Thursday, August 31, 2017

Something fishy about robots!

In my classes, I use plenty of contemporary examples in order to highlight the rapidly changing economic geography that makes our lives so fascinating.  Of course, not all students like my approach.  In her review of my teaching, one student wrote in the university's evaluation process that the "class is completely worthless and Sriram Khe should not be allowed to teach the way he does."  "Sriram and his shitty teaching style" made it hard for her to learn, she wrote.

Different strokes for different folks, eh!

I am sure that I will use during this academic year the example of the sushi robot; too bad if a student will not understand and appreciate its significance.

Sushi, which I have never even tasted, has been one of my favorite examples when discussing the geographic diffusion of culture.  Now, keep in mind that food is not merely cultural but has market value too.  Sushi can now be found in practically every grocery store in the US.  In the store next to mine, there is a sushi table where two chefs can be found rolling the sushi.

Sushi is not "native" to this land; it came from elsewhere.  Like how the chicken tikka masala is not native to the UK.  We live in an exciting world of awesome food possibilities.  Sushi, when first introduced in the US, was not a hit.  American consumers gasped at the very idea of raw fish.  And then Breakfast Club happened.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The making of sushi, too, has been automated.
Suzumo Machinery Co.’s robots are used by about 70,000 customers around the world, ranging from sushi chains to factories, and account for about 70 percent of the market for the equipment at restaurants, according to Suzumo’s estimates. Kaiten sushi, also known as conveyor-belt sushi, has become a $6 billion industry in Japan alone, partly thanks to Suzuki’s invention.
Cheap sushi “couldn’t have happened without our machines,” says Ikuya Oneda, who succeeded Suzuki as Suzumo president in 2004, a year before the founder died, and took over his life’s work. “You can certainly say that.”
So much of what we eat these days is a result of machines doing the work.  A while ago, I watched a video in which a creative Indian had mechanized most of the vadai making.  I am not sure if that became a hit in India.  But, it is only a matter of time before vadais become products of full automation, after which a few restaurants will advertise "traditional, hand-made" vadais.

Of course, sushi robots were met with resistance in Japan.
In 1976, sushi was still largely a food for special occasions. It was mostly sold through a legion of small restaurants, where artisan chefs dispensed morsels with no price tags and charged how they saw fit.
Not surprisingly, those chefs were up in arms when they heard about Suzumo’s plan. In their view, it took 10 years to train someone to make sushi. No machine could possibly do the job.
We humans hate change.  We are wired to be conservatives.   That is how we survived in the wild.  But then we humans are also quick to adapt to changes--once we see the benefits of change.
Suzumo stuck with the task, and two years later the sushi chefs finally said the machine was usable. In 1981, the company completed its first robot, which formed sushi rice into balls called nigiri. These days, it offers 28 different sushi machines.
“What they’ve done is allow kaiten restaurants to democratize and make good Japanese food affordable and accessible,” says Robin Rowland, chairman and chief executive officer of Yo!, a U.K. sushi chain with almost 100 restaurants globally.
And, thus, the conveyer-belt  sushi that we have seen, where people point to which box they want.  Further, in a market system, customers know what they want, especially if the price is right:
Already, about three-quarters of Japanese people say that when they eat sushi, it’s from a conveyor belt, according to a survey published by fishery company Maruha Nichiro Corp. in March. Almost half of them choose which restaurant based on price.
I tell ya, whether students find all these to be awesome or shitty, I have a great time understanding this fascinating world through my preferred framework.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Climate Change? Bullshit!

One of the many, many, many problems that trump has created for me is this: The fascist sucks up so much of my time and energy that I have very little left for the world outside.  I used to have plenty of time for the rest of the world; now, despite being on furlough, I barely have time to keep up with his shit!  And boy does he shit by the truckload every single day!!!

I don't even have the time anymore to talk about the old country.  Well, ok, that is also because I have given up on that old land.  But, it is not as if I don't keep up with the news about the Subcontinent.  For one, talking to my father every other day means that I have an idea of life there, however skewed that reporting might be.

As I have blogged before, one of the regular features of our conversations is about water.  Yep, water.  About the water shortage in Chennai.  About groundwater depletion in Sengottai.  And, of course, the monsoon.

We might be far removed from the village and farming life of our ancestors, but we father and son always worry about water, and the rains.

Therefore, the monsoon floods in different parts of India, too, have been regular topics.  "Remember the old news reels before the movies that you kids made fun of?  "பீகாரில் வெள்ளம்" (Floods in Bihar) in that grave newscaster voice?" he remarked.  Because, well, there have been floods in Bihar.  And in Assam. And ...

We humans are messed up; we do not understand how integral water is to our existence on this planet.  Despite scientists searching for water in the universe as signs of life, we fail to truly understand the preciousness of water.  We continue to abuse and mis-manage this life-giving resource.

But, hey, we humans are nothing but pesky irritants on this planet.  The more we try to mess with the planet, the more our own very lives will be threatened--either as water shortage, or as floods.

This summer, more than a thousand have died in the floods in South Asia; "while flooding in the Houston area has grabbed more attention, aid officials say a catastrophe is unfolding in South Asia"
“This is the severest flooding in a number of years,” Francis Markus, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said by phone from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
Asked how the situation in Nepal compared with that in Houston, Mr. Markus said, “We hope people won’t overlook the desperate needs of the people here because of the disasters closer home.”
India has also suffered immensely. Floods have swept across the states of Assam, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal and other areas.
It is not over yet.
And the rain keeps coming.
On Tuesday, Mumbai, the sprawling financial capital, was soaked to the bone. Nearly all day, the rain drummed down. As people scurried up the sidewalks, the wind tore umbrellas out concof their hands.
The sky seemed to fall lower and lower, pressing down on the building tops, cutting visibility to a few blocks, then a few yards. By midafternoon, it was so dark it felt like nightfall.
And, yes, like with Hurricane Harvey, climate change likely played a role:
"This is not normal," Reaz Ahmed, the director-general of Bangladesh's Department of Disaster Management, told CNN. "Floods this year were bigger and more intense than the previous years."
Climate change appears to be intensifying the region's monsoon rains.
Climate change?  News to me!
 Unchecked urban development has also left many communities in the region without proper drainage systems, which only compounds the problem when a natural disaster strikes. "A lot of the urbanization ... has happened in a largely unplanned matter," Abhas Jha, the World Bank sector manager for Transport, Urban and Disaster Risk Management for East Asia and the Pacific, told CNN
It is one thing if my blog-posts and op-eds echoing such logic are ignored; after all, I am but a lowly academic at a podunk university.  But, it is a shame that real experts continue to be attacked by the fascist and his adopted party.  What a fuck up!

Caption at the source:
Flood-affected people sleeping by a highway toll plaza in the Indian state of Bihar last week.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Climate change? Bah humbug!

