of the dinner that I cooked ;)

Friday, April 29, 2016

To hell with multitasking!

Remember this old nursery rhyme?
Work while you work,
play while you play;
this is the way
to be happy each day.
all that you do,
do with your might;
things done by halves
are never done right.
Perhaps that rhyme is no longer taught.  After all, we live in a world in which everybody seems to be multitasking all the time.  Students are eating and texting while supposedly learning.  People are texting and talking while driving.  And then there is me, who can barely do one thing at a time.

I have never believed in the multitasking hype.  I have always suspected that with the exception of a few gifted people, the rest of us are not wired to do a gazillion things all at once.  We will be better off checking off one thing after another.

So, naturally, I was drawn to this essay, which wants us to get (re)acquainted with "monotasking":
Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.
Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.
Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.
So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.
Huh?  They need to do research to tell me this?  If the multitaskers are the ones who need to be informed about this, will the message get through to them if they read the essay while listening to music even as they are driving and doing brain surgery at the same time? ;)
Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, lecturer at Stanford and the author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced.” She said: “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”
Monotasking needs to be practiced only because we have been brainwashed to think that multitasking is the way to go.  Speaking of brainwashing:
As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.”
The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
So, can you give us an example of "brain dead"?
“Attention is one way your brain decides, ‘Is this interesting? Is this worthwhile? Is this fun?’ ”
It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.
Paying attention pays dividends. Hmmm ... isn't that a simple thing that even my barely educated grandmothers told us?  

But, it is not merely about homework or economic productivity.  There is something more important and profound that is lost when we are distracted all the time: the loss of empathy, which I often blog about.
“Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people who are in conversation”
So, what can people begin to do?
Monotasking can also be as simple as having a conversation.
“Practice how you listen to people,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Put down anything that’s in your hands and turn all of your attentional channels to the person who is talking. You should be looking at them, listening to them, and your body should be turned to them. If you want to see a benefit from monotasking, if you want to have any kind of social rapport or influence on someone, that’s the place to start. That’s where you’ll see the biggest payoff.”
If only they are paying attention to all these, right?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Venezuela's Hunger Games

Three months have gone by.  So, of course, it is time to blog about Venezuela!

How bad is the situation there?
“Venezuela Doesn't Have Enough Money to Pay for Its Money.”
Yes, you read that right.
The situation is so bad that the government appears unable to pay for the new bills it has ordered from foreign currency makers (because, like almost all things, Venezuela has to import its money).
I don't think any dictionary has enough words to describe the conditions there.  I so want to ask the colleague who was always in utter praise of the architect of this mess--Hugo Chavez--what she now thinks about him and the successor, Nicolas Maduro, that he handpicked.
When President Hugo Chavez passed away in 2013, he left behind a stunted national economy almost wholly dependent on oil production. As a result, the collapse of crude prices has been disastrous. All the while, an ill-advised system of currency and price controls, partly meant to curb inflation, have led to shortages of basic goods and a thriving black-market economy.  
And what is the inflation rate?  Sit down and take a deep breath before you find out!

No food, no toilet paper, no condoms, and now?  No electricity!  So, what is Maduro's temporary fix?
Venezuela's years-long economic disintegration hit a sad new milestone on Tuesday, when President Nicolas Maduro announced that government employees would work only on Mondays and Tuesdays for at least the next two weeks to save scarce electricity.
Under these circumstances, you wouldn't expect the people to just sit back and wait for life to unfold, especially when it is already one of the most violent countries, right?
Angry residents in darkened towns around the country took to the streets Tuesday night, setting up flaming barricades and raiding shops for bread and other scarce food.
On Wednesday, more than 1,000 police fanned out around the western city of Maracaibo after a night of riots.
And to think that less than thirty years ago, I was in Maracaibo, enjoying arepas with cheese :(
Caracas is being spared from the rolling blackouts and has not seen violent protests. Some Venezuelans complain that the country is starting to resemble the dystopian series "The Hunger Games," in which districts suffer for the benefit of a heartless capital city.
"Dystopian" is the word, yes.  


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

On "the dispassionate pursuit of passion"

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, sure, but, it is not because I am an Indian-American that I see Indian-Americans everywhere! I open the latest issue of the Atlantic and there is an Indian-American: Anand Gopal has a lengthy and informative tragic piece the hell that Iraq is as ISIS recedes:
The Sunni refugees I met have little hope for a peaceful Iraq; whatever ideas they may have had about reclaiming their place in Iraqi society or undoing Shia-dominated rule have come unraveled, replaced by the most basic imperative of all: Stay alive.
And then at the magazine's website today, there is an interview with Raj Raghunathan.  Raghunathan, Gopal, ... I tell ya, not only Indian-Americans but the names suggest origins from my part of the world in the old country.  Trump can make all the moronic fun he wants to of the Indian accent, but beige is in, baby!

Raj Raghunathan is a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, who has written a book on an approach that will make people happy, instead of  the route that smart people seem to take in which "people may have a sense of what will make them happy, but they approach those things in ways that don’t maximize happiness"
which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you're really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don't need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you're good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you're going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.
Hey, the rational research that leads Raghunathan to these conclusions is no different from that old philosophical idea from the old country.  The one that is familiar to even the Hindu who could not be bothered with the old texts: "Let not the fruits of action be your motive"

Interesting how much we forget such fundamental aspects of a meaningful and happy life.  More from Raghunathan:
Ultimately, what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple. It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis.
Wait a second, I have been blogging about this for a long time and the management friend of mine did not help me monetize my thoughts?

Raghunathan has a valid point here:
In the big picture, the business world’s messages are a little jumbled. In business schools, I see that there's a huge push towards corporate social responsibility and finding a passion, but at the same time, if you look at the kinds of people who get invited to come give keynote addresses, or what it is that we focus on to improve our Businessweek rankings, it's things that are extrinsic. We invite people who made a million bucks, and we look at incoming MBA students and their outgoing salaries.
Exactly!  Whether it is MBA or undergraduate liberal arts, whether it is multinational corporations or otherwise, we talk one talk but then walk a completely different walk and end up valuing people based on the extrinsic measures like their earnings.  

Any parting words, Professor Raghunathan, on "the dispassionate pursuit of passion"?
There are expectations that if you achieve some given thing, you're going to be happy. But it turns out that's not true. And a large part of that is due to adaptation, but a large part of it also is that you see this mountain in front of you and you want to climb over it. And when you do, it turns out there are more mountains to climb.
Which means?
basically the concept boils down to not tethering your happiness to the achievement of outcomes. 
Amen, brother!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The market and the inhumane economy

Years ago, when I was teaching at Bakersfield, the university invited the philosopher Peter Singer to give a public talk.  The community, of whom a significant percentage is uber-conservative, made it clear that there would be protests because of Singer's controversial stands.  Anticipating a huge turnout, the event was not held in the small auditorium but was instead moved to the basketball court.  And, the police were there in numbers.

