Thursday, June 30, 2016

Greenpeace's crime against humanity

Consider the issue of climate change.  Whether we are scientists or not--no, I am not referring to the old GOP saw--we have our take on that issue.  We rational people, even when we do not understand how scientists measure the complicated aspects that they talk about, feel strengthened by the fact that 97 percent of the scientists agree on climate change and the human activities that are speeding things up.

We understand there is something important about science and scientists.  Which is also why are interested in who the Nobel Prize winners are, even though we have enormous difficulty even understanding one bit of the science they talk about.

What if a hundred Nobel laureates--ok, make that 108 laureates--put their signatures to a petition endorsing a scientific/technological advancement.  Such a statement from the high priests will be a powerful proxy for those of us who don't know how to do science, right?  Those who passionately argue by citing the scientific consensus in climate change will use the 108 laureates as fantastic evidence, right?

Of course I am setting you up! ;)

The 108 laureates signing off on a petition is for real.  What is their petition about?
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Program has noted that global production of food, feed and fiber will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. Organizations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects.We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against "GMOs" in general and Golden Rice in particular.
Now, that's a clear statement.

Unfortunately, facts do not matter to most who have built their reputation championing an ideology.  But, even Greenpeace activists have done a 180.  Like this former Greenpeace activist and GMO hater.  Heck, even the Greenpeace co-founder did a 180!

The laureates state in their petition:
Greenpeace has spearheaded opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia.
To borrow from Kanye West, Greenpeace doesn't care about poor brown people.

After calling on Greenpeace to "cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically" the 108 Nobel laureates add this:
  How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a "crime against humanity"?
Ouch!  That's one stinging blow.

To which Ronald Bailey, whose post is how I came to know about this petition, adds his comment:
Actually, Greenpeace and other anti-biotech activists such as Naomi Klein and Vandana Shiva have long surpassed that threshold.
Ouch!

It is a strange world in which climate change-deniers refute the science behind climate change, while the GMO-deniers refute the science behind GMO, and the vaccine-deniers refute the science behind vaccines and autism.  Which can mean only one thing: we pick and choose from whatever appeals to us the most.  An approach that is exactly the opposite of the scientific method in which, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, we need to change our opinions when the facts change.  It is dirty rotten politics!


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

One hundred years of ... "Inquilab Zindabad"?

The Russians who talk with Svetlana Alexievich in Secondhand Time are pissed off at how their lives have been ruined.  Their hate for Mikhail Gorbachev, whom we in the west laud, is not superficial.

Their lives were ruined because they were told that if they kept doing whatever they were doing, then the state would take care of them later on in their lives.  And then Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost and the system fell apart.  The Soviet Union fell apart.  Their lives fell apart. As the book portrays, at the top of the system,  Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, chief military adviser to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, committed suicide, while a "commoner" literally set himself on fire.

The book also  helps me understand the frustrations of the typical middle-class people here in the US, or in Britain.  They were told that if they kept doing whatever they were doing, then their lives were set and that everything would work out fine.  The Soviet Union fell apart. China and India opened up. The world's economy dramatically changed. The lives of the typical middle-class were altered forever, and tomorrow seems immensely more uncertain than yesterday ever was.

What puzzles me is this: Observing the world from the banks of the Willamette, and working at a podunk university where I am ignored and shunted away to a voiceless corner, I have been commenting for a long time about the urgency to fundamentally restructure the social contract, fully recognizing that the economic forces of today do not resemble those from the New Deal era, with technology further complicating things with innovations that keep upending more jobs.

So, ... I wondered when it was for the first time that I argued about the need for a new social contract.  I was curious not about my writings in my blog, but in this guy's--I thought it might be a good indicator of how I have been yelling outside like a mad man ;)  I tracked it down--May 23, 2013.  At the end of a lengthy rant, I wrote there:
 it is one loud reminder that the social contract is in tatters.
Of course, we are not going to agree on how to re-work and re-word a new contract. But, the shame of it all is that while a bunch of us folks from different parts of the world are talking about it here, the ones who should talk about these--the Congress--will stage some dramas, take a few photos, and then go home to screw people up some more.
Imagine if three years ago Congress here, and the Parliament in the UK, had really done constructive things in order to ease the new challenges that the typical middle class was facing.  Instead, they didn't do shit.  To make things worse, they further tightened the screws on the middle class. by slowly dismantling the little bit that was left.  For instance, Mike knows well how expensive college has become now compared to his father's days when the government offered his father a much better social contract.  College is merely one aspect of the social contract.

I didn't give up.  Almost exactly three years ago--June 26, 2013--at the end of another lengthy comment at another post, I wrote (note that OWS is Occupy Wall Street):
I don't think it is about economic growth as much as it is a disagreement over how the growth ought to be shared. It will be easier if only it were about economic growth alone. Turkey has had some fantastic growth over the years. It is really not about wanting more growth there. OWS was not about more growth, and neither are the protests in Brazil.
In a few previous posts, here and at my blog, we have agreed, while disagreeing, that the time is ripe, or even overripe, in terms of rewriting various aspects of the social contract that exists within each country. Mere economic growth does not seem to be sufficient, though at least modest rates might be necessary.
I suspect that these issues will not go away any time soon because rewriting those contracts won't be easy.
I tell ya, it is the story of my life that nobody listens to me--not even Ramesh! ;)

David Brooks notes in his column over at the NY Times:
Their pain is indivisible: economic stress, community breakdown, ethnic bigotry and a loss of social status and self-worth. When people feel their world is vanishing, they are easy prey for fact-free magical thinking and demagogues who blame immigrants.
Brexit, Bernie, and Trump are, therefore, no surprise to me.  It is an interesting ironical coincidence that these are fomenting another revolution nearly a hundred years since that history-changing October Revolution. Oh, wait, the October Revolution was in November, and the US elections will be almost exactly the same date: November 8th.  Cue the Twilight Zone theme ;)

I wonder how Putin and Russia will mark the one hundredth anniversary--not by inviting Gorbachev, I am sure!

ps: I intentionally used "Inquilab Zindabad" in the title of this post--to remind Ramesh about his post in 2013 ;)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

OMG! Another mass shooting that was committed by a woman?

A couple of years ago, when visiting the old country, I overheard one middle-aged father remark that his son and his friends were spending time in the internet places in order to watch "dirty stuff."  It was not even a comment that was addressed to me, which all the more became easy for me to ignore it.  I would have liked to tell him that it is only natural for boys and young men to respond to the signals from their internal biochemistry, and that as a parent he ought to teach his son how to deal with that biology, and about respectful treatment of the female.

Over the years, I have come to understand that it takes enormous effort to overcome the role of biology and the hormones.  Women have to deal with their hassles, while we men have to work against testosterone.  When they complain about their PMS and menopause issues, women have no idea how tough it is being a man ;)  It is only through a conscious and challenging effort that we can tame the testosterone within.