In November-December of 2015, record rain fell in Chennai.  After visiting the city during the winter break, I wrote in an op-ed:
While scientists are cautious when postulating the cause-and-effect relationship, the role of climate change has not been ruled out. ...
Of course, the natural disaster was amplified by mismanagement of the land and water. Homes and high-rise buildings had been constructed at a frenzied pace in what were previously water-drainage areas, marshlands and lake beds. Thus, the floodwaters speeding along the natural contours of the land ended up in basement garages and ground floor units.
It feels like deja vu all over again, when I follow the horrific updates from Houston.

David Leonhardt writes in the (not failing) NY Times:
Obviously, some extreme weather events are unrelated to climate change. But a growing number appear to be related, including many involving torrential rain, thanks to the warmer seas and air.
“The heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent, and the amount of rain falling on the heaviest rain days has also increased,” as the National Climate Assessment, a federal report, found. “The mechanism driving these changes,” the report explained, is hotter air stemming from “human-caused warming.”
Leonhardt adds this:
In Houston’s particular case, a lack of zoning laws has led to an explosion of building, which further worsens flooding. The city added 24 percent more pavement between 1996 and 2011, according to Samuel Brody of Texas A&M, and Houston wasn’t exactly light on pavement in 1996. Pavement, unlike soil, fails to absorb water.
Add up the evidence, and it overwhelmingly suggests that human activity has helped create the ferocity of Harvey.
Houston became Chennai on an even larger scale!

The climate scientist, Michael Mann, who helped us understand the famous hockey-stick graph, is emphatic: "climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly."
There is a simple thermodynamic relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation that tells us there is a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each 0.5C of warming. Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than “average” temperatures a few decades ago. That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.
That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding. The combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston is experiencing.
Mann continues about the stalling, which has made Harvey pour water from the skies.  This stalling is not only with hurricanes and cyclones though:
 More tenuous, but possibly relevant still, is the fact that very persistent, nearly “stationary” summer weather patterns of this sort, where weather anomalies (both high-pressure dry hot regions and low-pressure stormy/rainy regions) stay locked in place for many days at a time, appears to be favoured by human-caused climate change. We recently published a paper in the academic journal Scientific Reports on this phenomenon.
Hot days are hotter than ever and stay hot for a lot longer.  Wet days are wetter than ever and stay wet for a lot longer.

In another op-ed, after the devastating cyclone that tore through Chennai, I wrote in January 2017:
Such extremes are consistent with climate weirding. ...
Climate scientists warn that we have to prepare for more and more extreme events that result from climate weirding. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that “a changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”
Of course, it is not merely about the rains. Heat waves, too, for instance, are increasing in both frequency and intensity. Unlike wind and rains, heat waves are not action-made for cameras — heat waves produce no images and videos that go viral. But heat waves kill more people than rains and cold spells do.
In that op-ed, I suggested that we Americans look at ourselves in the mirror:
We in the United States need to stop denying the human cause in the global climatic changes in this industrial era. As a country with an affluence that is the envy of the rest of the world, we need to assume leadership in addressing global weirding.
These will be enormous challenges during a Trump presidency and with a Republican-controlled Congress.
The 63 million who voted for trump and his climate-change-denying minions can now add Houston to the growing list for why they stand accused.


Monday, August 28, 2017

The ejaculating erect penises of Bhutan

If the time before the internet were the dark ages, then my formative years in a small industrial town were pre-history because back then we did not even have television.  Heck, we did not even have a refrigerator!

The printed materials, and the few minutes of VOA and BBC provided me a little bit of an idea of the vast world outside the small town.  At home, we subscribed to what I thought then to the best newspaper ever, and to two awesome Tamil magazines.  Father belonged to a magazine club at work,through which we got to read a few leading English-language Indian magazines of those days.  I had enough for critical thinking.

One day, father brought home from his magazine club the tabloid Blitz.  In that there was an article about the Shiva Lingam being a phallic symbol.  A phallic symbol!  It was shocking. And intriguing.

With age, and from a more informed position, I am now the least concerned about whether or not the lingam represents the phallus.  That is immaterial to me.  whatever!  

But, yes, across many cultures, people practically revered the phallus.  Perhaps primarily led by a belief that the meat juice was all that was needed to create a baby.  The periods that women had every month made them "unclean" and inferior, and there was no real understanding of the role that the bloody periods play in creating a baby.  So, of course, the female phallus was beyond the unknown!

Despite the intellectual understanding that I have gained over the years,  I was mildly amused and plenty informed by this NY Times piece on phallus art in Bhutan:
For centuries, Bhutan has celebrated the phallus.
They are painted on homes, or carved in wood, installed above doorways and under eaves to ward off evil, including one of its most insidious human forms, gossip. They are worn on necklaces, installed in granaries and in fields as a kind of scarecrow.
Worn as necklaces, you wonder, right?  Wonder no more:

Caption at the source:
Phallus symbols are worn as necklaces, used as scarecrows and donned by masked jesters in religious festivals.

Unless you are the current president of the United States, you would certainly trust the NY Times, right?

Anyway, back to that NY Times piece:
“Stories of Bhutan’s engagement with the phallus shed light on traditions and lifestyle that make Bhutan one of the happiest places on earth,” Karma Choden wrote in the 2014 book “Phallus: Crazy Wisdom from Bhutan,” which was published here and claims to be the first scholarly effort to document the ubiquity of the phallus.
"The tradition has been widely traced to one lama, Drukpa Kunley, who spread the tenets of Buddhism through Bhutan in the 15th and 16th centuries."

So, "To this day, hopeful couples traverse Bhutan to partake of the monastery’s fertility blessing."

But, it is not only at the monastery:
House after house is painted with phalluses. While highly stylized, they are in some cases graphically detailed: always erect, often ejaculating. One appears with the country’s name, a marketing ploy by the owner of one of the proliferating souvenir shops. The displays in some — rows of colorful wooden carvings — would not seem out of place in a sex shop.
Erect penises. Ejaculating.  On the exterior walls of houses.
Lotay Tshering, a 51-year-old rice farmer, owns a house in Sopsokha that is adorned with two giant penis murals. His wife’s uncle painted them in homage to the Divine Madman, “who has blessed this place,” as he put it. He and his wife have six children.
We construct our own narratives, and believe in them.  We draw artful ejaculating penises on the walls.  We worship shiva lingams.  And there are a gazillion other irrational ways in which we humans make sense of the chaos that this universe is to us.  If only we spent more time sincerely attempting to understand the human condition; instead, being humans, we choose one set of narratives and laugh at other narratives!