Since then, every once in a while I have come across Singer's essays and have always found them to be thought-provoking, even if I didn't always agree with him.  In the New York Review of Books, Singer has reviewed The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals.  Well, it is not really a review essay because he spends way more time talking about his own ideas and works more than the book that is under review; nonetheless, it is an essay that is full of interesting and challenging ideas and facts about rights of animals, especially the ones who are farmed for human consumption.

Singer's concern is about the animal-derived foods that we humans consume in greater and greater amounts:
consumers buy factory-farmed animal products, either despite knowing what factory farming is like for the animals they eat, or without even asking what it is like.
Don't jump up to blame capitalism, he writes:
Speciesism, which leaves so many of us indifferent to the interests of animals, predates capitalism. It survives revolutions that lead to alternative economic systems, whether they be the state communism of the former Soviet Union or the more idealistic socialism of the Israeli kibbutzim.
As long as we consider other life forms inferior to humans, well, we kill them and eat, or confine them in cages before we will them.  In short, we don't treat them as life forms.  One of the many issues Singer discusses there is this:
The problems of chicken production are not simply due to the fact that the birds are raised in vast crowded sheds, in air reeking of ammonia from their accumulated droppings. The more fundamental problem is that today’s chickens have been bred to grow three times as fast as chickens raised in the 1950s. Now they are ready for market when they are just six weeks old and their immature legs cannot handle the weight they gain. As a result, according to Webster, about one third of them are in chronic pain for the last third of their lives.
Given there are eight billion chickens raised for meat in the US every year, that means 2.6 billion birds are experiencing chronic pain for the last two weeks of their lives. Industry reports and scientific journals provide evidence that each year 139 million chickens don’t even make it to slaughter. Their legs collapse under them and, unable to move or reach food and water, they die of thirst or they starve. Or they simply cannot cope with the conditions they are living in, and their hearts give out. Or they die from the stress of being rounded up, thrown into cages, and transported to the slaughterhouses. In one way or another, they suffer to death.6 The humane economy has yet to have an impact on this huge industry and the unimaginable quantity of suffering it creates.
If one thinks, believes, that animals like chicken do not have any rights, and that humans can (ab)use them in any form, then there is no place for discussions.  I would think that such a group will be in the minority.  A good chunk of the population will feel uncomfortable when faced with the tortures that chicken are put through.
Do Americans care less about animals? The Californian experience suggests they do not. When Californian voters were given the opportunity to express their views on whether it should be permissible to prevent farm animals from turning around or stretching their limbs, they overwhelmingly said no. (This was the year in which Barack Obama was first elected president, and California was one of his strongest states, yet more Californians voted to give freedom of movement to farm animals [63 percent] than voted for Obama [61 percent]).
Will science and technology, along with philanthropists and citizens, deliver a humane economy?

Monday, April 25, 2016

My university and Europe

The university where I work invited interested faculty members to self-nominate themselves to serve on the Strategic Planning Committee.  Given my interests in higher education, and given that the directions that the university sets through this committee will be in place until I retire or am fired, I nominated myself and provided evidence of my track record in thinking above and beyond mere courses and the small little bubbles in which most discussions are trapped.

Of course, I was not selected to be on that committee.  What do I know about higher education!

In a brief thank-you email after receiving the notification that also included the list of faculty named to serve on the committee, I added a sentence that I hoped would make them all think about the committee's composition:
BTW, it seems kind of odd that faculty membership does not include any "people of color" as they say ;)
It was not diversity for the sake of diversity that I pointing out, but was instead about the need to think of the demographic reality.  Strategic Planning is about consciously developing specific action items for the future.  The demographic future of the country is in beige, the 2042 that even comedians joke about.  Oregon is notorious for not knowing how to deal with diversity, whether based on the superficial skin or on religion.   Especially Islam.

Everybody is talking and writing about Islam and the Arab world and Muslims.  The more one delves into the news, the more we realize we don't know anything about Islam, the Arab world, and Muslims.  Robert Kaplan writes that "Europe was essentially defined by Islam. And Islam is redefining it now."
The cultural purity that Europe craves in the face of the Muslim-refugee influx is simply impossible in a world of increasing human interactions.
“The West,” if it does have a meaning beyond geography, manifests a spirit of ever more inclusive liberalism. Just as in the 19th century there was no going back to feudalism, there is no going back now to nationalism, not without courting disaster.
In his short essay, Kaplan makes extensive reference to Edward Said's Orientalism.  Naturally.  Said had plenty of profound observations on the distorted--and intentional at that--understanding that the "West" has about Islam and the Arabs.
The scholar Edward Said took this point further, writing in his book Orientalism in 1978 that Islam had defined Europe culturally, by showing Europe what it was against. Europe’s very identity, in other words, was built in significant measure on a sense of superiority to the Muslim Arab world on its periphery. Imperialism proved the ultimate expression of this evolution
In a lengthy essay after his book was published, Said wrote--keep in mind that this was in 1980:
 If you were to ask an average literate Westerner to name an Arab or Islamic writer, or a musician, or an intellectual, you might get a name like Kahlil Gibran in response, but nothing else. In other words, whole swatches of Islamic history, culture and society simply do not exist except in the truncated, tightly packaged forms made current by the media. As Herbert Schiller has said, TV’s images tend to present reality in too immediate and fragmentary a form for either historical or human continuity to appear. Islam therefore is equivalent to an undifferentiated mob of scimitar-waving oil suppliers, or it is reduced to the utterances of one or another Islamic leader who at the moment happens to be a convenient foreign scapegoat.        
If that is the case with the average literate Westerner then do we need to even wonder why there are plenty of Americans today who eagerly embrace the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz!

Even at the university, the numbers of students from Saudi Arabia and their families have not been strategically used as opportunities to truly understand "them."  Instead, it seems that my university, like many others, merely continues to treat the foreigners as revenue sources, which is not that different from the "scimitar-waving oil suppliers" caricature that Said was upset about.

At this rate, it seems like it will be a close race between my exit from the university and the ultimate exit itself ;)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Who cares about human rights! Business as usual in DC.

“You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose” the late Mario Cuomo often said.  And what wonderful poetry we had from Barack Obama when he was the candidate. There is poetry and then there is prose.  The dull and boring prose of the reality of  governance and international realpolitik.

