Thursday, April 17, 2014

The checklist manifesto works. Except when it does not!

My plan was to fill gas at one of the regular gas stations where I stop.  The gas gauge made it clear that there wasn't enough fuel in the tank.  With my eyes on the road, I reached into my bag for the wallet.

No wallet.

Perhaps in the computer bag?  My hands crawled in the ouch pouch there.

No wallet.

In my mind, I replayed the day.  There was only one possibility--the wallet was at home.  The home that I was driving towards.

But, not enough gas.  For sure.  There was a fair chance that I would reach home.  But, what if I don't make it?  It is not like I can pull into a gas station and fill up--no wallet to pay for the gas.  Even worse, if a cop stopped me for whatever reason, I will be in even more trouble for driving without a valid licence!

I continued driving.  Constantly doing the math on how many miles remained.  And scanning for patrol cars.

I wondered how this happened.  I had to figure this out.

To understand what went wrong is an important part of life.  Way back, when we were kids, my siblings and I loved going to the local outdoor club to watch movies every week.  Every once in a while, before the movie began, they ran short films, some of which were almost like public service announcements.  It being an industrial town, one of the short films was about industrial safety. The film was done with great humor, with a clear bottom-line: accidents do not happen, but are caused.

Not having the wallet with me was also an accident.  How did it happen?

It did not take much to solve the mystery.  I had somehow forgotten to do one thing that I always did before I drove out of the garage.  This one time I forgot and it messed me up.  I forgot to do my mental checklist.

I had my own checklist system to make sure I was not forgetting anything, and this became even more rigorous a habit after reading Atul Gawande's essay in the New Yorker a few years ago.  In the context of medical care, Gawande wrote:
The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When you’re worrying about what treatment to give a woman who won’t stop seizing, it’s hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes.
My regular life checklist approach, therefore, got reinforced.  After pulling out of the garage, the routine was to press the remote to close the door, and then run through a series of checks: gas gauge, work bag, lunch and snacks, water bottle, wallet, cellphone.  It worked very well.

Except this one time when I had forgotten to go over the checklist itself.  Which is why I didn't realize that I didn't have the wallet with me.

Which means I now have a new problem.  How do I make sure that I have gone through the checklist routine?  A checklist for the checklist itself?

I turned into the driveway.  The gas gauge light lit up to indicate that I didn't have even fifteen miles left.  I didn't worry anymore--I pressed open the garage door and I was safely home.

End of the blog post?  Check!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

When academics go nuclear. Wait, they don't!

A long, long time ago, when I was imagining graduate schooling in these United States, it was nothing but the ideal--lively debates and discussions, vigorous exchange of ideas, and camaraderie.

It didn't take long to understand that the reality was anything but that. Faculty, and students too, carved out their own small little corners where they mingled with like-minded people and it was almost always a case of affirming each other's convictions.  No debates--after all, when there is no disagreement, how can there be debates?  The disagreements were over the significance of the regression coefficient!

Thus, in Timur Kuran's economics class, he didn't bother to even bring up the issues that Thomas Biersteker talked about in the international relations class.  And Biersteker made sure to dismiss the ideas that were addressed by Kuran.  I wondered what might happen if Kuran and Biersteker were to sit down and discuss their competing narratives.  The two heads would spontaneously explode?

Over the years, it has become painfully clear that academe is not some Socratic gathering of inquiring minds.  It is a workplace, as much as a Chinese factory is a place where people punch in and punch out.  It is a profit-oriented nonprofit enterprise.  There is, it turns out, no business like show higher education business.

Despite such an understanding, and as if I want to prove that stupid is as stupid does, I go to academic conferences hoping there would be awesome debates and arguments.  Even though I come back without having experienced any, I continue attending conferences hoping there would be something.

This time, I almost had one such experience.  Imagine that!  I am excited because a debate almost happened.  Yes, even the "almost" is that rare!

It was a highly reputed academic who was scheduled to talk about one of the hottest (ha, pun intended) issues of the day--climate change.  A special session that would undoubtedly include his contributions via the IPCC.  The spacious room looked full.  A few were even standing, leaning against the walls.

After his talk, it was time for Q/A.  A couple of softball questions.  Nothing exciting.  And then came a guy with a British accent.  He referred to a NY Times op-ed that had been published the previous day.  As he started talking, I remembered having read and even tweeted about that very op-ed:
The Brit wanted to know why the speaker not only dismissed views like the ones expressed in the op-ed, but also why the speaker was concluding that the op-ed authors were also anti-science just because the policy prescriptions differed from the ones the speaker endorsed.

Now, it is not as if the Brit was able to get all this across in one piece.  The speaker frequently tried to cut him off.  The Brit persisted.  The speaker had the floor anyway, and had the last word on the issue.

So, here was the golden opportunity for a meaningful debate on the substance of the issues and the speaker could not be bothered with taking that up.

I decided against sticking around for the rest of the Q/A, if that's how the speaker was going to deal with dissenting opinions.  A few minutes of wandering around, and I spotted the Brit chatting with a couple of others.  I butted in, and talked with him and others about the exchange in the hall.  I told him about how the op-ed referred to, for instance, the need to think about nuclear energy in the context of non-carbon sources, and that such a thought would typically not be welcomed--even for discussion--by most people like the speaker.