The old country was getting away from the terrible practices like child marriage just as Victorian ideas of sex got embedded within the culture.  Later, with the emphasis on higher education, it is not a surprise anymore that while girls and boys are biologically ready for sex even as they turn twelve--or even younger--marriage, unlike with my grandparents, gets awfully delayed.  In a culture where premarital sex is practically taboo, is it any surprise that boys and young men seek the company of the internet?

The good thing is this--owning a gun is difficult for Indian males.  Why is this important?  Almost always, the mass shooter in the US "is socially alienated, and he can’t get laid":
The facts of toxic masculinity are rarely discussed after mass shootings, as we beat the usual drums of gun control and mental health. Or toxic masculinity is blithely attributed to some patriarchal conspiracy that is unconsciously educated into boys. But consider the bigger, evolutionary picture. Social life requires the domestication of men. This is not some contemporary political interpretation of maleness. It’s a biological generalisation that applies to most social mammals. Intermale aggression must be turned into guardian instincts, if primate societies (such as ours) are to attain stability. Males must transform from little tyrants, competing for females, to selfless bodyguards and potential providers.
In the old days, we had wars that provided an outlet for the testosterone.  We sent the hormone-raging young men to go kill others.  Of course, the wars also led to raping the females--young and old alike.  Thankfully, that kind of killing and raping is in the past.  But, it means that we need to work that much harder to make sure that the testosterone-filled young men are being tamed, or are getting laid, or both.
Without a partner or sexual fulfilment, many men remain emotionally juvenile – aggressively impulsive, self-serving and potentially violent.
Young men who cannot find a place in the socialisation process will often take up a disdainful hostility towards domestication itself. The terminal rebel takes shape.
 In the old country, rapes and "eve teasing" are certainly tied to this dynamic.  Here in the West?
in the contemporary West, natural sexual frustration is intensified by a culture that throws sex in your face at every turn, reminding you that you’re not getting any. These are existential issues because they resonate – rightly or wrongly – at the core of how many men see themselves. The problem is that many of our social norms and cultural narratives increase rather than defuse resentment. And resentment is the psychological fuel that gets the fire of violence going, whatever the ideological justification.
So, any concluding thoughts?
Male desire and craving are not intellectualised away with some didactic lecture about how the brain or the economy works, or some sermon about what Jesus or Muhammad want from you. Desire must be redirected into some form of non-destructive expression, or defused, not just talked about. It’s the job of culture to help with this redirection, and the Abrahamic cultural traditions have outlived their effectiveness in doing so. We need to get working on some new cultural inventions to domesticate resentment and the hydraulics of hate, or the growing pack of weaponised losers will make political terrorism look tame by comparison.
Exactly.

One of the old jokes about the higher education system is that nobody cares about the education itself as long as the young men are able to have sex and if the alums and the public are happy with the ballgames.  The ballgames are also outlets for the testosterone; anybody who watches team sports--or better yet, been to a meet--knows well the war-like parallels.  Which is also why the author quotes my favorite intellectual, George Orwell, who "referred to international sport as ‘war minus the shooting’."

I have been saying all these for years; but, hey, who listens to me!  If only the wuss that I am had enough testosterone for me to beat the crap out of people who don't listen to me ;)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Keeping time with history

When young and keen on understanding the USSR, I had to deal with two different usages: the October Revolution, and the big celebrations on November 7th.  It always puzzled me that the October event was being celebrated in November.

Now, in the old days, there was no Google.  No internet.  And, of course, nobody to bug about this question either.

As years passed, I forgot about that issue altogether.  Who cared anymore when the USSR itself became history, right?

Well, except that I am now reading Secondhand Time.  It is not any old  novel like Tolstoy's or Turgenev's.  Secondhand Time is about the last of the Soviets, in which people refer to all things Russian, which are self-evident to Russians but not to aliens like me.  Which is why when Margarita Pogrebitskaya says "my favorite holiday was always November 7 ..." there is a footnote.  And that footnote both reminded me of my old annoying question that I had forgotten about, and answered it.
The Bolshevik uprising, which turned into the October Revolution, took place the night of October 24-25, 1917.
The rest of the footnote gets to the exciting part--those dates were "according to the Julian calendar, which is November 6-7 according to the Gregorian calendar that was subsequently adopted in the USSR."  I guess it is the academic in me that I read the footnotes even in the summer readings ;)

Wikipedia notes that Russia was the penultimate country to switch from the old Julian calendar to the Gregorian.  It happened in 1918--1 February became 14 February.  Just like that!  I suppose it was one of the first revolutionary moves ;)  The things I learn every single day!

If you are like me, then you are perhaps thinking: How about the US?  When did we change to Gregorian calendar?  Unlike the old days, I now have Wikipedia at my fingertips:
 In the British Empire (including the American colonies), Wednesday 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14 September 1752.
In the old country, my grandmothers' generation kept time with a "Kollavarsham" because of their roots in the old Travancore Kingdom.  The curious fellow that I am, I recall bugging my grandmother about when the home was built and she said that the original structure had the year noted on the external wall.  I went out, and was puzzled at the number that I saw.  When I reported it, she laughed and said it was not in the "English" calendar but in kollavarsham.  

Thankfully, the year the addition was completed is in the "English" calendar--the Gregorian calendar, to be precise.

A view from the terrace on grandmother's home--you can see the nearby temple "gopuram"
This was during my trip to Sengottai in ... ahem, you see the date stamp? ;)

I suppose we are all Gregorians now.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

I am concerned about the rainforest ... from the comforts of my home?

I have always been highly skeptical of economic growth and development that destroys the natural environment in the name of progress.  It was one of the many, many reasons that I could not understand what it was that I was going to contribute via engineering.  In those primitive days before the internet and television, The Hindu's reports on a guy named Sunderlal Bahuguna and the Chipko Movement fascinated me.  Yet, I was not completely sold on tree-hugging either.

Even early in graduate school, I met students who were committed to the environmental cause.  To many of them, it was not Bahuguna and the Chipko Movement, but it was Chico Mendes and his work to save the Amazon rainforest.  His assassination made a huge impact on many of my graduate-school-mates.  But, unlike this guy, for instance, I could not get myself to thinking and working only on the issue of natural environment, even though by then it was clear to me that professional advancement would not happen if I continued to spread my interests instead of focusing on one big thing.

It has always impressed me, however, that activists like Mendes completely dedicate themselves to the effort even when fully aware that their lives might get terminated by unscrupulous characters who take law into their own hands.  That level of commitment is phenomenal.

In India, Bahuguna has been honored for his work, with awards including India's second highest civilian honor.  The story of environmental activists in South America, of all the continents, continues to be violent.
2015 had the highest conservation-related mortality rates since 2010, with 185 confirmed cases (143 were reported for 2012 and 130 for 2011). In a previous study with data from 2014 Global Witness had counted 116 deaths, which implies a significant growth from one year to the next.
...
Latin America had the dubious honor of being the region with the highest number of conservationist murders—122; Brazil took the lion’s share with 50 killings. The investigation found that conflicts mostly involved mining (42 cases), agrobusiness (20), logging (15) and hydroelectric projects (15).
Killed, just like Mendes was, only because they were in the way of people who wanted to make money out of the natural environment.  How tragic!