Case in point: the Armenian genocide.
“As president I will recognize the Armenian genocide,” Barack Obama vowed in January 2008. He even had his top campaign foreign policy adviser, self-styled “genocide chick” Samantha Power, issue a plaintive YouTube vow to the Armenian American community that this time they wouldn't be double-crossed.
But, that was the candidate sweet-talking with poetry during the courtship of campaigning.  After the election, the title Senator was replaced with President, which then meant that old campaign promises are meant to be broken:
In his annual statement on the mass death of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, President Barack Obama once again declined to use the term “genocide” — breaking a campaign promise he made eight years ago.
In his commemoration on the mass killings, which may have claimed as many as 1.5 million lives, Mr. Obama paid homage to the victims and vowed to “to learn from this tragedy so it may never be repeated.”
His lengthy statement released Friday, however, did not use the term “genocide” — the source of a major geopolitical dispute between Turkey and Armenian about the historical context of the massing killings.
As I noted in this post from six years ago, the victorious candidates apparently lose their testicular fortitude and elections are nothing but castrations!

Why care about something that happened in 1915?  Well, the actor who has all the good looks and presence that I don't have says the very thing that I would like to say:
Take the case of George Clooney. The irrepressible actorvist feels so strongly about the recognition issue that on April 24 — officially known in the U.S. as the National Day of Remembrance of Man's Inhumanity to Man — he will be in Yerevan to award the inaugural $1 million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, presented “on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors.” You can't prevent tomorrow's genocide, Clooney plausibly argues, if you can't even use the G-word to describe something that happened 100 years ago.
If the leader of the mightiest government on the planet does not have the balls to label the incidents from a hundred years ago as "genocide"--the term that he boldly stated during his campaign days--then how confident can we be that the leader of the free world will lead the fight against ongoing crimes against humanity?

Meanwhile, the developing situation in Burundi has people worried.  "Today in Burundi, many people hear echoes of 1994" notes the Economist.  We can expect poetry from the Democratic candidates.  Only from the Democratic candidates because the wannabes from the other side author nothing but toxic prose even while campaigning!

Ah, democracy!


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Be the change you wish to see

In this post from a couple of days ago, I brought in evidence to show that I am not the only one puzzled that people don't get the connection between climate change and meat eating.  And later, in my rejoinder to the comments, I added, "Scientists rarely ever are able to shape people's habits."

The conversation continues.  At least here, thanks especially to the commenters--even the occasional ones--I don't feel like I am talking with myself, which is what usually happens in the classroom ;)

This opinion essay at the Scientific American explores what ought to be done:
Social science can point to effective ways communicators can help the public distinguish fact from untruth, and hopeful understanding of how science might sidestep contention in the first place.
Good luck on social scientists helping ways in which the public can "distinguish fact from untruth."

But, it is not as if the public is not really in the dark about the lifestyle aspects of climate change, though they may not be well informed about the meat connection.  Pew Research Center notes this from its global survey:


Even in the US.  Yes:
Even in the U.S., a country known for its technological advances, only 23% believe technology alone can solve climate change. 
If so, then how would one go about convincing people that they have to make some serious lifestyle changes?

Here's where things get complicated.  I suppose it can easily become a game theory scenario where people think it is a great idea--as long as others do it.  But then everybody waits around for others to implement changes!

As that grand old man from the old country said:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Horsing around about Chernobyl

My car is old, and the odometer shows quite a few digits.  The dishwasher at home has problems, but it works.  A couple of undershirts (the banians, in the old country language) are a tad frayed.  The pair of brown shoes that I wear to work has the beginnings of holes on the under side.

But, I have no plans to replace any of these, and more, unless the situation compels me to.  For a simple reason--I am crazily concerned about the environment in my own way.

As long as the car gets me around reliably, as long as the dishwasher works, as long as ... replacing them will simply mean material consumption, which is one of the biggest threats to the environment for the future generations.  As I often joke with students, it is really not my problem but theirs, yet I am doing my best to make sure I don't worsen things for them and their children.

On Earth Day, I read this short commentary in the Scientific American about nuclear energy.  The subtitle says it all: "How an award-winning filmmaker who created the definitive Earth Day documentary learned to love nuclear power in an age of global warming."  Of course, I have blogged in plenty that summarily excluding nuclear power from the energy discussions was a huge mistake. But, that ship has sailed, as they say.

The opposition to nuclear power ramped up after the disaster at Chernobyl.  The accident happened thirty years ago--on April 26, 1986.  To mark the thirty years, and in time for Earth Day, National Geographic has a lengthy report.
This year will mark the half-life of cesium-137, one of the most widespread and dangerous of the radionuclides released. That means the amount of cesium has dropped by about half in the 30 years since the accident, decaying into the short-lived barium-137m.
An important milestone in understanding what happens the day after.
Marina Shkvyria watches for animal tracks as she walks toward an abandoned village in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the area sealed to the public after a nuclear power plant exploded here 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986. Spotting one, she crouches and runs her finger over the toes of a wolf print in the loose sand.
It may seem strange that Chernobyl, an area known for the deadliest nuclear accident in history, could become a refuge for all kinds of animals—from moose, deer, beaver, and owls to more exotic species like brown bear, lynx, and wolves—but that is exactly what Shkvyria and some other scientists think has happened. Without people hunting them or ruining their habitat, the thinking goes, wildlife is thriving despite high radiation levels.
In our popular imagination, the forbidden zone is not one that we would think as something that supports plants and animals, right?  Yet, it is now a thriving wildlife refuge.  Radiation "is not holding back Chernobyl wildlife populations."
The combined territory of the exclusion zones in Ukraine and Belarus caused by the Chernobyl disaster is a little more than 1,600 square miles, making it one of the largest truly wild sanctuaries in Europe.
But what it means for animals to be rebounding in Chernobyl has become the scientific equivalent of a boxing match, with the latest blow delivered Monday when Beasley put forward a study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
Beasley's following comment is pretty darn interesting:
“I would argue that for many of those species [the effects of radiation], even if they’re there, probably aren’t enough to suppress populations to the point where they can’t sustain themselves,” says Beasley. In the zone, “humans have been removed from the system and this greatly overshadows any of those potential radiation effects.”
Essentially, this means that human populations have a bigger negative impact than radiation.
... While Beasley stops short of calling the landscape “ruined” by radioactive contamination, he knows that it will be there for centuries or millennia, in the case of plutonium. But, without humans around, his findings show that the wildlife seems to be doing all right.
We humans are a much bigger threat to the wildlife than radiation is!  Now, that's plenty to think about on this Earth Day.

Caption at the Source:
The Przewalski's horse nearly went extinct, but in an effort to save the species it was introduced into the area around Chernobyl in 1998 and to other reserves worldwide. Without humans living in the area, the horse population has been increasing.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A boat. 500 dead. Yawn!

One of the harsh realities that I have been struggling with from my early teenage years is this--the world treats some lives to be more important than others.

I suppose if we are mere animals deep down, then we would indeed not care about some.  But, if we believe that we are better than a brutal animal behavior, then we will have to resolve within ourselves why some lives matter more than others.