Caption at the source:
A family inside the courtyard of a traditional Bhutanese house decorated with elaborate paintings of mythical animals and a phallus.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The most urgent thing now: Tax cuts for the super-wealthy

More than a year ago, I wrote in an op-ed about homelessness in America:
 Local governments cannot solve the problem on their own. There are deeper structural issues that have to be addressed by state governments, in association with federal officials.
It is unfortunate that the election season now underway has not addressed real and urgent issues such as urban homelessness. In a democracy, it is through politics that we establish priorities and identify issues deserving our collective action.
Ask yourself this question: Can you recall anything that trump, or Speaker ryan, or anybody in powerful positions remarking anything substantive about this urgent and in-your-face national issue?  In contrast, how often have you heard the fuhrer talk and tweet about "fake news"?

One of the most important responsibilities that a leader has is to highlight the priorities.  It is appalling that homelessness is not a priority compared to tax cuts for the super-rich

It is not that the fascist never commented about homelessness. He did--back when he was a private citizen, like this:

Now he is the asshole-in-chief!

Meanwhile, the homeless population continues to grow; in Oregon, it has been a six percent increase over the last two years:
Despite the roaring job market, more people are living on the streets or in shelters in Oregon than in 2015, according to data released Tuesday. ...
The results, compiled by the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department, don't account for every homeless person in the state but are meant to indicate trends that federal and local officials use to allocate funding and resources.
In a country with material wealth that the world has never ever seen before!

Homelessness is but one of the many issues that remind us about the urgency to rework the social safety net.
Our current social safety net was built for a different age. The urbanizing America of the mid-20th century faced a myriad of distinctive challenges that precipitated the need for the foundational safety net created—Social Security, Medicare, and more built strength in our society. Much of the privatized safety net we all now know—retirement plans, employer provided health care, and leave policies—grew based on the construct of a single employer for a career. But, those times have faded and the urban America of today faces vastly different economic concerns. We need a re-imagined toolkit that focuses intently on broad scale wealth inequality and the urban-rural fractures that were hardly imaginable in the Greatest Generation era of our grandparents. Now is the time for cities to lead the country forward, innovate, experiment ferociously with nationally scalable solutions, and ultimately, build a safety net for 2017—not 1947.
It it not like I have said these before, right?  Unfortunately, the pussy-grabber and his political party leaders do not care a shit about remaking a new safety net for the disadvantaged.  Homelessness will be one of the many to worsen!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Do the right thing!

Whenever family elders talked about the "ICS" people who hailed from the village, those talks made a huge impression on the kid that I was.  And then teenage happened.  The hormones flowing within not only made me look at girls very differently, the rebellious ideas also kicked in.  I started questioning the worth of the ICS people.

ICS--the Indian Civil Service--was the backbone of the administrative machinery of the Bastard Raj.  Without the brown-skinned ICS serving their melanin-deprived masters, the colonial bastards would have had a tough time ruining the Subcontinent.  The teenager in me started to metaphorically spit at the old ICS folks who, to me, were nothing but blood-stained accomplices.  With such a realization, the childhood fascination to become an IAS officer quickly evaporated.

That same combination of logic and emotions are why I am disgusted with the people who willingly serve under this fuhrer.  Even when they say or do the right things, I mock them, reminding myself that even these were his enablers.

After the fuhrer's atrocious defense of the white supremacists, even the profit-minded business leaders quit his advisory councils.  Artists resigned en masse.  His chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, was apparently more worried about the market than about morals.  He continues to serve his master, like how the unprincipled ICS willingly worked for the bastards.

The latest high profile advisor to quit: The State Department's science envoy.
Energy researcher Daniel Kammen stepped down this week as a science envoy for the U.S. State Department. In a public resignation letter addressed to President Donald Trump, Kammen lambasted the president’s response to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. He also lamented what he called Trump’s overall “attacks on core values of the United States.” The first letters taken from each paragraph of Kammen’s letter spell the word “IMPEACH.”
The talented and the able voluntarily and eagerly working for the wrong guys is not anything new.  Their short-term selfish interests outweigh the morals and principles that they easily abandon. But, the higher their profiles, the more they will be condemned to having been on the wrong side of history.

It should not be that hard to do the right thing, yes?  

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Out and proud

A few years ago, as we were filing out of a conference room where the presenters critiqued neoliberalism from different perspectives, I couldn't contain myself and remarked to a one-time colleague that I wish scholars would stop using that word.

Neoliberalism is a "n" word that is highly distracting.  I have run into quite a few students, even graduate students, who use that word without an understanding of what that actually means.  Such an approach does not appeal to me.  In my classes, even when students use the word "capitalism" I tell them to avoid using that or any ism.  Because, I am convinced that most of us operate with our own definitions of those isms, and while falsely believing that everybody else employs that same definition.

I would rather that we focused on the problem that we want to understand and solve.  No ism is going to help us there.When I complain about the frayed welfare safety net in the US, merely yelling neoliberalism does not do a damn thing, if that example helps.

The following, which are parenthetical notes in a wonderful essay on protests, sum up neoliberalism and my problems with that usage:
Neoliberalism can broadly refer to any program that involves market-liberal policies—privatization, deregulation, etc.—and so includes everything from Thatcher’s social-expenditure reductions to Obama’s global-trade policies. A moratorium on its use would help solidify a lot of gaseous debate.
In other words, practically everything in the contemporary liberal democratic world!  A moratorium would help, yes. A lot!

It does not mean that I am happy with the existing political economic order.  Not at all.  I was mad as hell even before 63 million assholes elected the maniac.  I am now the maddest that I have ever been in life.  For the first time ever in America, I have now been twice on the streets protesting.  Twice!

But, do protests matter?  Do they help solve the problems?
Still, what has protest done for us lately? Smartphones and social media are supposed to have made organizing easier, and activists today speak more about numbers and reach than about lasting results. Is protest a productive use of our political attention? Or is it just a bit of social theatre we perform to make ourselves feel virtuous, useful, and in the right?
Life as an eternal skeptic means that I have no choice but to question what I am doing, right?  I cannot be guided by some blind belief.  It is not faith.  So, I doubt.  A lot.

This doubt is why I initially stayed away from the street protests.  But, I now go, primarily for two reasons.  One, in the age of visuals, we need to convey the image of the numbers.  These visuals of large numbers of people, and consistently large numbers, will make it difficult for elected representatives in a democracy to ignore.  

The second reason I go is purely selfish: I want psychological support, boost, from others who are pissed off as much as I am--or even more than I am.  
Self-government remains a messy, fussy, slow, frustrating business. We do well to remind those working its gears and levers that the public—not just the appalled me but the conjoined us whom the elected serve—is watching and aware. More than two centuries after our country took its shaky first steps, the union is miles from perfection. But it is still on its feet, sometimes striding, frequently stumbling. The march goes on, and someday, not just in our dreams, we’ll make it home.
Yes, the beat goes on.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Indian dates

During the last visit to India, we talked--as we always end up doing--about the years in Neyveli.  I suppose we are a people who develop emotional attachments with the places that mean a lot to us.  In the conversations, Neyveli features a lot, along with Sengottai and Pattamadai, of course.

