Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Temperature rises between India and China

If there was any doubt that I was on the wrong track in my column on the developing geopolitical complexities between China and India, well, erase that thought!
According to this report, China has treated Indian citizens from Kashmir differently from how it treats Indian citizens from the rest of India. 
the Chinese embassy in New Delhi has begun issuing visas to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir on a separate sheet of paper rather than stamping them in their passports as is the norm with other Indian citizens.  “What the Chinese are doing is definitely new and we have taken a serious view of it,” an MEA official said
Cue that Twilight Zone music!

How the health care reform will be "aborted"?

It has puzzled me that those opposed to health care reform have gone the insane route of using labels like socialism....when they could have scored a lot more points a lot easier by simply zooming into abortion.  Of course, I am not the first guy to have thought about this.  But, I still cannot understand why abortion did not become a populist issue in health care reform.

I mean, the logic is straightforward: if there is a "medicare for all" kind of public option, then we are looking at whether the government ought to:
  • provide for services like the "pill", and pay for abortion, or
  • not provide for services like the "pill" and not pay for abortion.

If the government chooses either one, then as the single largest purchaser of medical services, it will essentially set the rules for most, if not all, the private insurers too.  So, this will be a defining moment.  (Well, this is the kind of argument that leads to the "socialism" accusation, I suppose.)

And yet the opponents prefer the crazy, insane, rhetoric. 

Anyway, Slate's William Saletan summarizes the challenge really well:
The nuances of the abortion-coverage fight can be tricky, but the core of the problem is simple. Each side is willing to accept a compromise in which no federal tax dollars fund abortion. Pro-choicers have one definition of what this means: Federal money can subsidize any insurance plan, as long as the insurer doesn't use these subsidies to directly cover abortions. Pro-lifers have a more strenuous definition: Federal money can't subsidize any plan that covers abortions, since the insurer would simply take the money with one hand while writing abortion checks with the other. In a private insurance market, each side could stick to its own principles and interpretations. But a socialized market throws them together. To get what they consider neutrality, pro-choicers have to make pro-lifers pay indirectly for abortions. And to keep what they consider clean hands, pro-lifers have to make abortion coverage federally unsupportable and therefore, in a subsidy-dependent system, commercially nonviable.
So the left's argument against abortion exclusion is the right's argument against socialization.

Pretty neat summary, right?  His entire essay is a great read.  Saletan concludes:
The good news, if you're a pro-choice progressive, is that freedom-loving Americans will protect your private abortion coverage. The bad news is that they'll do it by killing health care reform.
 What a catch-22 for liberal Democrats who are some of the ardent advocates of health care reform! 
(I am in a separate minority category: I concede that abortion is murder, but that decision to kill can be made only by the pregnant mother and nobody else.  If the pregnant mother decides to abort, well, there is nothing criminal about it.)

Update: The NY Times has an editorial on this very topic.  Ha, I beat them by a few hours :-)

USA! USA! ..... India?

Here is Jon Stewart getting upset with Aasif Mandvi who reports that India discovered water on the moon, while America's USGS and NASA provided the tech support :-)

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Deep Space Naan

Daily Show
Full Episodes

Political Humor
Ron Paul Interview

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

College athletics: A modest proposal

leaders in the Obama administration and in Congress have expressed a strong interest in education reform and claim to appreciate the crucial role of education in maintaining the United States' leading role in the world. They have also demonstrated sensitivity to outrageous executive compensation.
I bet you the reader agree with this factual statement in an op-ed by Benjamin Rosenberg in the Christian Science Monitor (HT.) 
So, what does Rosenberg want?  Take it away:

The academic fate of our universities is more important than who is crowned national college football champion, so perhaps Congress can spare some time for academics.
Here's how: Most colleges and universities receive federal research grants or subsidies that help them to advance academic and intellectual interests, and to achieve socially beneficial goals. But if the institutions themselves do not value those goals, they should not receive taxpayers' money to advance the goals.
And thus Congress should prevent federal research grants or subsidies from being awarded to any educational institution that pays greater compensation on average to its football or basketball coaches than it does on average to its tenured faculty members.
Any school that pays more to those who coach big time sports than to those who teach students academic subjects shows its true colors. No taxpayer should pay money to such a school.

Cellphone nightmares :-)

Quote of the day (re. the Polanski trial)

In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.
If you also found it awesome, then you will be happy to know that it was George Orwell who wrote that.  (via Nick Gillespie)

Megan McArdle provides a link to excerpts from the transcripts of the trial.  What Polanski did was brutal. Just brutal.  It is a shame that he has been free for so long.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dow Jones Index reaching 10000

It was at 9789 at the close of business today.
The NY Times has this to say:
The enthusiasm over that round figure is now a decade-long phenomenon. Consider this: President Bill Clinton was in office when the Dow Jones industrial average first closed above 10,000 in March 1999. It retreated in the years after the dot-com bubble deflated, then retook 10,000 in late 2003 and peaked at 14,000 in October 2007. We all know the cataclysm that followed.
So Dow 10,000 does not mean that the market is finally edging ahead; it is simply catching up to where it was a decade ago. “It’s been a bad 10 years, a really bad 10 years,” said David Bianco, chief United States equity strategist at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch.
The constant march of inflation also dilutes the meaning of 10,000. Prices rose an average of about 2.8 percent each year in the last decade, meaning the Dow would have to reach about 13,200 in today’s numbers to equal its value then. If this limbo seems dreary, imagine spending the next decade talking about Dow 10,000.
It feels awful to think that we have spent ten years to get back to exactly we once where?
But, does it mean that everything is all and well?  I like Robert Reich's comments on what is going on:
The great consumer retreat from the market is being offset by government’s advance into the market. Consumer debt is way down from its peak in 2006; government debt is way up. Consumer spending is down, government spending is up. Why have new housing starts begun? Because the Fed is buying up Fannie and Freddie’s paper, and government-owned Fannie and Freddie are now just about the only mortgage games remaining in play.

Why are health care stocks booming? Because the government is about to expand coverage to tens of millions more Americans, and the White House has assured Big Pharma and health insurers that their profits will soar. Why are auto sales up? Because the cash-for-clunkers program has been subsidizing new car sales. Why is the financial sector surging? Because the Fed is keeping interest rates near zero, and the rest of the government is still guaranteeing any bank too big to fail will be bailed out. Why are federal contractors doing so well? Because the stimulus has kicked in.

In other words, the Dow is up despite the biggest consumer retreat from the market since the Great Depression because of the very thing so many executives are complaining about, which is government’s expansion
A government-aided market expansion that is the jobless recovery we are experiencing.  My head spins.  Tome to go to bed!

BHO meet LBJ, continued

Back in January--yes, seems like eons ago now--I linked to Juan Cole's observation, which was eerily titled "BHO meet LBJ."