Of course, the government and corporate agents are corrupt as hell and work closely with the killers!
The clash between the different viewpoints on how to achieve development is more often than not resolved with violence. Global Witness warns that just a few cases result in the filing of a formal complaint that leaves a documented record. Even less frequent are cases resulting in a conviction. According to the NGO, impunity ends up benefiting not only the perpetrator of the crime but also the mastermind behind it, who can have a relationship with the upper levels of the economic and political powers.
It is easy to point fingers at corrupt politicians and businesses.  What is more difficult is for individual consumers, like me, to understand that it is pressure from us that businesses are also responding to.  We consumers want the next best thing and at the lowest possible price.  The killings are the hidden costs.  The irreplaceable destruction is a hidden cost.  Or, even if they are in plain sight, we choose to look away, or be in complete denial.  Taking care of the natural environment requires us to practice what we preach--which is one of the reasons I knew I could not ever completely dedicate myself to the cause without being a hypocrite.  I would rather accept my flaws and try to understand the big picture and spread the word.

I also know I owe the Mendeses of the world a huge thanks.  I feel so small compared to them.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lessons from an "American" presidential election

(I have sent this across to the editor. Yet another column that draws from many of my blog-posts.)

The stereotypical image of the United States in the rest of the world is that we are not interested in them, unless it serves our selfish interests. That image lends itself to the humorous tongue-in-cheek line that God created war so that Americans would learn geography. On top of such a disinterest, the current presidential election season has turned out to be quite a soap opera mixed with reality entertainment, with a script that is sometimes even more colorful than what television offers. Thus, it is quite possible that we have been completely oblivious to another “American” presidential election, which was held in Peru.

Source

The recently concluded contest in Peru is fascinating for one important reason—immigration. Peru is a Spanish-speaking country in South America and, therefore, we might expect to see the last names that will be familiar to us as “Spanish” as is the case in the neighboring former Spanish colonies. In Bolivia, the leader is Evo Morales. Ecuador’s president is Rafael Correa. And in Colombia, it is Juan Santos who heads the government. It might, therefore, surprise many of us here in the US that the winner of the election in Peru, which concluded in early June, was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who will officially take over on July 28th.

The Peruvian winner having a Polish last name, Kuczynski, is only one half of the immigration story. The other half is the candidate who lost—Keiko Fujimori. How many among us would have ever imagined political leaders in a South American country having Polish and Japanese last names?

Source
The names Kuczynski and Fujimori reflect the immigration from Europe and Japan to Peru. The 41-year old Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of a former president, Alberto Fujimori, who disgraced himself after a decade in office and is now behind bars. The senior Fujimori's parents immigrated to Peru from Japan. Pedro Kuczynski is, interestingly enough, the same age as Alberto Fujimori—77 years. Kuczynski's parents came to Peru at about the same time that Fujimori's parents emigrated from Japan. Kuczynski's Jewish father and his Swiss mother, fled Berlin after Hitler came to power.

Fujimori versus Kuczynski in a Spanish speaking South American country is one awesome example of the wonderfully globalized cultures that characterize our contemporary existence. We need to pause and appreciate the extraordinariness of this level of democracy, given the long history of humans organizing themselves based on their tribal identities and treating the “others” with nothing but animosity and deep-seated suspicion.

Both Kuczynski and Fujimori have extensive connections to the US as well. A Princeton graduate, Kuczynski spent quite a few years here in the US working in various financial institutions, most notably at the World Bank. Fujimori earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees here—from Boston University and Columbia University. The US can, therefore, rightfully claim to have played influential roles in shaping the minds of the two Peruvian leaders.

We can expect a lot more like the Peruvian story, thanks to people moving around in the world, and mixing with the “natives.” In India, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi almost became the country’s prime minister in 2004, after leading her party to a huge victory in the national elections. She stepped aside for a number of political reasons, even though the constitution of India—unlike the constitution of the United States—does not explicitly disqualify an immigrant from holding the highest elected office in the country.

In the United Kingdom, Sadiq Aman Khan, was elected London’s Mayor in May 2016. Khan’s parents immigrated to Britain from Pakistan. A Muslim son of immigrants was democratically elected to one of the most high profile public offices in Britain, while many here in the US want to close the door on immigration and on Muslims!

Of course, in 2008, we too elected to the highest office a person with an unusual name—Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan. However, instead of wholeheartedly showcasing to the world the election and the winner as American symbols of democracy and humanity, many Americans, unfortunately, spent an enormous amount of time and money discrediting the President’s eligibility itself. What a contrast to Peruvians who enthusiastically embraced the Polish and Japanese roots of their presidential candidates!

The Peruvian Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, who lost the presidential elections to Alberto Fujimori in 1990, wrote that "the women and men who brave the Straits of Gibraltar or the Florida Keys or the electric fences of Tijuana or the docks of Marseilles in search of work, freedom, and a future should be received with open arms.” The contest between Kuczynski and Fujimori exemplifies the “open arms” in Peru. I wonder what our own presidential elections will convey to the world about our arms.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Three men in a van ... and a woman too!

The whiteness of where I live is such a contrast to the multi-tonal mosaic of Southern California.  Heck, some of the whites are so tanned that they look even darker than me!

A view of downtown Los Angeles
from the daughter's apartment
The shuttle van driver was on time.  As he started driving, of course, I began my small talk with him.  It is so wonderful to understand life from the perspective of one whose daily life is very different from mine.  The small talk quickly revealed that he, too, had an accent that indicated he was from somewhere else.

"Hey, is that a little bit of an Iranian accent in you?" I asked him.

He smiled.  "No, Armenian."

"I was close. Neighboring country." I ought to know, given that I am tenured in the geography department ;)

He came here when he was a child, when the family immigrated just before the USSR came tumbling down.  I didn't ask him if they would have stayed back in a free and independent Armenia.

"I hear there are white supremacy groups in Oregon.  How do they treat you when you are a person of color?" he asked.  He was so articulate that I was sure there is a backstory to why he was being an airport shuttle van driver.  I didn't ask him that either.

We reached the hotel where he was picking up more passengers.  Two visiting Germans.  This kind of a spontaneous and serendipitous mixing of people from diverse parts of the world is one I miss in my life in Oregon.  The foreigners that the friend introduces me to, when they arrive here for short work visits, are welcome additions.

Other than the Germans occasionally struggling to think about the correct English word, we four had a great conversation the rest of the drive.  The driver talked to them about German soccer clubs.  "We are not into sports" the German male politely replied.  Vintners, from the Mosel region, who were here to market their wines.  He gave me his business card and asked me to check out their wines if our stores carried them.  Though I don't drink, I wonder if I should buy a bottle and then email him about it.

"My family still has vineyards in Armenia and they make their own wines too" the Armenian-American said.

"Ja, ja, Armenia is one of the oldest wine regions of the world" the vintner said.

I had no idea about Armenia's wines and history.  I had to later read up in Wikipedia in order to get an idea of what the German and the Armenian were talking about.  I tell ya, if only people realized how little I know about this world!