I am not breaking any new ground in this blog with this post.  From the supremacy of the brahmins and whites, to ALS v. Ebola, there are posts in plenty.  I continue to think about them because, well, every day there is something happening to remind me about this lifelong struggle.

Today, it was this:
As many as 500 migrants seeking a better future in Europe may have drowned last week in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, U.N. refugee officials said Wednesday.
If true, the toll would make the incident one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants over the last year.
Five hundred died.  We will read about it, or watch it, feel bad for a few minutes, and then we will shrug our shoulders and move on.  If this flashes in our news radars, that is!
The survivors in Kalamata included 37 men, three women and a 3-year-old child. They were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.
Every once in a rare while, we do manage to do the right thing.  Like this story about "one of the girls who was abducted from the Chibok school by Boko Haram in 2014 and managed to escape."  Remember the Boko Haram kidnapping young girls?  At least there are some who cared enough.  Thanks to the efforts of Chris Smith, a representative to Congress from New Jersey, this girl and her friend came to the US.  She is now a college student--she started college in January.

If only we could focus on such profound issues that will educate us on what it means to be human!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

So, what's your beef with climate change??

Over the years, I have blogged in plenty (like here) about the environmental impacts of the foods that we eat.  I have even made fun of ardent environmentalists who are not vegetarians, because of the huge environmental footprint meat has.  As if I needed more, the Economist provides this:
Overall the livestock sector accounts for between 8% and 18% of global emissions—about as much pollution as comes out the tailpipes of the world’s cars. Ruminant livestock, such as cattle and sheep, have stomachs containing bacteria able to digest tough, cellulose-rich plants. But along the way, huge volumes of gases are farted and belched too. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the world’s domesticated ruminants annually release 100m tonnes of methane—a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
So, what can a typical consumer do?  More research findings, please:
 A recent study also published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculated the benefits of low-meat and no-meat diets using computer models through to 2050. The former daily regime included eating five portions of fruits and vegetables, less than 50g of sugar, up to 43g of red meat and a total energy content of between 2,200-2,300 calories. A vegetarian diet and a vegan diet were also analysed.
 How do you think the vegetarian and vegan diets compared with the "non-veg" habits, with respect to GHG emissions?  You need to think big numbers. I mean, big:
Following a modest meat diet, global greenhouse gas emissions were found only to increase 7% by 2050 (compared with an expected increase of 51% according to projections from the status quo). A widespread switch to vegetarianism could curb emissions by nearly two thirds and veganism by 70%.
Reduce emissions by two-thirds should be a great selling point, right?  Add to the GHG reductions the health benefits from not eating red meat or the "other white meat."  And then overlay the bypassing of the ethical issues about how we kill animals, especially the low-footprint chicken.  Going vegetarian is a win-win-win all the way around, right?

Which is why I, too, am puzzled that "People Still Don't Get the Link between Meat Consumption and Climate Change"
People who already eat less meat may be more open to hear and retain information on the climate impacts of meat, while people who eat lots of meat may be more inclined to deny or downplay it. That is, behaviors may inform knowledge as much as knowledge informs behavior. And as many studies have shown, although knowledge is an important aspect of behavioral change, it alone is rarely enough for people to change their lifestyles. Changing behaviors as intimate and culturally engrained as people’s daily dietary habits therefore demands a careful consideration of the psychological and cultural dynamics at play.
So, what can be done?
the greatest potential for a shift towards sustainable lifestyles is through a change in culture and worldview—a shift in assumptions about human nature, our relationship with the (natural) world around us, and our aspirations for the ‘good life’. Food touches on social habits and norms; plays a role in mediating power and status; is often key to social participation and acceptance; and is expressive of collective values and identity. Consumption and lifestyles therefore tend to be shaped more by people collectively than individually. The most effective strategies thus engage people in groups, and give them opportunities to develop their understanding and narratives about food in dialog together.
Tough luck, given that the youth in even the traditionally vegetarian culture is rapidly taking up serious meat eating!

Source

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What we talk about when we talk about ...

"Nobody seems to care about old family stories ..."  After a pause, my father continued; "maybe it is the law of nature."

"I agree with you" I chimed in.  "I find it strange myself.  I feel so connected with the old stories."

Father knows well about my keen interest in the old family stories.  More than once, he has been pleasantly surprised that I have even able to augment the conversation with facts about events and people from well before my time.

Talking about old stories, even if repetitious, is how we remember the people and the events.  It gives us an enormously rich sense of where we came from and how far we have come.  Those certainly help me understand my place in this cosmos as I fend off the existential crisis.

Sometimes, we tell each other that we have talked enough about the old stories.  The reading of the puranam ends, for that conversation at least.

Most of the old stories that we talk about are heartwarming. But then there are those that make us dwell on the unpleasant tastes that life leaves on our tongues.

I remember coming across a wonderful line by Haruki Murakami, which Google helped me track down:
Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.
May you create your memories that will warm you from the inside, about which you can then talk about.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Live your life. Do not make your life "live"

Consider this:
Some might think that people already spend too much time on the social network. According to one estimate, most Americans spend the equivalent of two full workdays each month on Facebook. In the future, might they pass even more time? Mark Zuckerberg is hoping so.
Or this:
Facebook has attracted and engaged so many users by engineering features that are highly addictive and relevant to their lives, so people keep coming back for more hits
Yes, the Economist makes sure that the word choices were no accident; the title of that report says it all: Facebook, the world’s most addictive drug

With all the time spent on Facebook and on various entertainment options, is it any wonder we can't get people, especially students, to focus on ... hey, hey, listen to what I have to say and do not open your Facebook messenger window! ;)

We are now living in a world that was imagined in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and EM Forster's The Machine Stops.  Our daily lives are dedicated to watching electronic screens for entertainment of different kinds and we seem to be less and less keen on interactions with the real world as we rush towards virtual reality.