"Many of my classmates were afraid to come over because of the huge tamarind tree right at the gate," my sister said.

As kids, we hear people say stuff and then our imaginations take over.  For whatever reasons, some believed--yes, believed--that tamarind trees were the favorite "haunts" for ghosts.  In addition to one big tamarind tree at the gate, there were five or six others in our compound.  Add to this minimal lighting and dull streetlights, hey, even adults can easily become terrified.

When I visited Neyveli, in 2002, we spent some time in the old compound.
The gardener working for the foreigner living there was happy to pose for me under the tamarind tree in the backyard

We siblings did not view the tamarind trees with any anxiety.  They were very much a part of our life.  We found plenty of shade under the trees to play or do nothing.  We ate the blossoms and the young fruits.  If there weren't any ants, then we even climbed those trees.

What I didn't know then, and until now, is this: Tamarind is a bean. A legume.  WTH!, right? ;)
Its botanical name Tamarindus Indica is a complete misnomer, as the tree is native to tropical Africa, but it seems that when it arrived in Europe in ancient times they thought it came from India, and hence the redundant name "Indian date of India."
What?  India is not the geographic origin for tamarind?  WTH!

Like I say, learning opportunities every single day!

With the tamarind, it is the pulp that we use rather than the seeds.  One of the dishes that I make, with eggplants, is with the awesome tamarind paste.

I can not anymore think of the tamarind trees like I used to.  Now, the tamarind takes on an even bigger and mythical image, similar to Jack's giant beanstalk ;)

My parents at the gate
To the left, and not in the photo, is a huge tamarind tree

Master teacher

A few years ago, when reading up about Boris Pasternak, I was delighted with the way he had phrased the statement declining the Nobel Prize (under pressure from the bastard Soviet overlords.)  Pasternak's statement, in a telegram to Swedish Academy, was this:
Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must reject this undeserved prize which has been presented to me. Please do not receive my voluntary rejection with displeasure.
I found that statement to be so awesomely phrased.  It was even better than Groucho Marx's line on why he did not like being a member of clubs: “I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

I liked Pasternak's statement so much that I decided that if ever I was even remotely considered for a teaching award at my university, well, all I would do in my reply was to quote the Russian ;)

The "best teacher" awards at most places are variations of a popularity contest.  Increasingly so in the students-are-our-customers atmosphere that now envelops higher education.  There's no "business" like higher education.  I, on the other hand, do not care for popularity, whether it is with students or colleagues, or with blog commenters or neighbors, or whoever.  Which is why, sadly enough, I will never get an opportunity to use Pasternak's lines! ;)

Identifying the teacher of the year, or other such awards, is "bunk" (paywalled):
How does any professor, let alone a panel of judges, really know what goes on in another professor’s class? Longstanding academic convention dictates that we rarely cross the threshold of a colleague’s classroom. We are seldom invited to one another’s lectures and seminars. It goes without saying that an unannounced "pop in" is strictly out of the question.
The door to a lecture hall could just as well be a police sawhorse — if that sawhorse stood behind a moat and was outfitted with a gun turret. Herein lies an unrecognized truth about American higher education: The inner workings of college teaching spaces are more or less unknown.
I have no idea what goes on in any other professor's class.  Literally, not metaphorically.  Neither in California nor here have I engaged in serious discussions on how we teach what we teach, and more.  It is like there is an unwritten rule that we can talk about everything else, but not about our classroom teaching!

On my campus, I am almost always shocked at most of the people receiving such honors.  From my interactions, I would never have picked most of them as even halfway decent teachers, and yet they represent the university as model teachers.
I once had a colleague who taught a 200-level class. She loathed the fellow who taught the 100-level that was a prerequisite for her own. The latter was a campus legend. He was a flamboyant character who gyrated and twerked as he lectured. By the time his students cycled into her class, they knew exceedingly little about the subject matter. Her 200 regressed into a 100, because the guy in the 100 was teaching — well, she had no idea what he was teaching. He did win many Faculty of the Year awards, though.
I know plenty of faculty like that!  "flamboyant character who gyrated and twerked," indeed :(
Good college teachers, then, don’t necessarily do what is in their own professional interest. They do what’s in the interest of their students.

I know I am not a good teacher.  But, my approach to teaching is not about me nor about my professional advancement.  It is about students.  In developing the syllabi for the upcoming year, I am actually tightening up the structure for my classes because I worry that I am not being rigorous enough--even though, tightening up the structure is not the route to popularity.  I don't care.  I am used to being ignored, neglected, and dissed.  After all, in my life, I have never been popular even when I am all by myself ;)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Rice is god, but lentils are my life

I often refer to an "original sin" that humans committed, which is the cause of daily complaints that we have about work.  You know, "the worst mistake ever," as Jared Diamond phrased it.   The invention of settled agriculture, and the life away from hunting and gathering, has condemned us to working, even if they are only bullshit jobs.

Diamond wrote:
For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn't emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"
When hunting and gathering, humans worked just about enough to get their food.  Even if they wanted to get more, well, there was no storing that dead animal or the berries, right?  Further, they had way more variety in their diets than we do.  Oh well, we traded that life for the dependable supply of a more limited variety of food that could be saved for the literal and metaphorical rainy day.  And, 12,000 years later, here we are with our fancy computers and planning to send humans to Mars!

In this story of life after the Neolithic Revolution:
The crucial role of wheat, goats and sheep is always emphasized.  Legumes, not just lentils but chickpeas, vetches and later peas, somehow get short shrift. But it is likely that they play as great or even greater a role than meat and dairy in supplying protein to the growing population.  This is a matter of simple efficiency. Per acre, lentil provides more calories than grazing cattle.
Give beans the Aretha Franklin treatment--give them R.E.S.P.E.C.T. ;)

It is not only efficiency, but also the insurance against possible famines.  Why?  "Beans are practically indestructible if thoroughly dried and well stored."  Add to this the roots of the legumes drawing nitrogen from the air and fixing it in the soil, thereby making land more productive.  No wonder that Umberto Eco, from the land of pasta e fagioli, declared that beans saved European civilization:
But what I really want to talk about is beans, and not just beans but also peas and lentils. All these fruits of the earth are rich in vegetable proteins, as anyone who goes on a low-meat diet knows, for the nutritionist will be sure to insist that a nice dish of lentils or split peas has the nutritional value of a thick, juicy steak. Now the poor, in those remote Middle Ages, did not eat meat, unless they managed to raise a few chickens or engaged in poaching (the game of the forest was the property of the lords). And as I mentioned earlier, this poor diet begat a population that was ill nourished, thin, sickly, short and incapable of tending the fields. So when, in the 10th century, the cultivation of legumes began to spread, it had a profound effect on Europe. Working people were able to eat more protein; as a result, they became more robust, lived longer, created more children and repopulated a continent.
We believe that the inventions and the discoveries that have changed our lives depend on complex machines. But the fact is, we are still here -- I mean we Europeans, but also those descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Spanish conquistadors -- because of beans. Without beans, the European population would not have doubled within a few centuries, today we would not number in the hundreds of millions and some of us, including even readers of this article, would not exist.
 All these do add up a hill of beans! ;)

ps: Yep, am continuing with the book on beans ;)

Monday, August 21, 2017

When the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool, that's amore!