"I went to Varanasi.  I have never seen a place like it" she said.

I am from India and was born in a faith that cherishes going to Varanasi, yet I have never been there.  And, with personal connections to the city.

"The traffic in India is crazy" she said.  "There are no rules but everything works like magic" he jumped in.  "It is synchronized driving, like synchronized swimming" he added with a smile.  I like that characterization of India and its traffic conditions.

Like how the Passover Seder ends with a prayer of "next year in Jerusalem," I wish for a Varanasi visit some day soon.  For now, I will continue to observe life from here in Whitelandia!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

It is up to us to create a heaven right here on earth

For all the non-believer that I am, I consciously think about my existence, and worry about what it means to be human.  When bad things come my way, whether it was the refrigerator that died thanks to which I had to buy a new one with money that I don't have, or when people who are near and dear to me say awful things about me right to my face, I do not need a god to turn to.  "Shit happens" I tell myself.  After all, it is not as if the entire cosmos exists only to serve me!  The cosmos is.

Whether it is Lent, or Ramadan, or whatever, I am not ever sure that most of the believers really use that designated time in order to reflect on our fleeting existence on this "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam," as Carl Sagan so poetically put it.

In fact, the disconnect between such need for introspection versus the believers merely reciting the Vishnu Sahasranaamam and the Bhaja Govindam and more was the point of departure for the young me questioning the idea of god and religion and belief.  I was convinced then, and even more convinced I am now, that living a morally sound life has nothing to do with god and religion.

We are well in to Ramadan.  To some fundamentalist believers, apparently this is also the best time to kill!  Who the hell are the religious leaders who provide such twisted interpretations of the human condition?  One of the many casualties of this madness was a Sufi musician in Pakistan.
One of the most prominent Pakistani singers of Sufi devotional songs, Amjad Sabri, was killed by gunmen who fired into his car in Karachi on Wednesday, raising a new outcry over sectarian and extremist violence in Pakistan.
A faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, accusing Mr. Sabri of being a blasphemer.
Only sociopaths can kill a human all because he sang Sufi devotional music.  And why was Sabri considered a blasphemer, in the first place??
Mr. Sabri, 45, was one of the foremost singers of qawwali music — the devotional songs of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam — and was part of a family of noted performers. In 2014, Mr. Sabri was embroiled in controversy after a morning news program played his version of a traditional qawwali song that referred to the Prophet Muhammad. A blasphemy case was registered against the show hosts and the television network, Geo, and Mr. Sabri was named in the complaint.
Bloody sociopaths!  May they be tortured to the nth degree in the hell in which they believe!

I had no idea about Sabri until I read that news and, therefore, will leave you with this by another Sufi qawwali singer, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

This post is unfair!

Much to the displeasure of Ramesh and Anne, I constantly explore inequality and fairness.  In case they, or you, need a refresher, I will gladly point to the following samples:
Those two posts, among many, always lead to the same bottom-line: The best thing that you can do is to choose your parents well.  Of course, we do not get to choose our parents, which means that ...

It is not merely income inequality that results from this accident of birth in the correct (or incorrect) geography.  It shows up in various attributes of life, like even the lifestyle choices.  Things are different on the other side of the railroad track.

Like with health and life expectancy:



In the old country, the juxtaposition of the rich and the poor is perhaps best symbolized in Antilia.  Being born in the wrong place makes all the difference in one's life.  A luck of the draw, in which we are not even active participants given that it is pretty much determined at birth.

These are the kinds of intellectual and practical issues that led to me graduate school in the first place. Which is also where I got to read John Rawls--in a condensed form, because the book itself was way too big!

This video explains the importance of the Rawlsian argument, and why figuring out fairness is important and is also difficult.



As important as these ideas are, the fact that people prefer instant gratification and entertainment over reading and thinking, and the fact that thinking politicians have been replaced with demagogues, mean that we will never get to addressing the effects of being born in the wrong zip code, or the wrong country, or the wrong skin color, or ... and then we wonder why the world is so unfair!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

This un-sexy post will not titillate you

"I loved the philosophy classes."  The young man, who only a decade ago was a college freshman, recalled his experiences as we met over a wonderful breakfast, which I never imagined could happen in the dull and boring town that serves as my state's capital ;)

He did not major, nor minor, in philosophy.  But, the three required courses he still remembers and relishes.  "In my classes now, I try to sneak in some philosophy ideas" he gleefully added.

Ever the party-pooper, I cleared my throat.  "Ahem, the university and the program now operate in a business model where customers have to be kept happy.  So, guess what?  Because lots of students complained about philosophy, it has been trimmed down in the curriculum."

The old master crushed the old student's spirits  :(

I am always the bearer of bad news, apparently.  Why can't I ever be like Oprah telling the audience, "You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!"

For years now, I have been talking and writing about the dilution of higher education.  In one of my newspaper op-eds, I wrote that there is nothing higher nor education in "higher education."  But, I was warned that such will be the society in which I will work and live--Ray Bradbury predicted with uncanny accuracy (except the physical act of book burning) in his Fahrenheit 451:
Fahrenheit 451 also speaks of, and to, a culture that was becoming more superficial and philistine, in which television screens cover entire walls, where, in the words of the fire-chief Beatty: ‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected… Life is immediate… Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches.’ Bradbury had expressed his disquiet at ‘the great centrifuge of radio, television, pre-thought-out movies, and so forth. Give us no time to “stop and stare”.’
Bradbury, who to me was always more a social commentator disguised as a science fiction writer, wrote Fahrenheit 451 well before the age of flat screen TVs that seem to cover entire walls, and before anybody had even imagined a smartphone.  The book was published in 1953!  Here we are in 2016, discussing how philosophy courses have been dropped from the curriculum.  Language proficiency is no longer a mark of an educated person, it seems.  Spelling is old-fashioned.  Nobody wants to stand and stare, and think.  Because, after all, thinking could possibly lead to unhappiness.

Over the years, I have asked practically every introductory class of mine whether students have read Fahrenheit 451. It is a percentage that gets to be a smaller and smaller number with every passing year.  One year, I practically dared students to read it over the spring break and then discuss it with me.  Guess how many showed up in my office?

The contemporary life is all about momentary happiness.  Instant gratification seems to be our collective motto.  Therefore, not a moment shall be spent in deep thinking, which requires people to turn away from the flat screens on the walls and the bright screens in their hands.

Bradbury wrote:
Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right?... That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure and titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.
We seem to live for "pleasure and titillation."  Everywhere we turn, society now offers more and more avenues for "pleasure and titillation."  The pleasure from reading Fahrenheit 451 is certainly not titillation!

The author of the essay, which reminded me about my own thoughts on Fahrenheit 451, writes:
Forever trying to be the optimist, Ray Bradbury couldn’t but help demand vigilance about the future. He was like Orwell: a progressive who banefully acknowledged man’s flawed nature, his timeless thirst for power, forever wanting to push people around and tell others what to do and what to say. And, as with Orwell, Bradbury recognised that tyranny is at its most potent when it’s superficially most benevolent, when it dresses up coercion and censorship in kindly, caring language. A society that believes it paramount to keep its citizens safe, happy and comfortable for the greater good can not, and will not, tolerate dangerous words.
Which is why I wrote, in response to this debater's comment, that serious fiction makes us worry about down the continuum, if the trends continued along in the same direction.  After all, as the old Chinese saying goes, "if we don’t change the direction in which we are headed, we will end up where we are going."


