Friday, August 29, 2014

To everything ... turn, turn, turn

And like that the summer is seemingly gone.

Not gone, gone yet.  But, change is in the air.

In fact, it was even on the ground; it was a shock to find these leaves even before August had ended, and when the official end to summer is more than three weeks away!

A far change from the corner of the old country where I grew up.  There, the  significant deviation from the hot days and months was when the rains came, and when the monsoon downpours that then filled up the gully by our home.  We would watch through the window the volume and the velocity picking up as the water became muddier by the minute.

There were seasons of different kinds in the old country.
Like the mango season.
The wedding season.
The annual school holiday season.

Seasons are how we mark time.

In this corner of the world that is home to me, I joke with students that if it were not for the seasonal changes in the temperature, I would not know how to get ready for classes.  With the academic calendar wonderfully in sync with the changes in the conditions in the natural world, if it were the glorious summer all year round, then we might never ever get to any serious work at all.

But, perhaps life in a tropical paradise where nobody really worked is not a bad thing;  after all, life is not about working, and if one simply enjoyed the existence in a tropical paradise, who is to say that a life thus lived is inferior to one that is governed by work and calendar!  Does it really matter if one simply lived, ate, had sex, and died convinced that it was a wonderful life, without having ever wondered, even for a nanosecond, how all these came about?  Is it condescending and judgmental to claim that a life not examined is not worth it?

You see, this is what happens as the summer begins to yield to cooler temperatures.  Frivolous thoughts are pushed aside and yield to contemplation.  It is no surprise, therefore, that even Hollywood waits until the fall and winter to release the serious movies--when the berries abound and when the roses are in bloom, it is difficult to imagine that life is not an endless Oregon summer.

The seasons change.
We, too, change.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Peripatetic Pedant Professes: These feet are made for walking

The day warmed up in a big hurry.

I wimped out of walking when the iPhone reported it was 81 outside.  "Maybe I will walk in the evening" I told myself as I tried to work on the syllabi for the new academic year that will begin soon.

Evening came.

It was a freaking 91 degrees even at  half-past-six.

I was left with only one option: walking canceled.

The day felt incomplete.

So, of course, a pretentious post on walking is the result!

This New Yorker essay, which notes that "people are made for walking, but we are not very good at it" includes extensive commentary on Frédéric Gros' A philosophy of walking:
The purpose of walking, he tells us, is not to find friends but to share solitude, “for solitude too can be shared, like bread and daylight”; the philosopher Kant’s life “was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; when walking, the body “stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape.”
I like that interpretation.  To share solitude, with the river and the birds and the trees, and smiling--and the rare unsmiling--humans.  Well, even with those damn bugs.
Contemplative walking is Gros’s favored kind: the walking of medieval pilgrims, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau, of Kant’s daily life. It is the Western equivalent of what Asians accomplish by sitting. Walking is the Western form of meditation: “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.”
I do wonder whether this view of life is a male perspective.  The stereotypical male is more comfortable with the solitude in many, ahem, walks of life than the typical females who are social even when it is about going to the restroom.  In any case, it works for me as a male.

I checked the weather app.

All clear to share solitude with the river--today, and for quite a few days more too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Maybe students would prefer me tweeting my course syllabus?

This is a post with two objectives:
  • to discuss one of the madness in higher education, which is about the course syllabus, especially because I am trying hard to get them done (yeah, right!)
  • to convince some of you readers about how we put Twitter to wonderful use, and we don't merely tweet about what we ate 
Speaking of what I ate, should I tell you about the awesome beet-salad that I made for myself the other day?  Why not; it is my blog, after all!

Sliced boiled beet in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, finely chopped garlic, and fresh ground pepper
topped with shredded cheese

Anyway, back to the objectives.  As always, Rebecca Schuman had a wonderful column at Slate.  It is all about the "Syllabus bloat" at American colleges and universities.  Excerpting from there will not do any justice. Read it in full.