To some extent, Bradbury was wrong when he imagined that the future would include a government department whose responsibility would be to burn books and make sure people did not accidentally read any--it turns out that there is no real need to impose anything like that because ... hey, hey, listen to what I have to say and do not open your Facebook messenger window! ;)
Facebook is expected to announce more plans for turning Messenger, one of its messaging services, into a portal through which people can fulfill tasks, like ordering taxis and communicating with businesses. Mr Zuckerberg is hoping that Facebook will be an even bigger part of the mobile ecosystem in the future. Being both useful and addictive could win Facebook even more friends
As I noted in this post from a mere days ago, Zuckerberg knows well that to keep the addicts on a high will mean increasing the hits, which is where the new "live video" also kicks in.
On Facebook.com, you can now view a live map of broadcasts taking place around the world. And you can now broadcast live to specific audiences, such as those in a Facebook group or those invited to an event, rather than to the public at large. Those watching a live video can send reaction emojis in real time, rather than just liking the video as a whole. When you watch a replay, you’ll see the reaction emojis pop up on the screen at the same point in the video when people sent them. You can also invite friends to join you in watching a live video and they’ll get a push notification linking to the feed. Live, live, live!
It is unfortunate that Facebook has made "live" as it relates to "life" into an obscene four-letter word of "live."  Guess what?  It is delivering hits to the addicts:
the approach seems to be resonating: On average, Facebook says people are commenting 10 times more on live videos than they do on regular videos.
The ruler of this drug empire is thrilled:
“We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.”
Hey, selling this addiction has made the young drug-lord worth more than 35 billion dollars!  Are you not entertained?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The unbearable burdens of the years past

There are at least two important reasons why I continue to read and think about the caste issues in the old country, and about slavery in the adopted home.  As one who was born into the privileged Brahmin caste, I want to apologize and compensate by at least understanding the sociopolitical aspects of the atrocious caste system that has left India messed up.  In the adopted home, being in the privileged stratum, the least I can do is understand slavery and racism that have seriously screwed up the country.

There is also one other reason.  I am always, always, amazed that the oppressed lower castes and the "untouchables" of India, and the blacks and Native Americans here, are not intensely angry and unforgiving.  The fact that there is no violence and blood over these issues intrigues me.  After all, for instance, I continue to be pissed off at the bastards who looted India or the white supremacist whose actions resulted in a million deaths.  I am angry man!  If I--with all the privilege--can be so angry, then ...

Hence, the post on "Strange Fruit."  While such cruelty is simply beyond my absolutely wildest imagination, I force myself to make my own sense of that horrific past.   As one who does not care for forget or forgive, the tragic transgressions are more than mere history to me.

A new day dawns and then I read this in the New York Times:
More than a dozen universities — including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia — have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But the 1838 slave sale organized by the Jesuits, who founded and ran Georgetown, stands out for its sheer size, historians say.
At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.
Some of that money helped to pay off the debts of the struggling college
Think about this.  A highly respected university. And a Jesuit university. But, even its very presence today--leave alone its reputation--was made possible by the 272 men, women and children it sold in order to pay off its debts.  How can we not continue to have conversations on slavery and racism?
researchers have used archival records to follow their footsteps, from the Jesuit plantations in Maryland, to the docks of New Orleans, to three plantations west and south of Baton Rouge, La.
I will be mad as hell if I were one of those descendants.

Life is hard enough, and on top of that there are assholes who love to mess around with the lives of others.  We shall over come. Some day, we shall overcome!


Saturday, April 16, 2016

A strange and bitter crop

A poem with raw emotions.

Strange Fruit
By Abel Meeropol

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.


Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!


Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


Here's Nina Simone's version:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Nobody's perfect :(

By now, it would have become obvious to regular readers that I dish out the criticism if it is warranted.  That approach, in the pursuit of what it means o do the right thing, means that I have even wondered if my grandmothers could be called racists.  The grandmothers' who were and are dear to me, and whose stories I carry inside.  If I subject my grandmothers and myself to tough standards, then you think a magazine that I love has any chance?

That's what happened last week, when I tweeted this after reading an essay in the New Yorker:
At this point, you are perhaps thinking: Does anybody care whether I tweeted or if I felt disgusted with the essay?  Hey, it is no different from when I blog, right?  ;)

Why was I pissed off?  First, what is the essay about?  It is:
 about a strange man named Gerald Foos, who owned and operated a motel in Colorado. With the help and knowledge of his wife, he modified many of the motel’s rooms in such a way that he could watch his guests from above the ceiling. Although he admits to being sexually aroused by his spying, he is also intellectually curious: He fastidiously records details about the occupants (especially about their sex lives), and believes himself to be gleaning a great deal of sociological insight into them. As the story moves from the 1960s through the 1990s, he witnesses and catalogs various societal changes, such as an increase in interracial couples, that are compelling but ultimately unsurprising and never revelatory. The real interest of Talese’s piece, in other words, is Foos himself.
How did Talese get to know this?
Foos wrote to Talese in 1980, hoping someone would tell his story without revealing his name or blowing his cover. It’s here that things get murky. Talese traveled to Colorado to meet Foos and see the motel for himself. Immediately upon arrival in the state, the journalist also signed a document promising that, in his words, “I would not identify him by name, or publicly associate his motel with whatever information he shared with me, until he had granted me a waiver.” 
Yes, journalists want to maintain the confidentiality of their sources.  But, that is when there is a greater good that the report is about.  What is the greater good here?  How does protecting the privacy of the voyeur who was observing people in their most intimate moments contribute to a greater good?
There’s no greater good here; Talese has captured a strange and (briefly) compelling story of one man’s obsession and the extremes to which he will go to satisfy it.
Exactly!  The reporter is as much involved in this crime as the perv/perp was.
Talese was complicit in Gerald Foos' violation of his guests’ privacy, and not only because in the initial reporting of the story, he climbed into the motel attic with its owner and watched a young couple having sex. By failing to report Foos’ actions – either in an immediate story or to authorities – Talese enabled Foos' unethical and, indeed, illegal action to continue unabated for at least 15 years longer.
...
In addition, through his continued correspondence, Talese provided affirmation of Foos’ activity, helping him maintain the myth that his actions served some higher purpose, some noble societal goal, rather than simply gratifying his own sexual desire.
How did the editor of the New Yorker respond to people like me?
While the scene is certainly disturbing (Talese writes that he was ‘shocked, and surprised’ to read the account in the journal), the New Yorker does not believe that Talese or it violated any legal or ethical boundaries in presenting Foos’s account of it to the reader.
It was a bad, bad, bad editorial call.

But, it does not mean that I am going to cancel my subscription.  I recognize the blemish.  Nobody's perfect!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Whatever it takes to win means ... hyperbole

Back in 2000, it was tiring to listen to Al Gore talk in great detail about each and every policy.  It was clear that the man knew policy, but being intellectually capable and having a firm grip on the details is not what wins elections.  Which is why Bush won, despite his goofy "what, me worry?" approach to everything.

This time around, Hillary Clinton plays that policy detail game to a lot more boring detail than Gore did.  The Republican candidates couldn't care about policies.  And then there is Bernie Sanders.  His stump speeches are great, no doubt.  But, he ain't the candidate that Obama was back in 2008.  Obama could become professorial and lecture about policies too.  Sanders flubs.  And there is one person who is really ticked off: Jeffrey R. Immelt, who is the big boss at General Electric (GE).  Immelt is pissed off at Sanders for his propagandaish GE is “destroying the moral fabric” of America demagoguery:
GE has been in business for 124 years, and we’ve never been a big hit with socialists. We create wealth and jobs, instead of just calling for them in speeches. We take risks, invest, innovate and produce in ways that today sustain 125,000 U.S. jobs. Our engineers innovate every day to build hardware and software solutions that meet real-world challenges. Our employees are proud of our company. I meet second- and third-generation employees whenever I travel across the country. I am one myself. Our suppliers and partners are proud of our company. Our communities are proud of our company. Our pride, history and hard work are real — the moral fabric of America.
Sanders' hyperbole on GE versus Immelt's evidence-based rebuttal.  You think that the "feel the Bern" fans care about evidence?