Monday, June 20, 2016

Build that freaking wall!

I don't care whether or not Einstein really said or wrote somewhere that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  It makes a lot of sense.  Yet, humans often tend to do the same bloody things over again, believing things will work out differently.

I wonder if Einstein ever considered in his thought experiments the possibility that humans do the same thing again not because they expect different results, but because they completely deny the results.  Such denial would never occurred to his logical mind, perhaps.  Einstein versus the climate change deniers would have been one interesting discussion.

Yet, that is what is unfolding in plain sight.  People are gladly doing the same things.  Like this, in in South Florida:
Its very existence depends on the continued allure of the beaches, waterways and natural environment. Yet, by 2050, an estimated $15 billion to $36 billion of Florida’s coastal property will be threatened by sea-level rise, according to a report last year from the Risky Business Project, a Bloomberg Philanthropies effort that quantifies economic risks from climate change.
In South Florida, sea-level rise and climate change are already having an effect on available drinking water, roads and sewer lines in low-lying areas, and storm and flood insurance rates.
If problems are showing up in every day life even now, then Einstein's logic will tell us that people won't develop the land and sell multi-million dollar homes, right?  Welcome to the insanity:
there’s an emerging industry eager to find a way to help people stay in that paradise, a place born of real estate speculation and rebirthed cyclically out of natural disasters like hurricanes and man-made disasters like real estate bubbles.
Developers have started marketing storm-resistant homes and resilient buildings, like a high-rise in downtown Miami designed to withstand 300-mph winds. In Miami Beach, the city is beginning to implement building codes that require new construction and city infrastructure to be elevated. Fort Lauderdale is considering raising the height limits on sea walls.
Rising sea-levels will be matched by rising sea walls!  Ah, the insanity that is more than my criticism of American solutions to American problems!
“Sea level is rising, and we have to plan for the next 50 to 100 years. You have to, for the purposes of marketing, build for the future. You have to build for the future, even if the code may not allow it.”
Seriously?

Meanwhile, whatever the deniers might want to believe, the data trend is worsening.
The last station on Earth without a 400 parts per million (ppm) reading has reached it.
Where was that, you ask?  In Antarctica.  Far, far, away from South Florida and China and India and humanity.
In the remote reaches of Antarctica, the South Pole Observatory carbon dioxide observing station cleared 400 ppm on May 23, according to an announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday. That’s the first time it’s passed that level in 4 million years (no, that’s not a typo).
So, those of us who are not into insanity, nor into denial, will worry about trends like this:
“The increase of carbon dioxide is everywhere, even as far away as you can get from civilization,” Pieter Tans, a carbon-monitoring scientist at the Environmental Science Research Laboratory, said. “If you emit carbon dioxide in New York, some fraction of it will be in the South Pole next year.”
It’s possible the South Pole Observatory could see readings dip below 400 ppm, but new research published earlier this week shows that the planet as a whole has likely crossed the 400 ppm threshold permanently (at least in our lifetimes).
Passing the 400 ppm milestone in is a symbolic but nonetheless important reminder that human activities continue to reshape our planet in profound ways
And, one of the results will be, yes, rising sea levels in South Florida too.

Guess who is in favor of building higher sea walls even when denying the very climate change?  Yes, it is the fascist, who is worried about his wealth!

Insanity!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose

The years since 9/11 have been of government watching us in many ways.  The same years have also provided us with phenomenal digital technological wonders that also keep watching many, many things we do and think.  A typical young person today has grown up in this environment of being watched practically all the time and, by and large, they seem to be ok with it.  It does not seem to trouble them.

These trends bother me.  They worry me.

Even the nearly two years of experiencing life under Indira Gandhi's "emergency" was enough for me to understand the value and importance of freedom.  A freedom in which we do not have to think about freedom itself.

It is this freedom, and the near total lack of it, that Herta Muller writes about in a haunting and surreal poetic prose that is as much a "witness literature" as is Svetlana Alexievich's.  I jumped to Muller's book out of sheer logistics--Alexievich's Secondhand Time is hardcover, whereas Muller's The Land of Green Plums is easy to carry paperback, which was convenient for the travel.  The writing styles are different, the locales are different, but both are about humans and their lives in repressive regimes.

Muller's Nobel Prize speech is a wonderful bonus in the book.  I read that even before I got to the book.  A few pages into the book, I wondered whether the speech ought to have been a prologue of sorts, so that readers like me would have been mentally primed for the haunting tale that Muller tells.

Romania's Nicolae CeauČ™escu and his totalitarian state is the setting in which Muller weaves her surreal images.  In an interview two years ago, Muller said that she didn't quite buy into the notion that the Romanians didn't have organized resistance "because they were more tightly controlled, the country is small and more easily monitored":
But I always wondered about this. You had this magnificent language, and then there was this combination of utter cluelessness—as a kind of default predisposition, a preemptive stance—and brutality. But it’s precisely this cluelessness, this utter lack of interest in political affairs, that’s the problem. Because people who aren’t interested aren’t prepared for hard times, they’re quick to give in, quick to conform, and then they’re quick to act brutally against others so as not to put themselves in jeopardy. 
The cluelessness, the utter lack of interest in political affairs, in this country--especially among the young--deeply worries me.  Particularly because throughout this twenty-first century, various processes have made conforming to be the easier route.

Even if we want to dismiss the worries that I have, the life that she describes in the fictional work will come across as not that different from the ongoing Syrian crisis, for instance.  Muller writes:
Everyone lived by thinking about flight.  They thought of swimming across the Danube until the water becomes another country. Of running after the corn until the soil becomes another country.  You could see it in their eyes: Soon they will spend every penny they have on detailed maps.  They hope for fog in the field and fog on the river for days on end so they can avoid the bullets and the guard-dogs, so they can run away, swim away. ... You could see it on their lips: Soon they will whisper to a stationmaster in exchange for every penny they have.  They will climb into freight trains so they can roll away.
Practically a line-by-line description of those fleeing Syria, right?  And she adds:
The only ones who didn't want to flee were the dictator and his guards. You could see it in their hands, eyes, lips. ... You could feel the dictator and his guards hovering over all the secret escape plans, you could feel them lurking and doling out fear.
Freedom is a very recent concept and it is quite a struggle to make sure we don't lose it.  My worry is that there are far more people eager to curtail freedom than there are to fight for it.  The cluelessness, the utter lack of interest in political affairs, in this country, in an era of increasing technological surveillance and ready-to-conform behavior worries me that America, too, might end up with a fascist in power.    


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Art is not in my DNA :(

I have no clue about art.  It is yet another instance when I am shocked that I can be so clueless about so many things, and have only the smallest idea of a minor aspect of knowledge, and yet I am hired to teach.  Thankfully, people don't really know how much most of us "teachers" don't have a clue about any damn thing!