Years ago--ok, two decades ago--I was preparing for an European vacation that included a few days in Italy. The web was in its infancy; there was nothing much in the web for Alta Vista, the search engine of those days, to tell me anything meaningful.  So, I read and re-read the Fodor's travel guidebook for Italy.

I was fascinated with the travel-book talking up Pasta e fagioli.  Pasta and beans?  Beans in Italy?

I checked with an office colleague, Joe Stramaglia, whose mother was from Italy.  From his stories about his mother, I knew that Joe would have the answer.  Joe affirmed the idea of pasta and beans, and said there are many variations according to one's tastes.  And he pointed out to me that it is a part of Dean Martin's song too!

Every single day is a learning experience!

So, of course, when in Italy, I had pasta e fagioli, in a town near Florence.  I will leave it at that ;)

Up until then, I hadn't associated Europe with beans.  I had always been under the impression that beans were, well, warm country foods.  All kinds of beans in India.  The beans that my Nigerian friend made.  Beans that I had in Venezuela.  And now beans in Italy, too.  Who woulda thunk that!

A few years ago, here in Oregon, for a potluck gathering I made my version of வேர்க்கடலை சுண்டல் (verkadalai chundal) from the old country life.  I was away from the table when I heard a couple of people asking each other whether they tasted the bean dish.  Their comments conveyed that they were confused about the dish that looked like beans but tasted like peanuts.

Finally, one asked aloud who made the peanut dish.  I explained to the gathering that peanuts are nothing but legumes, and that you can boil them just like you boil any beans.  "Boil them?"

Like I said, every single day is a learning experience!

ps: I am reading a book on beans, in case you are wondering why this post ;)

Words I wish I hadn't known

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea that there were two words that would come to worry me a lot: Antifa and Doxxing.

Apparently those words have been around for a long time.  Who knew!  There are plenty of words in the formal and informal dictionaries about which I have no idea.  I am but a highly pretentious simple man.

Of course I am anti-fascist. I don't ever want to see fascists coming into power.  But, that is not what worries me about the Antifa.  It is their readiness--rhetorically if not literally--to take up violence against the fascist elements that concerns me.  

As a pacifist, I simply hate violence.  But, I am not naive in thinking that there are no evil forces out there.  And those evil fascists might have to be neutralized with force, yes.  But, where force is needed, I count on the government to exercise it.  I am not at ease with private groups taking up arms, even if those groups are "on my side."

The evil forces of the KKK, for instance, are now even out without their hoods on.  They are boldly out in the open, with nothing to mask their faces.  In the age of social media, images of those people are instantaneously shared.

We share all kinds of images and texts these days, yes.  But, I am not sure if I am ok with publicly outing them and shaming them.  There is some kind of an yuck factor there that makes me highly uncomfortable with identifying--sometimes even to their street address level--the KKK or neonazi individuals, even though to some extent I am also happy that they are being publicly outed.  It was such a social media doxxing that then also led to the father of one of those publicly disowning that guy.

I just don't know how to resolve these for myself.

Here too, as in seemingly everything else since the November elections, we are in completely new territories.  The past practices cannot really guide us in these new contexts.  When hundreds of armed and torch-carrying neonazis march through a college campus, I doubt if there is any manual that can tell us what to do.  We have to quickly improvise.  In this improv situations, are Antifa and Doxxing the correct responses?

Unfortunately, life seems to be happening at warp speeds in this trumpian world.  This speed means that we cannot pause, even for a couple of days, to talk about such issues.  When we do not talk about such practices, they quickly become the default mode as well.  I suspect that doxxing is now here to stay. Forever.  And the Antifa youth will not easily return to playing videogames in the basements while snacking on Nutella and Cheetos without duking it out.  

All I can do is apply a pause in my own life, where I am able to control the levers.  Which is what we did when we took the time to be one with the cosmos and live the 99.5 percent eclipse moment.  And we are now back to real life, to worry about the neonazis who have been emboldened by this president who was elected by 63 million assholes!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

In Lake Wobegon, everybody is above average

As trump continues to merrily sail with the supporting white supremacist winds (thank you, New Yorker) it is not only his adopted party folks who are trying to figure out how to deal with him and their own political futures--the Democrats are seemingly having a tougher time figuring out what message they want to convey to voters in 2018 and 2020, other than being anti-trump.

The temptation is to go uber-left.  After all, that was Bernie Sanders' platform, and of Elizabeth Warren's too.  I hope better sense will prevail.

Take for instance the case of minimum wages.   It is tempting to think that we can make the lives of the lower-income households by simply mandating higher wages.  If only the world were that simple:
There is new evidence that raising the minimum wage pushes business owners to replace low-skilled workers with automation. And it shows that old, young, female and black low-skilled workers face the highest levels of unemployment after a minimum-wage increase.
Economists Grace Lordan of the London School of Economics and David Neumark of UC Irvine studied 35 years of government census data for their working paper, which was released in August, titled "People Versus Machines: The Impact of Minimum Wages on Automatable Jobs."
After a long gap, I recently went to Target.  I was shocked that even that store has introduced self-checkout counters.  Which is exactly what happens when we make labor more expensive:
These automatable jobs include positions like supermarket check-out clerks, who can be replaced by self-service checkout cashiers, and assembly-line workers in manufacturing plants, who can be replaced by robotic arms. Low-skilled workers, for the study, are defined as those who have a high school diploma or less.
As Catherine Rampell writes:
It’s easier, or perhaps more politically convenient, to assume that “pro-worker” policies never hurt the workers they’re intended to help.
Or, as I learnt in graduate school, the road to hell is paved with good intentions!