Immelt continues:
The senator has never bothered to stop by our aviation plant in Rutland, Vt. We’ve been investing heavily (some $100 million in recent years), hiring and turning out some of the world’s finest jet-engine components in Vermont since the 1950s. The plant employs more than 1,000 people who are very good at what they do. It’s a picture of first-rate jobs with high wages, advanced manufacturing in a vital industry — how things look when American workers are competing and winning — and Vermont’s junior senator is always welcome to come by for a tour.
Burn!  (get the pun? hehe)

Sanders refuted this and claimed that he has been there.  The fact-checkers got on to it:
As a factual matter, Sanders clearly has not visited the plant or taken a tour since he became senator nine years ago. Sanders bluntly accused Immelt of “not telling the truth,” saying he had visited the plant “years ago.” But that sidesteps the point that Immelt was making — that the company has invested tens of millions of dollars to modernize the facility and yet Sanders has not bothered to see the improvements. His posture stands in contrast to other members of the Vermont delegation who have been repeat visitors to the facility during Sanders’s Senate tenure.
In bluntly dismissing Immelt’s statement as a lie, Sanders misleadingly led viewers to believe he had an open-and-shut case. But the reality is more complex.
"misleadingly led viewers to believe" is what this election is all about.  It was what the elections in 2000 and 2004 were also about.  Come to think of it, we should be surprised that two eggheads with a fine grasp of details--Bill Clinton and Barack Obama--managed to not only win but even get re-elected!

What pisses me--keep in mind that unlike the frequent commenter/debater here, I am no rah-rah GE fanatic--is that Sanders criticizes that GE is destroying the moral fabric of America and then turns around and gives the most evil corporation a pass in his interview with the NY Daily News:
Daily News: For example, in corporate America, Apple happens to be celebrating, today, its 40th birthday. It's a company that grew from nothing to 115,000 permanent employees. And I'm wondering, is Apple destroying the fabric of America?
Bernie Sanders: No, Apple is not destroying the fabric of America. But I do wish they'd be manufacturing some of their devices, here, in the United States rather than in China. And I do wish that they would not be trying to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.
Of course, exactly like what any liberal would!  WTF!

With every passing day, the American presidential campaign is becoming a farce that can compete against the farcical political theatre that I witnessed back in the home state in the old country.  The theatrics were far better there thanks to the explicit roots in the entertainment industry!  Surely America can do better than this!

Source

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Professors Should Think Like Bloggers. What?

The other day, the friend and I spent a couple of hours with two older friends of hers, over coffee and cake and cheese and poetry and politics and, yes, higher education.  As Ken Robinson noted in his widely watched TED talk, everybody is interested in education and everybody has strong opinions about it.  Right?

So, when talking about higher education and everything else, my blogging came up.  I told them how a few years ago a student exclaimed in class that he was reading my blog and realized that he need not come to my classes and can get everything that I might have to say in the class right from the blog itself.

Whenever students discover this, I tell them that my blog serves multiple purposes for me, of which one is that this blog serves as my own notes that I can refer to if/when needed.  And, of course, it also serves the curiosities of anybody who is interested in the content here.

Over the years, I have wondered why faculty do not operate in such modes, within and outside the classroom.  Today, I get more support along these lines.  From Tyler Cowen, who is one heck of a prolific, accomplished, polymath of a professor across the continent.  Cowen, whom I have cited many times here, says:
What’s a university and what is not? Those distinctions are crumbling. If we’re not a university, maybe no one else will be either. There’s a lot of content on the web. A lot of it’s free. That will be increasingly important. I think it’s already the case on a given day. More people read economics blogs than are taking "Principles of Economics" classes in the United States, so why aren’t the blogs already a kind of university? They’ve sort of won that competitive battle in some way.
The people who read the blogs want to read them. A lot of people in "Principles" class, they’re not paying attention, they don’t want to learn, they feel they have to, so blogs are in some ways doing a better job of educating.
While Cowen uses the example of economics, the same can be said about any subject.  People want to know about any number of topics but somehow we have convinced ourselves that the old buildings with ivies crawling on them is the only way to meet that desire to know.  In fact, it increasingly works the other way around--those who come to the universities are some of those who are least interested in learning and are in college only to pick up a diploma.

Cowen has moved beyond blogging itself--to a "university" that offers a whole bunch of videos.  The interviewer signs off with this:
Maybe the biggest impact of upstarts like Marginal Revolution University will be that traditional colleges will feel more like, well, like blogging. Maybe the line between the formality of college education and the informal materials found online throughout one’s life will blur, and maybe those distinctions will just matter less and less. Authority may sound less like a lecture from a podium and more like a Facebook post.
But, are the faculty, who are busily writing books that nobody ever reads, thinking about such important questions as "What’s a university and what is not?"

Source

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I want you to come and see me

Consider the following that happened when Kuno called his mother:
"I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated. I have something particular to say."
"What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?"
"Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want----"
"Well?"
"I want you to come and see me."
Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.
"But I can see you!" she exclaimed. "What more do you want?"
"I want to see you not through the Machine," said Kuno. "I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine."
Ever since the dawn of the communication age, we humans have been worrying about the loss of immediacy in relationships.  That exchange between Kuno and his mother is from a short story that was published in 1909.  Yes, more than a century ago!  It is a wonderful piece of science fiction in which the author, E.M. Forster, had even imagined something like a Skype and Facetime.  A future in which "the machine" knows it all and people, including Kuno's mother, practically worshiped the machine.
"You talk as if a god had made the Machine," cried the other.  "I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind."
She replied that she could scarcely spare the time for a visit.
It is so eerie to think that we are now living a life that the likes of Forster worried would happen.

For a few years now, I have been doing annual trips to visit with the parents and sister and my favorite aunts, which then becomes an opportunity to connect with a few more in the extended family and friends.  A trip or two every year to visit and spend time with the daughter.  A good chunk of the disposable income gets spent on these travels.

Of course, these are all part of my definition of what it is to be human.  It is also why I have had a love-hate relationship with Facebook ever since I signed up there.  While it does help me maintain my connections with old friends and family, it can also easily lull one into thinking that Facebook is the real thing. It has been a couple of months since I disconnected from any daily presence on Facebook.  As I told a few real friends, I am seriously evaluating the benefit of spending time there.