But, despite the art-challenged ignorance that envelops and defines my existence, I appreciate art in my own way.  Perhaps this is nothing but yet another version of Justice Potter Stewart's comment "I know it when I see it."  Well, that itself is nothing but an iteration of the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Anyway, I know it when I see the beauty in art!  And I did see and experience one unique piece of art--Christo's umbrellas.

I lived in Bakersfield back then, and remember going up to Gorman to look at the umbrellas up, close, and personal.  And to stand under it because of the bright and hot sun :) ... I should note that the photo here is not mine, but one I found on Flickr--this too is from Gorman, and exactly how I remember it.


The neatest thing about Christo's umbrellas was that the art was an experience.  Because, unlike a painting that might hang in a museum for centuries, Christo's umbrellas were temporary.  I liked that Buddhist sand mandala approach of his to remind ourselves of the temporary lease we have on this planet.  Like how what we experience now cannot be experienced again ever.  It is more than mere "art."  A few days later, the umbrellas were dismantled.  Gone.

Why this post on Christo?  I was getting bored five miles up in the sky--I was flying to Southern California--when I decided to leaf through the in-flight magazine.  An interview with Christo caught my attention.  It was about his latest project.

Source

Only Christo could have imagined such a project:
“The Floating Piers,” a walkway stretching three kilometers, or nearly two miles, that connects two small islands in Lake Iseo, in Italy’s Lombardy region, to each other and to the mainland.
In the interview, Christo talks about how this idea of his had been rejected over the years--nearly forty years--by the governments in Argentina and Japan.  Finally, Italy approved this art installation.  Christo comments :
Art is in the DNA of the Italian people.Italy has a paragraph devoted to art and culture in their constitution. In the US, we have a paragraph about guns.
I don't know if that that comment on the Italian constitution is true.  It does not matter to me; I rarely ever understand art and the artistic mind.  But, damn, I would love to go and experience the "Floating Piers."

Thursday, June 16, 2016

To consume less is not American!

In a commentary that was published back in 2007, I wrote about a strange way of life here in the US, which I referred to as "an American solution to an American problem."  I wrote then:
Well, a few weeks after I came to this country for graduate studies, it was nearing Thanksgiving and the television ad for Alka-Seltzer that I watched then is what I refer to as American solutions to American problems. In this ad, the audio commentary and the pictures presented all the wonderful foods that the viewer would end up eating at Thanksgiving, which then resulted in stomach aches and heartburn. And, presto, Alka-Seltzer to the rescue! My reflexive thought was simple: if the problems came from overeating, then why not simply advise the viewer to eat less? Of course, as I have come to realize, to consume less is not American. (Yes, I, too, am an American!) Instead, the American way is to consume more, and then when problems develop savvy entrepreneurs provide solutions to facilitate further consumption.
I never imagined savvy entrepreneurs devising something that is bizarre, and maybe my visceral reaction is also why I even subconsciously filtered out the news.  But then the friend made sure I read about it :(
A new weight loss device offers a novel approach to cutting calories: draining them from the stomach before they are fully digested.
The AspireAssist system consists of a thin tube implanted in the stomach, connecting to an outside port on the skin of the belly. About 20 minutes after finishing a meal, users connect the port to an external device, which drains some of the recently consumed food into the toilet.
The manufacturer — Aspire Bariatrics based in King of Prussia, Pa. — says its system removes about 30 percent of food stored in the stomach before it ­begins causing weight gain.
People eat and then 20 minutes later they drain the recently consumed food into the toilet.  What the heck?  Weren't we worried about people who engaged in such behaviors?
It undoubtedly sounds gross, and even a bit like assisted bulimia, but this device may be a long-term solution for patients struggling with obesity, characterized as having a body mass index between 35 and 50. “With this device, you only remove about a third of the food, and that’s because the device sits primarily in the upper portion of the stomach,” Kathy Crothall, the CEO and founder of Aspire Bariatrics, told Quartz.
It certainly sounds gross :(

Who ever thought that this gross device will be the way to fight the obesity epidemic in the US!
 The two reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that efforts to encourage Americans to lose weight — at least to stop putting on more weight — are having little effect.
Overall, 38 percent of U.S. adults are obese and 17 percent of teenagers are, the two reports find.
 A couple of weeks ago, a student was chatting with me about life, and talked about his weight issues--he was slightly overweight.  He talked about his plans to lose weight, and to win the competition against his mother who had already shed quite a few pounds.  I love my work especially in contexts like this where I get more evidence that teaching is not merely about what goes on in the classroom.  The fact that he was at ease with me to talk about such issues says a lot.

I encouraged him in his summer plans.  I reminded him about the three things that I usually tell anybody who talks with me about weight issues:
It is about calories in versus calories out.
It is about what kind of calories that go in.
It is about when those calories go in.
Seriously, draining the calories from one's stomach?


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

If only we can make everything right here in the USA

For a few years now, I have required students in my intro class to read "I, Pencil."  Chances are pretty good that if my esteemed colleagues got to know about it, well, it can't get any worse than how things are now! ;)

Students, who typically have heard from most instructors in the social sciences that the market is bad, that corporations are evil, and that self-interest leads to disasters, expect me also to say the same things.  Instead, "I, Pencil" is the first of the readings for them.  In the essay, Leonard Read makes a claim that makes students sit up and think: He writes that "not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make" a pencil.   Got you also thinking, eh; go ahead, read it.

If only the Republican presidential nominee had read that simple story, which even a fifth-grader can read and understand!  Had he understood it, he would have not claimed that when he is President Apple's iPhone will be an all-American, proudly Made-in-the-USA, phone.

I know, I know, you don't care about what I say on such matters.  So, here are the details from MIT Technological Review.  Consider the components and their suppliers, for instance:


So, if the Republican candidate wants Apple to make iPhones in the US, with components made domestically, then, hey, you thought an iPhone is bloody expensive now?  Wait until they carry the "Made in the USA" label!

But, even that is incorrect.  Because, here in the US we don't have all the materials that are needed to manufacture the components, as in an making iPhones out of “American atoms.”  Why?
According to King at the Ames Lab, an iPhone has about 75 elements in it—two-thirds of the periodic table. Even just the outside of an iPhone relies heavily on materials that aren’t commercially available in the U.S. Aluminum comes from bauxite, and there are no bauxite mines in the U.S.
Did you know that there are no bauxite mines in the US?  Think about all the aluminum that we use here in the US!  Real American patriots will never drink beer from aluminum cans, and those who do are traitors ;)

Which is why David Abraham is quoted in that essay: “no tech product from mine to assembly can ever be made in one country.”  This is nothing but a restatement of the bottom-line of "I, Pencil," which is about a much simpler technological product.

