Monday, June 30, 2008

Obama, Goldman Sachs, and David Brooks

I am not sure if I would have ever expected David Brooks to end an opinion piece of his this way:

Over the past few years, people from Goldman Sachs have assumed control over large parts of the federal government. Over the next few they might just take over the whole darn thing.

David Brooks?

Book drive for Iraq

Christopher Hitchens wants us to donate books to Iraq. Excerpt:

So here's what to do. Have a look at the university's Web site. Get some decent volumes together, pass the word to your friends and co-workers to do the same, and send them off to:

Nathan Musselman
The American University of Iraq—Sulaimani
Building No. 7, Street 10
Quarter 410
Ablakh Area
Sulaimani, Iraq
(+964) (0)770-461-5099

It's important to include the number

Can we really make death optional?

Cancer is undesirable. Heart disease is undesirable. So are type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and a thousand other debilitations that predominantly afflict those over the age of 40. Is it not then bizarre that we should have any hesitation in declaring that aging in general, being the molecular and cellular root cause of all these phenomena, is just as deserving of the attention of our medical research efforts?  Here is the essay, and reactions

Remember "life extension" in the movie "Vanilla Sky?"

Wombs for rent

Outsourcing and problems!

And, from MSNBC:
But if commercial surrogacy keeps growing, some fear it could change from a medical necessity for infertile women to a convenience for the rich.

"You can picture the wealthy couples of the West deciding that pregnancy is just not worth the trouble anymore and the whole industry will be farmed out," said Lantos.

Or, Lantos said, competition among clinics could lead to compromised safety measures and "the clinic across the street offers it for 20 percent less and one in Bangladesh undercuts that and pretty soon conditions get bad."

Larry Summers: we are in a dangerous moment

Lawrence Summers - What we can do in this dangerous moment: "we are in an economic environment where we have more to fear than fear itself. But this is no excuse for fatalism. The policy choices made in the next few months will matter to the lives of millions of Americans, to America’s economic strength and to the global economy"

Is there an end in sight to this economic nightmare? And what might that end be?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Big Paycheck or Service?

Remember the article in the NY Times a week ago?  It was about Professor Howard Gardner's seminars to "encourage more students to consider public service and other careers beyond the consulting and financial jobs that he says are almost the automatic next step for so many graduates of top colleges."

Well, the paper has published a few letters in response to that piece.  I found this to be the most interesting:

To the Editor:
After a career in public service, I regretfully say, I would not do it again.

Philosophy and point of view led me to doing good instead of doing well, so I never expected to become rich. But now that I’m in my 10th year of a frozen judicial salary — less than summer students are being paid at law firms — I have concluded that whatever I may have accomplished for the public, I have wasted 25 years of my life by serving on the bench.

Emily Jane Goodman
New York, June 23, 2008

The writer is a New York Supreme Court justice

George Carlin on war

Many times, he was a tad too edgy for me .... but, hey, he was good at his trade. This video is during Bush I and the first Gulf War .... could be even now, eh!

No country for new graduates :-(

Be afraid! Be very, very afraid!!!

Here is an excerpt from Seymour Hersh's piece in the New Yorker:

L ate last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities are not specified in the new Finding, and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Anxious and worried America

One of my professors in graduate school always remarked that it is not what you say, but who you are. That "who you are" then grants appropriate weight to "what you say". So, nobody cares when I say stuff, but when Thomas Friedman writes in the NY Times, then it is the metaphorical shot heard around the world. Like this latest column of his. An excerpt:

If the old saying — that “as General Motors goes, so goes America” — is true, then folks, we’re in a lot of trouble. General Motors’s stock-market value now stands at just $6.47 billion, compared with Toyota’s $162.6 billion. On top of it, G.M. shares sank to a 34-year low last week.
That’s us. We’re at a 34-year low. And digging out of this hole is what the next election has to be about and is going to be about — even if it is interrupted by a terrorist attack or an outbreak of war or peace in Iraq. We need nation-building at home, and we cannot wait another year to get started. Vote for the candidate who you think will do that best. Nothing else matters.