It does not surprise me that Facebook is also concerned that there are people like me who are "users" but do not spend a lot of time there.  Further, even those who spend time there are not providing original content but are merely recycling memes and posts from newsfeeds.  Facebook is worried, writes Nicholas Carr:
Because Facebook feeds on personal sharing the way a vampire feeds on blood — the more intimate the information you publish, the more Facebook knows about you, and the more precisely it can tailor ads and other messages — any decline in personal sharing is ominous for the company. It’s no surprise that Facebook is now trying to figure out some interface tweaks and tricks that will, as a company spokesperson puts it, “make sharing on Facebook more fun and dynamic.” It’s hard not to hear a hint of desperation in that statement.
Source

The business model collapses if users do not share it all in Facebook.  And Carr writes the following, which is a gem:
There’s something else going on here, too. We’re learning how difficult and exhausting it is to sustain a mass-media presence. The problem with broadcasting everyday experience is that everyday experience is inevitably repetitive, and repetitiveness is, in a media context, the kiss of death. To remain interesting when viewed at a distance, when viewed through media, a person has to display continuing novelty — novelty of experience, novelty of thought. Very few of us can do that for very long. I imagine that, on Facebook, even Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker would have worn out their welcomes after a while.
The repetitiveness of our lives remains interesting to our family members and close friends, but outside that intimate context it gets boring. As reality-TV stars, we all face declining ratings and, in the end, cancellation.
My quest to understand what it means human leads me away from "the machine."   I  have better ways to spend the very little time that I have before my very boring show is canceled forever.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The whole is more than the sum of its parts

A few years ago, a student who was apparently intrigued by my interpretation of economic geography came to my office to chat with me.  He was a non-traditional student who was also a naturalized citizen after his formative years in a large South American country where the Iberian Romance language is not Spanish.  (How about that for a clue, eh!)

We freely talked about a whole bunch of topics.  Including abortion.  He was opposed to it, he said, and added that he was a born-again Christian.  He asked me where I stood on this issue.

When people ask me, especially when we have established our interests in constructive discussions, well, I have no hassles sharing my thoughts.  I told him the long version.

During my internship way back when I was in graduate school, during a lunch time walking around in downtown Los Angeles, I came across a pro-life (anti-abortion) rally.  It suddenly clicked in me that I was neither in the pro-life camp and nor was I in the pro-choice camp.  To me, aborting a fetus is murder, yes.  Because, pregnancy is the only way we know how to create a human life.  Until science figures out some other process, abortion means terminating a life.

However, it is justifiable homicide even well into a woman's pregnancy.  If she decides to terminate the pregnancy late in the second trimester, yes, she has the right to do so.  Women choose to do it because they know that is the best possible outcome.  Who am I to say otherwise.  I cannot imagine the emotional decision-making process that a pregnant woman goes through.  "Imagine" is important here--given that I am a male who has no idea about what it means to be pregnant and, that too, unexpectedly.

Of course, that student was completely taken aback with such a view.  Especially because he knew that I am an atheist.  But, to me, such a stand is not anything strange.  As I often write here, all these are a part of a drive to understand what the point of my existence is.  The meaning of life.  In these contexts, I am, therefore, almost always saying yes to Camille Paglia, like in the following:
Although I am an atheist who worships only great nature, I recognize the superior moral beauty of religious doctrine that defends the sanctity of life.
I truly cherish and value the sincere sanctity of life arguments that sincere practitioners offer.  They--not many there are who are sincere--and I are fellow-travelers in the quest to understand the meaning of life though our preoccupation with the meaning is from different perspectives.

I like the way Paglia concludes as well:
A liberal credo that is variously anti-war, anti-fur, vegan, and committed to environmental protection of endangered species like the sage grouse or spotted owl should not be so stridently withholding its imagination and compassion from the unborn.
If only we can de-link the cheap politics from such profound discussions!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Feminism in these modern times

Sex in advertisements.

Which is why there was that woman on the sidewalk by a major thoroughfare, holding a sign for fundraising via car-wash.

No, just because it is a woman holding a sign I would not conclude that "sex sells."  But I would because of the clothing that she had on her.  Shorty-shorts that made sure that her legs were all exposed.  And then the skimpy bikini-bra-top that barely contained her big breasts.

We were stopped at the traffic light and she walked like a sex kitten waving the sign.

"Why don't you put a shirt on?" a voice rang out from the waiting vehicles.  The voice sounded friendly, as in a constructive and engaging tone.  Perhaps a middle-aged woman's voice.

I turned to the left, which is where the voice came from.  It was a pick-up truck that had a female driver and an older female passenger.  The passenger was beginning to roll up the window.  I suppose after voicing their thoughts, they were done.

"Am good" the sign-carrying woman replied, with a smile and with a thumbs-up from her free hand.

"A shirt might help" the voice rang out again from the truck.  The woman on the street smiled again.

The light turned green.

The two cars ahead of me kept going straight.  I read the sign that she was holding as I passed her.  I was curious what the fundraising was for.  For ladies football!

As I passed her, I kept watching the traffic in the rear to see if any car turned towards the car-wash.  None.  I was happy that sex does not sell.  At least, not all the time.

We live in strange times.  On the one hand, we have made enormous progress and have largely moved away from acting on our primal, animal instincts.  We don't beat the crap out of somebody when we disagree, and we don't sexually assault another.  Well, mostly.  This kind of a healthy progress has created the space for people to be what they want to be and say what they want to say.  Mostly.  But, this freedom, the progress, now means that a woman can be practically semi-nude on a city sidewalk in the middle of the day.  Is such an element of sexuality a good thing or a bad thing?

That's practically the question that The Economist also addresses in reviewing two books, which are about the troubling aspects of young girls, their sexuality, and modern technology:
That young women often aspire to be titillating should not be surprising given that the most successful female celebrities often present themselves as eye-candy for the male gaze. “Everybody wants to take a selfie as good as the Kardashians’,” says Maggie, a 13-year-old. 
"If you've got it, flaunt it!" has become "normal" behavior.
 [Unlike] past feminists, who often protested against their sexual objectification, many of today’s young women claim to find it empowering. “There are few times that I feel more confident about my body than when I wear a crop top and my boobs are showing and my legs are showing,” says Holly, a college student. “I never feel more liberated.”
This hardly seems like progress, particularly when only certain bodies, those that are sexy to men, are allowed to be a source of pride.
As the review notes, "For anyone raising a daughter, these books do not make for easy reading."  Not easy materials even for us worrywarts who are all done with raising a daughter.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Why does god hate Calcutta, er, Kolkata?

We humans have always been interested in understanding the cause-effect relationship.  If we don't know why something happens, then we bullshit our ways through.  When the moon in the sky was slowly disappearing as if somebody was chowing it down, and then when it re-appeared in the sky after a while, I imagine that a few curious people in the old country asked the wise old man who had seen it all for an explanation.  He convinced them that it was the celestial serpent that was swallowing the moon, and that the gods came to the rescue and slit the serpent open. He then told them that if they wanted the moon to keep coming back, they had to pray to the gods.  If they didn't know the language to communicate with the gods, well, he would gladly serve as their interpreter.