Abraham writes elsewhere:
Some 150 years ago, nearly all the materials in a person’s home originated in a nearby forest or quarry. Roughly 35 years ago, with more developed supply lines and a demand for consumer appliances, the average American home used around 20 elements. Since then, material scientists have led a quiet revolution, transforming the products we use and the materials that allow them to work. In the 1990s, for instance, Intel used 16 elements to build its computer chips; now the company requires close to 60 elements.
If only somebody can make the Republican nominee understand these things.  Oh, yeah, he does not care to understand these--all he wants to do is win by saying whatever can get him the votes to be the best fascist leader of the world! :(  

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What is freedom?

As I often note here, we struggle to make meaning of our existence from the time we realize that we are mortals.  It is a challenge to understand the fact that we arrive in this world with invisible expiration dates printed on us.  In the back of our heads, as we lay down to go to sleep, deep down we know that we do not know when it will end.

In order to make meaning, we developed various institutions.  Religions that explain where we come from and--even more important--where we go after the big sleep.  During our life on this wonderful planet, which I know I will miss, we work with interpretations of love and hate. Even as we mentally prepare for that ultimate outcome, we realize that there is a life to live out, for which we then come up with various socio-political arrangements.

Svetlana Alexievich writes about how the collapse of the Soviet system not only shattered the structure of the everyday life that people lived, but it also eviscerated the ideas about Russia and its place in the world and, along with that, their own place in this world.

The oral history that Alexievich employs is certainly different from the kinds of work that I have read.  She is not merely telling the people's stories but is helping readers like me understand the very existential crisis that people went through and go through.  I was reminded of what the New Yorker had noted about Alexievich after she was awarded the Nobel Prize:
The Swedish Academy, which announced today that Alexievich will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, cited the writer for inventing “a new kind of literary genre.” The permanent secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius, described Alexievich’s work as “a history of emotions—a history of the soul, if you wish.” Her work might also be described as oral history by excavation.
 Even the few pages that I have read thus far make it abundantly clear that Alexievich is unpacking the lives of ordinary people who bare their souls to her.  It was so touching to read one say:
It became rude to ask, "What are you reading?"
As I have often noted here, even in the old country, the world of reading and thinking and art and culture does not seem to exist anymore.  Whether it is the old country, or Russia, or here in America, people seem to be obsessed with money and riches.  They seem to be think that they can escape the existential struggle by chasing wealth.  No wonder reading has been thrown out; after all, serious books "don't teach you how to become successful. How to get rich ..."

Most of the voices in the book are those of women.  Women authors, and women's voices in this book, will fill a huge void in my understanding of this world and my own existence.  There is a reason why Alexievich focuses on women's stories:
Focussing on women was a wise decision, Alexievich said: “Women tell things in more interesting ways. They live with more feeling. They observe themselves and their lives. Men are more impressed with action. For them, the sequence of events is more important.” 
Less than fifty pages into the book and I can already get a sense of why in his twilight years "Gorbachev has become an isolated figure".  Alexievich channels one voice:
We're rolling around in shit and eating foreign food.  Instead of a Motherland, we live in a huge supermarket. If this is freedom, I don't need it. To hell with it! The people are on their knees. We're a nation of slaves. Slaves!
I am sure I will understand more about the existential crisis over the 470 pages of the book.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

Freedom is normal

As a kid growing up in a left-leaning India, I was fascinated with Fidel Castro, and the legends of Che.  I distinctly recall watching on television--which was new to us back then--a meeting of the Non-Aligned countries that was held in New Delhi.   Fidel Castro went on and on, and I am now amazed at how I sat through and watched most of that rant speech on TV!

Fortunately, I grew up, and grew out of my socialist fantasies.

That conversion happened not because I read about America and how awesome the country is. I rarely read any American fiction back then.  I walked away from the left thanks to mostly Russian writers and, of course, George Orwell.

The Soviet Union that Solzhenistyn wrote about, and Orwell's Big Brother deeply worried me.  The older and wiser me couldn't understand the violence that the Stalinists and Maoists inflicted upon their own people, leave alone those on the outside.  The communist regimes were nothing but killers and anti-democratic rulers; Fidel and Che, it turned out, were no different from the violent and maniacal Stalin.
In the decades since 1917, communism has led to more slaughter and suffering than any other cause in human history. Communist regimes on four continents sent an estimated 100 million men, women, and children to their deaths — not out of misplaced zeal in pursuit of a fundamentally beautiful theory, but out of utopian fanaticism and an unquenchable lust for power.
I was, therefore, shocked to find Che as a beloved symbol in the American college campuses.  Did people not know about the violent Che?

Later, after the events of the fateful 9/11, Che's use of violence to achieve his version of utopia came across to me as no different from how Osama bin Laden didn't find anything wrong in killing civilians.  Yet, while no rational person would walk around wearing an Osama t-shirt, thousands all across the world, including here in the US, think it is cool to wear a Che t-shirt.  I suppose Osama, too, would have gladly worn a Che t-shirt if only Che weren't an infidel!

Source
In the years since 9/11, violence has not been caused by commie radicals but mostly by maniacal radicals who falsely believe they are working on behalf of their prophet and the Islamic State!  I suppose if Fidel, Raul, and Che could create a Communist State, and maintain it for decades, then we should not be surprised at the Islamic State and its ability to lure young men to its cause.

I needed solace after the Orlando shooting.  I had to get out of the madness of this world where a country allows military-style assault weapons to be sold to civilians at the neighborhood store.  I wanted to understand the insanity behind a human killing dozens of people only because they were dancing and enjoying life.

I hit the books.  The summer reading list, that is.  I reached out to my trusted authors from the part of the world where suffering was a way of life.

Svetlana Alexievich turns out to be wonderful counselor, even in the introductory pages.  She writes:
I recently saw some young men in T-shirts with hammers and sickles and portraits of Lenin on them.  Do they know what communism is?
I particularly like one line that Svetlana Alexievich has in those first few pages.  When writing about what freedom is, she channels this:
it's when you can live without having to think about freedom. Freedom is normal.
Thus, with a mass shooting in Florida, the cosmos figured out for me which of the three books I will read first.

Choosing the first book was my biggest problem, which means that I have a darn good life.  Especially, when I project this against the backdrop of the tragedy in Orlando, where no amount of books and talk can ever replace the lives that were lost and the lives that have been traumatized.

Some day, soon I hope, we humans will understand violence for what it is and work towards peace on earth.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

It is an awfully bloody time for scavengers

After the long, dark, days in these northern latitudes, when life all around slowly seems to shut down, spring does provide a wonderful rebirth of life.
Plants shoot up from the ground.
Trees blossom.
Birds fly and tweet.
Animals run around everywhere.

Before moving to this valley that has now been home for fourteen years, I had never witnessed such a cycle of life.  There is a rhythmic beauty in it, along with a profound message of the cosmos being far grander that we can possibly imagine.

It is also the time for nature's scavengers.

In the winter months, the red-tailed hawks sit there on telephone poles and tree branches, with a good view of the action down below.  They don't worry about the rain or the cold, it seems.  But, I rarely ever see them down the ground pecking away at their favorite carrion because, well, there is not a whole lot of life running around and dying.