"But even his idol, Hansen, came out in support of nuclear" said the Brit.  I nodded, recalling that.

Today, yet again, the Scientific American reports on nuclear being a part of the non-carbon mix.  And this time, even citing the IPCC itself:
"A mix of low-carbon energy from renewables, nuclear, or fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage [CCS] are going to need to grow to 80 percent of the electricity supply by 2050," said Ryan Wiser, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a lead author of the energy supply chapter of the IPCC's recent Working Group III report.
As a share of global energy supply, nuclear power has actually contracted since 1993, and not just because of high-profile setbacks like the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan.
"The major roadblocks to expanding nuclear power have been more or less the same for a long time—the cost of large, capital-intensive plants, the question of waste management and worries about proliferation," said Neil Strachan, a professor of energy and economic modeling at University College London and a co-author of the Working Group III report.
Of course, nuclear energy is not the answer, but summarily excluding it from discussions when the renewables are not sophisticated enough to meet the energy needs does not seem like a good idea, especially when billions of people in the emerging India and China and and sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere are yet to even get connected to the grid, so to speak.

Some day, maybe academics will engage in honest discussions about all these.  If we live past all the climate change, that is!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A bad moon rising is no loony tune

My eyes were ready to shut down for the day, but my brain would not allow that to happen.  It was past my regular bedtime, and way past the bedtime in the Eastern and Central timezones in which I spent the last few days.

All because of a lunar eclipse.  I suppose my behavior was further evidence linking the moon and madness!

But this was no ordinary eclipse and the blood red eclipse.  So they said.  Thus, of course, it was a blood red madness to stay awake.

Stay awake I did.  There is indeed something about the natural drama that unfolds.  It is magical.  One minute it was a bright full moon--yes, we had a clear sky even here in Oregon!  A few minutes later, it was as if somebody had bitten into the lower corner of the white fruit.  And then more chomp.

The eclipse is a drawn-out affair, which might have worked well back in the prehistoric era.  In the contemporary world where people seem to do ten things in one nanosecond, the eclipse was the slowest of slow motion, even for the slowpoke that I am.

So, to keep myself occupied, I checked the Twitter feed.  For the hashtag on the eclipse.  One caught my attention; I then read the news and tweeted about it:
If I thought I was a lunatic to waste my sleep time to watch the lunar drama, here were the real lunatics.  Cannibalistic at that!
Two brothers in Bhakkar, Pakistan who were imprisoned for cannibalism have now returned to eating human flesh, it has been reported, after the head of a boy was discovered at their house.
So, whose bright idea was it to release from prison two cannibals?  Looks like the prison and justice officials are even more lunatic than the cannibals themselves!

The crime: "they were found to have disinterred and devoured up to 150 corpses from a local graveyard." 

The punishment:
Pakistan has no specific laws against cannibalism, alarmingly, but the pair were arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order section of the Pakistan Penal Code and sentenced to two years in prison along with Rs50,000 in fines.
I had to keep reminding myself that I was not reading The Onion.  Real life is certainly stranger than the fictional world.
Police raided their home this week and recovered the head of a human boy, according to District Police Officer Ameer Abdullah, with Arif being arrested and admitting to his cannibal recidivism, while Farman is still on the loose.
Police have now begun a search to find the missing brother.

Boy am I glad that I live far, far away from this cannibal on the run!

Meanwhile, the moon was being gobbled up by the god-eating Rahu/Ketu, and was now only a sliver.  I stepped out on to the middle of the road.  "Is it red yet?" asked a neighbor from her porch.  It is not only misery but also such lunacy that likes company!  Her husband joined her on the porch.  They went back and left me the lone lunatic.

The Rahu/ketu duo finally ate up the entire moon. But, the moon didn't turn dark.  It was colored.  Madness completed, I left it to the gods above to clean up the celestial gobbling up and went to bed.

A long day lay ahead for me as the madman in the classroom.  I worried that I will be madder than ever.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Where is home, when born in one place, raised in another, lived elsewhere?

Over the last month, I have been meeting with, and re-connecting with, wanderers like me who have settled down in places far away from the places of birth.  Far away from the countries in which were born and raised.  The reconnecting happening at the homes that we have made for ourselves in a new country.

I have often wondered, in this blog too, on what home means in such a modern world where moving around is not unheard of.  Though we relocate and make our lives in completely alien settings, we more often than not forget that this is a new practice in human history.  Through her first forty-plus years, my father's mother barely got around to even forty miles away from her birth place.  Forty miles!  And her parents knew a world that was even smaller.  And here I am ten thousand miles away from all those settings.

Not all migrants and immigrants are at home in their new territories.  "I am so homesick all the time" said a friend a month ago, and the home that she referred to is far away from California in the land where Nikos Kazantzakis called home.   A friend decided to head back home, to India, after all his multinational living.