More from Rampell:
We’ve already seen preliminary evidence that raising wages in Seattle to $13 has produced sharp cuts in hours, leaving low-wage workers with smaller paychecks. And that’s in a high-cost city. Imagine what would happen if Congress raised the minimum wage to $15 nationwide.
In West Virginia, the median hourly wage is just $14.79; in Arkansas, it’s $14.48; and in Mississippi, it’s a depressingly low $14.22. A $15 minimum wage could be binding on more than half of jobs in these states. In fact, in every state (not including D.C.), it could cover at least a quarter of positions.
Two years ago, I wrote in an op-ed about the minimum wage increase in Oregon:
Be careful what you wish for, we are advised. But then we don’t follow that advice anyway.
This guy gets pissed off that I always critique without offering solutions.  I will once again say the same thing: We work out the solutions politically.  Unlike a challenge of how to get humans to the moon and back, or how to vaccinate people, these are not technical issues.  In a democracy, we are, therefore, at the mercy of voters and politicians.

On this issue of minimum wages, all I can state with certainty is this: We do need to increase the federal minimum wage from the pathetic low of $7.25.  (States can have their own minimum wages, but it cannot be lower than the federal minimum.)  What is more urgent is the need to strengthen the safety net for the workers--from health care to child care to affordable housing to ... The new social contract that I have been arguing for years.  A new contract for which those with earnings that are way higher than the minimum wages have to pay higher taxes.  This much I know for sure.  The rest is up to the Democratic Party in 2018 and 2020.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

There's no business like ... sustainable business?

Profits are apparently better guides than prophets, as we found out post-Charlottesville.  To some extent, it should not surprise us; after all, businesses are all about the here and now, and not about heaven or hell.  So, if even the appearance of siding with the fuhrer would hurt their bottom-lines, then, of course, business leaders would abandon the fascist.

The fascist and his minions deny climate change, and by loosening up regulations and promoting activities that will further destroy the natural environment, they are all set to bring about hell on earth, instead of making heaven right here on earth.  The fuhrer gleefully announced that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement.  What does the market think about all these?  Will business leaders cheer the maniac, or are they taking a different approach?

Harvard Business Review takes this up, which is made clear in the headline itself:

No ambiguity there, right?  HBR has created "the Future Economy Project."
We’ve enlisted prominent thinkers and leading CEOs who understand that sustainable business practices are in a company’s long-term interests. They will help us answer questions like: How does sustainability fit into a company’s strategy? How can you make core business operations more sustainable? How do you convince major stakeholders — employees, investors, the board, and customers — that sustainability is the right path? And what type of leadership will take us there?    
HBR adds:
We don’t pretend to have all the answers — and neither do the pioneering business leaders who are joining this initiative. But over the coming months, we will provide case studies and practical lessons from their experiences to help other executives who believe that profits and environmental responsibility must go hand in hand.
The Future Economy Project will culminate in the publication of a list of principles and actions, endorsed by our partners, aimed at outlining a path for businesses that want to pursue sustainable goals. The principles will reflect our partners’ thinking on how to operationalize sustainability throughout the enterprise.    
One of the HBR essays leads with this:
Despite conflicting messages about climate change from U.S. government leaders, sustainability is getting more and more attention at American companies. Shareholders are ratcheting up their demands on environmental and social issues. Consumers are registering their concerns about how companies make their products. And talented Millennial employees are voting with their feet by leaving laggard companies behind. Meanwhile, new technologies are making it easier for sustainability investments to pay off in the middle to long term.
I have always believed that transformations will be less of a hurdle if we created the appropriate contexts for the profit-motive.  Because, merely appealing to people to do the right thing rarely works, if ever.  And once we tap into that profit motive, things can happen seemingly overnight.

Of course, as conservative organizations, businesses are resistant and reactionary, especially if the change will not help the bottom-line.  But, businesses--unlike politicians--are not ideological and, hence, do change their outlook.  Therefore, in addition to yelling at politicians, we the people ought to yell even louder at businesses.  Chances are that businesses will listen to us and act way quicker than the elected official will.

At the university where I teach, for a year we worked on creating a new academic major called "sustainability."  I think my most important contribution there was to structure it such that students could focus on their business interests in sustainability.  To me, it was a no-brainer that business should be a part of the major.   For once, people actually listened to me! ;)  This HBR report adds that much more validation of the major that we have created.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The black man's burden

While waiting for the Filipina to join us for dinner, I commented that the Philippines was fucked up big time by the US and Spain combined, with a good dose of Catholicism as well.  So much so that even now that country continues to be strangely dependent on America in ways that few other countries around the world do.

It was in the context of the US screwing the Philippines that Rudyard "Jungle Book" Kipling wrote his famous (puke!) poem on the white man's burden.  What a fucking bastard!  But then he was also a man of his time.  After all, many white folks around then believed that the non-whites of the world were only a step removed from monkeys and apes.

White Supremacy is not new by any means.  All the celebrated British bastards who lived and died for the crown, like the cigar-chomping Churchill, were bloody white supremacists.  Not only did they feel superior, they were willing to go to all corners of the earth in order to colonize the brown-skinned.  It is an irony that a white supremacist blitzkrieging the lands of other white supremacists slowly began the end of the white-skinned empire building all over the world!

After WW II, after the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and as the brown-skinned folks around the world started ridding themselves of the white overlords, it was only a matter of time before white supremacists died out.  Eight years of Barack Obama made us feel that we were becoming post-racial.  That is what we thought. We assumed.

Wrong we were, and wrong we are!
White supremacy is more visible and vocal than it has been in decades. Its reemergence can be traced to several developments: a reaction against the Black Lives Matter movement that began in 2013, the massacre of black worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015 that led to a reexamination of the meaning of Confederate symbols, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. These issues fused tragically in Charlottesville on August 12.
Unfortunately, many Americans fail to realize that white supremacy is not an aberration in this country but for most of its history the norm, forced into retreat only by the actions of those who struggle to make liberty and equality, not slavery and racism, the polestars that guide the nation.
The "norm" for most its history!

Caption at the source:
The flag that W. E. B. Du Bois flew from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Avenue in New York City

So, with a white supremacist president, what can we do?
So it is time to renew the battle, to continue the struggle. White nationalists can’t be convinced, but perhaps white moderates can. This was the thrust of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963. Religious leaders must step forward. Moderates must take a stand. White supremacists, and the politicians who support them, will be defeated only by those willing to continue to fight for what King called “the sacred heritage of our nation,” a heritage not of hate but of hope.
Yes, religious leaders must step forward.  But, it is pathetic that some of the most solid support that this white-supremacist president gets is from Jesus-loving, churchgoing Christians!  For some one who has always worried that the market has no morals, it was refreshing to note that the president's business councils were disbanded after CEOs started quitting them post-Charlottesville, while not a single person has resigned from the Evangelical Council!

If only the white supremacists would understand the profoundly poetic words of Carl Sagan about our fragile lives in "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam":
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bali Hai in the north

About two decades ago, during my California years, one day I drooled so much for fresh, home-made முள்ளு தேன்குழல் (mullu thenkuzhal) that I decided to make it at home.