Now that we are well into the spring, with the first day of summer only a few days away, the hawks are rarely ever on the telephone poles and tree branches.  They are down on terra firma, feasting away on the rotting flesh.

The turkey vultures gracefully glide in spirals that make me dizzy watching them.  They seem to dance to a waltz that I cannot hear.  While soaring above, they look so beautiful, but when they are on the ground and relatively close by, the birds with their small little faces makes me wonder if somebody mistakenly glued on a wrong head from a different toy!

A dead deer lay in the ditch along the road.

I don't ever imagine anybody calling up the public health authorities reporting a dead deer.  Nature's scavengers seem to be on the job 24x7.  I saw a hawk pecking away at the deer.  Fresh, organic, food for the raptor, which seemed to be in a rapture over the abundant food.  Yet, the birds do not get obese from these feasts.  When was the last time I ever saw a hawk or a turkey vulture so out of shape that it could not fly?

I suppose we humans are the only animals who live to eat, and to eat in excess, while the other animals eat to live and then spend the rest of their time sitting at telephone poles watching us crazy humans obsessed with doing things oblivious to all the transcendent beauty that is all around us.  The gracefully gliding turkey vulture witnesses us rushing about in mad pursuit of whatever it is that distracts us from whatever it is that our lives should be about.

If only we would pause and ponder about our lives and make it something above and beyond a simple scavenger hunt!

A gorgeous spring day it was here in paradise ...
sun, with puffy white clouds against a blue sky ...
about 69 degrees, a light breeze ...
A scavenger hunt it was not ;)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The poor will always be with us?

Soon after the fall of the Soviet system, in an issue devoted to poverty, The Economist included a lengthy essay with a title that was something like "the poor will always be with us."  Only when reading that piece did I know that the magazine newspaper was playing on a verse from the Bible.

Over the years, we have certainly seen a dramatic reduction in the number of poor around the world, and the percentages now are nothing compared to decades past.  But, we still have the poor, especially in rich countries.  When we overlay on this the issues of income inequality and the implications of the digital revolution, is there anything else that we can do?

Why not simply give everybody money and take care of poverty?
Figure out a reasonable amount — the official poverty line amounts to about $25,000 for a family of four; a full-time job at $15 an hour would provide about $30,000 a year — and hand every adult a monthly check. The minimum-wage worker stretching to make it to payday, the single mother balancing child care and a job — everybody would get the same thing.
Poverty would be over, at a stroke.
Being universal — that is, for the homeless and the masters of the universe alike — the program would be free of the cumbersome assessments required to determine eligibility. It would also escape the stigma typically attached to programs for the poor.
That is the very idea of Basic Income.  

In my classes, I present students with a thought experiment.  The digital technology is getting better by the minute and software and physical robots are making the economy highly productive. At the same time, quite a few, whose jobs have been eliminated thanks to the "digital workers" are earning little even  when working a lot.  So, in the near future, if the "digital workers" are productive enough and all it takes is a little bit of taxes on the rich to guarantee everybody a basic income, will the students support such an idea?

Switzerland put that to test, via a referendum:
Final results from Sunday's referendum showed that nearly 77% opposed the plan, with only 23% backing it.
Among those who opposed it, there was a worry that the open borders would immediately attract quite a few:
Luzi Stamm, a member of parliament for the right-wing Swiss People's Party, opposed the idea.
"Theoretically, if Switzerland were an island, the answer is yes. But with open borders, it's a total impossibility, especially for Switzerland, with a high living standard," he said.
"If you would offer every individual a Swiss amount of money, you would have billions of people who would try to move into Switzerland."
This is only the beginning.
Finland is gearing up to launch a large-scale trial next year, and a more limited effort is current underway in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Y Combinator, the US-based investment company, is doing a pilot in Oakland, California. The government of Ontario, Canada, is launching a test this year, and GiveDirectly, a cash transfer charity, is doing a test in Kenya.
Do not hastily conclude that it is only the knee-jerk liberals who support the idea.
Some thinkers on the right, too, have managed to overcome their general distaste for government welfare to support the idea. This month, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute will publish an updated version of his plan to replace welfare as we know it with a dollop of $10,000 in after-tax income for every American above the age of 21.
We need to continue to think about these, and more, because we need to design a new social contract for the twenty-first century, in order to replace the highly frayed safety nets from the previous era.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The birth of inequality

One of the advantages in blogging my understanding of the world is this: I can easily check for myself whether I might have "flip-flopped" on issues.  Of course, because I am not a politician, I go with logic and evidence, which means that I even if I change my position it is not because I am trying to please somebody but because the evidence compels me to.

Through this post, I want to merely say "I told you so!" ;)

For ever, it seems, I have been blogging that the hype about the world being one's oyster overlooks the reality, which is that on an average eighty percent of one's economic success in life is determined by two simple facts--the geography of where one was born and raised, and the parents.  I have explored this in many posts, like in this one on "choose your parents well."

More evidence along those lines:
What is the most striking consequence of deepening income inequality? Could it be the rise of social immobility?
A report recently released by the Russell Sage Foundation — “Opportunity, Mobility, and Increased Inequality” — concludes
that 60 percent of those born into a bottom-quintile family will themselves be in the bottom two quintiles of the income distribution at age forty, and that 56 percent of those born into a top-quintile family will be in the top two quintiles of the distribution at age forty.
I told you so!
Not only do “children of affluent parents graduate from college at substantially higher rates than children of low-income parents,” according to Bradbury and Triest, “the gap persists even when controlling for ability in the form of test scores.”
They cite data showing that
a child’s earnings in adulthood reflect parental investments in his/her human capital (education) as well as his/her endowment of earnings capacity and market luck. That endowment, in turn, is determined by the reputation and “connections” of their families, the contribution to the ability, race, and other characteristics of children from the genetic constitutions of their families, and the learning, skills, goals, and other “family commodities” acquired through belonging to a particular family culture.
I told you so!

Now, keep in mind that I have also been worrying for a long time about the rapidly evolving technological changes are making the economic issues worse.  Which is why I am going to tell you "I told you so" even before I bring to your attention the excerpt:
Are there economic forces at work that are inexorably worsening equality of opportunity regardless of government intervention?
Bradbury and Triest implicitly raise this issue when they point out that
Nations or eras with greater disparities in pay levels according to educational attainment will, other things equal, have higher intergenerational earnings elasticities, hence, lower mobility, because any level of intergenerational correlation in education translates into greater differences in earnings and, hence, higher correlation of parent and child earnings.
This is precisely what has happened in the United States. From 1979 to 2012, the earnings gap in inflation-adjusted annual pay between high school and college graduates has grown from $17,411 to $34,969 for men and from $12,887 to $23,280 for women, according to data compiled by David Autor, an economist at M.I.T.
In other words, the economy, by increasing the wage premium for high skill jobs requiring college degrees or more, is working to exacerbate the problems documented in the Russell Sage report.
If only we would understand such issues and systematically work towards developing a new social contract, about which I have been blogging about for ever--even as recently as three months ago!

But, very serious people do not want to engage in discussions on developing a new social contract for these times.  There is only one alternative then: Choose your parents well!