That theme is gaining a lot more momentum recently.  While not that specific phrase, the theme is clear.  First, here is John Kerry--yes, the same Kerry who was one of the early supporters of candidate Obama:
Before we send more of our young men and women to this war, we need a fuller debate about what constitutes success in Afghanistan. We need a clearer understanding of what constitutes the right strategy to get us there. Ultimately, we need to understand, as Gen. Colin Powell was fond of asking, "What's the exit strategy?" Or as Gen. David Petraeus asked of Iraq, "How does it end?"
Why? Because one of the lessons from Vietnam—applied in the first Gulf War and sadly forgotten for too long in Iraq—is that we should not commit troops to the battlefield without a clear understanding of what we expect them to accomplish, how long it will take, and how we maintain the consent of the American people. Otherwise, we risk bringing our troops home from a mission unachieved or poorly conceived.
It was interesting that Kerry's op-ed was in the Wall Street Journal.  I wonder what the deal is with that.
Well, it is not that the "liberal" media is quiet about the ghost of Vietnam.  In the NY Times, Frank Rich presents the following comments in the context of Woodward "leaking" McChrystal's report, and then an unnamed White House official countering it:
it’s “eerie” how closely even these political maneuvers track those of a half-century ago, when J.F.K. was weighing whether to send combat troops to Vietnam. Military leaders lobbied for their new mission by planting leaks in the press. Kennedy fired back by authorizing his own leaks, which, like Obama’s, indicated his reservations about whether American combat forces could turn a counterinsurgency strategy into a winnable war.
Within Kennedy’s administration, most supported the Joint Chiefs’ repeated call for combat troops, including the secretaries of defense (McNamara) and state (Dean Rusk) and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the president’s special military adviser. The highest-ranking dissenter was George Ball, the undersecretary of state. Mindful of the French folly in Vietnam, he predicted that “within five years we’ll have 300,000 men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again.” In the current administration’s internal Afghanistan debate, Goldstein observes, Joe Biden uncannily echoes Ball’s dissenting role.
Though Kennedy was outnumbered in his own White House — and though he had once called Vietnam “the cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia” — he ultimately refused to authorize combat troops. He instead limited America’s military role to advisory missions. That policy, set in November 1961, would only be reversed, to tragic ends, after his death. As Bundy wrote in a memo that year, the new president had learned the hard way, from the Bay of Pigs disaster in April, that he “must second-guess even military plans.” Or, as Goldstein crystallizes the overall lesson of J.F.K.’s lonely call on Vietnam strategy: “Counselors advise but presidents decide.”
Obama finds himself at that same lonely decision point now.
And Ross Douthat--the conservative columnist at the NY Times who replaced William Kristol--piles on:
However serious his doubts about escalation, Obama seems boxed in — by the thoroughness of McChrystal’s assessment and the military’s united front, by his own arguments across the last two years and by his party’s long-running insistence on painting Afghanistan as the neglected “good war.” But if Obama takes us deeper into war out of political necessity rather than conviction, the results could be disastrous.
Meanwhile, Germany's newly (re)elected Chancellor Merkel's deputy, Guido Westerwelle, will lead the cheers for continued Afghan military engagement:
While Germany's deployment to Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular, Mr Westerwelle has emerged as the most powerful and articulate proponent of sustained involvement in the war.
So, instead of the Anglo-US lead into the Iraq debacle, we will now have a German-American push in AfPak?

Leave the gun. Take the jilebi?

Yet again, truth is stranger than the Onion's reports.  Here is the BBC explaining how "British Asians are outsourcing murder":
In India, murder is cheap, with hired assassins paid up to $800 (£500).
Formerly, the modus operandi was a drive-by shooting, now it is likely to be a staged road accident.
And it appears there are few risks.
The Godfather with an Indian twist. (ed: it is stupid to explain this way the title of this post!)

Speaking of the Godfather, Professor Diego Gambetta, has some fascinating observations (HT):
IDEAS: In the Mafia underworld, how celebrated is the movie ”The Godfather”?
GAMBETTA: It is very celebrated. Not just by the Sicilian Mafia and by the Italian-American Mafia, but oddly enough by people in the same line of business in Russia, in China, and in Japan. We have evidence that they understood that that was the sector of the economy in which they themselves moved, and there’s lots of evidence that they liked the film, that they could recite, by heart, bits of the film, in countries which you would think would have nothing to do with it.
IDEAS: We’ve got criminals out there in China and Japan who are modeling themselves after Michael and Sonny Corleone?
GAMBETTA: We do have evidence of that. Yes.
IDEAS: What are some other ways that criminals are modeling themselves on film portrayals?
GAMBETTA: Well, I guess ”The Godfather” is the big example because, for example, they don’t like movies like ”Donnie Brasco.”
IDEAS: Why not?
GAMBETTA: ”Donnie Brasco” is a very good movie, but it shows them as losers, as being taken in by this extremely skillful FBI agent, Joseph Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco. Several of them landed in jail, thanks to his undercover operation. And so, the movie portrays them at the losing end, and they don’t like that. Movies for them are a way of advertising, a way of gaining legitimacy.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Oaksterdam University in Calif

Get it? Oakland + Amsterdam = Oaksterdam.
What is so special there?  Ahem, cannabis.  Yes, the old mary jane. weed.

Now, there are moves afoot in California to go further to fully legalise marijuana.
Evidence of the impact that the approval of medicinal marijuana has had on some areas of California is clear in Oakland.
Across the bay from San Francisco, it has come to be known as Oaksterdam, in a nod to the symbolic global capital of marijuana deregulation, Amsterdam.
It is surreal though to look at faculty listing at Oaksterdam University.  Why they don't have the .edu domain I wonder :-)  There are four campuses!!! I bet they are interested in some international locations too.

It appears that there is a de facto decriminalization of marijuana in California.  Of course, this is a state that is in deep,deep financial trouble.  And is releasing prisoners because there is not enough money to keep them in.

So, how do you get to Oaksterdam?  On the Pineapple Express, of course!