Yep, get ready for the disaster story!

I got the equipment ready.  The flour and spices all mixed.  The oil was hot.  I squeezed the flour paste into the oil.

It exploded.  Hot oil blobbed on my arms.

I yelled. Screamed.  Turned the gas off.  And we rushed to the health center that was less than a mile away.

The physician was an Indian-American who calmly treated me.  And throughout, he talked about his own fascination with those delicious snacks.

I, always searching for a few good male friends, decided to become friends with him.

I like to think that it was not my friendship that made him leave town within a year! ;)  He sold his home, and moved to ... Guam.

He had never been to Guam.  But, he knew he wanted to live the island life.  A tropical island.

Which was pretty much the first time I had to ever learn about Guam.  Until then I knew there was a place called Guam, but otherwise knew nothing about it.

After a couple of years there, he moved again. To the Big Island, which is where he continues to live his tropical island paradise dream life.

Over the years of teaching, I have run into quite a few students--born and brought up in America--who do not know that Guam is a US territory.  It is like how back in the old country the people of the northeast are "aliens" to the rest of their fellow citizens.

Now, Guam is in the news, but for all the wrong reasons.

Description at the source:
Demonstrators hold signs during a People for Peace Rally at the Chief Quipuha Statue in Hagatna, Guam.

I know Guam.  And also know that I should never attempt to make those snacks.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

J'accuse! J'accuse! J'accuse!

In June 2016, I was in an airport shuttle van with an Armenian-American driver and two German tourists.  The male tourist said that because it is illegal in Germany to say or do anything supporting Nazis, there is nothing there, at least in the open.  He blamed the US for exporting neo-nazi stuff to Europe.

This past weekend, the neo-nazi side of America was in full display.  A woman's death, and a black man's near-death, and more ...

Even prior to that post, in May 2016, I wrote about the looming dark clouds.
It starts with a swastika and 1488 etched on a bench on a bridge over a river :(  Here is to hoping that we will end it all before it even takes hold.
The evil has taken a firm hold, and eradicating it now will be a much tougher problem than anybody could have imagined.

In those posts, the two highly religious and openly Republican readers who used to comment stayed away from commenting.  One of them had even pontificated a year prior in a post on our biased and bigoted selves:
I do not understand how one person thinks he is better than another simply because of skin color or religion or any accident of birth, such as the wealth of the parents or location of the home. Every human has value and has gifts and talents and skills to share. None is more important than another.
I bet that those readers were two of the 63 million who voted for trump, who was thanked today by the former KKK leader.  The "thanks" was because the president equated "activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rampaged in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend."

Two weeks after the November election, I wrote that white nationalism is not new to the GOP.
The big difference between 1984 and 2016 is this: Reagan used the political dog-whistle to remind the GOP white loyalists about blacks and immigrants.  Trump ditched the dog-whistle and went for the straight talk.
Elections have serious consequences.  This past election was perhaps one of the most consequential one ever, which is something for future historians to write about.

I quoted Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote:
Trump’s victory, in light of all of his antics during the campaign, makes it all but impossible to deny the continuing currency of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia in the United States. It’s on display for all to see. This could be a good thing: It forces us to reckon with who we really are. Is America really about the democratic, progressive values professed in the founding documents? Or, are we really the small-minded, bigoted place Trump’s election represents?
The nine months after the election have made it clear that the 63 million did vote for racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, and more.  They stand accused!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Other than that, Frau Schmidt, how was the sex?

One of the strange essays that I read in the NY Times was this one on "Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism."

The title had all the warnings for me--as an old pinkie, I am highly suspicious of anything that hints of how life was/is awesome in a socialist/communist society.  Which is why, for instance, I usually have nothing but criticism for the rah-rahs about China, where people aren't free.

Anyway, the essay talks about how the old USSR and East Germany and others were progressive, and how "women under Communism enjoyed more sexual pleasure."
A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women. Researchers marveled at this disparity in reported sexual satisfaction, especially since East German women suffered from the notorious double burden of formal employment and housework. In contrast, postwar West German women had stayed home and enjoyed all the labor-saving devices produced by the roaring capitalist economy. But they had less sex, and less satisfying sex, than women who had to line up for toilet paper.
The author explains more with comparisons of women from those socialist years and their daughters who live in liberal democracies:
This generational divide between daughters and mothers who reached adulthood on either side of 1989 supports the idea that women had more fulfilling lives during the Communist era. And they owed this quality of life, in part, to the fact that these regimes saw women’s emancipation as central to advanced “scientific socialist” societies, as they saw themselves.
This is like how commies like to refer to, for instance, Cuba as an awesome country for healthcare.  Or, even until a couple of years ago, how Venezuela is a paradise for the poor.  And they always induce the same response from me: I want to puke!
Because they championed sexual equality — at work, at home and in the bedroom — and were willing to enforce it, Communist women who occupied positions in the state apparatus could be called cultural imperialists. But the liberation they imposed radically transformed millions of lives across the globe, including those of many women who still walk among us as the mothers and grandmothers of adults in the now democratic member states of the European Union. Those comrades’ insistence on government intervention may seem heavy-handed to our postmodern sensibilities, but sometimes necessary social change — which soon comes to be seen as the natural order of things — needs an emancipation proclamation from above.
"may seem heavy-handed to our postmodern sensibilities"?
What the hell is wrong with such people?

Apparently I am not the only one who found it to be puke-worthy:
I would have chosen to commemorate 100 years since the Bolshevik Revolution and the birth of the Soviet Union in a different way. Over one hundred million people have died or were killed while building socialism during the course of the 20th century. Call me crazy, but that staggering number of victims of communism seems to me more important than the somewhat dubious claim that Bulgarian comrades enjoyed more orgasms than women in the West. But, as one Russian babushka said to another, suum cuique pulchrum est.
I am, however, intrigued by the striking similarities between the Times articles. To the greatest extent possible, they seem to avoid the broader perspective on life under communism (i.e., widespread oppression and economic failure). Instead, they focus on the experiences of individual people, some of whom never lived in communist countries in the first place.
But don't take my word for it. You can still visit a few communist countries, including Cuba and North Korea, and compare the social status and empowerment of their women with those in the West. Had the esteemed editors of the Times done so, they would have, I hope, thought twice about publishing a series of pro-communist excreta.

Monday, August 14, 2017

It was thirty years ago, today too

The long and winding road ended at the airport in Madras.

I sometimes refer to the end of that road and to the new beginning as my own "tryst with destiny."  Other times, I refer to myself as one of the "midnight's children."  During the same transition hours that marked India's beginning in 1947, I was ending the journey in the old country and venturing towards something unknown.