Obesity and savings in America

World's dirtiest cities

(From Popular Science)
"The World Bank estimates that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are found in China’s industrial areas."
Milan, Italy
Photo by CodeClimber
Ah, Milan, home to great shoes, high fashion and more pm10s—small pollution particles that can cause cancer and breathing problems—than any other city in Europe. In fact, according to a study by Italian environmental group Legambiente, Milan has more smog than any other city in Europe and the continent’s second-highest level of ozone. Most of the problem comes from the city’s love of driving, but that’s changing quickly: Congestion pricing in downtown Milan implemented in January has dropped traffic by 26 percent and, residents hope, will lead to drops in smog as well.
More photos of the cities here

Field Marshal Manekshaw

Field Marshal S.H.F.J. Manekshaw was quite a legend when I was a kid. Even though I barely understood then why India and Pakistan were at war over East Pakistan, it was Manekshaw more than Indira Gandhi who impressed me more. Not because I was fond of war games or playing with toy guns. But, there was something neat about Manekshaw and did he exude charm!
According to the BBC, Field Marshal Manekshaw also said that India lost a golden opportunity to solve the Kashmir issue once and for all at the Shimla summit with Pakistan which was held soon after the 1971 war. It is unfortunate that Kashmir continues to be far from the peaceful and heavenly place it ought to be.
Anyway, am glad that Manekshaw and many of his fellow Parsis chose India, over Pakistan, when the countries became independent. Nothing against Pakistan. If he had opted for Pakistan, then Manekshaw would not have spent his retired life in Tamil Nadu, and dad would not have had the chance to shake his hands.
Yet another old soldier fades away. Goodbye, ol' chap.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Creative Capitalism

Came across this one thanks to Greg Mankiw's blog ....
Michael Kinsley is off to yet another intriguing, interesting project, which is essentially a follow-up to the speech that Bill Gates gave at the Dovos forum.
The list of contributors there is pretty impressive

$200 oil and $7 gas ... oh my!

So, this WSJ blog, refers to "the latest gloomy forecast from Jeff Rubin at Canadian brokerage CIBC World Markets .... $200 oil in 2010, with gasoline at $7 a gallon. And that is going to turn Americans into car-shunning Europeans once and for all—poor Americans, at least"
The poor will be screwed, once again!
A comment, by a Joe Ballard, is pretty interesting, and ariculates a hypothesis that I too have been postulating for a while:
So let’s play it all out according to these assumptions. $7 a barrel translates to 10 million fewer cars on the road which leads to more people taking mass transit and moving to urban areas, where transit makes sense. I see the affect of this migration being extremely contractionary for consumer spending and therefore the overall US economy.
Today it’s easy to fill your car up with unneeded consumer products when out running errands. What will happen when people start taking the bus and train? I would think pure logistics of carrying your typical Costco load onto a bus will limit daily spending to pure necessities. Even the smaller urban space you would now be forced to live in will constrict what you fill it with, right? What about diminished tourism as a result of high oil? Won’t that decrease overall consumption?
My point is that higher oil can only shrink our consumption and therefore our GDP…at least for the near term. This contraction WILL have a ripple affect on the rest of the world. Unlike Europe (which he tries to draw parallels with) we are the world’s consumers

Photos from trip to New York and Canada

From our trip to NY, Montreal, Toronto, and Niagara Falls

Tired of the elections and the pundits already?

The Onion does it, again. What will I ever do without The Onion!

Today Now!: How To Pretend You Give A Shit About The Election

The World's worst dictator

This essay is an example for why I have been a faithful reader of Slate Magazine ever since Michael Kinsley founded it with Bill Gates' money. The essay clearly shows how, again, the US is all too willing to overlook the dictatorial and personality driven politics of a country because it has oil. And, how the US media can't be bothered with such stories when they can devote their attention on US celebrities and their soap-opera-lifestyles!
An excerpt: For the usual and shameful reasons, the White House does not use its clout to condemn Obiang as it condemns Mugabe—there has not been a word of censure from Washington about Obiang's 99-for-100 triumph in May's elections. Yet that's only part of the reason Americans hear little about him. There isn't a gag order on America's media, after all. There is, however, a famous dictator trying to crush a peaceful uprising in a far larger country with a historical narrative that we're familiar with and fascinated by—in a dramatic fashion, Zimbabwe has gone from white rule to independence to destitution. Mugabe's government admits to an inflation rate of 150,000 percent, but that's the optimistic view, because unofficial estimates are a calculator-busting 1 million percent. This drama casts an unfortunate spell, because Obiang is not just a worse tyrant, he is a better story. The U.S. government is not propping up Mugabe, but with billions invested by American companies in Equatorial Guinea, it is propping up Obiang.

Clarence Thomas cleared the path for Obama

As Obama's campaign picked up speed, the typical comment was how he was overcoming the race issue. To such an extent that the rhetoric was almost beginning to ignore decades of efforts to treat blacks as equals with the whites, and the lives lost in the process. Within my own mind, and with a few, I had always argued that Obama's candidacy would never have been possible without Colin Powell. Powell's fame during Bush I's Iraq war, and then his public role in Bush II's government made it possible for Americans (and the rest of the world) to view him, or any other black, as a possible president.

This essay in The Root, argues that it was Clarence Thomas who cleared the path for Obama, in the post-Civil Rights era. The author then goes on to quote David Nasaw, a City University of New York historian:
'When Strom Thurmond ushered Clarence Thomas [then a nominee to become the second black person on the Supreme Court] and his white wife into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room…that signaled that something was happening in American culture.'"

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ethanol and energy policy

A preview of how much our energy policies will continue to be awfully screwed up after all? Oh well .... From the NY Times: In the heart of the Corn Belt that August day, Mr. Obama argued that embracing ethanol “ultimately helps our national security, because right now we’re sending billions of dollars to some of the most hostile nations on earth.” America’s oil dependence, he added, “makes it more difficult for us to shape a foreign policy that is intelligent and is creating security for the long term.”
Nowadays, when Mr. Obama travels in farm country, he is sometimes accompanied by his friend
Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota. Mr. Daschle now serves on the boards of three ethanol companies and works at a Washington law firm where, according to his online job description, “he spends a substantial amount of time providing strategic and policy advice to clients in renewable energy.”
Mr. Obama’s lead advisor on energy and environmental issues, Jason Grumet, came to the campaign from the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan initiative associated with Mr. Daschle and
Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who is also a former Senate majority leader and a big ethanol backer who had close ties to the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland.
Not long after arriving in the Senate, Mr. Obama himself briefly provoked a controversy by flying at subsidized rates on corporate airplanes, including twice on jets owned by Archer Daniels Midland, which is the nation’s largest ethanol producer and is based in his home state.
Jason Furman, the Obama campaign’s economic policy director, said Mr. Obama’s stance on ethanol was based on its merits. “That is what has always motivated him on this issue, and will continue to determine his policy going forward,” Mr. Furman said.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Muslim immigrants in Europe

It was always easy for Europeans to critique the race issue here in the US; after all, how much tensions can be expected in homogenous countries that are nation-states, eh!

Until now.

As European countries take in immigrants who are less and less like them, well, it turns out that differences can pose challenges. As this NY Times essay points out, "The familiar old arguments against immigrants — that they are criminals, that their culture makes them a bad fit, that they take jobs from natives — are mutating into an anti-Islamic bias that is becoming institutionalized in the continent’s otherwise ordinary politics. .... What is so striking about these forms of prejudice, which go beyond ordinary anti-immigrant feeling, is that they are taking root in otherwise enlightened, progressive states — states where the memory of the Holocaust has often led to the adoption of laws against anti-Semitism and racism. "

Friday, June 20, 2008

Robots cheaper than labor

Robots Working for less "since 1990 the average price of robots has plunged by as much as 75% in comparison with labour compensation."

Circumcision, monogamy, and America

According to Christopher Wilson, a neurobiologist at Cornell University, and as reported in Circumcision Cutting the competition "Some 48% of the highly polygynous ones practised a form of male-genital mutilation, and the number rose to 63% when co-wives kept separate households. By contrast, only 14% of monogamous societies practised mutilation. Moreover, and also as predicted, the mutilations were almost always carried out in public, often as part of a coming-of-age ceremony at puberty, with strong stigma attached to unmutilated men."

So, given that traditionally non-Muslim males in India never went through circumcision, does it mean that monogamy saved the foreskin? All right, more power to monogamy then :-)

The article further reports that "most of the Western world has already largely abandoned routine neonatal circumcision, which is seen as an outdated and unfortunate medical fad.
The exceptions are America, where more than half of newborn boys are still circumcised, and Africa, where circumcision helps to stop the transmission of HIV, the AIDS-causing virus. "

America's exceptional status even in something like this. As Yakov Smirnoff says, America: what a country!"

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Paintings on the move

Isn't this a fantastic way to paint the massive semis--art can be made possible in everyday life.

This photo is from a collection that I accidentally stumbled upon. The link is in the title of this blog entry. Check out some of the other cool art pieces.

Indians top US spelling contests

BBC NEWS South Asia Indians top US spelling contests: "Over the years many children of South Asian origin have left their mark at the spelling event, but why do they dominate it?"
The Spelling Bee is a curiously American phenom. I have always suspected that the modern popularity of the event is because of immigrants who place a high value on learning, as opposed to, say, arts and sports. So, while some kids might show off their ballet moves, here are a few competing with words. Spellbound followed one such case, remember?
This is what Tunku Varadarajan suggested, back in 2005: "Success at letters is the sweetest sort of success, the achievement nonpareil.
For millennia, India was a land where the poorest scholar was held in higher esteem than the richest businessman. This approach to life proved disastrous for modern India. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister and a Brahmin to his manicured fingertips, had such contempt for business (and for profits) that his economic policies condemned his people to two generations of stagnation.
But Nehru would have approved of spelling bees. Indian pedagogy relies heavily on rote memorization--the result of a fusion of Victorian teaching methods imposed by the British and ancient Hindu practice, in which the guru (or teacher) imparted his learning to pupils via an oral tradition. (The Victorians, for their part, regarded correct spelling almost as a moral virtue, and certainly as a caste "signifier," to use a clumsy anthropological term.)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mukesh Ambani--India’s Richest Man

Meet Mukesh Ambani: "In the last century, Mohandas K. Gandhi was India’s most famous and powerful private citizen. Today, Mr. Ambani is widely regarded as playing that role, though in a very different way. Like Mr. Gandhi, Mr. Ambani belongs to a merchant caste known as the modh banias, is a vegetarian and a teetotaler and is a revolutionary thinker with bold ideas for what India ought to become.
Yet Mr. Gandhi was a scrawny ascetic, a champion of the village, a skeptic of modernity and a man focused on spiritual purity. Mr. Ambani is a fleshy oligarch, a champion of the city, a burier of the past and a man who deftly — and, some critics say, ruthlessly — wields financial power. He is the richest person in India, with a fortune estimated in the tens of billions of dollars, and many people here expect that he will be the richest person on earth before long

I don't understand the comparison with MK Gandhi. I mean, why would anybody want to compare, say Bill Gates with George Washington? Very strange ....

But otherwise an informative article.

Orygun, E-rock, and Guangzhou

When I moved to Oregon almost six years ago, I was initially puzzled to see the “Orygun” bumper stickers. Since then, I have travelled east of the Mississippi as a naturalized Oregonian, and I now understand the need for such a sticker to highlight the correct way to pronounce the name of our state.

I was recently in Boston for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. It turned out that the Boston Marathon was to be held the Monday after the meeting ended, and the geographers’ venue was right by the finish line.

No wonder that on three occasions, strangers at cafes asked me whether I was in the city to compete in the marathon. Their question was absolutely flattering, particularly because the last time I ran for more than a block was many years ago — after I got mugged as I was heading out of the Amtrak station in downtown Los Angeles!

Their follow-up question was to ask where I was visiting from. When I told them “Oregon,” it was not at all flattering when they repeated the same word as “Oregone.”

I wished I had a few of those “Orygun” bumper stickers to slap on to their foreheads right then and there. It was more awful when even academics at the conference said “Western Oregone University.”

I guess we feel slighted when people mispronounce Oregon. We then feel a deep emotion to intentionally mess up their names in return, or worse.

My students think so, too, when I bring this to their attention — which is when I make it a point to remind them that Iraq is not pronounced as “eye-rack” and Iran is not “eye-ran.” I do not mean to suggest that correctly pronouncing the names of these or other countries is all that matters. But correctly pronouncing their names will be a significant first step toward understanding them— particularly when we are the people determining the fate of Iraq, and when we are far from being a beloved country in the Middle East.

Correctly pronouncing Iraq or Iran, or any other country for that matter, is important also because of contrasting effort we put into pronouncing European names. I can’t remember the last time a newscaster pronounced the French city of Lyons as if it were “lions.”

In fact, just to drive home this point, last term I wrote “Lyons” on the board and asked my class to pronounce it. Immediately came the correct response — ironically, from the same student who earlier had said “eye-rack.”

Of course, with a name that is not quite the typical Western name, I have heard it (mis)pronounced in a number of strange ways. The most memorable of them all was when I worked as a transportation planner in Bakersfield, Calif.

A colleague at another agency, with whom I worked on several projects, always called me “Sirhan.” Initially I tried correcting her, and then even joked with her that I am not related to Sirhan Sirhan — Robert Kennedy’s assassin. Despite my best efforts, I was only Sirhan to her.

In times such as this, I am reminded of a Tamil saying that translates: You cannot straighten a dog’s curved tail, because it will revert to the same old position.

Another colleague jokingly suggested that I change my name to Sam Murphy, to get around such problems. Well, there is a good chance I might have become Sam Murphy if I had immigrated in the 1800s, when many names were changed at Ellis Island, often against the wishes of the immigrants themselves.

We had better start getting used to correctly pronouncing names that may not look or sound familiar, even if only out of our own self-interest. One reason is, of course, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our standing in the world.

Another reason: In a rapidly globalizing environment, it is China, India, and many non-Western countries where we anticipate lots of changes — economically, culturally, militarily — and these are countries where the names of people and places are often vastly different from what we are used to.

So, here is lesson one: pronounce “Guangzhou”!
Copyright © 2008 — The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Plants talk to each other?

A long time ago, when I was in graduate school, a friend who was working on his doctorate in weeds--the garden ones, not the ones that are smoked!--had a simple response to my question on how to make sure my houseplants don't die: "keep them together or close by, because they like company" is what he said. Or something to that effect. We laughed.
Now, I wonder if he knew something more than that punchline.
The NY Times reports: "“Plants,” Dr. Dudley said, “have a secret social life.”
Since the research on sea rockets was published in August in Biology Letters, a journal of the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, Dr. Dudley and colleagues have found evidence that three other plant species can also recognize relatives."
Interesting that this botanical communication is also a key aspect of the plot in Shyamalan's latest movie, The Happening. Read this interview with Shyamalan in the Scientific American.

Iraq, the sovereign colony?

I don't think I will be as harsh in my assessment of the Iraqi situation as is this editorial in The Hindu: "The regime of Nouri al-Maliki apparently has no qualms about plumbing new depths of ignominy."

But, the editorial is certainly an example of the views of quite a few millions (billions?) out there who see the US/Maliki relationship as not being helpful to Iraq.

Meanwhile this editorial in the Boston Globe has a title that says it all: Iraq, the sovereign colony? And the lead sentence in the editorial is absolutely unequivocal: "President Bush has been treating Iraq less as an ally than a vassal."

I wonder how this nightmare will end! Certainly not via Iran, I hope.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

iPhone augurs the inevitable return of the Bell telephone monopoly

Apple's new iPhone augurs the inevitable return of the Bell telephone monopoly: "Who would have guessed that Apple—onetime victim of IBM and Microsoft—would today be an agent and symbol of industry consolidation? I don't know that it's fair to say this is Apple's fault. A telephone monopoly has been the norm for most of American telecommunication history, except for what may turn out to have been a brief experimental period from 1984 through 2012 or so. Like the short British experiment with republican government under Oliver Cromwell, it may be that telephone monopolies in America are a national tradition."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Americans are driving less

From the Economist:
The latest figures from the Department of Transportation show that in March, when fuel was a far more modest $3.22 a gallon, Americans drove 11 billion miles (17.7 billion km) fewer in comparison with a year earlier. The decrease compared with the previous year, of 4.3%, is the first since 1979, and the sharpest since 1942

To Swift-Boat or Not

The other day I was watching Michael Kinsley on C-Span and could not but think, yet again, that there is no way a Parkinson's will slow down this guy's quick-thinking brain. I do wish that he did not have to deal with Parkinson's this young at least. But, we have no control over those matters--at least, not yet.