There are moments, yes, when it hits me hard that I am an immigrant. The reminders coming remembrances of things past, of places and people and foods and music and everything else.  As the author of this essay notes:
Still, no matter how settled, a queasy unsettledness, an existential ambivalence, haunts the immigrant.
An existential ambivalence.  How wonderfully she has articulated that emotion. Damn these writers who can write so well!

The author is no novelist. She, Ruth Behar, is an academic. An anthropology professor at the University of Michigan.  A daughter of Cuban immigrants, Behar writes:
I have surprised myself by ending up becoming more of a rooted creature than I ever imagined I’d be. I have held on to the same job, the same house, the same address, the same husband (I, who never expected to marry). I gave my son, my only child, who is now the age I was when I thought I was never going to settle down, the gift of an immense stability – firm and steady ground on which to stand.
But when I travel and a stranger asks if I’m from Michigan, I immediately reply: ‘I live there, but I’m not from there.’ I feel compelled to tell everyone about my immigrant past: ‘I was born in Cuba, my ancestors were Jews who spoke Yiddish and Judeo-Espanyol, and I grew up in New York. I live in Michigan because it’s where I work.’
I suppose I fear that people might get a mistaken impression of me if they think I am from Michigan. It’s a desire to tell the truth of who I am, to assert I am a person of many diasporas, I come from somewhere else, I don’t have a firm allegiance to any single place. I am passing through, grateful for a place to rest my wings.
This existential ambivalence might not understandable at all to those who have not moved around a whole lot.  But, it is real.  It is an everyday struggle even if one has merely moved from "home" in one part of the country to another.  When I lived in California, an acquaintance missed her home so much that she quit her job and returned home to Chicago.  She missed the "home" that Chicago was, even though it was merely a couple of hours of flight away.

Rudyard Kipling remarked that we are not able to call the entire world our home “since man's heart is small”.  Kipling, too, was a wanderer—he was born in India to British parents, and spent his early childhood in Bombay (now Mumbai), which he described as “mother of cities to me.”  Of all the places he had been to, and lived in, Kipling felt that one place was special. He wrote about that in a poem entitled “Sussex”:
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!
May we all find the Sussex of our own lives.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sex and the single guy. Well, married guy too.

Back in the early years of graduate school, when I was beginning to understand the libertarian political economy, an opportunity came up in class discussions for me to see how far that can be stretched.  I suggested to the class--this was before the days of NAFTA, the Berlin Wall was still there, and China was just about waking up--that in the global division of labor, perhaps we can also think of the spatial distribution of sex work.  And that as much as the US specialized in the silicon industry, well, Thailand specialized in the sex industry.

Of course, discussions at the graduate level are often to test the limits of a theoretical interpretation, but in this one maybe I went too far. Or, for all I know, thanks to my accent, nobody understood a word of what I had to say.  There were no discussions, and we moved on.

The sex industry has morphed in so many different ways now.  Like I mentioned in this post two years ago, I was thrown for quite a loop reading about the vibrator in the New Yorker and in the Atlantic.  If these two magazines that I have subscribed to for years could mainstream sex and the vibrator, then there must be a great deal happening and, as always, I am the last one to know!

Last night, I was flicking through the options on the telly--back home I get only the basic channels and the 49 channels here was mindblowing. One of those was HBO.  The channel surfing me was shocked when I reached HBO.  A completely nude woman was demonstrating various types of vibrators and other sex gadgets.  On regular HBO. Not even some special HBO.  And definitely not some adult pay channel.  When did the puritanical America become so open about sex and vibrators and sex toys?  Did I miss a memo update?

And then today, I scanned at one of my favorite websites ever--the nerd that I am, I have to check in there even when on the road--and there was a link to an article with this teaser:
Prostitution used to be a bad thing – degrading, retrograde and to be opposed. Now sex work is just another service job, like being a waitress...
What was even more interesting was that the link was not to a libertarian publication but to The Nation. So, of course, I had to read it.
On the left, prostitution used to be seen as a bad thing: part of the general degradation of the working class, and the subjugation of women, under capitalism. Women who sold sex were victims, forced by circumstances into a painful and humiliating way of life, and socialism would liberate them. Now, selling sex is sex work—just another service job, with good points and bad—and if you suggest that the women who perform it are anything less than free agents, perhaps even “empowered” if they make enough money, you’re just a prude. Today’s villain is not the pimp or the john—it’s second-wave feminists, with their primitive men-are-the-enemy worldview, and “rescuers” like Nicholas Kristof, who presume to know what’s best for women.
What the what?  There is a group on the left that argues that sex work is just work?  Really?  From the left?  When did I miss this memo?

The author, the ever fiery feminist Katha Pollitt goes for it:
It’s one thing to say sex workers shouldn’t be stigmatized, let alone put in jail. But when feminists argue that sex work should be normalized, they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area. They accept that sex is something women have and men get (do I hear “rape culture,” anyone?), that men are entitled to sex without attracting a partner, even to the limited extent of a pickup in a bar, much less pleasing or satisfying her.
I think I should get back to my ashram soon and stay away from these updates.  Nah, that won't happen--I will continue to investigate this strange world from the protective ashram that my home is.  Stupid is as stupid does, whether on the road or at home!