I tweeted about it
Within minutes, there was a response from Schuman; I guess some of us academics never go to sleep! ;)
And then quite a few other responses.  More than that, the retweets:

A simple addition means that my tweet about Schuman's article was retweeted to 10,561 Twitter users thus far.   Of course, some might be in more than one of these loops.  Let us assume that it was 9,000 separate individuals whom the retweets pinged.   From there, it would have been retweeted more.  Just like that, with the click of a mouse button Rebecca Schuman's article gets distributed!

I cannot even begin to imagine the logistical hassles of sharing ideas and news in the old days, even twenty years ago!  For people like me who love to live in the world of ideas, there has never been a better time in history than now.

It is such an awesomely different world that the youth are beginning to explore.  Which is why the Mindset folks at Beloit College include in their latest compilation of "reminder to faculty to be wary of dated references"
"Press pound" on the phone is now translated as "hit hashtag."
Should I add that to the course syllabi and tweet about it?

Wait, I already did--about the Mindset ;)

PS: A note to the reader who thinks he is funny--don't even dream of "tl;dr" as your comment ;)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

When adults go commando ...

The end of August leading up to Labor Day is traditionally slow news time here in America.  Even C-Span has to resort to reruns!

(I know what you are thinking: Don't I have better things to do than watch C-Span? You don't know what you are missing out on, dear reader!)

A senator--of course, an old, white, male--was introducing Seth Rogen.
Yes, that Seth Rogen.
At the US Senate!

He had his glasses on--the typical celebrity approach to coming across as serious and intellectual and ready to utter something moving and profound.  These movie people literally live up to "all the world's a stage."

I decided to watch anyway.

One of the best things I could have done.  In fact, I would recommend that you, too, watch it.

Seth Rogen told a wonderfully warm story about a horrible aspect of life--his mother-in-law was diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer's when she was only 54.  Fifty-four!  It has been downhill since then for her.  Unlike other top ten reasons for death, Rogen noted, "there is no way to prevent, cure, or even slow the progression of Alzheimer's Disease."  He commented about how it was way more expensive than treatment for heart conditions, which are expensive to begin with.

I suppose this discussion continues, in a way, from where the ALS Ice-Bucket-Challenge post ended.  But then, as my links to posts from the past show, the conversations on any of the topics have not ended, have they?  Nor is this the first time that I have something to say about Alzheimer's and dementia.

Alzheimer's is one awful disease.
For the patient.
For the family and friend.
And, yes, for the bank balance too.
In 2012, one out of every eight people aged 65 and older in the U.S. – more than 5 million – had Alzheimer’s, and payments for health care, long-term care, and hospice services were estimated to be $200 billion (not including the work of unpaid caregivers).
By 2050, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent or more effectively treat the disease, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s may triple to 16 million, with annual costs of care projected to reach $1 trillion. Without disease-modifying treatments, the cumulative costs of care for people with Alzheimer’s from 2010 to 2050 will exceed $20 trillion, in today’s dollars.
The article notes that this is a projection and it does not mean that we should start setting aside twenty trillion dollars.  Instead, and wisely, the author compares it with the case of polio:
From 1940 to the mid-1950s, polio struck 400,000 American children and millions more worldwide. The epidemic peaked in the early 1950s with 58,000 new cases in 1952 and another 35,000 in 1953. But, thanks to the Salk polio vaccine, by 1957, new polio cases had been cut by 90 percent, and by 1960 the disease was almost entirely eradicated in the United States.
Michael Milken has pointed out that, in the early 1950s, the cost of polio care in the U.S. was predicted to be $100 billion by the year 2000 – back when a billion dollars was a lot! In fact, he says, “today’s polio immunization programs cost one thousand times less than that and have virtually eliminated the disease.”
Yes, it will require many more Salks.

NPR reported that one group that is helping us with the research for treatment of this awful disease is people with Down Syndrome.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that's best known for causing intellectual disability. But it also causes Alzheimer's. "By the age of 40, 100 percent of all individuals with Down syndrome have the pathology of Alzheimer's in their brain," [Michael Rafii director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at UCSD] says.
A depressing post on a warm summer night, yes.  But, life is not all fun all the time--even Seth Rogen knows that.