Update on Sep 28th:  Fortune has a cover story on pot legalization;
The acceptance of medical marijuana has implications that extend far beyond helping those suffering from life-threatening diseases. It is one of several factors -- including demographic changes, the financial crisis, and the widely perceived failure of the war on drugs -- reopening the country's 40-year-old on-again, off-again shouting match over whether marijuana should be legalized.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Australian dust-storm: "Oh my gosh"

The massive dust-storms that has been described with many phrases including, "eerie," "bizarre," "surreal," and "martian." This video (HT) shows how quickly it went from a Mars-like orange to total blackness all in a a matter of seconds. The woman's "oh my gosh" captures my feelings on watching the video:

The Boston Globe has a fantastic collection of photos from this freakish dust storm.  Reuters has an interesting colelction of Q/A related to the dust storm.  Excerpt:
Weather scientists are reluctant to directly link climate change with extreme weather events such as storms and droughts, saying these fluctuate according to atmospheric conditions, but green groups link the two in their calls for action to fight climate change.
Dust storms in Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent with a vast desert-like outback interior, are not uncommon. Central and eastern Australia is a major global source of atmospheric dust, say weather experts. But dust storms are usually restricted to the inland of Australia. Occasionally, during widespread drought they can affect coastal areas. Australia is battling one of its worst droughts and weather officials say an El Nino is slowly developing in the Pacific which will mean drier conditions for Australia's eastern states.
Before the Sydney dust storm, one of the most spectacular storms swept across Melbourne in February 1983, late in the severe El Nino drought of 1982/83. The extended dry period of the 1930s and 1940s generated many severe dust storms, culminating in the summer of 1944/45 when on several occasions dust in Adelaide was so thick that street lighting had to be turned on.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Hmmm .... is it a contradiction of sorts if I have to pay to watch this movie and, thereby, when Michael Moore makes money out of a movie that is critical about a system where people make money? Just asking :-)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Realpolitik over principles :-(

Not that the people at Foreign Policy read my op-ed on Obama blowing off meeting with the Dalai Lama,but they do have a response to my column: "get real".  Wen Liao writes:
in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and given China's vastly increased importance to global economic stability, the Obama administration must recognize China's enlarged role in international decision-making. Antagonizing China's government over Tibet is no way to get it to act responsibly, whether on economic issues or on climate change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled her recognition of this reality earlier this year when, on her first visit to China, she deliberately avoided the issue of human rights in Tibet.
And, you know what Liao recommends that the Dalai Lama do?
If the Dalai Lama is to be taken seriously by China as a negotiating partner, in fact, he must emulate President Obama and learn realpolitik
Aaw, thanks for the advice!

Reaching Fahrenheit 451

Looks like it is time to worry about the Fahrenheit 451 world, than to waste our energies on global warming or the Swine Flu.

Remember Ray Bradbury's masterpiece of a work, Fahrenheit 451?  It is a world where technology is so advanced that everything is fireproof, and the job of firefighters is to burn books!  Because reading books makes people sad and depressed.  And, so what do people do instead?  Why, it is advanced television, of course.  Every wall in every home is nothing but a television screen in this Bradbury imagined dystopia future.

Well, that future has arrived, or is rapidly arriving.  According to Intel:
by 2015 there will be 12 billion devices capable of connecting to 500 billion hours of TV and video content. ....
"TV is out of the box and off the wall," Intel's chief technology officer Justin Rattner told BBC News.
"TV will remain at the centre of our lives and you will be able to watch what you want where you want.
"We are talking about more than one TV capable device for every man and woman on the planet. People are going to feel connected to the screen in ways they haven't in the past," said Mr Rattner.

The end of the Ottoman Empire

As the map on the left shows, it was one sprawling empire, the fall of which created so many countries we are familiar with today.  (Click on the map for a clearer, detailed, view)

A historical footnote to the fall of the Ottoman Empire:

Ertugrul Osman - the would-be sultan known in Turkey as the "last Ottoman" - has died in Istanbul at the age of 97.
Osman would have been sultan of the Ottoman Empire had Turkey's modern republic not been created in the 1920s.
As the last surviving grandson of Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, he would have been known as his Imperial Highness Prince Shehzade Ertugrul Osman Effendi.
Born in Istanbul in 1912, Osman spent most of his years living modestly in New York.

And, equally fascinating:
Ertugrul Osman is survived by his wife, Zeynep, a relative of the last king of Afghanistan.

The season changes: Autumn

The moon was sinking over the hills, the air was crystal clear, the wind was cool, and the songs of the insects among the autumn grasses would by themselves have brought tears.

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji (1010). While a lady in attendance at the Japanese court, Murasaki wrote what is widely considered to be the first novel. The work was unusual for its time, not only because it was written by a woman, but also because it was written in Japanese (Chinese was the lingua franca of the Japanese court) and in prose. The beauty of nature is a prominent theme of the story, which recounts the life of Genji, a handsome courtier, and the women he loved.
 More here on The Violins of Autumn

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Econ newbies are up to, coast to coast

I wish I knew the answers to all of the following questions from Brad DeLong's midterm exam:
For each of the ten events, tell us (a) when it happened (within a ten year window) and (b) what its relevance is to a course in twentieth century economic history:
  1. Launching of first Five Year Plan in the Soviet Union
  2. Wall Street stock market crash; start of the Great Depression
  3. Gandhi's “Salt March”
  4. “The End of the Beginning”: Battles of Midway, Guadalcanal, El Alamein, “Operation Torch”, and—most of all--”Operation Uranus”: Stalingrad
  5. George Marshall proposes the “Marshall Plan”
  6. Treaty of Rome creates the European Economic Community of “the six”
  7. The “Southern Expedition” of Deng Xiaoping
  8. Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister of Great Britain
  9. William Jennings Bryan [D] loses U.S. election to William McKinley [R]
  10. Start of Mexican Revolution
I am confident about my answers to six, and I think I might be right about two more, but have no clue about the other two.  And these are from his freshman course!  Hmmmm .....
Across the continent, Greg Mankiw has these for freshmen :-)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Obama’s meeting with Dalia Lama is off for now

The time and energy wasted on non-issues such as whether the president forged his birth certificate makes us oblivious to flashing signals, some more urgent than others, from around the world.

Case in point: the remarkably under-reported news that President Obama has “quietly postponed an audience with the Dalai Lama until after he visits China in November.”

The Chicago Sun Times — the president’s hometown newspaper — notes that “White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrettt, who seemed to vanish at the end of last week, was actually dispatched to India on a delicate diplomatic mission: President Obama tapped her to meet with the exiled Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama.”

Even the vice president’s visits to Iraq appear to be more transparent!

The postponement of the meeting confirms, yet again, the triumph of realpolitik over principles.

When we owe China more than $800 billion, perhaps we have no option other than to make sure that we do not upset our primary foreign lender.

However, the postponement is not without geopolitical complexities involving the United States, China and India.

Sino-Indian relations, which had been improving in the 1990s, have been on a downturn over the past couple of years.

The downturn has even resulted in very brief military incidents. One of the main sore points is over Arunachal Pradesh, a state in northeastern India. China has always claimed Arunachal Pradesh as its territory and considers it a part of Tibet.

The territorial boundary that China disputes — the MacMahon Line — dates back to 1914, before the independence of India and before the founding of the China we know today.

India became independent of Britain in 1947, and the People’s Republic of China came into existence in 1949. It can be argued that neither India nor China was party to the MacMahon Line, but both have been forced to coexist with that boundary in the rugged Himalayan terrain.

So, where does the Dalai Lama fit into this territorial dispute, even when he is in no way directly responsible for the recent tiffs between these two countries?