I this column in TIME, Kinsley comments that: History shows that any candidate who relies on the voters to punish a swift-boater is going to be disappointed. People tell pollsters they are sick of nasty politics, then they respond to it every time."

I suppose for candidates it comes down to a variation of something like a prisoner's dilemma: what if the other candidate resorts to a Willie-Horton and I am caught unprepared? The presidency is after all too big a prize to let slip .... which is why candidates are often tempted to commit fouls that will impede the other candidate's success. Read my column on fouls to give.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

In this thought-provoking piece in the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr wonders about our intelligence the more we rely on the Web and Google. Excerpt:
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?

Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling.

My own take? No, Google is not making us stupid. And, yes, I can see it becoming a pathway to AI. But, that AI does not mean a flattening out of human intelligence.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

One of the best grad students ever?

An excerpt from Robert Samuelson's column: "I cannot detect powerful convictions in Obama. He seems merely expedient in peddling his convenient conflicts. He strikes me as a super-successful graduate student: the brightest, quickest, most articulate guy in the seminar. In his career, he has advanced mainly by talking and writing -- not doing -- and may harbor a delusion common to the well-educated: that he can argue and explain his way around any problem."

America, fast food, and the future?

A hilarious satire from The Onion, of course!

New Wearable Feedbags Let Americans Eat More, Move Less

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

America’s not getting any respect

Published in The Register-Guard, June 2, 2008

It used to be the conventional wisdom that Americans learn world geography only when the country is at war. But apparently even being at war does not catalyze the need to understand the world and, more importantly, our own place in it.

Recently, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited India on a quick trip that also included stops in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. India has a growing need for energy and, with very little petroleum and natural gas within its borders, it actively seeks to import them from other countries — including Iran.

The U.S. government, which is on a mission to isolate Iran as much as possible, attempted to pressure India on the eve of this visit. Our government views any trade with Iran as supporting the regime there and, thus, opposed a natural gas pipeline linking Iran and India. The State Department further advised India to press Ahmadinejad to end Iran’s nuclear program.

To which the Indian government’s spokesman responded: “India and Iran are ancient civilizations whose relations span centuries. Neither country needs any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations.”

That is a quite a rebuke to the world’s lone superpower, which is often quite alone, too, in many ways. But it was not the first time and is increasingly becoming the trend. It is more and more difficult to get other countries to “our” side, while it is getting easier for countries to pooh-pooh the United States.

In a stinging essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, writes: “The West is understandably reluctant to accept that the era of its domination is ending and that the Asian century has come.”

Ouch! Even though Mahbubani refers to the West, most of the essay targets only the United States.

Mahbubani then kicks it up a notch when he writes: “The West is not welcoming Asia’s progress. ... Unfortunately, the West has gone from being the world’s primary problem solver to being its single biggest liability.” Bam!

Even Rodney Dangerfield gets more respect than the United States, when our status is such that we are being explicitly blamed as being the world’s single biggest liability!

Despite all this, I am not sure whether we in the United States are truly making any attempt to understand the world that is changing at a rapid clip. Even when we pause to note an event, we seem to be constrained by calculations, explicit or implicit, of “what’s in it for us?”

Remember the brouhaha when it seemed as if every presidential candidate, when there were many, was issuing calls for Pervez Musharraf to quit the Pakistani presidency? I suppose it was politically convenient then, and once that yielded the desired benefits, we were off to other pressing matters.

Well, Musharraf continues on as the president. Of course, the parties that opposed him have formed the government. But, ironically, it is this “opposition” to Musharraf that is seriously exploring releasing nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan from house arrest. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, has publicly admitted to selling atomic secrets to such countries as Iran and North Korea. The same Iran that we want to excommunicate from the world. And the same North Korea that has become a master at negotiating on its own terms.

And, unfortunately, all America can do is watch events unfold.