I have no idea how I came across to others back then, but I know I was stressed out.  Way stressed out.  And the stress was not helping the acidity situation in my stomach, as I would later come to find out during my graduate school years.

I was stressed not because I was going to a far away place. Not at all.  The newness was cause for excitement.  The stress came from the fact that I was headed towards graduate school in a field for which I had no formal educational preparation.  What if I failed at my attempt, and had to return to India?  What if I was unable to complete a PhD?  And, by the way, how does one do a PhD?  Would I be able to find a job after graduate school?

Yes, I had a plan that I was executing.  But, the plan had no details beyond getting on the plane in Madras.

I was stressed out.

It seemed like the few other students I met while waiting at the airport were all traveling the plans that were all familiar--graduate school in engineering or science.  And many of them seemed to be going where they would even re-connect with their college seniors.  Their only challenge was to decide between returning to India after graduation versus working in America at least for a while.

All I knew was that I was not going back to India.  America will be home.  As for everything else, well, I had to fill in the blanks.

And thus, in 1987, I boarded the Singapore Airlines flight a little before the midnight hour.

I stepped into a "jumbo jet" for the first time in my life.  I felt like I had entered into a huge hotel lobby. And there was a staircase, for the privileged travelers to get to their seats!

I reached my seat, which was in the rear of the plane, only a couple of rows ahead of the "smoking section."

The stress.  The excitement.  And everything new.  I don't think I slept much.  Not in the flight from Madras to Singapore, nor in the long haul from Singapore to Los Angeles with a stop in Tokyo.

The plane landed in Los Angeles.  The disembarking took forever.  I joined the long line snaking its way to the immigration counters for visitors.

Finally, it was my turn.

I gave the officer my papers and my passport.

My life in America commenced.  Thirty years ago, on August 15, 1987.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

It was thirty years ago, today

It is the 14th of August in India as I type this.

On the 14th, in 1987, I was in the old country.  At my parents' home in Anna Nagar.  Packing my suitcase and saying bye to people.

The day had finally arrived.  I was headed to America.  To Los Angeles. To graduate school.

It was a long and winding road that I had traveled in order to get to where I was on August 14th, 1987.  A journey, that was mostly unhappy, after the Neyveli school years ended in 1981.  The important stops along the way included Nagpur, Coimbatore, Calcutta, and--of course--Sengottai.

It seemed like I had no choice but to take that winding journey ... all because I was good in math and science!  Math came easily to me; I enjoyed learning and doing math.  In school, I routinely did the classwork way ahead of the rest and then used up the remaining time to finish the assigned homework. (Which explains why my mother claims, and rightfully so, that she has never ever seen me do homework or study.)

Talented and able boys were expected to do engineering.  It did not seem like there was any other route for me.  

In my first year, I tried talking about this angst of being in the wrong place with Vijay.  But, I was not able to connect with him even when we met.  Only later did I know that he, too, was going through very similar emotions.  I heard through the Neyveli grapevine that he had dropped out of college, and that he had embarked on a road that was less traveled--journalism and poetry.

I did not have the guts to drop out.  I have always been a wuss!

I wrote to a couple of universities inquiring whether I might be able to join a program in economics.  One university responded; the letter from the University of Delhi informed me that I was not eligible.

I stuck around in engineering.  If ever I managed to get engaged with the subject, despite my lack of interest, I did well.  Else, I barely maintained my "first class" standing.

All through, I kept doing the hard work, asking myself what I really wanted to do.  I discovered the world of literature to be comforting.  I read Dickens and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn and more.  I clearly understood that it was the human condition, and not the computer chip, that interested me.   But, how would I make the change in the travel plan?

I was one of the few who got a job through campus interview, even before I earned my diploma.  I asked for a posting that would be far away from home.  I went to Calcutta.

All it took was a week for me to get all the evidence that I ever needed that I did not care for engineering.  I was now convinced beyond doubt that I had to get the hell out of India, study in America and make my home there.  I quit the job even before the third month anniversary!

The travel plan was slowly taking shape.

I bummed around for a few months in Chennai and Sengottai.  I logged plenty of hours in the library at the American consulate, reading newspapers and magazines and looking through university catalogs.  I selected a few programs and universities that matched my broad interests in the human condition.  I took the required GRE and TOEFL exams.

I went to interviews, mostly for an external confirmation that I was not an idiot.  My fragile ego was worried that people might think I was no good.  I took up a job, but ditched that within two weeks.

An uncle, a wonderful man, was worried that I was wasting away my time chasing dreams that might not work.  He pressed me to interview for a job where he worked.  I was hired.

I worked there, and followed-up on the letters from American universities.  The long and winding road was coming to an end.  I was now left with one major decision to make: Should I take up the admission and scholarship offer and live in Los Angeles, or take up the offer from Iowa because it would give me much more money.  I chose Los Angeles.

I quit my job.

I was now a man with a plan to execute.

And soon it was August 14, 1987.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The new normal is ... a new slavery?

In graduate school, a professor casually commented that unemployment is a privilege of the rich.  The poor simply cannot afford to be unemployed, he argued.

I had a question right then but did not ask.  I was way too self-conscious about my accent and I worried that I might have to repeat the question in order to be understood.  I stayed quiet.  The question was this: What if people are working but the returns are next to nothing.  You know, like slaves.  Like hamsters running forever but not really going anywhere.

That question continues to bug me.  I have forever worried that the automation means that owners of those digital abstractions will get to hoard way more money than ever before.  This, in a political environment that discourages redistribution of income, will lead to workers working away but ...

The NY Times adds more to my worries, via this chart:


So ...
The message is straightforward. Only a few decades ago, the middle class and the poor weren’t just receiving healthy raises. Their take-home pay was rising even more rapidly, in percentage terms, than the pay of the rich.
In recent decades, by contrast, only very affluent families — those in roughly the top 1/40th of the income distribution — have received such large raises. Yes, the upper-middle class has done better than the middle class or the poor, but the huge gaps are between the super-rich and everyone else.
Megan McArdle, who is by no means left of the political-economic center, writes about the slow wage growth even though unemployment rate is at a low, low 4.3 percent:
So this slow wage growth may simply be what the labor market now looks like. Earlier eras of tight labor markets produced big increases in wages, but those increases were matched by rising worker productivity. Today, employers striving for productivity may replace the worker altogether, either by outsourcing to a lower-wage country or by giving that job to a machine.
So the biggest mystery is not why U.S. wage growth seems stuck even as unemployment falls. The biggest mystery is how we’re going to adjust our economy, our culture and our politics to the new normal.
It is no mystery to me--I have forever blogged about the need for a new social contract.  If only this president and his minions, and the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell who manically advocate tax-cuts for the wealthy, will honestly respond to these real trends, instead of inventing their own alternative facts!