For one, the Dalai Lama has lived in northern India — in Dharmasala — ever since he fled Lhasa, Tibet, in 1959. The Dalai Lama’s escape path out of Lhasa went through Tawang, which is in Arunachal Pradesh and whose monastery is the second oldest after Lhasa’s.

A few years after his arrival in India, the Dalai Lama was requested by the Tawang Monastery to send a lama who would be qualified to be the abbot, and this further cemented his association with Tawang.

In 2008, when the Dalai Lama planned to visit Tawang, the Indian government prevented him from doing so because it did not want to upset the Chinese government, which considers this trip a political act by the “splittist” Dalai Lama.

This year, however, the Indian government has approved the Dalai Lama’s plans to visit Tawang in November, perhaps sensing that continuing to appease the Chinese government might be interpreted as a sign of weakness and could cloud its sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of Chinese military incursions into Indian territories.

All of these things have concerned the Indian government so much that the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was compelled to react, and promptly accused the media of blowing things out of proportion.

It was against such intense geopolitical backdrop that the Dalai Lama was scheduled to meet with Obama during the Dalai Lama’s visit to the United States in October. This meeting is now a no-go.

Of course, the story continues. In mid-November, Obama is scheduled to go to China on his first official visit, which is, ironically, about the same time as the Dalai Lama’s fifth visit to Tawang.

However, unlike the president, the Dalai Lama is not quite in control of his own calendar.

Buddhists — monks and laypeople alike — in India’s northeastern states have begun special prayers hoping that these would ensure the Dalai Lama’s visit.

Let us see if the prayers bear fruit. And, maybe, the Dalai Lama will even get to meet with Obama at the White House.

For The Register-Guard
Appeared in print: Wednesday, Sep 23, 2009

Yet again, reality stranger than the Onion's stuff!

The games that governments and corporations play, while we the consumers/taxpayers think we are getting a good deal! Oh well, nothing I can do but treat this news report (HT) as funnier than the Onion's news reports :-(

The vans leave Turkey on cargo ships owned by Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics. Once they arrive in Baltimore, they are driven into a warehouse, where 65 workers from the shipping company's WWL Vehicle Services Americas Inc. convert them into commercial vehicles amid the blare of rock music and the whirring of industrial fans.

On a recent afternoon, a handful of vans passed through the warehouse unmolested as passenger wagons. But the vast majority were lined up to have windows pulled out, and they all had their rear seats removed.

In one lane, supervisor Robert Dowdy watched as two workers removed the rear side windows. They cut out the rubber seal with a special knife and popped out the glass using suction cups. The space is plugged with a metal panel that cures for 15 minutes before being tested outside for waterproofing.

At the start of that same lane, Mayso Lawrence unhooked a rear seat belt as easily as he would pop the top off a soda bottle. Using a drill, he quickly unscrewed six bolts to free the seats. Workers at the other end dump the seats into cardboard boxes, which are hoisted onto an open tractor-trailer and shipped to Ohio. Ford says the shredded seat fabric and foam become landfill cover, while the steel is processed for other uses.

"I never thought about why we take out the seats, but if that's what the customer wants, that's what we'll give them," Mr. Lawrence said.

With the seat removed, Mr. Lawrence puts in a new floor panel to cover the holes, toots the horn to signal he's finished, then gets to work on another van. The whole process takes him less than five minutes.

Rob Stevens, chief engineer for Ford's commercial vehicles, says the auto maker decided against shipping the seats back to Turkey for use in the next wave of vans for the U.S.

"We thought going through the recycling process was best," he said. "The steel is valuable."

Why such a rigmarole, you ask?
The company's wiggle room comes from the process of defining a delivery van. Customs officials check a bunch of features to determine whether a vehicle's primary purpose might be to move people instead. Since cargo doesn't need seats with seat belts or to look out the window, those items are on the list. So Ford ships all its Transit Connects with both, calls them "wagons" instead of "commercial vans." Installing and removing unneeded seats and windows costs the company hundreds of dollars per van, but the import tax falls dramatically, to 2.5 percent, saving thousands.
Kleenex time?

Why don't we teach electronic communication?

It is a shame that we don't teach college freshmen and sophomore how to effectively communicate through the modern channels.

We still cling on to the old world of speech and composition, and are oblivious to the explosive communication possibilities that have opened up via blogging and micro-blogging (like Tweeter), video-broadcasting, .... Most Communications curriculum are nothing but about forensics, critical theory, and voices of the minorities. These are important topics, yes, but communications is way more than that now.

Yes, I truly value the ability to write well--something I am still trying to master. But, I see no reason to expect every incoming freshman to be a Hemingway or Kafka. And not everybody will ever become orators a la Obama.

But, I can see many, many students being a lot more productive--in their jobs, relationships, and as citizens--if they get a good feel for putting some of these emerging (emerged?) technologies to use. If only we could show them some of these from day one .....

Which is why I like trends like this one:

Part of the draw for students still flocking to journalism schools is a new generation of courses retooled for new media. The same rapidly changing technology that is creating headaches for many media executives appeals to a generation of students who grew up playing computer games and texting and now tweeting their friends on the microblog Twitter.

"These students are also very comfortable multitasking, and they like the allure of doing different things every day," says Ms. Hines, who is director of Howard University's graduate program in mass communication and media studies. ...

... "Any technological skill you teach them in 2009 will be obsolete by 2012, but we want them to understand that this is the beginning of a lifelong process they need to be open to."

The University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism also requires incoming graduate students to participate in a multimedia boot camp, which runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for five days. Lessons in multimedia storytelling are reinforced in a required class in Web publishing skills that runs parallel to one in basic reporting. Students learn how to use digital video, audio, and photo equipment.

Students were also blogging last month from American University's three-week multimedia boot camp and sharing videos of the speakers on YouTube. ....


"There's not a great future in working for mainstream media," says Mr. Harper. "The future is for smart, hard-working students to band together, create their own media, and make a business out of it—and that's what a lot of them are doing."

Christopher Wink hopes to be part of that reinvented future. He graduated from Temple last year and spent three months stringing for daily newspapers in Pennsylvania before heading on a European backpacking trip with a journalism-school friend.

"We returned to an economy in recession and the print industry in free fall and said, 'Hell, let's build something of our own,'" he says. In February the duo began publishing Technically Philly, a news site that covers local technology and innovation.

If only higher education would move at a speed that is at least a tad faster than glacial. Hey, wait a minute, even the glaciers are rapidly melting away :-(

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Girl from Ipanema ...

.... is as old as I am .... I cannot believe that this video clip is from the movie "Get Yourself a College Girl", which was released in 1964--yes, the year that I was born. But, boy, what a gorgeous song even after all these years; The Girl from Ipanema has not aged one bit ... while I am balding and aging rapidly :-) (Of course, the song itself is older than the movie by a couple of years) Here is Stan Getz with Astrud Gilberto:

Cooking with Stella at Toronto

With the culturally condescending, poverty-fixated, cliché-ridden Western vision of a populous nation of a million contradictions undergoing marked dilution, a new India is beginning to emerge in the cinema of the world.
It is about time!