Even more recently, just a couple of days ago, when the United States declassified intelligence information about Syria’s nuclear program, the collective response from most of the world was à la Rhett Butler’s, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” More ouch!

As we scramble to understand one global issue after another, we notice that the United States has not been able to play a constructive role in any of the recent crises — from Zimbabwe to Kenya, from Myanmar to Tibet.

At this rate, a Miss America contestant’s wishes for world peace might be the only way that the United States can fit in with the rest of the world!

Sportsmanship should supplant foul ethics

Published in The Register-Guard, May 27, 2008

Flicking through the television channels the other day, I paused at a basketball playoff game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz, which was such a close one that it eventually was settled in overtime.

The commentator made interesting remarks that are quite the norm in such contexts, analyzing who was in foul trouble and how many fouls each team had “left to give.”

Fouls left to give? There is no more talk of sports promoting sportsmanship, camaraderie and cooperation. Instead, it is about “fouls left to give” until players are ejected.

Increasingly, fouls and penalties are no longer results of players’ accidents or mistakes. Coaches and players systematically exploit this as a loophole with the sole intention of restricting the opponent’s performance.

It is not uncommon to see a basketball player intentionally grabbing an opposing team’s player if that will prevent a sure two points.

It is so often used against Shaquille O’Neal that we now have the sports jargon, “hack-a-Shaq.” A football cornerback might commit pass interference if it appears that without that penalty the wide receiver might coast into the end zone for a touchdown.

The manner in which fans respond to these fouls indicates that they, too, see it as legitimate maneuvering.

I wonder, then, if involvement in athletics might end up doing more harm than good. What will children learn if their coach teaches them to grab the player in order to prevent an opponent from scoring? Is the lesson to focus on winning at any cost, fully understanding that they have “fouls to give”?

It is bizarre that we have zero-tolerance policies in educational settings, even as we could instruct the same children that they have “fouls to give” on the playground.

It is no stretch to argue that this notion of “fouls to give” is becoming common in society.

The havoc that Enron brought upon its employees, shareholders and the rest of the world was nothing but a reflection of its decision-makers’ thinking that their transgressions were within their “fouls to give.” Professionals advise corporations on how to exploit loopholes in the law — a variation of fouls to give.

Political campaigning is along the same lines: Candidates or their surrogates intentionally commit fouls, then pay appropriate penalties and carry on, because, hey, that is how the game is played.
As an academic concerned about more than mere curricular issues, I am always perturbed when students and colleagues commit fouls. You can, therefore, imagine my sheer delight with the recent softball incident in a game between Central Washington University and Western Oregon University, where I teach.

In case you missed that news item: A lot was at stake because the winner of that game qualified for the regionals. With two on base, at the plate was a diminutive graduating Western senior who had never homered in her life. She hit her first home run ever, then badly injured her knee at first base while making her way around the bases.

Two fielders from Central carried her around the bases, which counted as a home run for Western. The gregarious Central team went on to the lose the game, while Western moved on to the regionals, and won the first round there, too.

It was a remarkable story of sportsmanship and offered an absolute contrast to the “fouls to give” calculations that are otherwise the norm.

In the spirit of using athletics to forge a greater sense of humanity, imagine the following scenario, which might sound as if it is coming from another planet. Well, given that I am from India, it might well be an alien thought!

The next academic year, when the Oregon Ducks play hosts to Pac-10 football teams at the loud and boisterous Autzen Stadium, it will almost always be a midday or late afternoon game. That means that there will be ample time for the Ducks to play a different type of host again: to sit down with the visiting team and have dinner after the game. The bands from the host and visiting teams can play a few numbers as entertainment for the evening.

An outrageous idea, I realize. But what a powerful message it can convey, particularly to the youth! The university even can make a fundraiser out of this, splitting the proceeds with the visiting teams.

It would be a huge step in the right direction. The focus, after all, is on the common cause of developing one’s skills and learning and playing the game to one’s fullest. I can easily imagine that such an attitude will quickly lead to players and spectators alike relearning the forgotten idea that there is no place for “fouls to give.”

In my book, nice guys never finish last, but are winners all the time.

I am baaaaaack!

Well, my on-again-off-again relationship with blogging is in the on-phase now. I have a feeling that this will stay for a while.

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