I pick on the religion in which I was raised because, well, that's the honored tradition--to make fun of your own people.  Every faith has its own bizarre stories about their own gods.  

Meanwhile, there were other kinds of curious people in that same old country.  They did not listen to the old man's bullshit and, instead, noticed that there were patterns that emerged when they studied the phenomenon.  And not only the moon, but even the sun was darkened out in the day.  How could that be?

The systematic thinking, based on reason and evidence, led scientists like Aryabhata to understand the cosmos without serpents and gods.  I suppose Aryabhata made sure that people would not be so mystified by "zero"; else, the number may have become a god as well ;)

Understanding cause and effect has also helped us create things that never existed before.  It is not through faith that we create electricity, for instance.  A whole lot of cumulative knowledge-building in physics and engineering has resulted in the easy life of today where we press a switch and the lights come on.  Heck, I merely walk into a restroom on campus and the lights magically turn on!  As Arthur Clarke stated in his third law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

The same way, when accidents happen, we try to understand the cause.  Something that I learnt a long time ago back at the Park Club in the old country.  When a plane goes down, we try to understand what caused it.  Right?

So, when a bridge collapses in India, you do not expect that to be attributed to god.  This atheist won't even bother reminding the faithful that "god" is a product of faith.  But, to grandstand for whatever reason that a god broke the bridge like how a kid snaps a twig is remarkably stupid.  Asinine.  But, hey, it is all ok if the emperor says so!  India's prime minister boldly and loudly proclaimed his verdict: "Flyover collapse is God’s message".  God certainly chooses some strange people as her messenger!

Apparently god decided that killing 26 people was the only way that she could send the message.  Maybe she does not know about texting, tweeting, or even updating her Facebook status and getting the message across without harming lives.  I tell ya, god is one hell of a terrorist!

Of course, India's prime minister is not the first leader to read the divine tea leaves.  In this country, sleazeballs who pose as political leaders trip over each other with "god bless America" as if god is on their side and not with, say, Tanzania.  And when disasters strike, there are sleazeballs who pose as religious leaders who proclaim that those are god's way of punishing us for whatever is the religious leader's favorite sin to target.

Such is life in these "modern" times!  I, for one, have always loved Calcutta ;)

Friday, April 08, 2016

Dotbusters, Dothead, ...

As a fresh off the boat newbie graduate student, I had a great time spending hours in the libraries at the university.  I couldn't believe there were multiple libraries on campus.  Of course, this was also before the dawn of the internet age and, therefore, it was in the libraries that I could read the newspapers from around the country and the world.

One of the news stories from those newbie days was about the "Dotbusters" in New Jersey.  I tracked down a New York Times report on that, from October 12, 1987:
For years, Indians living in blue-collar enclaves here have been taunted with ethnic epithets by white, black and Hispanic youths, according to the city's Indian leadership and many other people here.
But in recent weeks, Indians here say, the violence has taken on a new and uglier cast. One Jersey City Indian was beaten to death in Hoboken. Another remains in a coma after being discovered beaten unconscious on a busy street corner here earlier this month. And in a crudely handwritten letter, partially printed in The Jersey Journal, someone wrote, ''We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City.'' The note was signed ''The Dotbusters.''         
I remember many of us Indian students talking about the "Dotbusters" and how the Los Angeles area, where I was, seemed more welcoming.  But, it shocked us that the violence was not in some remote part of the US, or in the Deep South, but in New Jersey!
  A 40-year-old Indian shop owner looked out on to Central Avenue and wondered aloud.
''Why do they want to hurt the Indian?'' she said, apologizing for her broken English. ''We want to make America beautiful. We don't want to spoil it.
''America is a land of chances,'' she said, too fearful to have her name published. ''That's why everybody is here.''
Yes, that's why everybody is here and would love to come here.  Like why I am here and not back in India, nor was I interested to go anywhere else.

An Indian-American was on NPR yesterday, and stirred the stories lodged in my memories from nearly three decades ago.  Amit Majmudar is yet another Indian-American who makes me feel like I am nothing but a blabbering idiot who does nothing.  Majmudar is a radiologist, novelist, poet, and writes commentaries.  And, yes, he is a family man.  Seriously, isn't that supposed to be four different people?  And, oh, he is yet to turn forty! I hate such people who make a good-for-nothing out of me!!! ;)

Majmudar was featured in the NPR segment because he has been appointed "Ohio's first ever poet laureate."  How about that!  Does Ohio's governor, John Kasich, know about this? ;)

Majmudar's "new collection of poems, has as its title an ethnic slur, "Dothead.""  Why?
Well, if you look at racial slurs like this, there is a way to retake it, the N-word, for example. Rappers have taken that word back. And it's still off-limits to those outside of the sort of circle. But internally, it's something that they call each other. And in this way, you kind of take it back from the people who use it against you. And "Dothead" actually relates to something very beautiful and eloquent related to Hindu symbolism. And for me, the dot on the head is something that I associate with my mom. My wife wears one every once in a while when we go to, you know, an Indian wedding or something like that. And above all, it has this religious meaning for me. And so I wanted to take it back, and I wanted to make a poem out of it.
April being poetry month, here's Majmudar's poem:

"Dothead"

by Amit Majmudar
Well yes, I said, my mother wears a dot.
I know they said "third eye" in class, but it's not
an eye eye, not like that. It's not some freak
third eye that opens on your forehead like
on some Chernobyl baby. What it means
is, what it's showing is, there's this unseen
eye, on the inside. And she's marking it.
It's how the X that says where treasure's at
is not the treasure, but as good as treasure.—
All right. What I said wasn't half so measured.
In fact, I didn't say a thing. Their laughter
had made my mouth go dry. Lunch was after
World History; that week was India—myths,
caste system, suttee, all the Greatest Hits.
The white kids I was sitting with were friends,
at least as I defined a friend back then.
So wait, said Nick, does your mom wear a dot?
I nodded, and I caught a smirk on Todd—
She wear it to the shower? And to bed?—
while Jesse sucked his chocolate milk and Brad
was getting ready for another stab.
I said, Hand me that ketchup packet there.
And Nick said, What? I snatched it, twitched the tear,
and squeezed a dollop on my thumb and worked
circles till the red planet entered the house of war
and on my forehead for the world to see
my third eye burned those schoolboys in their seats,
their flesh in little puddles underneath,
pale pools where Nataraja cooled his feet.

From Dothead by Amit Majmudar. Copyright 2016 by Amit Majmudar. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf.

Nataraja (ca 11th century) at the Met

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