This BBC report says that "A new India emerges at the movies". It is a review:
Three major films in the official line-up of the 34th Toronto International Film Festival - The Waiting City (Australia), Google Baby (Israel) and Cooking with Stella (Canada) - narrate Indian stories while eschewing the clichés associated with the country.
From what I read, I think I like "Cooking with Stella" the best.

Apparently, Lisa Ray, whom I recall from Water and the light-hearted and satirical Bollywood/Hollywood, has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I’m ready, Warden.

That was one of the
quotations taken from inmates’ last statements in Texas. The statements, delivered before family members, relatives of victims, friends and the press
The compilation is here.

Here is another:
I would like to say goodbye

Postmodernists and Neoconservatives

Postmodernism challenges the idea of "truth"--truth is politically and socially constructed, which means there are many truths and all are equally "truthful". So, you then pick up whichever truth fits you and, well, to heck with the rest.

The strangest thing is that while postmodernists tend to be way left of center, such an approach to competing to truths in the public sphere is practically the same one preached by conservatives of many colors--the neoconservatives and those who challenge natural selection and evolution.

Irving Kristol, who died a couple of days ago, and considered to be the father of the neoconservative movement, said (HT)
"There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work,"
Postmodernists will be very happy with such an explanation of how there exist multiple truths, and that there is no single meta-narrative that will fit one and all.

I suppose it is not that difficult to imagine Kristol being a postmodernist; after all, he was a Trotskyist, who later underwent a conservative conversion while holding on to many of his original notions. As one commentator noted back in 2004,
Irving Kristol began his political life at the City University of New York in the 1930s as a follower of Trotsky, whose own critique of the USSR allowed Kristol to abandon an early flirtation with Marxism.

From Trotsky, Kristol drew one important lesson: the idea of "permanent revolution" and the "export of Communism" without any concession made to other political ideologies, such as nationalism (or "socialism in one country"). If Trotsky wrote of "exporting Communism", Kristol's junior Joshua Muravchik wrote, in 1991, of "exporting democracy", where "democracy in one country" is insufficient, since it has to be exported around the world if it is to be sustained.

So, when there are competing truths, and the permanent revolution seeks to export democracy, well, it is no wonder we then came across a bizarre "postmodernist" statement by a senior adviser to President Bush:
''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

One doesn't fight in the hope of winning

That is the quote that Gary Wills, professor emeritus at Northwestern, uses to conclude his essay in the NY Review of Books.
It is a depressing thought, no?, to think that most of the time we fight the good fight not in the hope of winning it? So, what is the context in which Professor Wills writes this? At how much the change in the White House has not translated to significant directional changes that would indicate a move towards restoring the ideals of the constitution. The entire essay, which is not at all lengthy, is a great read. Excerpt:
A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire's secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. .... He is a self-entangling giant.

.... in the nuclear era, the Constitution has become quaint and obsolete. Few people even consider anymore Madison's lapidary pronouncement, "In republican government the legislative authority necessarily predominates." Instead, we are all, as citizens, asked to salute our commander in chief. Any president, wanting leverage to accomplish his goals, must find it hard to give up the aura of war chief, the mystery and majesty that have accrued to him with control of the Bomb, the awesome proximity to the Football, to the Button.

But, we fight, not in the hope of winning because, as Professor Wills puts it:
Nonetheless, some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old Constitution.
Yes. We do.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

More on Obama's tariffs on Chinese tires

The world trade editor of Financial Times, Alan Beattie, offers an interesting perspective that adds more nuance, compared to the commentaries I have read on the tire tariff tirades:

Mr Obama has now come down on the wrong side of three big decisions on trade: happily signing a stimulus bill with Buy American provisions, abrogating an agreement allowing more Mexican trucks to operate in the US, and now granting the first ever emergency tariffs under a particular “safeguard” measure in US law. All are damaging both to trade and to the US’s international standing. All risk inflaming protectionist sentiment at a sensitive time.

But if he can use his capital to achieve universal healthcare and begin to shift the visceral dislike of trade that has gripped large parts of the American public and their representatives on Capitol Hill, it might prove worth it. He is playing with fire, which has creative but also destructive power. Just like globalisation.

Hey, that reminds me: didn't I write about the Buy American provisions in the stimulus bill? I did, I did :-)

Why China is surging ahead?

It is in the carrots and innovation! Here is the ever reliably informative James Fallows explaining it:

My 1,000th post in this blog

A thousand posts in this second incarnation this blog, which I re-started in June 2008 after deleting the old stuff--all the way from 2001--in one simple keystroke back in April 2007!

To celebrate, here is one of my favorite short stories by Franz Kafka:
The Departure

I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. The servant did not understand my orders. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted. In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me and asked: "Where is the master going?" "I don't know," I said, "just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it's the only way I can reach my goal." "So you know your goal?" he asked. "Yes," I replied, "I've just told you. Out of here--that's my goal."
And to appropriately mark this occasion, here is a satirical take from JibJab:
Try JibJab Sendables® eCards today!

America's plain vanilla democracy

Hey, I suppose I need a higher platform and a louder megaphone :-)
After returning from my vacation in India, I wrote a column that how much ever I am delighted with the discussions and debates on health care reform, even though I am overwhelmed, particularly by the ill- and mis-informed opinions. And the delight was because this is a sign that democracy is alive and well in America. Read it here.

David Harsanyi echoes these sentiments, although in the context of Joe "you lie" Wilson's behavior in the Congress. Harsanyi writes:
Have we transformed into so brittle a citizenry that we are unable to handle a raucous debate over the future of the country? If things were quiet, subdued, and "civil" in America today, as Pelosi surely wishes, it only would be proof that democracy isn't working.

It's no accident, either, that those in power are generally the ones choking up about the lack of decorum. The truth is we could use far less bogus civility in Washington.

Some of us, for instance, would prefer the superb system of debating used by the British Parliament. Watching those foppish MPs holler "poppycock, sir!" at one another during speeches is a pure pleasure. The British trade courteousness for a more productive, more honest, and, most importantly, more entertaining debate. (The occasional Taiwanese-style free-for-all parliamentary slap riot wouldn't hurt C-Span's ratings, either.)
Indeed. When I first came to the US, during the old days when there was only one C-Span channel (!), I was so much let down by what I saw in the House and the Senate: legislators talking in empty chambers. It was, and continues to be, one of the most surreal political images for me, more so when the Senate is hailed as the greatest debating body in the world. Yeah, debates. Right!

America has a strange format for democracy. There is no grilling of the chief executive, which happens with regularity in the British parliamentary system. Obama and Clinton would have been fantastic in that mode, with their superb grasp of details and the ability to be quick on the draw. Bush--papa and son--should be thankful for the near divine right accorded to American presidents.