On the worry that the least-skilled will fall further behind

Charles C. Mann notes in his insightful essay on the rhetoric and (in)action regarding climate change:
In the 3,600 years between 1800 B.C. and 1800 A.D., the economic historian Gregory Clark has calculated, there was “no sign of any improvement in material conditions” in Europe and Asia. Then came the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution was one hell of a game-changer.  China and India, which at that point accounted for more than a half of the world's GDP, had no idea what lay ahead; no surprise that they are both terribly wounded civilizations that are even now trying to figure out what happened and why they are not the admired and prosperous lands, though China is in a hurry to reclaim its status.

In his book, his talks, his interviews, well, anywhere, Andrew McAfee stresses the importance of the Information Revolution by reminding us about the Industrial Revolution:
As historian Ian Morris writes in his fascinating book Why The West Rules — For Now, “the industrial revolution… made mockery of all that had gone before.”
If that changed the world in a hurry, then, as McAfee likes to point out, we ain't seen nothin' yet with respect to how much the next revolution (that is underway?) will completely overhaul everything.

That is not a new topic in this blog.  I keep coming back to it because of a deep concern that the vast middle class was perhaps a freakish accident in history, and that we will revert to conditions that prevailed throughout almost all of recorded history--the patricians and the plebeians.

The concern over the plebs is nothing but another way of saying that inequality is a troubling issue to me.  Not merely within the US, but across the world.  Now, I have quoted Branko Milanovic and others who have correctly noted that global inequality has narrowed, as this chart from an old post shows:

But, within countries, the gap is widening.

And even the Economist pitches in with "why globalisation is not reducing inequality within developing countries"
Economists are puzzled: the data contradict the predictions of David Ricardo, one of the founding fathers of their discipline. Countries, said Ricardo, export what they are relatively efficient at producing. Take America and Bangladesh now. In America the ratio of highly skilled to low-skilled workers is high. In Bangladesh it is low. So America focuses on products requiring highly skilled labour, such as financial services and software. Bangladesh focuses on downmarket products such as garments.
Comparative advantage predicts that when a poor country starts to trade globally, demand for low-skilled workers will rise disproportionately. That, in turn, should boost their wages relative to those of higher-skilled locals, and so push down income inequality within that country. The theory neatly explains the impact of the first wave of globalisation. In the 18th century, Europe had a high ratio of low-skilled workers relative to America. When Euro-American trade took off, European inequality duly tumbled
Any time the Economist or the Wall Street Journal runs such pieces, then I joke that it means it is time to say "holy shit!"

Anyway, what might be the story here?
[Eric Maskin's theory] relies on what he calls worker “matching”. Unskilled workers can be more productive when matched with skilled ones—that is, when they work together. Assigning a manager to a group of workers can do more for total output than just adding another worker. He places workers into four classes: skilled workers in rich countries (A); low-skilled workers in rich countries (B); high-skilled workers in poor countries (C); and low-skilled workers in poor countries (D). Crucially, he thinks low-skilled workers in rich countries (the Bs) are likely to be more productive than high-skilled workers in poor ones (the Cs).
Before the current wave of globalisation started in the 1980s, skilled and unskilled workers in developing countries—the Cs and Ds—worked together.
So, yes, globalization.  What happened?
The latest bout of globalisation has jumbled the pairings: high-skilled workers in poor countries can now work more easily with low-skilled workers in rich ones, leaving their poor neighbours in the lurch. ...
The Cs work with Bs and end up being more productive. The Ds are left by the wayside.
The Ds number in the hundreds of millions.   Which is why the Economist concludes with this thought:
 if he is right, he poses a challenge to globalisation’s advocates: figuring out how to reap its rewards without leaving the least-skilled in poor countries behind.
Well, hey, it might be a realization that is a tad too late.  But, better late than never, right?

There is one easy solution to this; can you guess what that is?  Hint: it cannot happen again, now that we are already here ;)