Saturday, March 25, 2017

trump voters will be judged by their grandsons and granddaughters

As one who engages in autoethnography, I always get excited when students use the course materials in order to gain an understanding of their own stories.  Which is what happened two years ago, with a quiet and reserved student.  Her quest was a serious one: She wanted to understand how her loving and lovable Oma (German word for grandmother) could have ever been the eager and energetic member of the Hitler youth that she was.

This was a while ago.  I pulled up the email to her that I had written back then.  In that, I wrote:
1. At the personal: It requires a lot of internal strength and integrity to find fault with one's own loving and lovable grandmother.
2. Intellectual: Liberal education, as I often note in my classes, is about helping us understand this cosmos and our own lives.  
Even when we live "normal" lives, we have so many moral decisions to make, which then define who we are.  A Nazi past takes it to another whole level.

I was reminded of that student when I read this piece in the NY Times, in which the author writes about her grandmother who joined the Nazi Party even before it became mandatory:
My grandmother, who lived to be almost 100, was not, as I knew her, xenophobic or anti-Semitic; she did not seem temperamentally suited to hate. Understanding why and how this woman I knew and loved was swept up in a movement that became synonymous with evil has been, for me, a lifelong question.
It is not difficult to imagine why this becomes an all-consuming lifelong quest.
How do I square the loving grandmother I knew until her death, in 2011, with this person? I have often worried that my attempt to understand the choices she made — and didn’t make — might be confused with an attempt to justify or forgive. But for me it is the only way I know to confront the past and take responsibility.
My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.
But in her willingness to talk about a subject few members of her generation would, she taught me the vital importance of knowing better.
The men and women who voted for trump will be similarly judged by their grandsons and granddaughters.  Like me, they too will point their fingers at their trump-supporting family. There are plenty of us who don't forget nor forgive.

ps: As I was wrapping up this post, the author, Jessica Shattuck, was being interviewed on NPR.  Check it out.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Veni, Vidi,... Scripsit?

I might seem uninterested, but I observe.  It is very much a part of my approach to a Socratic examined life.  Well, how can one live an examined life without observing, right?

To observe is immensely more than to merely see.  We laugh at the funny instances that are presented in observational comedy because the comedian observed something in the real world, which we may or may not have paid attention to, and then the comedian pokes fun at it.  Observation is the point of departure in that genre of comedy.

Observation, paying attention, is integral to how I understand the world.  Not merely whatever that surrounds me, but also what others tell me--even via the written word.  Especially the written word--it is my professional responsibility:
What a writer is supposed to do is pay attention. A good novelist pays attention to his characters. A good biographer pays attention to the documents before her. A good critic pays close attention to the thing she’s brought to evaluate.
Paying attention is the only thing that guarantees insight. It is the only real weapon we have against power, too. You can’t fight things you can’t actually see. The power a writer has is the power to make things visible, and they are the things that we don’t typically look at or think about.
Even in my own small little world.  The other day, I was on the bridge over the river enjoying the rare sun-break, when a guy walked up to me.  In his bicycle gear from head to toe.  I then spotted the bike parked a few feet away.

"Are you by any chance Sriram Khe? Who writes for the paper?," he asked.

He looked about 65.  With a thick mustache.  A white guy with a mustache is rare.

"Yes, I am."

He slowly took his gloves off.  I watched him do that.

"I'm so glad I stopped.  I have seen you many times on the bike path.  I want to shake your hands and thank you for your columns."  His glove-less hands came out.

"I really like how you bring in the personal touch, relating to India and your family and friends," he added.

I now think about his comments as I re-read: "The power a writer has is the power to make things visible, and they are the things that we don’t typically look at or think about."  I suppose in my own way I made him see things that he might not have thought about otherwise?

As I get older, I wonder if I have a responsibility to make more people think about things that I want them to think about.  Or, should I forget the world and merely carry on with talking things aloud to myself and occasionally speaking to a few other people?  Do I owe anybody anything?  Is the examined life only about me, or should I attempt to bug everybody I run into like how Socrates did?

I will pay attention; I am sure the answer is blowing in the wind.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What is a youth? Impetuous fire.

I would think that for most people the hormonal biology is the same, irrespective of the continents in which we live.  Language, religion, ethnicity, and any cultural marker has got nothing to do with the growth of male facial hair, pubic hair, hair under the armpits, and--most importantly, the sex hormones.

I was a basket case when the biochemistry started changing inside, leading to visible external changes. Imagination ran wild.  If I were looking for cheap notoriety, well, I have my own horror stories to tell.  But, I am too grown up for a tell-all.

To react to those hormonal changes is normal.  It is human.  It is very much a part of the biological species that we are.  Now, it does not mean that we should then behave like dogs in heat and do it doggy-style.  We don't want to behave like animals, no doubt.  But, suppressing those hormonal desires is another.  It is abnormal.  It is destructive.

Trying to control that is like pressing against an inflated balloon.  Either the balloon gets squished into a different shape, or it simply bursts.  Right?  Ellen Barry writes about this sexual oppression balloon in India:
Intentionally dialing wrong numbers is a labor-intensive way to find a girlfriend. But it is increasingly common in a range of countries — Morocco, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and India are examples — where traditional gender segregation has collided head-on with a wave of cheap new technology.
These are not old men trolling around for trophy wives.  Nope.  Young men.  Like Premsagar Tiwari:
Premsagar Tiwari, whose given name in Hindi translates as “Sea of Love.” Mr. Tiwari, 24, turned out to be a high-strung, pencil-necked man who grew up in two small rooms in the corner of the down-at-heel government school where his father worked as a night watchman. Outside his window, young women came and went in their crisp school uniforms. But the night watchman’s son could not approach them.
24 years old.  Let us say that the hormones have been tormenting him since he was 14.  A full decade of hormone craziness.  He sees girls in the real world. He sees girls in movies and television shows.  He sees girls in porn.  But, there he is in a prison that society has built around him, and his cellphone is the only way to reach the other side.
He said he had heard many stories of men and women meeting over social media and going on to marry.
“I may be a failed man,” he said, “but I am very passionate.”
The police were not impressed, and held him in custody for 15 days.
I don't mean to imply that this Tiwari guy is innocent.  He is guilty as hell.  But, we need to pause and think about the hundreds of millions of young men and women in India, in Morocco, in Bangladesh, ... in societies where the youth are forbidden from interacting across the genders.

BTW, plenty of young women look forward to these cellphone encounters:
Ms. Huang, the anthropologist, said the women she met in Bangladesh were often happy to engage in telephone courtships with anonymous strangers, and some maintained five or six at once. Phone contact, they told her, was safer because it presupposed physical distance. Also, it forced the men on the other end of the line to listen to them for long stretches.
“It’s one of those boundary-expanding experiences that allow you to think about opportunities that were not previously available,” she said. Young women, she said, described these relationships with “kind of a fearful excitement.”
We forget that in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was barely 14, and Romeo was only three years older.  The very ages when teenagers all across the world go cuckoo.  The Tiwaris are 24, even 30.  There is also that other connection to such repressed men and the "blue balls" theory of terrorism; but, that is a post for another day.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Water is life

In the search for life outside planet earth, scientists always look out for water.  As this commentary author put it, "the Nasa mantra for looking for life in outer space is to “follow the water”.  Without water, you and I won't be here.