The monarchical rites during the State of the Union address are a complete turn off for me--from the manner in which the President is announced, to the manner in which his (yes, so far no "her") address is applauded. Absolutely not what I picture in my mind as the epitome of democracy.

Talk to me when the press does not stand up when the President walks in to take their questions.

Friday, September 18, 2009

More on Joe Wilson(s)

I suppose the GOP should be wary of people named "Joe Wilson". After all, the Joe "you lie" Wilson follows another Joe Wilson who was quite a thorn on W's administration. You have already forgotten that first guy? Hello? Niger and yellowcake?

So, rewind the clock to January 2003. It is time for President Bush's State of the Union address. The world is pretty much holding its collective breath on whether the US is serious about invading Iraq. In that address, Bush said, “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa .”

Those sixteen words. Anglo-American evidence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, coming at a time when emotions are still high in the US about the events of 9/11. The sixteen words in the State of the Union pretty much sealed the deal, and Colin Powell's presentation of 'evidence" at the UN's Security Council .... well, now you remember, don't you? And we went to war soon after, and are still at war.

And then came the bombshells--that the sixteen words had no backing at all. And the most powerful critique came from the guy who was sent to investigate the allegation of Saddam buying uranium yellowcakes from Niger. And that guy was .... Joseph Wilson!
In a NY Times op-ed, Wilson wrote:

I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.

Given the structure of the consortiums that operated the mines, it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq.
Which is why Joe Wilson began that op-ed with:
Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?

Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

So, let us see. One Joe Wilson provides to the world important information about how President Bush's administration manipulated evidence in order to launch a war that is now in its seventh year, and has caused extensive loss of lives and property.
And another Joe Wilson embarrasses himself and his party by behaving like a drunken frat boy.

The world is thankful to the Joe Wilson who exposed the lies in those sixteen words, and I suppose comedians all over the world thank the Joe "you lie" Wilson for some wonderful fodder.

The Iraqi who threw the shoe at W says ...

When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, George Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people. My rejection of his plundering the wealth of my country, and destroying its infrastructure. And casting out its sons into a diaspora.
Excerpt from Muntazer al-Zaidi's statement at the Guardian.
He ends with:

If I have wronged journalism without intention, because of the professional embarrassment I caused the establishment, I apologise. All that I meant to do was express with a living conscience the feelings of a citizen who sees his homeland desecrated every day. The professionalism mourned by some under the auspices of the occupation should not have a voice louder than the voice of patriotism. And if patriotism needs to speak out, then professionalism should be allied with it.

I didn't do this so my name would enter history or for material gains. All I wanted was to defend my country.

And, to refresh our memories, here is the video of the shoe-toss that echoed around the world:

"You lie": Saturday Night Live explains what happened

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Germany gains an advantage, or two

It was interesting to read two items, very different, about Germany. And then get depressed that we in the US are not ahead of the game. What game you ask?
Let us begin with a puzzle that Lisa Margonelli sets up:
The Germans have found a new way to solve a classic greenhouse gas logic puzzle while keeping their auto assembly lines running.

The puzzle: What's the cheapest way to increase electricity generation while reducing carbon emissions, bearing in mind that installing more wind and solar will require investing $2 trillion in new transmission lines and a single 1 Gigawatt nuclear power plant now runs about $17 billion?

Two additional facts: Generating electricity accounts for 41 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, and two-thirds of those emissions are the result of energy being lost as heat, i.e. wasted.
Interesting puzzle, right? Similar to the problem that we face here in the US? And how is Germany addressing it? Again, Margonelli:
Put thousands of VW workers on the assembly line to make home-sized natural gas furnace/hot water heater/generators. These generators, based on a natural gas engine already used in the Golf, are 92 percent efficient (because they can use the waste heat for heating water or homes) and can either produce electricity for home use or put it out on the grid. In other words, they're removing much of the second fact (waste), and also removing the need to build many more transmission lines. And, if the company Lichtblick is to be believed, they'll be creating the generation capacity of 2 nuclear power plants (2 Gigawatts) by installing 100,000 of these units in German homes at a total cost of $1.5 billion. (Far cheaper than the nukes, with no radioactive waste or risk of its weaponization.)

But wait, this is more than a fancy furnace. It's also a business model and a stealth energy policy. The units, networked together as "SchwarmStrom" or swarm power could be turned on and off by a smart grid controller to balance the mix of wind, solar, nuclear and what all on the grid at a given time, earning homeowners some bonus money for the power they generate and eliminating the need for some of those transmission lines and backup generators to deal with the ebbs and flows of wind and solar.
How cool is that? Why aren't we doing it? If this is depressing enough, wait, there is more. And this time from Thomas Freidman about solar panel factories:

Not a single one is in America.

Let’s see: five are in Germany, four are in China, one is in Spain, one is in India, one is in Italy, one is in Taiwan and one is even in Abu Dhabi. I suggested a new company motto for Applied Materials’s solar business: “Invented here, sold there.”
And, get this:
In October, Applied will be opening the world’s largest solar research center — in Xian, China. Gotta go where the customers are. So, if you like importing oil from Saudi Arabia, you’re going to love importing solar panels from China.
So, why the heck can't we do what they in Germany are doing so well? Again, Margonelli:
I think this is the kind of pragmatic path US policy makers are likely to miss. They're so focused on BIG GREEN projects like offshore wind or floating windmills and on small chartreuse projects like corn-derived disposable silverware and CFL lightbulbs that the vast middle ground of wasted energy is ignored.

Afghanistan: photo of the day

After looking at this photo and spotting the military vehicle, remind me why we need to be there for years to come?

Photo from

Tweet your story?

For sale: baby shoes, never worn
That was the shortest story that Hemingway ever wrote. Clever and profound.

But then Hemingway was also not the gazillion-line-sentence writer that Dickens was anyway :-)

There is the prolific cell phone novelist in Japan. There is fiction writing within the 140-character constraint of Twitter.

Anyway, while walking by the river yesterday, I was imagining the sight of a peacock flashing his colors, which is when I came up with the following short story.
Virgin peahen commits suicide. Autopsy reveals color blindness.

I tried!

East West Airlines cuts fares by 20%

Obama nixes meeting with the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama represents, to me, the inability of people to live they want to thanks to the oppressive Chinese Communist Party's rule. Territories themselves, after all, have always been annexed by empires and states in the past and, hence, I care not whether China considers the Dalai Lama a splittist, or whether Tibet rightfully ought to be independent. It is the crushing of liberty that bugs me.

But, China is all grown up in the economic and military world. So, naturally, might is right. So much so that a Democrat, elected to the presidency with high levels of popularity throughout the world, has:
quietly postponed an audience with the Dalai Lama until after he visits China in November.

