Tuesday, September 30, 2014

So, the Hindu fundamentalist leader made it to Times Square ...

When I read the news that there would be a big event at Madison Square Garden where India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, would speak, I was reminded of Barack Obama in Germany when he was the presidential candidate.  Remember that?  I thought that was bizarre.   Now, Modi in Madison Square Garden?

Here is Shikha Dalmia:
... quiet gestures were not enough for Modi who has the autocrat's instinct to be the star attraction. His gaudy displays—literally unprecedented for visiting leaders—are not merely unbecoming. They are also deeply disturbing, because they highlight Modi's need for self-aggrandizement. 
Yes, self-aggrandizement.  Well put!
His fans should save their adulation till he shows real signs that he isn't planning to run the Indian economy like his personal fiefdom—but then such a man wouldn't court their adulation, would he?

I wish we knew how many of the Modi maniacs at Times Square were not Hindus.  I.e., was it an Indian-American rah-rah rally or was it a Hindu-Indian-American rally?  We will never know.

But, there is a proxy measure for the presence of the Modi maniacs at Times Square.  The same hooligan mentality that the underlies Modi's Hindu fundamentalists in India was apparently on full display at Times Square too:
Standing outside Madison Square Garden on Sunday, ahead of a rally for India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, the Indian television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai reminded viewers back home that the New York arena had been the site for many famous events, including "Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier.”
Within minutes, after a crowd of Modi supporters had turned on him — apparently because of his failure to share their enthusiasm for Mr. Modi — Mr. Sardesai found himself in a strange clash of his own, exchanging pushes, insults and misdirected slaps with a man who had harassed him during his live report.
Yes, the anger because a prominent news person from India wasn't all pumped up for the big man and was, instead, doing what he was supposed to be doing, which was to provide his commentary, even if his views are not considered objective and neutral--at least according to the Modi maniacs.

This tweet embedded in that report says a lot:
The mob is comprised of, gasp, Indian-Americans!  And notice the "Saffron" colored shirts in the mob?

The tweet-conversations here add even more evidence that the Modi maniacs are well established in this country.  I wish my government could deport them back to the provincial backwaters from where they came.

Meanwhile, back in the part of the old country where Modi flexed his Hindu fundamentalist muscles:
 The police have made hundreds of arrests in the past several days in an attempt to stop religious riots in the Indian city of Vadodara, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.  So far, the violence has been confined to stabbings and the torching of around a dozen vehicles, D.J. Patel, a senior police official in Vadodara, said on Monday. 
As Forrest Gump said, "stupid is as stupid does."

Monday, September 29, 2014

If this is how academe approaches income inequality ... game over!

An email to faculty, from a "comrade," opened with:
Colleagues: Please help raise the critical consciousness of students and others by recommending two outstanding books: 1) Donald Barlett, James Steele, The Betrayal of the American Dream; 2) Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.  
Every once in a while the brain works and I recalled reading reviews of that first book, especially in the NY Times.  (Even normally I care very little for Naomi Klein, who is way too shrill an ideologue for my preferences, even when she addresses issues that worry me too.)

So, of course, the nerd then did a quick google search and located the NY Times piece, and more.

Catherine Rampell, whom I have quoted many times in this blog--and, btw, I am unhappy that she ditched the Times in favor of a columnist gig at WaPo--leads her review with these sentences:
There are two major flaws in “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” a new book about the dismantling of the middle class. The first is its diagnosis of what’s causing the country’s economic troubles. The second is its prescriptions.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? ;)

Rampell's follow-up sentence is a classic:
At least it got the symptoms right.

If a relatively centrist Rampell takes that tone, I wondered how the WSJ reacted to it.  Thanks to Google, no problems tracking that down either.  This review, too, makes clear right with the opening sentences:
Beware of investigative reporters offering economic analysis. There will usually be a conspiracy theory lurking somewhere. A serious study of economics—macroeconomics especially—doesn't mate well with conspiracy theories.
This surely will not lead to any huge applause for the book, right?
Don't look for any answers to that problem in this book, because they aren't there. But, yes, it probably will sell well.
Above and beyond these reviews and the book itself, a couple of points stand out.  One, isn't it interesting that academics are getting excited that a book by investigative reporters at Vanity Fair will raise critical consciousness?  If academe is about critical thinking, and the great scholarship that ensues will lead to a lot more nuanced understanding, then shouldn't the route be via academic books authored by professors?  Could it be that those books rarely do any damn thing outside of graduate seminars because, well, academic writing stinks?

As many of my posts suggest, and much to Ramesh's annoyance, I am deeply concerned by the widening income and wealth inequalities, and the increasingly bleak outlook for those who didn't choose their parents well.  When academics want to discuss these issues, then shouldn't the book to raise that consciousness be via reading and discussing the much acclaimed work of Thomas Piketty, who has earned the respect even of those who disagree with his interpretations?  Especially when Piketty is zeitgeist and the recommended books are from a couple of years ago!  Or even  the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz in conversation with John Stewart!

I worry that this is merely the latest in the long running degradation of academic discourse, which has slipped into an ideological trash-talk mode that, unfortunately, the impressionable undergrads will believe to be the truth because of their uncritical faith in their favorite and popular professors.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

That awful stink? Academic writing!

I am addicted to reading and thinking.  Which is why even as I was getting ready for a full day of meetings and talks, I had to create a "me time" early in the morning, before the activities began, when I could read.

One of the essays I read was Steven Pinker's "Why academics stink at writing."

And then tweeted about it ;)

Of course I liked that essay, for the question that was being tackled there and because of the author too.  After all, it was only slightly more than a month ago that I had even included a video of a talk by Pinker, and the talk was on the godawful academic writing that I was complaining about.  Well, something that I have been complaining about ever since I realized in the early years of graduate school that I had no clue how to write.

Pinker notes there:
The most popular answer inside the academy is the self-serving one: Difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of our subject matter. Every human pastime—music, cooking, sports, art—develops an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to use a long-winded description every time they refer to a familiar concept in one another’s company. It would be tedious for a biologist to spell out the meaning of the term transcription factor every time she used it, and so we should not expect the tête-à-tête among professionals to be easily understood by amateurs.
But then consider the following example I had presented in that post:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
How can anybody possibly defend that writing, right?

I agree with Pinker that it is easy to be an awful writer, and that it takes a great deal of effort--for most of us--to be even remotely decent writers:
Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice.
Here is the craziest thing of all--most academics are not clueless that academic writing stinks.  Yet, they continue with this awful practice because, well, there is no penalty!  Where is the incentive for them to write well?  Thus, they are being "rational":
professionals may not bother with this costly self-­improvement if their profession doesn’t reward it. And by and large, academe does not. Few graduate programs teach writing. Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing.
I read.
I tweeted.
Attended committee meetings.
And then popped into a session where researchers were presenting their papers.

A student asked me how I ended up writing op-eds.  I referred him to the Steven Pinker essay.  "Google for 'academic writing stinks'" I told him.

I try.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Happy New Year!

"Hi ma, I wanted to wish you a happy new year.  Call me when you get this message. I am waiting for the plane--there is a delay."

It was hard to ignore this when it came from right behind me in the lounge.

I guessed it was the Rosh Hashanah greeting.

Happy new year, indeed.

We mark time in different ways.
Birthdays are our personalized new years, right?
There is the January 1st new year.
The Tamil New year.
The Islamic calendar.
Rosh Hashanah.
The academic new year.
A gazillion more "new years" all in the same year.  How about that!  Now, isn't that a simple measure of diversity on this planet!

So, why was I waiting in a lounge?  And what lounge was that?

An airport lounge, where I put in enough hours that would be qualify for time-and-a-half if I were to report for those many hours in a day at my office!

All because of a missed flight.

No, I didn't miss the connection because I was chasing after some redheads.

It was not my fault by any means. I swear, on the redhead sitting next to me ;)

The flight landed in SFO on schedule, but after taxiing, we had to wait a few minutes for a gate. We almost reached the gate, when the plane came to a stop.  "We are waiting for gate attendants" the voice said.  I imagined valets at the gate who would collect the keys from the pilot and then after everyone deplaned, the attendants take the plane for a quick spin!  Ah, my imaginary world is quite fascinating, at least to me.

A few minutes later, we turned around.  "We have been reassigned another gate."

We reached the new gate.  The jet-bridge inched closer and then stopped with a clear gap.  "The bridge is stuck and we will need to wait until they get a mechanic" the flight attendant announced.  The damn thing wouldn't retract either for us to deplane via the door/steps.

Many among us started getting fidgety.  The co-pilot tossed his bags on to the bridge and hopped over and kept going.  "Can I do that too?  I have only five minutes to get to my connection" a female passenger pleaded.  "Sorry. We have liabilities to worry about"

Finally, with a simple technology of a footbridge over the canyon, we were allowed to exit the plane.  I sprinted to the gate for my connection.  The door was closed--boarding had ended.  In the post-9/11 era, there is no opening the door once it is closed.  Through the window I could see the ground crew getting the tiny little plane ready for departure!

I was/am on my way to end one year, and to bring in a new year.  The term of the office I hold in the professional association expires with the annual meeting that will end on Saturday night.

Maybe getting stuck in the middle is merely the cosmos telling me that the old year will be over soon, and it will be a new year, again.

May you, also, have new beginnings!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When I'm 64 ... is not now, dammit!!!

"It is good to be working with you after a long time" she said.  "I haven't even seen you for quite a while."

With a nod and a smile, I said, "hey, when people yell at me to shut up, I figured I would rather keep doing other things."

"I thought you had retired or something."

I clutched at my heart a la Red Foxx.  "Retired?  I barely turned fifty a couple of months ago!"

I have to add this to the long running series (you can backtrack from this post) on people thinking that I am old and decrepit.

The balding head. along with the graying hair on top and on the face, and my fuddy-duddy ways convey to people that I am way older than my age.  The commenting duo make it clear that even my "doing it standing up" makes me old.

Proudly announcing some of the everyday aspects of life, for instance that I own a turntable and that I play LPs doesn't help, I suppose, when the youthful way is to listen to music blasting into one's ears via earbuds and headphones that are connected to smartphones.

What must this man do for people to immediately think that he is a dashingly handsome forty-year young fellow?

Shave the beard off?
Perhaps even get rid of the gray hair from the head, which means complete baldness.
Young I would be, but then, I would look like this:

How would I then pretend that I am thinking, if I didn't have a beard to stroke?
Or, how would I fake my frustrations if I didn't have hair on top to fake yank out?

Oh well.
It is what it is.
So be it.
Some day I will really be 64 anyway!