Water being fundamental to our very existence is why we worry so much about humans having access to water, and why fighting about that access also matters.  It matters a lot.  It is a strange irony that we don't fight enough to protect our water bodies, nor do we seem to worry about the impact that climate change has on the water cycle.

It is a tragic irony that the ones who seem to be leading the fight on this are the indigenous peoples.  We "modern" post-industrial humans couldn't be bothered, apparently!

Here in the US:
The Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life,” has become a new national protest anthem.
It was chanted by 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. on March 10, and during hundreds of protests across the United States in the last year. “Mní wičhóni” became the anthem of the almost year-long struggle to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.
It is a long (oral) history:
For thousands of years, Native American tribes across the Great Plains developed their own methods of living with the natural world and its limited water supply. They learned both through observation and experiment, arguably a process quite similar to what we might call science today. They also learned from their religious ideas, passed on from generation to generation in the form of stories.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, in New Zealand:
The New Zealand parliament passed the bill recognising the Whanganui River, in North Island, as a living entity.
Long revered by New Zealand's Maori people, the river's interests will now be represented by two people.
The Maori had been fighting for over 160 years to get this recognition for their river, a minister said.
When I read that news, I was excited enough to tweet that!
"I know the initial inclination of some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality," said New Zealand's Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson.
"But it's no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies."
Exactly!  If a corporation can be given rights as a person, then a river merits personhood even more than Shell does!

A river with rights.  How about that!
The Whanganui River, New Zealand's third-longest, will be represented by one member from the Maori tribes, known as iwi, and one from the Crown.
The recognition allows it to be represented in court proceedings.
I tweeted my ecstatic frame of mind upon reading another news items about Whanganui, which included the Maori saying, "I am the river and the river is me."

Here is to hoping that the rest of us will also join the indigenous people from around the world and fight for water, which makes this planet a wonderful pale blue dot in the vast space.

Monday, March 20, 2017

What is truth?

A few years ago, a friend--I suspect that he voted for donald t. rump--challenged me with: "You have read about the world's major religions.  You are a learned man. Tell me whether anybody other than Jesus has ever come back from being dead?"

I usually never take up such questions to debate.  Because, there is no way that one can debate such questions that are not based on evidence.  They are driven by faith.  I merely thanked him for the certification that I was a learned man, and then moved on to other topics.

As a kid, I was raised with stories of people doing extraordinary things.  I believed them.  It took a while to figure out that belief and faith do not invite inquiry.  As my grandmother often replied, "because it is so!"  I remember once my father narrating the story of a Hindu holy man who was reportedly seen in three different places at the same time.  My immediate thought was, "how did they confirm that?"  After all, this was even before the age of telephones--they could not have been on a three-way call and reporting the sighting.  But, I didn't dare to ask my father that, the same way I chose not to respond to the question related to the resurrection of Jesus.

All of us--except trump, and his minions who might be a huge subset of the 63 million who voted for him--seek the truth in anything we want to understand.

The faithful claim about Jesus or other divine people and happenings are extraordinary claims.
The principle of proportionality demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find. Is the evidence commensurate with the conviction? 
The extraordinary evidence is not there.  "In science, we need external validation." There is no other way.  One might choose to believe in whatever, but that belief by itself does not make it an universal truth.

How do we know that the scientific method works?  Is science itself a "faith" as much as the resurrection of Jesus is a faith?

Nope.  The fact that you are reading this is evidence that science and the scientific method are no "beliefs" or "faiths."  Here is Richard Dawkins explaining that:


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Is my work meaningful to me?

Sometimes, I joke (I find my jokes to be funny!) in my classes that the worst invention ever was one that goes back nearly 12,000 years--settled agriculture.  Until then, we humans were no different from other mammals in that we hunted and gathered to feed ourselves, and over the rest of the hours of the day, we played, fought, mated, and scratched ourselves.  And we slept.

Some stupid humans proposed that we simply stay put, raise some animals, grow some crops, and our problems began.  From that moment on, we were destined to reach the point where we are now.  Growing crops and raising animals meant that we could no longer simply hunt and gather when we felt the hunger pangs, but now had to start planning towards the next meal.  We had to start worrying about the crop going bad, or the animals dying on us.  It was only a matter of time before we played less, mated even less, and slept a whole lot less!

The invention of settled agriculture was the original sin!  I wonder when we started cleaning up after we defecated--I bet that was one hell of a "aha" moment!

Of course, it is all tongue-in-cheek.  I am mighty happy that we have a far better understanding of who we are and where we are in this universe.  Ignorance is no bliss for me.

The process that began 12,000 years ago has led us to the world today in which we do not hunt and gather our food--well, with a few exceptions, that life is impossible for us anymore.  Instead, we work in order to get paid, which we then use to buy the food and more.  The question then is how much do we want to work.  Not much work is needed for mere survival, and a lot more is needed if we want to lead a materially prosperous life.

Quo vadis?

In answering that question, we begin to interpret the options very differently.  Increasingly, most find the work they do to be meaningless.  I remind students that I am always happy to be in a classroom because I love what I do, and that there aren't many people in this world who look forward to Mondays.  "Be prepared that you might find your job to be boring and shitty" is something that I have often told students.

Some students do pay attention.  To them, nobody has ever talked about such stuff!  Which is a shame:
Studies show that this generation of students cares deeply about purpose, meaning, and happiness at work. In reference to millennials, one recent Chicago Tribune article notes that they ask themselves: “Is my work meaningful to me? Do I have a cause? Do I have influence, purpose, and alignment?” If higher education does not teach students how to explore these issues at the college level, students graduate at a disadvantage.
I never found meaning in engineering.  I didn't find meaning in the planning job either.

If only the world of higher education worked according to my rules!
Some colleges are already implementing course work, advising, and seminars to create a platform for students to use their college years to figure out not only what they are good at doing but also what they are passionate about. However, more should join the movement.
Exactly!!
During his farewell speech in January, President Barack Obama urged young people to find their passion and “hitch your wagons to something bigger than yourselves.” The truth is, today’s young people already expect to do exactly that. Colleges and universities across the country must help our students meet that expectation. For the sake of our students and the future of our country, we must reinvent ourselves to help students explore meaning and purpose.
Imagine the narcissistic trump giving advice to students about "something bigger than yourselves."  Ha!

Seasons happen ... even with trump!

It is a good thing that here in the US elections are held mid-fall.  As depressing as the results were, the holidays, the new year, and now spring, all help ease the pain.  Imagine, on the other hand, if elections had been held in late summer, just as the days are getting shorter--it would have been as if we were headed towards an eternal night from which we might never recover!

Winter ends with today.  Who knows what the maniacal president will tweet about; but, I care not because a new season blooms tomorrow.

Spring is Like a Perhaps Hand
By e.e. cummings

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere) arranging
a window, into which people look (while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here) and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

What's good for the goose isn't good for trump?

The first thing to surprise me during my only visit to Alaska was this: The driver who picked us up to take us to the airport spoke with an accent, and when I asked him he said he was from Bulgaria.  No, that's not the surprise--after all, lots of shuttle and taxi drivers here are from other countries.  What surprised me was that he was an engineering student in Bulgaria, and this was the second time he was in Alaska for this summer job.

Turned out that he was not the only one.  The front-desk was all Central European!

When school resumed after a few weeks, I asked students in my class why they did not go up to Alaska to do those summer jobs.  "Don't you want to visit Alaska?" I asked them.

There is one guy who knows this really, really, really well, and he is now the president of this country.
His Administration recently made it harder to get H1-B visas, but he has expressed no objection to the visa category that hotels and resorts use—the H-2B—to attract low-cost, low-skilled seasonal labor. In fact, at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach club, the visas are still in active use.
Of course, when it comes to trump, there is no point trying to understand any logic.  He says and does whatever he wants, and whatever his penis tells him to do.  But, the rest of us have to make sense of it all.  What a fucking disaster that 63 million mostly white Christian voters have created!

Anyway, back to this H2 visa issue.
Based on the frequency of Trump’s visits to the opulent club since he took office, Mar-a-Lago appears to be a place—unlike Washington—where he feels at home. It is also a business that, for the past decade, has taken advantage of the H-2B program (distinct from the H-2A program, which is for agricultural workers).
Hospitality businesses like Mar-a-Lago argue that they can’t find Americans to fill seasonal jobs at the wages they advertise. Trump himself has said that “getting help in Palm Beach during the season is almost impossible.”
Basic economics says that people here aren't ready to work as dishwashers because, well, the pay is too low.  All trump has to do is pay the dishwashers more and, presto, more Americans working at Mar-a-Lago.  No need for those immigrant workers.

So, trump tweets nothing about the H2 visas that his business misuses.  However, he rails against the H1 visas that the businesses in the tech industry thrive on.  How screwed up is that?  Think about this: Can Mar-a-Lago immediately close down and move to a different place if the H2 is slammed shut?  Nope.  The hospitality business is place-bound.  Geography is a constraint.  Right?

Now, think about the tech industry.  If we do not allow them to bring people in with H1 visas?  Ahem, they can pack up and leave.  Yes?
If they can’t hire the engineers and the programmers they need in Silicon Valley, they can move to Vancouver or Mumbai. “The cutting edge of innovation is usually in a place that is very diverse and open, and if this place loses its edge there is relocation,” Peri said. There’s no similar justification for maintaining the visa for the hospitality business. Some hotels would have trouble finding workers without a big wage bump, but the businesses themselves wouldn’t move offshore; you can’t substitute a room in Vancouver for a suite at Mar-a-Lago.
Don't we want those highly value-adding, and jobs-generating, tech jobs here in America?

Which then brings us back to the question of why trump yells and tweets against theh H1 visas but has nothing to say about the H2 visas.
it seems that, when it comes to his own businesses, he’s not eager to take a hit. And no one is making him.
Yep.  No one is making him even say anything about it, leave alone do anything about it.  Blame those fucking 63 million voters, which include those spineless Republican bastards in the Senate and the House.


Friday, March 17, 2017

There is something micro about this post

When I first arrived in this country, I knew nothing about trump nor about microwave ovens.  I had not even heard about microwave ovens when I was back in the old country.

The apartment that I shared with roommates did not have a microwave oven.  But, life was fine and dandy--until I realized what a pain it was to re-heat food the old-fashioned route as opposed to zapping it in the microwave.

Two years went by before I got myself one. It was expensive to buy one, especially when I was on a starving graduate student budget.  Even the one that I eventually bought was so heavy and expensive, compared to the oven that now sits on my kitchen counter-top.  When it was introduced in 1967, a microwave oven cost--in today's dollars--$3,575.  We simply do not pause and appreciate how technological advancements continue to make yesterday's luxuries so pedestrian today.  The ungrateful whiners we are!

Why "microwaves?"
Because the radio waves that are used for cooking have relatively short wavelengths. While the radio waves used for telecommunications can be as long as a football field, the ovens rely on radio waves with wavelengths measured in inches (or centimeters); so they are considered “micro” (Latin for small), as far as radio waves go.
Micro--like trump's hands ;)

Cooking and heating is all about the water:
Microwaves are able to heat food but not the paper plate holding it because the frequency of the microwaves is set such that they specifically agitate water molecules, causing them to vibrate rapidly. It is this vibration that causes the heat production. No water, no heat. So objects that don’t contain water, like a paper plate or ceramic dish, are not heated by microwaves. All the heating takes place in the food itself, not its container.
But, if you want a quality cup of Darjeeling tea, microwaving a cup of water might not be the way to do it:
Because a proper cup of black tea must be made with water that’s come to a rolling boil. A kettle is designed to heat water evenly to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat at the bottom of the kettle—whether from a heating element embedded in an electric device or from a burner on the stove—creates a natural convection current: The hot water rises and the cool water falls in a cyclical fashion, which uniformly heats the contents of the kettle to a boil (at which point an electric kettle clicks off or a stovetop kettle whistles).
But microwaves don’t heat water evenly, so the boiling process is difficult to control. Microwave ovens shoot tiny waves into the liquid at random locations, causing the water molecules at those points to vibrate rapidly. If the water isn’t heated for long enough, the result is isolated pockets of very hot or boiling water amid a larger body of water that’s cooler. Such water may misleadingly exhibit signs of boiling despite not being a uniform 212 degrees. For instance, what appears to be steam rising from a mug of microwaved water is only moist vapor evaporating off the water’s surface and condensing into mist on contact with cooler air—it’s the same principle that makes our breath visible on frigid days.
It is superficial--like trump ;)

And, there is more:
The longer water boils, the more dissolved oxygen it loses—and tea experts say that dissolved oxygen is crucial for a bright and refreshing brew. Microwaved water can also be taken to several degrees above boiling if heated for too long (which is impossible in a kettle, because the metallic surface prevents overheating). Such ultra-hot water destroys desired aromatic compounds and elicits an excess of astringent, bitter notes by overcooking the leaves. Overheated water can also accentuate naturally occurring impurities in the water that contribute off flavors to the final brew.
Don't blame the technology if your food and tea don't taste great.  Remember that a bad carpenter always blames his tools--exactly what trump always does ;)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What a fucking effluvia this is!

I am a very mild-mannered person, really.  But, every time I see the name trump, I fucking want to swear!  It is not me then, right?  The cause of my behavior is clearly this fucking president!

If you have been a reader for long, then by now you know that those previous sentences were a set up to talk about ... why we use those swear words.  After all, I am a dull boring college professor! ;)

This is not really a new topic here.  Remember this post about "piss pot" and "piss proud," for instance?  Or about "assholes"?

I tell ya, there is a lot we need to understand why we use such fucking language.  I suppose my reputation in this has been established, which is why the friend got me a book titled, "What the F"

Source

So, why do we use such shitty language anyway?
Philosopher Rebecca Roache says that as well as the ingredient of offence, swear words tend to have a cluster of other characteristics. We will often use swear words "to vent some emotion", she says. "If you're angry or particularly happy, swearing is a catharsis. Swearing also centres on taboos. Around the world swear words will tend to cluster around certain topics: lavatorial matters, sex, religion."
Ah, crap! ;)

So, the swear words are work with a fucking trinity: "lavatorial matters, sex, religion."
The Times leader writer, Oliver Kamm, author of Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English, says that the swearing lexicon now draws less from religion and more from body effluvia. "There's a hierarchy of effluvia, according to how disgusting we find them in public. 'Shit' is worse than 'piss' which is worse than 'fart' which is worse than 'spit' which is not a taboo word at all. It's an interesting linguistic hypothesis that the taboos relate to how disease-ridden or dangerous or disgusting we find the effluvia themselves."
 Are you thinking what I am thinking?  What the hell is "effluvia", and who in this fucking world uses that?  Google says it means "an unpleasant or harmful odor, secretion, or discharge"  I get it--like what comes out of this fucking president's mouth! ;)


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

There was King ... and there is king!

Two days ago, I referred to the blatantly racist post by a Republican member of the House of Representatives, steve king.  Guess what?  The party expelled him today--he crossed the Rubicon.

Nah, of course not.  He is very much a part of the party.  It is just that he loudly says what most Republicans (elected and otherwise) say in their safe spaces.

The GOP is now the bloody American party of white nationalism!
Today it’s Donald Trump’s party, and there is not much breathing room between King and Trump when it comes to white nationalism.
White nationalism gone mainstream!  Who would have imagined that back in 2009?
This is how the Bannons and Kings view the modern world: The West is threatened by hordes of swarthy outsiders, especially Mexicans and Muslims, and they are lonely defenders of the white Christian race against this insidious threat. There is no evidence that Trump has given this matter as much thought as they have, but, based on his public pronouncements, he has reached similar conclusions. That helps to explain why the administration is building a border wall, expanding deportations, and trying to keep out citizens of as many Muslim countries as possible. This isn’t about fighting terrorism or crime; it’s about fighting changing demographics. And it’s premised on an unspoken assumption that only white Christians are true Americans; all others are “somebody else.”
This is ugly stuff.
Such ugliness right at the Oval Office has emboldened all the white nationalism all around.  White nationalism posters were found posted at a university campus only a few blocks away from the White House:
Vanguard America, a group whose name appears on the signs, responded to a request for comment with an email: “We hope to raise awareness amongst college students regarding the problems facing the world today, and to advocate for a National Socialist solution to these problems.”
You see how these groups operate in broad daylight and even response to requests for comments?

Of course, churchgoing white Christians who voted for trump whose heart is so pure that he is the very image of Christ himself!

In 1962--yes, 55 years ago--James Baldwin wrote:
White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
At the rate at which this country is changing under this president and his party, "may very well be never" seems to be the case.  What a tragedy that 63 million voters have created!


Monday, March 13, 2017

It is not my responsibility! Or, is it?

After watching "I Am Not Your Negro" I told the friend that she has it easier than me--this atrocious history of my adopted country piles on top of the atrocious history from the old country.  Unbearable burdens that will weigh me down until the end.

I have blogged in plenty about racism and slavery.  In 2016 alone, leave alone the earlier ones.  How could I not?  Right from the time Obama won the elections, white Republicans brought racist discourse from their closeted spaces out to the open, and it reached feverish intensity over Obama's final two years.  Since the election in November, "I have a dream" has become "we have nightmares!"

It is all because we are yet to make peace with that second sin--slavery--that followed up on how we practically wiped out the Native Americans.

My favorite public intellectual on these issues, Ta-Nehisi Coates, sums it up succinctly:
We talk about enslavement as if it were a bump in the road. And I tell people: it’s the road. It’s the actual road.
It was at a recent conference at Harvard.  One might think that Harvard is up in Boston, far away from the South and, therefore, it had nothing to do with slavery, right?

Wrong!
The conference, entitled “Universities and Slavery: Bound By History” and sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the latest in a series of efforts Harvard has taken to confront its ties to slavery. A year in the making, the daylong event featured historians and representatives from several universities, and a keynote address by The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. University President Drew G. Faust announced plans for the conference in March 2016.
In her opening remarks, Faust called slavery “an aspect of Harvard’s past that has been rarely acknowledged and poorly understood.”
“Harvard was directly complicit in slavery from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century,” Faust said. “This history and its legacy have shaped our institution in ways we have yet to fully understand. Today’s conference is intended to help us explore parts of the past that have remained all but invisible.”
This is a significant milestone even within academia.  Remember the posts on Georgetown??  Other universities looking into anything does not gain the attention as when Harvard does.  It is Harvard, dammit.

Caption at the source:
The enslaved Renty, pictured in 1850 and used by a Harvard biologist to support theories about racial difference.
The historical connections between universities and slavery first came to the fore in 2001, when a group of Yale graduate students issued an independent report aimed at puncturing what they saw as the school’s selective celebration of its abolitionist past.
In 2003, Ruth Simmons, then the Brown University president, announced a major effort to research that school’s extensive historical ties to the slave trade. While the move grabbed headlines, “there wasn’t a single peep from another university,” James T. Campbell, the historian who led the Brown effort, recalled during one panel.
Harvard being Harvard, the research into its own past are also being shared on a website.  I will end this will how Harvard's president frames it for all of us:
The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore. In more fully acknowledging our history, Harvard must do its part to undermine the legacies of race and slavery that continue to divide our nation.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people

I have been grazing James Baldwin's writings and speeches, since watching the documentary that I blogged about yesterday.  I had always wanted to read his works.  Especially because Ta-Nehisi Coates always spoke and wrote about Baldwin in nothing but the superlatives.  Perhaps later this summer I will sit down with Baldwin.

For now, even the grazing has been immensely enriching.  Like this paragraph that I came across:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.
Keep in mind that Baldwin wrote that in 1963.  Count them years since--54 years!

Here is an example of a white person as a mad victim of his own brainwashing:
"somebody else's babies" ... OMG!

King--a member of the Republican Party and a representative in the US Congress since 2003--openly tweets about white nationalism/supremacy in this tweet that is in support of the Dutch trump!
The tweet was in support of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has risen in the polls on the back of similarly virulent anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rhetoric to the point where Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party could come out on top in parliamentary elections in the Netherlands on Wednesday. Trump supporters and far-right politicians across Europe have found common cause in their shared belief in a brand of ethnic or racial nationalism. UKIP’s Nigel Farage kicked off the recent political resurgence of the extreme right with the Brexit vote in June 2016, which was followed by Trump’s victory in November. Elections in the Netherlands next week, France in months’ time
White nationalism is no longer a fringe thing in the US; it is out in the open and in the House of Representatives too!

Surely the rhetoric of trump, and his election win, did not embolden such assholes, right?  And when churchgoing white Christians voted for trump even here in Oregon, they knew so well in their hearts that bad white people simply do not exist in this country!

In his address to the country in 1963, President John F. Kennedy said:
 But legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.
We shall overcome, some day in the goddamn future where the long arc of the moral universe apparently bends towards justice! :(

   

Everybody else was paying their dues ... for the American Dream

It was heart-breaking for me to watch the archival footage of James Balwdin's comments, and to listen to his words, in the documentary "I am not your Negro," and think that many of those very words are applicable even now.  Word for word.  What a tragedy!

I wonder how many of the 63 million trump voters have watched that documentary.  Perhaps they think, believe, that there is nothing more to talk about race issues.  Perhaps they continue to believe that whites are the superior ones who deserve everything and more.  Or, perhaps the 63 million voters even believe that they are now the real victims of racism!

Baldwin talks about the urgency that he felt to leave Paris and return to America.
On every newspaper kiosk on that wide, tree-shaped boulevard in Paris were photographs of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, N.C. There was unutterable pride, tension and anguish in that girl's face as she approached the halls of learning with history jeering at her back. It made me furious. It filled me with both hatred and pity, and it made me ashamed. Some one of us should have been there with her.
But it was on that bright afternoon that I knew I was leaving France. I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody else was paying their dues. And it was time I went home and paid mine.
I thought about the BB King lyrics when he sings:
Everybody wants to know 
Why I sing the blues 
Yes, I say everybody wanna know 
Why I sing the blues 
Well, I've been around a long time 
I really have paid my dues 

When I first got the blues 
They brought me over on a ship 
Men were standing over me 
And a lot more with a whip 
And everybody wanna know 
Why I sing the blues 
Well, I've been around a long time 
Mm, I've really paid my dues

With trump's election, the social dynamics certainly have shifted, yet again.  Once again, it is all about the whites.  The GOP has become, for all purposes, the party of the whites.  It is a tragedy that completely depresses me.  Overwhelms me.  Drains me of emotions.  And then I wonder how Baldwin and others plodded on, even when people around them we being killed--all because they were fighting for human rights and equality.

Baldwin says:
You know, the question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance which is a price we pay for segregation. That's what segregation means. It - you don't know what's happening on the other side of the wall because you don't want to know.
The racist whites do not even want to know.   Baldwin wrote back in 1965:
Until the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country--until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. If the people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it. And if that happens it is a very grave moment for the West.
A grave moment this is--fifty years later.  After all these years of merely intellectualizing,  I fully realize how indebted I am.  I need to pay my dues.  Big time dues!


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Public Enemy Number One is ... the damn environment!

Seven weeks into the new presidency, it continues to be surreal ... it is like a bad dream that continues even if we force ourselves to wake up and go to the bathroom; we fall asleep and the nightmare continues from where it was paused!

I can even understand the bluest of blue-collar workers who have not had a great deal of schooling to understand the science of climate change voting for a self-acknowledged pussy-grabber and making him president.  But, even the educated folks voting for this horrible human being all because the interests of business trump everything else?

This presidency is all about destroying various institutions that have been carefully built over the past eighty years--since the days of FDR.  From NATO to voting rights, destroy them all!  It is that maniacal approach that this administration and its GOP accomplices in Congress have taken up with the institutions that are about protecting and preserving the natural environment.

The EPA's administrator flatly stated that CO2 emissions due to human activity are not contributors to climate change.  What surprised me was the fact that people were shocked and upset that he said that--as if he has no track record of having ever claimed that.  The president made it clear throughout his campaign that he was going to do everything that he is doing now--well, he hasn't tweeted about grabbing any new pussies yet.  Consistent with that campaign, he has also appointed a maniac who is determined to destroy the institution that a Republican president, Nixon, signed into law.

Source

As I have often noted here, it is a losing battle if people believed that the climate change facts speak for themselves.  It is not about logic and evidence, and merely lining up scientists after scientists won't do a damn thing.  It is all about PR and politics.  Now with this administration, it is all about a blitzkrieg against established institutions and their authority:
But in a sense, climate denial is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. The right’s refusal to accept the authority of climate science is of a piece with its rejection of mainstream media, academia, and government, the shared institutions and norms that bind us together and contain our political disputes. ... Explaining the basic facts of climate science (again) is utterly futile if the intended audience rejects the authority of climate scientists and scientific institutions.
We’re eventually going to have to grapple with this crisis of authority. Until then, more facts and periodic outbursts of outrage are futile.
But, for what end?  Why do they want to destroy the authority of these, and other, institutions?  Are we going to be better off with an acceleration in climate weirding?  We can ask similar questions about other institutions too.  Will we be better off with a more insecure Europe that worries about Putin's Russia?

Surely even the white supremacists want a less polluted world for their children and grandkids, right?  But then perhaps I have no idea how the unhinged think?

Friday, March 10, 2017

trump is a disaster. Blame our stars?

When people meet with me for the first time (which often turns out to be last time too!) many ask me about this life of mine where my work and home are a 100 kilometers apart.  One hundred kilometers sounds way farther than 65 miles, or  frighteningly more than an hour of commute time, right?  After all, people in many parts of the world have commute times of an hour or two.  So, if I said a commute time of more than an hour, well, it makes no impact for all purposes.  But, 100 kilometers each way?

If I hadn't made those choices to work where I work and live where I live, then I won't be doing what I am doing, and neither will you.  If things hadn't happened the way they did, then we won't be where we are.  All I am saying is that if you or I had taken even one different turn in one of those many forks in the road of life, the outcomes would have been very, very, very different.

Now, I don't mean this the same way as the belief in "fate" in the old country.  After all, it is not one's "fate" to be a manual scavenger, right?  It doesn't mean that it is all in the stars.

So, what does this have to do with "trump" in the title of this post?

trump is a disaster.  A disaster to this country, and to the world.  The connection here is the word "disaster."

I have a limited vocabulary.  And even the few words that I use, I have no idea where those words are from.  I mean, it took me a long time to even understand the difference between etymology and entomology!  So, it is no surprise to me that I had no idea about the origin of the word "disaster."

The friend and I attended a talk at the local university, which every once in a while offers something for the brain, in contrast to entertaining the community with football and basketball as if ballgames were the reasons why we have universities!  The talk was by Dr. Lucy Jones, on  “The Fault Lies Not in Our Stars: Why Natural Disasters Become Human Catastrophes.”

It was a fascinating lecture to listen to.  And during that tour de force lecture that provided wonderful historical insights, Jones explained why the title of her lecture referred to the "stars" and "disasters."  Now, maybe you already knew what is coming here, but I was simply floored.  The idiot that I am, I had no idea about the origin of the word disaster: "dis" referring to the negation, something bad, something wrong; and the other part of the word from "astro" for stars.  I.e., the unfortunate, horrible events were "ill-starred."

And, yes, if I hadn't made my home in Eugene, I would not have gone to the talk, and would not have known how much the disaster of this presidency is related to the stars ;)


Collect like an Egyptian!

The way I live, which gets reflected in many of the posts here--like even this one--my life is about experiences and memories.  I live my own life, on my own terms--even if it means pissing quite a few people off and living a lonely life.  (which is why only this guy now remains as the commenter at this blog!)

The friend comments that I set the bar too high for people.  I tell her that I cherish my existence,  I understand that I have only one chance at this.  When it is all over, it is all over.  Do I really want to then let the precious moments slip by?

There are all kinds of memories that we create and experiences that we have.  Take, for instance, music.  Even this past December, when I met with a few old classmates from the growing up days in the old country, I talked to a few there about how it was in Chadru's home that I heard for the first time ever music by a group called Abba.  Chandru's parents owned a record-player. I remember that LP experience so well.

Or the mixtapes in my possession that I still play every once in a while.  The tapes of opera and polka music that David made for me.  David who is only a couple of years younger than my father perhaps found in me a kindred spirit who was interested in that kind of music and, therefore, spent time making those tapes for this much younger friend of his.  Or the mixtapes from the graduate school friend, Praveen.

Music--especially the ownership of music--has created so many memories for me.  But, life has been changing fast.  Young and old these days do not own music, but merely rent it.  Well, that is if they even bother listening to music given the time they spend on Facebook and Instagram and on all kinds of fake news.  (BTW, in contrast to Barack Obama who is a music aficionado, do you think this current uncultured asshole of a president even listens to music?  If not music, what does soothe the breast of this savage president?)

This new relationship to music is more than merely about music itself.  It says a lot about how we define life:
What we take for granted today will disappear tomorrow. And the internet brings with it the potential for cultural destruction on a scale previously unfathomable. Do you want to trust the preservation of music to Apple and Google? Do you think they value it the same way you do?
Whether it is music or friends, we do not ask ourselves what we really value.
People do not create their identity out of what they borrow. They view themselves in terms of what they possess. That’s why Egyptian pharaohs and other prominent ancients got buried with all their stuff. And if they wanted music in the next life, they sometimes had the musical instrument buried with them — and perhaps even a dead musician who got a fast-track ticket to the great beyond.
It is one crazy world in which we live.  It is not really about the mere act of possession either.  If only people will understand that ultimately it is merely memories that we can take with us.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Twice-born, triple-selected

I am always excited about the classmates of mine who have become famous in ways that I am not capable of.  There is Srikumar (Kumar) who is now a go-to-expert on all things Roma in Europe; so much so that a few days ago, a student rushed in to my office to show me a book that he was reading for a class in which Kumar was quoted!  There is Vijay, who has been recognized for his contributions as a journalist and a poet; there is even a Wikipedia page on him!

This post is not about those two who are from the old days in the old country.  It is about another guy, though I did not know him all that well.  Sanjoy was also a doctoral student at USC.  We did not even have a single class together though--he was two years ahead of me.  Our paths have not crossed since he graduated and moved on to the east coast for a faculty position.

One of the tweets in my feed (see, Twitter is an awesome information portal) was from Foreign Policy.  It was about "Indian immigrants in the time of Trump."  The tweet referred to the authors of The other one percent.  I am familiar with  that book, and with one of those authors--Sanjoy.  So, of course, I had to read that piece.
They use data and research to show how the Indians who come to America are “triple selected” through India’s socioeconomic hierarchy, highly competitive education system, and the U.S. immigration system. If the one percent of the U.S. population that is Indian has done particularly well, the authors argue, it is perhaps because selection factors were such that the Indian-born population is over three times more educated than the population of the United States.
The book was published shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, and written before changes to the visa system and increased violence against Indians in America. 
 Yes, triple-selected.  The first of which was not our own doing though--the accident of birth into a favorable socioeconomic condition.  If my parents were from a lower caste, then chances are pretty darn good that I would not be doing what I am now doing.  That favorable condition also made possible the education that I received.  After that, the third piece--immigration to the US--was not a big deal.

Sanjoy also talks about it in that interview:
We really wrote the book for an Indian audience, because there are many myths in Indians about themselves, and we needed to address that. The way we put it, we call it triple selection. Indians call it hierarchy. The caste system, the complete inequality with access to education formed over the past 150 years, and in that group you have this ultra-competitive exam system — and most people coming over here have come through that ultra-competitive system. And then the U.S. lets in certain people. The people who are here are extremely fortunate not to be here — they’ve been fortunate their entire lives. Of course they’re going to do well. America is really getting a lot of talent for relatively little money. This group is pretty innovative, all of them are rising to the tops of their professions. There’s a lot of talent here. And that talent is in service of America. But these people were bloody lucky. They’re lucky there, and they’re lucky here. And for us it was important to say that.
Yes, I have been bloody lucky throughout my life.  Which is also one of the sources of my guilt--the lucky accident of birth into a upper-caste affluent family versus the ill-luck that doomed many other babies that were born the very day that I was born, but to lower-caste, poor families.

But, this asshole president has made sure that Indians of all castes and religions will think twice or thrice before applying for that visa. A great equalizer he has become.  Even his buddy, the proto-trump, is now worried and keeps his mouth shut!

PS: What is the deal with the "twice-born" in the title?  Click here.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Universities as the United Nations

Three decades ago, about this time of the year was when graduate school in America was becoming a realistic probability.  In those dark ages before the internet, I had some anxiety-filled days waiting for the envelope in the mail.

I distinctly recall one evening in a hotel in Trivandrum, where my supervisor and I had gone to in order to meet with a few hospital staff--biomedical equipment were just about entering the Indian market and we were selling and servicing a few pricey ones.  The supervisor wanted me to split the room with him, so that he could use his per diem to buy alcohol.  I agreed--what else can an underling do!  That night, I could not sleep.  I kept walking up the window, looking out and worrying what might happen if the graduate school in America didn't work out.

Everything worked out fine.  When I gave the quit notice, my supervisor said that he knew I would not stick around for long.  He said that he observed me by the hotel window in Trivandrum!

I reached the building at USC that was all too familiar to me from all the correspondence: VKC--Von KleinSmid Center.  There were flags of various countries flying in the inner yard--flags of the countries from where students had come to USC.  It might have as well been the United Nations.  That building was home to me through all the years that I was there.

The one on the left, with the globe on top, is VKC

For the first time ever, I met students from countries that are now in the list of countries that have been banned by this president.  From Iran. From Somalia. From Syria.  Countries that are now in the banned list; what a fucking disaster this president has created!  It immensely aches my heart.  This is not the America that I had in mind three decades ago.  As the author of this essay notes:
For more than 75 years, the United States has been the destination for ambitious, talented, and leading young scholars who have wanted to live and work with the best colleagues and students. They have assimilated into an incredibly creative and adaptive set of universities. American-based scholars also collaborate with foreigners, bringing nations closer together.
 The author asks an important question: "Is this history about to end?"  That question aches my heart even more.
scholars and students may soon begin to self-select out of a chance to come to the United States. More than 70 years ago, Robert Hutchins, then the president of the University of Chicago, observed that the problem with witch-hunts was “not how many professors have been fired for their beliefs, but how many think they might be.” If the United States becomes less appealing to scholars from abroad, they may well stay home, depriving America of their talent. Fear and uncertainty have become the order of the day. Executive orders or legislation that represses immigrant groups often, historically, morph into laws against American citizens. None of this bodes well for those interested in studying, teaching, or conducting research at American universities.
What a loss it would have been if I had not met Shahab, who was from Iran!  Other names I no longer even remember--like that woman who was the first (and, to this date, the only) person I have talked at length who was from Somalia.  What a fucking disaster this president has created, and it barely six weeks in!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Man, god, or man-god?

This term, too, I told students who were paying attention that when we think about the future, we often commit the mistake of assuming that the future will only be marginally different from now.  "We have no idea, really!" is what I have been telling students for years.  But--you know what's coming by now, right?--nobody listens to me anyway!

One of my many examples is this--the near-magical lives that we lead thanks to technology.  I don't mean merely the likes of the smartphones.  But our very existence.  There are people around with pacemakers. With stents. With artificial knees.  With titanium screws. With organs that once were in some other body.  With ... it is an endless list that tells me that the bionic man and the bionic woman arrived a while ago, and we apparently didn't even notice.

This incremental but significant march has always concerned me.  Because, as much as I am not a religious person, I worry that these have already redefined what existence means.  These deeply philosophical reasons were also why even a few years ago I completed my advanced directives.

A couple of weeks ago, when driving, I was listening to NPR.  I loved what I heard so much that I even talked with students about it.  The person interviewed, Yuval Noah Harari, "expects we will soon engineer our bodies, brains and minds in the same way that we now design products."  Given the examples like pacemakers I had listed, of course I was already sold.
First of all is to take our organic body and start tinkering with it with things like genetic engineering, speeding up natural selection and actually replacing it with intelligent design - not the intelligent design of some God above the clouds but our intelligent design.
The other way is to start combining organic with inorganic parts and creating cyborgs. For 4 billion years, all of evolution - not just of humans but of all beings - was confined to the organic realm. But very soon, we might be able to break out of the organic realm using things like brain-computer interfaces which combine organic parts like an organic brain with inorganic parts like bionic hands or eyes or ears.
And then the third and most extreme path is to create completely inorganic beings not even needing an organic brain but using instead artificial intelligence.
Yep, I can easily see this happening.  Maybe not within my lifetime--at least, I hope it won't be within my lifetime!

He then made an interesting comment:
medicine in the 21st century will switch from healing the sick to upgrading the healthy. This is true not only of plastic surgery and improvements to the body but also improvements to our cognitive abilities - for example, memory. If you find ways to repair the memory damaged by Alzheimers disease or dementia and so forth, it is very likely that the same methods could be used to upgrade the memory of completely healthy people.
Cue the theme from the Twilight Zone!

Harari was being interviewed because he has a new book out: Homo Deus.  In his review, Michael Shermer writes:
We evolved as bipedal primates on the African plains, and our senses and brains are geared toward projecting the immediate future based on the most recent past. “When we think about the future,” Harari concludes, “our thoughts and actions are usually constrained by present-day ideologies and social systems.” He wants us to try to think beyond these constraints, and, to that end, I return to Arthur C. Clarke and another observation he made in his 1951 book, The Exploration of Space: “If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run—and often in the short one—the most daring prophecies seem laughingly conservative.” Call that Clarke’s Fourth Law.
Like I tell students, "we have no idea, really!"


Monday, March 06, 2017

Hey, wanna balance the budget?

I have often commented that government budgets are nothing but a reflection of our priorities and, therefore, our moral decisions.  But then, well, nobody cares for my comments anyway!

That kind of a bottom-line on budgets as priorities is easily conveyed through a wonderful "game" that Brookings has put together.  In this game, the player is asked to figure out ways in which the federal debt can be decreased.  For this, the player has to first identify three goals as the targets while working on balancing the budget.  I chose the following: Climate change, social safety net, and investing for the future.  Within each, the game offers specific policy proposals to choose from, the resulting action adding to or decreasing the debt.

Those three reflect my priorities.  It will not be any surprise to anybody who has known me even for a couple of years that I went with a carbon tax; increase in social security payroll tax; and enacting immigration reform.

It is all about the priorities.  Budgeting and economics require us to make clear upfront the question that a graduate school professor talked to us about in his guest lecture: What do you want to maximize?

Answering that question is not the same as answering 2+2 = 5.  What we try to maximize depends on our preferences, which means I am making moral decisions--like how enacting immigration reform is to me not merely a budgetary issue but also a statement on what it means to be human and to respond to the trials and tribulations of the undocumented and their children.

Even after this step, it is not as if economics is a science. Far from it.
Economics provides the illusion of science, the veneer of mathematical certainty.
 It is a big-time guessing game, in which the experts do provide all the ceteris paribus caveats and the degree of confidence that they have.  However, when talking with people in the real world, they simplify the message and let people believe that it is all science.
We economists should be more humble and honest about the reliability and precision of statistical analysis.
Indeed!

So, go ahead, play that budget game.  Think for yourself, instead of outsourcing "thinking" to an economist or--worse--to this president!

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Hey professors, go talk to the public!

I have blogged before (like here) about how Charles Darwin's argument on natural selection and evolution threatened people's understanding of who they are.  It is not easy, I suppose, to accept that we humans are not that special.  Not made in god's own image.  If in god's image, then, ahem, when I look at the mirror I can only conclude that god is ugly;)

People continue to have a love-hate relationship with science because of that identity problem.  My adopted country displays that attitude really well.  The country displays a love-hate towards all thing, I guess.  We import stuff that clearly states it was "Made in China"; we buy a whole lot of it and then bash China.  But then that too is about our existence and identity, right?  Which is why we now have a president and his politics that scream America Wurst, er, First!

So, back to the science issue.
[The] public rejection of science is an extension of our politics, which in turn have become an expression of our constant outrage about everything that offends our deepest beliefs about ourselves. As social scientist David Dunning has put it: “Some of our most stubborn misbeliefs arise not from primitive childlike intuitions or careless category errors, but from the very values and philosophies that define who we are as individuals.” When those misbeliefs are challenged, laypeople take it not as correction but as a direct attack on their identity.
Which is why I have often argued that science has a public-relations issue.  Whether it is climate change or GMO or vaccines or anything scientific, merely presenting more and more evidence is not going to help science nor the scientists.  (Those with better PR skills, like donald t. rump, then happen!)
At the same time, experts cannot withdraw from a public arena increasingly controlled by opportunistic demagogues who seek to discredit empiricism and rationality. Instead, the expert community must help to lead laypeople, who find the modern world intimidating and even frightening, back along the road to a better day when the citizens of the United States valued scientists and other professionals as essential parts of the American story. Experts must continue, as citizens, to advocate for those things they believe to be in the public interest, but the most important role they can play is defend a stark but empathetic insistence on science and reason as the foundation for public policy.
It is awful that trump had to happen for intellectual experts to finally begin to accept what I have been yelling and screaming for years, for decades: The need for public scholarship and engagement.

Early next month, in Boston, I will be one of the panelists on this topic.  Hopefully, the academic world will seriously rethink its approaches in this new reality.  If not, we are all doomed!


Saturday, March 04, 2017

Woe is me! Damn those Chinese!

I have sent an edited version of this to the editor
*******

Throughout the campaign, donald t. rump beat up on three countries as the most significant reason for why the white working class were left behind even as the American economy grew: China, Mexico, and India. Since his election and then the inauguration, trump has further amplified that message from the presidential bully pulpit.

Given how long we have been listening to the rhetoric that blames China, Mexico, and India, here is a quick question. Can you name the presidents of China and Mexico, and the prime minister of India?

If a scientific polling were done, my guess is that only a very small percentage of the American electorate will be able to correctly name even two of those three leaders. In contrast, quite a few Americans will be able to name the leader of our northern neighbor, Canada.

When I worry that most Americans, especially those who love beating up on China, Mexico, and India, would not know the names of the leaders of those countries, my concern is not about my fellow Americans being unfamiliar with factoids. It is not a game of trivial pursuits. I have three important reasons.

First, if we are going to make an enemy out of somebody or a country, then we better get to know that enemy really well. Sun Tzu, the philosopher and military general from China, articulated it well more than 1,500 years ago:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
If we are going to make those countries the “bad hombres,” then we better know who they are. Merely eating Chinese, Mexican, and Indian foods do not make us experts about those countries with long and rich histories. And, by the way, the typical Chinese, Mexican, and Indian foods that we eat at restaurants are not the typical foods that are consumed in the households in those countries. For instance, how many of you are familiar with the “idli/sambar” combination that is everyday food in the part of India where I was born and raised

Second, here is the economic reality about the US and those three countries. Even after adjusting for the cost of living, and on a per capita basis, Mexicans and Chinese earn only about 40 percent of what the average American earns. The Indian economy lags even further behind—the per capita income in India is barely more than 10 percent of the average American income. Even the Greeks and the Kazakhs live more affluent lives than do the average Chinese, Mexican, or Indian.

Those average incomes do not convey the remarkable differences between life here in the US versus life in those three countries. Consider the following two factoids, for instance. In India, 240 million have no access to electricity. And about 60 percent of the 1.2 billion people there defecate in the open because of a lack of toilets at home. Yet, we think such a country is “our competition” stealing “our” jobs?

Knowing the names of those leaders is, therefore, a mere starting point to understanding those countries. Before I proceed, here are the names of the leaders. The president of China is Xi Jinping. And, note that Xi is the surname and not the given name—in many cultures around the world, the given name is not the name that appears first. Thus, it is President Xi. Enrique Peña Nieto is Mexico’s president. And, narendra modi is India’s prime minister.

Finally, and most importantly, we operate under a terribly screwed up view of the world if we believe that only our economy and our jobs matter and, therefore, the rest are our enemies. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Shylock, if we prick them do they not bleed? Aren’t “they” humans too, who would like to have electricity and indoor plumbing? Is there any law that only Americans are entitled to a life of affluence?

Further, the story of economic progress over the past two centuries has been one of betterment all over the world. While some countries lag behind others, global competition and trade has contributed to improvement in the human condition across the planet. It is incorrect, and unwise, to think that “their” betterment will mean nothing but “our” loss. It is our government policies, and not China or Mexico or India, which is to be blamed for the economic stagnation of the American middle class.

If, instead, we continue to beat up on China, Mexico, and India, and others too, then I panic about another line from Shylock’s soliloquy: “if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”


Thursday, March 02, 2017

A machine, or a mouse?

These days, I find that I am more often than not agitated. No thanks to this president.

Even the soothing back-roads seem treacherous in this environment; I am worried that some pissed-off trump-voter will express his unhappiness at this dark-skinned, bearded, fellow.  Thus, I am on the boring interstate where everybody but the truck drivers seem to be imagining that it is the autobahn that they are on.

I slipped the CD in.  I was sure that one song will do the trick.  That is my favorite in the Sgt. Pepper album.  Yep, that one.  The one that will draw in anybody from the Subcontinent.

Within you, Without you started playing.  Which is when a car zoomed past.

A white Mercedes.  I looked at the plate.

"Ganesh."

Yep, a car with a personalized plate that read Ganesh.  For you white readers, ahem, that is a Hindu god.  Maybe it is also the owner's name. Or the father's or son's or husband's name.

It seemed appropriate that a Ganesh would go past when I was listening to the sitar sounds in the song.  The cosmos never fails to provide entertainment in my life!

The song ended.  I pressed the "repeat" button.  Within you, Without you, all over again.  My mind wandered.  It roamed about far and wide.  As the Sanskrit couplet that we read in high school said, there is nothing to beat the speed the sound at which the mind can go places in no time at all.

I made sure I parked in a lot that is not the usual place where I park.  I continue to do those exercises for short-term memory, even if that does not help any bit.

After a long day at work, I was driving back, mostly in silence and occasionally listening to the news on the radio.  A car zipped past.  This, too, had a personalized licence plate.  "Datta."  It could very well be another Indian-American.

The cosmos, again! ;)

ps: why the "mouse" in the title?  The word "mouse" is derived from the Sanskrit word for the critter--mooshaka.  The mouse is the Hindu god Ganesh's vehicle.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

From programming computers to programming people

In some of the dystopian portrayals of the future, the inequality widens so much that there have-nots are left way behind.  Sometimes, the rich and the affluent are on an entirely different planet--literally.  Other times, the underclass are underground--literally.

The rate at which technology is progressing, I won't be surprised if that is exactly how the future will unfold.  (Though, I am confident that I won't be around for that dystopia; thankfully!)

Which is why reading something like this in the Scientific American becomes more fodder for this worry-wart.  I mean, consider the following sentences, for instance:
One thing is clear: the way in which we organize the economy and society will change fundamentally. We are experiencing the largest transformation since the end of the Second World War; after the automation of production and the creation of self-driving cars the automation of society is next. With this, society is at a crossroads, which promises great opportunities, but also considerable risks. If we take the wrong decisions it could threaten our greatest historical achievements.
Oh, hey, have a nice day!

The automation of society is next.  Ouch!
Everything started quite harmlessly. Search engines and recommendation platforms began to offer us personalised suggestions for products and services. This information is based on personal and meta-data that has been gathered from previous searches, purchases and mobility behaviour, as well as social interactions. While officially, the identity of the user is protected, it can, in practice, be inferred quite easily. Today, algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel—possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. Often the recommendations we are offered fit so well that the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own, even though they are actually not our decisions. In fact, we are being remotely controlled ever more successfully in this manner. The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others.
And you thought trump was the biggest problem!
we urgently need to impose high standards, especially scientific quality criteria and a code of conduct similar to the Hippocratic Oath.Has our thinking, our freedom, our democracy been hacked?
Remember the idea of a Hippocratic Oath for the digital technology/AI fields?  No?  You forgot this post from October, BT?  Ahem, BT means "before trump" ;)

Back to the Scientific American:
In summary, it can be said that we are now at a crossroads (see Fig. 2). Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are shaping our society—for better or worse. If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society's core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralized artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path—a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution.
Like I said earlier, have a nice day!

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