The move comes in the wake of Obama's decision to slap a 35 per cent import duty on tires from China and avoids a potential second affront to Beijing.

The news was contained deep in a press release issued by the Dalai Lama after his meeting Monday with top-level emissaries from Obama, senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and State Department under secretary Maria Otero.

Issued from his home in exile in Dharamsala, India, the third from last paragraph of the press release said: ``His Holiness is looking forward to meeting President Obama `after' his visit to China.''

I have written enough about Tibet to understand that it is now, unfortunately, a lost cause and nothing more than a pawn in the global geopolitical chess game. But, there is something seriously wrong with Obama's decision.

And here is the irony: China is upset that a high level US delegation even met with the Dalai Lama in Dharmshala.

This is what happens when we owe China gazillions of dollars!!!

It feels like .... 2005?

This chart, from the Financial Times, on how far, and how fast, international trade has decreased says it all

The reason?

explanation based on outsourcing: that manufactured goods comprise a bigger proportion of trade today than in the 1930s, when basic commodities had a larger share. Commerce in manufactured goods is more volatile and subject to shifts in demand than commodities, and trade in turn becomes more variable.

“The big shift in manufacturing from northern to southern countries over the past few decades ensures that falls in consumer demand in the north now show up in trade,” says Prof O’Rourke.

Either way, the implication of these explanations for the future of globalisation is moderately encouraging. If a simple fall in demand got trade into its current state, then – absent a flood of protectionist policies – a recovery in demand is likely to get it out.

So, against this background comes Obama's plan to impose tariffs on tires from China. Over to Brad DeLong--not a Republican by any means--who summarizes his response in the title of his post itself:
Barack Obama Does Something Really Stupid: Tire Tariffs

How awful! Life is way too short :-(

The Chronicle:
An engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University's main campus collapsed in front of his class on Tuesday morning and later died, the university announced yesterday. Michael J. Horman, a 38-year-old associate professor of architectural engineering and native of Australia, was an expert in the design and construction of environmentally sound "green" buildings. The university did not announce a cause of death. Mr. Horman leaves a wife and two children.
Back in March, it was a similar tragic story at a different university:

A professor at the University of Michigan at Flint died suddenly on Monday in the middle of a lecture, a local newspaper reported.

According to The Flint Journal, Matthew Hilton-Watson, a 40-year-old associate professor of foreign languages, collapsed “mid-sentence” during an honors English class, hit his head on a table, and began suffering from a seizure. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward. The cause of death was unknown as of Monday evening.

I am reminded of the "last lecture" by Randy Pausch, about a year before he died at 48.

9.7 % unemployment, but the employed have a great life :-(

Throughout this Great Recession, I have been worried about unemployment. Because it seemed like those whose productive economic lives get derailed might have a very hard time getting back.
But, of course, the stock indices have been climbing up quite impressively--here in the US and elsewhere too. (So much so that one commentator worries that this is another bubble in the making!)

Which is why my brother, who was impressed with all the talk about recovery, was probably surprised at my rather pessimistic statement that things are not good. I told him something like, "it is a great time if you have a job because prices are even falling, but it is a horrible time to be unemployed." A college-mate who now lives in the UK has been unemployed for almost a year now, and his is one of the many, many millions of such horror stories.

Of course, the scientific method means that we don't trust our own intelligent guesses but want evidence for the notion that some people and professions are doing well through this Great Recession. And, slowly that evidence is trickling in.

Richard Florida, who can be quite single-minded in his "creative class" arguments ad nauseum, writes:

Computer, sciences, and engineering professionals experience lower rates of unemployment than arts, design, and entertainment workers. But the lowest rates of unemployment and the most stable employment are found in meds and eds occupations - health and education - where unemployment stays consistently low, even during downturns.

The full analysis is here.

Notice again that meds and eds go together? (yet another evidence for another gut feeling of mine that if healthcare bugs us because costs are always going up, then eds should bug us even more. more here.)

So, ok, some professions have not experienced this recession big time. How about their real earnings? You might think that people have jobs, but have taken paycuts. Not actually, writes David Leonhardt:

Wage growth has picked up in the last several months, according to two different government surveys. You don’t hear or read nearly as many stories about pay cuts these days. Even though unemployment has reached its highest level in 26 years, most workers have received a raise over the last year.

That contrast highlights what I think is one of the more overlooked features of the Great Recession. In the job market, at least, the recession’s pain has been unusually concentrated.

And it hasn’t been concentrated in the typical way. Nearly every region and every demographic group has indeed been affected. But the pain has been concentrated within groups.
It must be awful to be unemployed. I can still recall, with horror and shame, my year of unemployment--well, through a massive, massive underemployment. I was so frustrated that I seriously considered taking up taxi driving. In Los Angeles! But, to be unemployed when one is 40+, or worse 50+, well, that I am sure is nightmarish.

So, how good life is for the employed lucky?
Executives of companies don’t cut pay, even when demand for labor has fallen. They worry that employees will become less motivated or start looking for another job, says Laury Sejen, who oversees the compensation consultants at Watson Wyatt. So companies instead lay off workers or stop hiring. They concentrate the pain.

The added wrinkle in this recession is that inflation has dropped below zero, thanks largely to a sharp fall in energy prices. In most recessions, inflation remains positive — indeed, higher than wage growth, which means that inflation-adjusted pay declines. In this recession, average prices have fallen 2 percent over the past year, while weekly pay has either been flat or risen 1 percent, depending on which data you believe.

So inflation-adjusted pay is up 2 to 3 percent. Amazingly enough, that’s almost as big as the peak increases during the late 1990s boom.
I am thankful for the job I have. And, of course, the email from the student is worth more than a few million dollars.
Here is to hoping that the unemployed, including my college-mate, will soon find gainful employment.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The best news of the day :-)

It is now countdown to the beginning of a new academic year. And it is a fantastic countdown; how else can it be when I read the following email from a former student (I have withheld the name):
Hi Sriram,
It's Dr. [Name]. I hope you remember me as one of the students in your economic geography class at CSUB. I just wanted to say, "I made it!" I got my Ph.D. last month. I did it in 6 years (it took 9 months to write my dissertation). In fact, out of my grad school cohort of 13 students, I was the only one to finish on "normative time" (of course, there were only 2 of us left when I filed--the rest of the students fell by the wayside throughout the years). Anyway, I JUST started (3 weeks ago) a tenure-track job .
.... [my deletions]
I just wanted to say thanks for everything. I think of you often, and I use many of the things I learned in your economic geography class (like "white flight," urban decay, and the tragedy of the commons) in my composition courses. I also discuss economics (class stratification, the intersection of race and class, and neoliberal economic policies, specifically) in my literature classes. I thought you might like to know that the things I learned in your classes at CSUB have really stuck with me throughout my graduate school and, now, academic career. I also want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to work as your TA, as well as the wonderful recommendation letter you wrote me, both of which helped me get into (and get full funding for) graduate school.
I hope your family is well. And I hope you are enjoying yourself in Oregon. I have a wife and a 2 (almost 3) year old daughter. I am enjoying the joys of being a husband and father while also realizing that it's difficult to make time to be both of those things AND be an academic. do people do it?
Okay. I don't want to get carried away. So, I'll close by noting that many teachers say things like "if I can make a difference in just one student's life..." Well, for what it's worth, you made a difference in MY life, Sriram. Thank you again.
Hey, thanks, Dr. [Name]. And, yes, congratulations on the doctorate, the tenure-track job, the wife, the daughter, ..... you deserve even more rewards in your life and ... go, get 'em!

As for me, there is simply no way I can have a crappy academic year after such a letter :-)

A narrow escape for Obama

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When my students find out who their instructor is ....

Cubicles and "monolithic insanity"

Dilbert was a wonderful antidote to my cubicle angst, back in the day when I used to inhabit one for forty hours every week. As a cubicle dweller, I had very few things. One day a colleague asked me whether it is because of my religious beliefs that I did not have any photo of my family in my cubicle. I tell you, there is a formula for being a cubicle worker--a photo or two of the family/pets, a small bowl of candies, kleenex, maybe a pretentious book, .... I was almost ready to respond that I have no religious belief, and that I do not believe in any god. Now, but I held myself back because that would have made me even more of non-conformist in that colleague's eye!

There is at least one good thing being a tenured faculty member in a university--we get our own office spaces, with a door and windows 8-) Not that I do anything in my office for which I need any enclosed, private space. Neither do I really need an office to display my book collection (I do not have one, anyway!).

So, where did this idea of cubicle originate? Over to the Scientific American:
[Open-plan] offices and cubicles were invented by architects and designers who were trying to make the world a better place—who thought that to break down the social walls that divide people, you had to break down the real walls, too.
In the early 20th century modernist architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright saw walls and rooms as downright fascist. The spaciousness and flexibility of an open plan, they thought, would liberate homeowners and office dwellers from the confines of boxes. But companies took up their idea less out of a democratic ideology than a desire to pack in as many workers as they could.
Ah, yes, democracy in the work place. Let us see. In my last job/career before returning to academia, we proles were in cubes, with offices with doors for senior staff. Well, with reorganization, one office became vacant, and two of us proles expressed interest to our director. Guess what he did? He did not want to make one happy and the other unhappy--so, neither got the office. I left for academia a couple of months after that--no, not because I did not get that office! And the other person left for another job. Yes, office life was crazy, as much as life in the ivory tower is crazy.

Anyway, the cubes were all modular, which meant that we could get larger cubes too! But, the dull boring modular cubes were apparently not what Herman Miller had in mind:
In 1968 Herman Miller began to sell its system as modular components, with the unfortunate consequence of letting companies cherry-pick the space-saving aspects of these designs and leave out the humanizing touches. As corporations began to shift all their employees, not only clerks, into open-plan offices, Herman Miller designer Robert Propst disavowed what he had spawned, calling it “monolithic insanity.”
Lovely phrase: monolithic insanity. The same phrase will describe Dick Cheney also really well. muahahaha

The decline of the English department

I blogged about this a few months ago, and my reasoning was that among other things,
the focus has shifted from helping students comprehend the world and understanding their own individuality and individual place in this world, to some horribly rotten dumbed down version of doctoral topics so that professors can then pretend to be ultra-smart in the eyes of students.
And this is a deep, deep disappointment for me. Because, I have gained so much from reading, and re-reading books. This past summer, I re-read Fathers and Sons after almost 25 years. It was many, many times more profound than it was when I first read it. And then I read Kafka. Simply awesome short stories. And, how can I forget One Hundred Years of Solitude,, which I read again after quite a few years.

Anyway, Professor William Chace has a lengthy essay in the American Scholar, and is disappointed with how English, and the rest of the humanities, is more a liability now than an asset. Chace writes,
at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
Yes, sir!
By the way, where then are the college students headed, if they are bypassing the humanities?
With more than twice the majors of any other course of study, business has become the concentration of more than one in five American undergraduates. Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):

English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent
Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent
Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent
History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent
Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent

In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.

It is a similar story with geography too. We don't offer the kind of courses that many students would like to take, because we think they are all "old school" and not some cutting edge courses. Ahem, no wonder that our fate is not very different from that of the folks in English.

The two largest majors at our campus? Business and Criminal Justice. Kind of interesting that pair, eh! One set of graduates can throw the other set of graduates in jail. muahahaha!!!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Do we know what research happens at universities?

Now we can find out with ease thanks to HT
Futurity began in March 2009 as the answer to a challenging question: How will the public learn about important breakthroughs at leading research universities as traditional news outlets continue to shrink?

The answer is simple.

Learn about them directly through an online news magazine that reports on discoveries in science, health, technology, business, society, and the arts. Expand the Web site’s reach through social media sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.

Now you're talking! Am happy that my phd school is a member there :-)

Hitchens v. Jon Stewart. Oh, why this, why now? :-)

So, here I was quite set to get back to watching The Daily Show's new season, and Christopher Hitchens spoils the party for me. Isn't Hitchens aware that the Daily Show and the Colbert Report are the hour of sanity for a few million, including me? :-)

So, what is Hitchens' problem with Stewart? Well, actually with Al Franken too. With the idea that these are satirists. Because, to Hitchens, a satirist has to be like Jonathan Swift.
“Al Franken for Senator” is one thing (especially when the alternative is or was “Norm Coleman for Senator”). But Jon Stewart for Samuel Langhorne Clemens is quite another. What next? Stephen Colbert for Zola? Al Franken for Swift?

Franken very often refers to himself as a “satirist,” which is a piece of hubris that comes to him too glibly and naturally. One wants to say, on hearing or reading such a claim, “Actually, sunshine, we’ll be the judge of that.” Swift famously compared satire to a mirror in which people could see every face but their own: if Franken desires to be considered a connoisseur of the satirical, he might want to paste that line into his hat.

I would never want to argue with Hitchens. He is like an uncle I had--the guy could quote verbatim from poems, religious texts, whatever, was fantastic with his repartee, but he was not the most loved person in the room either. But, no denying how smart that uncle was, and even smarter Hitchens is. And usually correct, as in his parting remarks:
Almost everything that I have quoted was printed or broadcast at a time when the Democrats were in opposition in both chambers and many state houses, excluded from the White House, and in a minority on the Supreme Court. The rebel humor on offer was rather lame even then. Shall we now be witnesses to a further decline? (This year’s African American lesbian comedian at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner broke bravely with tradition and chose to roast the absent Rush Limbaugh rather than the incumbent chief executive, to roars of complicit and knowing applause.) A liberal joke, at present, is no laughing matter.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Even Stevphen - Halloween
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests