Sunday, January 31, 2010

Can we project stability, please?

Thomas Friedman points out that the US seems to be losing its shine of stability.  Other countries might love us, or hate us, but the stability has never been doubted.  But, not now.  On the one hand the sense of a "permanent revolution" does inject life into democracy, and upends any business as usual approach.  But, on the other hand, it is a fine line that separates a healthy democracy from chaos and anarchy!  No, we are nowhere near anarchy. Thankfully.
Anyway, Friedman writes:
“Political instability” was a phrase normally reserved for countries like Russia or Iran or Honduras. But now, an American businessman here remarked to me, “people ask me about ‘political instability’ in the U.S. We’ve become unpredictable to the world.”
We’re making people nervous. 
After that great start to the column, Friedman kinds of drifts off ....

Well, if fiscal issues are already driving the dollar down, I wonder what the perception of a loss of stability will do:
You can debate all you want about the advantages and disadvantages of a declining dollar. But the question is no longer whether it will happen but rather when, and how. Thus, it pays to prepare. A change from a dollar-centric world to something else could create financial instability everywhere. To prevent that from happening, the U.S. should be working on designing a new rule-based global monetary system, in which the dollar plays a strong role alongside the euro and eventually the Chinese RMB, plus a new currency issued by the International Monetary Fund. Many American companies will do well to expand their operations overseas, where their earnings in foreign currencies can make them stronger and more profitable. Investors will need to diversify their assets internationally to a much greater extent than most have.
I'd much prefer to be predicting a strong dollar, one befitting a great nation on the rise. Right now, however, that seems like a hallucination.

For once, Juan Williams makes sense on Faux News

Krugman takes on Faux News

Can the CIA kill American citizens?

Apparently the answer to that question is ... "yes, we can"

The global war on terror, which led us to torture, Blackwater, drones, ..... now takes us to wondering about the legality of the CIA targeting an American citizen, not for capturing so that we might try the American in our courts but, instead, for assassination.  During Barack Obama's presidency?

I first came across this in Greenwald's post at Salon. Boy, that Greenwald is an excellent writer, with a clear logic.  Anyway, Greenwald writes:
The Washington Post's Dana Priest today reports 
that "U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people."   ...
But buried in Priest's article is her revelation that American citizens are now being placed on a secret "hit list" of people whom the President has personally authorized to be killed
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military,authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. . . .
The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, "it doesn't really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them," a senior administration official said. "They are then part of the enemy."
I wonder if this is the change for which Obama won the presidency.
Greenwald further writes:
Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose "a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests."  They're entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations.  Amazingly, the Bush administration's policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges -- based solely on the President's claim that they were Terrorists -- produced intense controversy for years.  That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution.  Shouldn't Obama's policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind -- not imprisoned, but killed -- produce at least as much controversy?
The point is not to condone terrorism; but the fact that the President can simply order "off  with your head" as much as a king could do back in the 15th century--even though we are not a monarchy, and the Constitution establishes a due process .... Hmmm....
The LA Times adds:
Decisions to add names to the CIA target list are "all reviewed carefully, not just by policy people but by attorneys," said the second U.S. official. "Principles like necessity, proportionality, and the minimization of collateral damage -- to persons and property -- always apply."
The U.S. military, which has expanded its presence in Yemen, keeps a separate list of individuals to capture or kill. Awlaki is already on the military's list, which is maintained by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. Awlaki apparently survived a Dec. 24 airstrike conducted jointly by U.S. and Yemeni forces.
The CIA has also deployed more operatives and analysts to Yemen. CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes was in the country last month, just weeks before a Nigerian accused of training with Al Qaeda in Yemen boarded a jetliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.
From beginning to end, the CIA's process for carrying out Predator strikes is remarkably self-contained. Almost every key step takes place within the Langley, Va., campus, from proposing targets to piloting the remotely controlled planes. 

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Flowers, women, and economics

If ever I need an example of "wake up and smell the roses" I need to look no further than my intro class.  One of the essays I assign to students in my intro class pretty much wakes them up to the reality of roses in the grocery stores here in the US having originated in Ecuador or Colombia.  Most students are shocked, I suppose, that the roses did not come from some local nursery.  One term a student commented something like "but, a rose is not like a factory product that can be shipped like this.  It is a sentimental thing."
The market, I told her and the class, does not care much for sentiments.

So, reading this piece in The Hindu is not that much of a revelation--in terms of how much the boom in the flower business is a recent phenomenon in India.  The boom is a reflection of affluence--barely subsisting people will rarely spend money on such goods. 
In most cities, the sudden boom seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon. “In the 1950s when we started the business, K.R. Market was handling less than a tonne daily. Today, it handles over five tonnes of loose flowers daily, and even breaches the 50-tonne mark during the festival and marriage season,” points out S. Nagabhushan, a wholesale flower seller in Bangalore. Tracing the history of flower market in Bangalore, he observes: “Bangalore was once known for flower production with a number of farms in the vicinity. But, the real estate boom has consumed these farms, and nearly 75 per cent of Bangalore's floral needs in loose flowers today is met by Tamil Nadu.”
The workers down the economic ladder do not get appropriate benefits from participating in this industry.  It is a problem that is characteristic of the informal economy. 
If you thought that Rs. 100 a day was not bad for a flower seller, you would change your mind if you saw how that amount has to be fractioned — to pay for her two children's education at a good private school (Padma herself has studied only up to Std X while her older sister is a graduate); support her unsupportive, unemployed husband and his indulgences; a sister who just lost her job and her two children; and pay off her housing loan. It is indeed quite a strain on the low-margin profit she makes, but she manages and quite contently at that, though the tears that swell in her eyes when talking about the family seems to have a different story to tell…
Again, as is almost the case among the poor all across the developing world, the women overwork, while the men sit around and do nothing.  Or worse, they spend the money the wife earns/saves for the family--on  liquor.  I tell you, it is pretty disgusting for this blogger to admit that his fellow men can be quite a disaster.

Animated map of the day

On the anniversary of Gandhi's assassination

Einstein summed it up best when he noted that  "Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

January 30th 1948 was when Gandhi was felled by Godse's bullet.  62 years later, some of his ashes were scattered in the waters off South Africa, where Gandhi had spent a few years before returning to India. "Gandhi's ashes were brought to South Africa after his death in 1948 but only some of them were immersed in the ocean while the rest were given to a family friend who kept them for decades."

It is simply incredible that Gandhi was able to convince everybody on the merits of a non-violent movement for independence.  I have always felt that India's democratic politics (except for the brief period when Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution) is a result of the non-violent methods that were used to gain freedom.

Sir Richard Attenborough deserves a special meritorious place for making a movie about Gandhi.  One of my favorite scenes from the movie is also the one that troubles me the most--even more than the scene when Gandhi is shot.  The scene that I have embedded here depicts the "salt satyagraha."  The British imposed a salt tax, which was unfair and unjust.  Gandhi was arrested days before the planned non-violent protests at one of the salt works.
This scene gets my emotions every time I watch it; yes, even now as I type this.  Unlike a James Bond beating the crap out of a villainous character, this is a depiction of real happenings.  It is just awful how volunteers line up to get beaten up by the police--who are also Indians--and then the women volunteers bandage them up and they re-join the protest line.  The reporter--played by Martin Sheen--displays the emotions I suppose most of would feel if we were to witness such a horrible spectacle.

We owe Gandhi a whole lot.

Get ready for the Super Bowl

Quote of the day :)

It’s a loving relationship, Dave’s and mine, but one in which one partner, without testicles, will always scream at the other, who has them, for no apparent reason.
 The complete story here

Friday, January 29, 2010

Why I blog? :)

Jon Stewart analyzes Obama's report on the Union ...

The bottom line in Obama's speech, according to Stewart? "F*#% 'em all" .... hilaaaarious :)
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Justice Alito's reaction to Obama

Jeffrey Toobin at the New Yorker writes:

What makes Alito’s reaction even more delicious is that it’s further evidence that the Justice just can’t stand Obama. As a Senator, Obama voted against Alito’s confirmation, which the Justice does not seem to have forgotten. When the President-elect Obama made a courtesy call on the Justices shortly before his inauguration last year, Alito was the only member of the Court not to attend. (Obama voted against Roberts, too, but the Chief Justice managed to spare the time to welcome Obama.) The first law that Obama signed as President was the Lilly Ledbetter Act—which reversed a decision by the Supreme Court that had erected new barriers to plaintiffs filing employment discrimination cases. The author of that now-overruled decision? Samuel Alito. These two guys have a history.
And now everyone knows it. And for that reason, then, I don’t begrudge Alito his grimace. He was just being honest. Alito’s role in that room—and his place at the Court—is no different from that of the Republican members of Congress; both are dedicated political adversaries of the President. The camera—and the Justice—didn’t lie.
And just in case you want to see it to believe it, Toobin provides this video clip too :)

"You play to win the game" ... football coaching rants :)

Howard Zinn on his legacy

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Justice Roberts, and his argument on "corporate" free speech

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The bait and switch in academia

One day when a couple of TA's groaned about grading essays while trying to complete their own papers, he said, "If you ever have to choose between your own studies and the freshmen, shortchange the freshmen. They aren't the reason you came to Elite National University."
When the director of the first-year composition program tells his own instructors that they aren't at the university to teach, what more truth could a grad student ask for?
Read the entire essay here.  And, yes, read up the previous installments in case you missed them.

The State of the Union .... in cartoons

JD Salinger dies ....

Loved that Holden Caulfield character Salinger created in the Catcher in the Rye
One of my favorites is Caulfield commenting in a stream of consciousness mode that adults would start thinking about their next new car even as they drive out of the dealership in their brand new car.  It is both literal and figurative, and makes fantastic sense to me about us phonies and our behaviors.
Thanks, Mr. Salinger

On two historians ....

I always preferred Howard Zinn's approach to a critical analysis of the US compared to Noam Chomsky's.  There was way more hubris in Chomsky, and a lot more softness in Zinn.  Well, at least, from the outside.  The demise of Zinn is a great loss to academia and public policy discussions.

Meanwhile, Irving Horowitz, who is the Hannah Arendt University Professor Emeritus at Rutgers, is mighty pissed at the harsh criticisms leveled at Hannah Arendt.  In the opener, he has one of the best sentences that I have come across recently:
Reputations are too frequently made when pygmies stand on the shoulders of giants and when iconic and sometimes heroic figures are symbolically cut down to size.
A wonderful sentence, eh!  Horowitz writes:
What afflicted Jews on all sides was no easy moral battle. It was a battle fought in home and hearth, in each family. The victims were the Jewish people as a whole—believers and nonbelievers, nationalists and internationalists, conservatives and liberals. To use these facts to level charges against Arendt is a simplistic way to blame the author while exonerating the victim. In such circumstances, the choice between remaining in opposition, in somber silence, or leaving shattered families and dreams to migrate to foreign lands was not inviting. It was itself a challenge. Few people fared better in the intellectual life of the democratic West than Arendt. But to expect perfect creatures to emerge unscathed from such wrenching decisions is simply implausible. All human beings face contradictions and sharp differences within their souls, but few have the conflicts in their souls put on display as a national tragedy no less than a personal contradiction. ....
there are few people who, in their writings and their persons, could face with such clear determination the heights and the depths of European civilization in the last century. Hannah Arendt’s work serves as a metaphor for all of that. Even if she would be uncomfortable with such symbolic meaning, she is entitled to the respect of the countless others who have faced similar problems of migration and wandering and those who might once again be faced with similar macroscopic challenges. That it should be the Jews who, uniquely, are subjected by the self-righteous to such charges of “blaming the victim” is perhaps the price of so much migration and so little appreciation of the Jews’ dangerous situation. This is the consequence of confronting the tyrants of this world and the world’s torrent of critics from within.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

So, Toyota is the new GM?

Remember Government Motors General Motors?  It was bumped into second position by the mighty Toyota?  I suppose one cannot be king for long:
Toyota’s “reputation for long-term quality is finished,” said Maryann Keller, senior adviser at Casesa Shapiro Group LLC in New York, a strategic adviser to auto industry. “People aren’t going to buy Toyotas, period. It doesn’t matter which model. What’s happened is sufficient to keep people out of the stores,” she said in an interview yesterday.
The carmaker said late yesterday it’s expanding a record 4.26 million-vehicle recall announced in November to include 1.09 million additional U.S. autos, to fix accelerator pedals at risk of being trapped by floor mats. Losing its reputation for quality would undercut Toyota’s decades-long campaign to promote reliability and safety that helped it become No. 2 in U.S. sales.

So, if our logic for pouring money into GM and Chrysler because they are American companies that needed to be propped up, will we then extend that sympathy to Toyota too? Just asking :)

Meanwhille in Afghanistan ....

Remember that there is a "surge" in our operations there? How is that going, eh, and is Karzai working miracles after his re-election?
Thomas Ricks, over at Foreign Policy, has a lot to say about it.  The context here is the NY Times reporting on the opposition to the surge--the opposition coming from our ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.  Ricks writes:

Eikenberry makes a lot of well-reasoned argument about why he thinks McChrystal is wrong. But as I read them, I had the nagging feeling that he was mounting exactly the same set of arguments that Eikenberry's long-time friend Gen. John Abizaid made against the Iraq surge back in the fall of 2006, along with Gen. George Casey and just about everybody else in the leadership of the U.S. military establishment. "Rather then reducing Afghan dependence, sending more troops, therefore, is likely to deepen it, at least in the short term," Eikenberry writes. "That would further delay our goal of shifting the combat burden to the Afghans." Yes, that was indeed the Casey plan in Iraq, too.
But then there is the troublesome role played by Pakistan. Eikenberry argues -- I think correctly -- that:
More troops won't end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain. Pakistan will remain the single greatest source of Afghan instability so long as the border sanctuaries remain, and Pakistan views its strategic interests as best served by a weak neighbor.
Good argument. On the other hand, how different is that really from the role that Iran is playing in Iraq, especially in the goal of having a weak, pliable neighbor?  
WTF is going on, eh.  We are bleeding blood, bleeding money, bleeding time, with unemployment in the double digits at home, .... and all we have is continuation of the messed up foreign policy and interventions that began eight years ago?

And, oh yeah, the elections that were supposed to have been held in January will now be in March.  Last November, I told my class to watch out for the Iraqi elections .... I hope they were paying attention to me .... but then nobody listens to me anyway :)

Joke of the day :)

On Oregon's vote to increase tax rates

So, Oregonians defied historical trends and voted for a tax increase.  Well, I had made my position clear even before the vote :)

From across the continent, Megan McArdle has the following observations:
  • The fact that Clinton raised taxes, and then the economy recovered, is not proof that raising taxes has no effect on the economy.  Most people thing that there is at least some dampening effect, which is especially problematic in a downturn.
  • Realistically, income tax response gets more elastic as the tax region gets smaller.  Oregon borders two states with attractive migration possibilities.  California's taxes are no bargain--but Oregon's relatively lower tax rates may have attracted wealthy individuals and businesses that will now find it not so attractive.
  • The Tax Foundation says that pre-tax, it was on the top ten list for business tax climate.  That suggests that it has relatively more room to increase taxes than other states.
  • The business tax changes apparently include a gross receipts tax, which is really an awful tax, especially during a downturn.  Companies which are actually losing money may still owe taxes, which could hasten their closure, and the evaporation of any jobs they provide.
  • Trying to close the gap with only taxes on high income makes state revenues very dependent on a very small group of people.  Ask New York and California how that's going.
  • Since state income taxes are deductible from federal taxes, this doesn't entirely raise new tax revenue--much of it will be transferred from the Federal government.
  • There aren't that many attractive revenue-raising measures for state budgets during a downturn, nor is cutting services always optimal, since demand for them rises when the economy tanks.  Ideally, states would run surpluses in the good years.  Practically, it almost never happens.

Graph of the day

American anthropologists discover inhabitants on an island near the US

The Onion reports that:
Less than two weeks after converging upon the site of a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake, American anthropologists have confirmed the discovery of a small, poverty-stricken island nation, known to its inhabitants as "Haiti."
Located just 700 miles off the southeastern coast of Florida, the previously unaccounted-for country is believed to be home to an estimated 10 million people.
Even more astounding, reports now indicate that these people have likely inhabited the impoverished, destitute region—unnoticed by the rest of the world—for more than 300 years.
It is awful that the poor billions of the world register a blip on our radars only if a country attacks us, or if a tragedy strikes them. Otherwise, it is always "who cares" because "it is always about us"
The Onion has been doing its part to satirize this for a long time.  One of their clips I have used a couple of times in the past is the following one:

And, in a TED talk, Alisa Miller--the head of Public Radio International--described how much we in the US only care about ourselves ....

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Letter of the day

From the NY Times:

Thank you for your article about cellphone-addicted pedestrians.
I am a disabled woman who walks with the aid of two canes. Just recently, I was leaving my local train station, and a man, talking animatedly on his cellphone, kicked one of my canes as he rushed past. I bobbled badly but managed not to fall. I found the man outside the station still talking. I tapped him on the shoulder several times, and when he took no notice, I yelled, “You kicked my cane and I nearly fell!”
His irritated response? “I can’t talk now. Can’t you see I’m on the phone?”
Stephanie Patterson
Collingswood, N.J., Jan. 17, 2010
This letter was in response to a NY Times story on pedestrians being distracted because of cellphones; excerpt:
Slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they got distracted and tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cellphone to talk or text. That was twice the number from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006, according to a study conducted by Ohio State University, which says it is the first to estimate such accidents.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Jack L. Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State, noting that the number of mishaps is probably much higher considering that most of the injuries are not severe enough to require a hospital visit. What is more, he said, texting is rising sharply and devices like the iPhone have thousands of new, engaging applications to preoccupy phone users.

Letter of, well, last week :)

India also has air pollution
Register-Guard opinion writer and geography professor Sriram Khé’s articles on India and now Tanzania have added to my understanding of Third World issues. I’ve just returned from a 17-day trip to the heart of India, including stops in Delhi, Juipur, Ranthambhore National Park and Tiger Reserve, Agra, Khajuraho and Varanasi. The heart of India suffers from the same environmental degradation as the Tanzanian village of Pommern mentioned in professor Khe’s Jan. 18 column.
Arriving in Delhi in late December, I expected such a large city to be polluted, but I had no idea that I would see so many homeless people along the main streets and alleys building small bonfires for heat and for cooking. Traveling south to Juipur and Ranthambhore National Park I expected the smoke pollution to abate. However, a haze of smoke hung over the natural beauty of the national park. I was lucky enough to spot a wild Bengal tiger through haze.
I also visited Abhaneri, a typical small village, set among brilliant-yellow mustard fields. Over 60 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people live in small villages like Abhaneri. This village has electricity, but in every home I visited the women were cooking over small open-air wood stoves. I’m sure that poverty plays a role in villagers not using electrical power.
Possibly the Aprovecho stove manufactured here in Oregon should be introduced in India as well as the many small villages in Third World countries such as Tanzania.
Mike Walsh
(The Register Guard, January 20, 2010)

Chemical Ali hanged: Remembering the gas attack on the Kurds

"Chemical Ali" is dead, hanged for his atrocious crimes against the Kurds, among his many, many crimes.
The Economist has this piece from its archives; excerpt:
EIGHT years of carnage have not robbed the Gulf war of its capacity to shock. In the middle of March (the exact date is unclear) Iranian soldiers pushed the Iraqi army out of the Kurdish town of Halabja, in the Kurdish part of north-east Iraq. One or two days later (this date, too, is unclear), the Iraqi air force appears to have responded by bombing Halabja with some sort of poisonous gas.
The Iraqis say it was the Iranians who bombed the town, a claim that contradicts the testimony of most survivors. The Kurds say that more than 4,000 people died, a claim difficult to verify. But western reporters and television crews, helicoptered into Halabja by the Iranians, found hundreds of corpses strewn around the town. Most were eerily unwounded, suggesting that they had been the victims of a quick-acting poison agent, possibly one of the nerve gases. Hundreds more victims, in hospitals in Tehran, had ferocious skin burns of the kind caused by mustard gas.

The first of the video clips of this PBS Frontline piece recalls the horrors of the horrendous gas attack that Saddam and Chemical Ali launched on civilian Kurds.  A couple of years ago I showed this in one of my classes, and students could not believe this happened.  Which was when one student asked: "why don't all these suicide bombers go kill all these tyrants instead of killing innocent people?"
Compared to what the Kurds went through, Chemical Ali died pretty painlessly.  I wonder whether he expressed any regrets at all before he died.

Can you handle the truth? :)

So, there I was at Daniel Drezner's blog reading whether Obama will become a foreign policy president, and he had a link to a clip from Chinatown.  Well, one link led to another .... and am completely sidetracked!!!  I wish I had a video editor to mash up the two clips I have here; I am visualizing Jack Nicholson answering his own question about "truth"

The awful problems in Haiti

Tyler Cowen on the Haiti situation (ht).  First, a reminder to donate to the Haiti relief efforts.
1. Since many financial institutions are closed, transport is difficult, and people don't all have their papers (fear of theft also may be an issue), it is almost impossible to receive remittances, which account for more than one-quarter of the country's gdp.
2. The current makeshift shelters are not robust to rain and storms and the rainy season is starting in May.  Rain also brings a greater risk of various diseases.
3. The price of food keeps on rising.  It was already the case -- before the earthquake -- that poor people commonly ate mud cakes as a source of nutrition.  54 percent of Haitians live on less than one dollar a day.
4. The party with the ability to make things happen -- the U.S. military -- isn't formally in charge and is sensitive to bad publicity.
5. In the Darfur crisis, eighty percent of the fatalities came from disease and disease has yet to begin in the Haitian situation.
6. There are already 150,000 accounted-for dead and many more uncounted.
7. It's by no means clear that the aftershocks are over and there is even some chance of a bigger quake to come.  This also discourages aid efforts and the construction of more permanent shelter.
8. Outside of some parts of Port-Au-Prince and immediate environs, external aid is barely underway yet damage is extensive.
9. It is not clear that the upcoming planting season -- which starts in March -- will proceed in an orderly fashion.  One-third of the country's population is living at loose ends and most of the country's infrastructure is destroyed.  For the planting season many Haitian farmers need seeds, fertilisers, livestock feed and animal vaccines.  That planting season accounts for sixty percent of Haiti's agricultural output.
10. Before a limb can be amputated, some doctors have to first go to the market and buy a saw.
Those aren't the only problems.

Monday, January 25, 2010

India's Republic Day: Open disagreements is democracy at its best

My dad's birthday is always celebrated with a holiday and parades throughout India. 

Ok, it is not his birthday they are celebrating but India's Republic Day--the day it shed its British connections slightly over two years post-Independence.  (BTW, dad turns 80!!!)

Anne Applebaum has a pretty neat column marking the occasion.  She asks:
All around the world, rising prosperity and rising patriotism go hand in hand, and India is no exception. But what sort of patriotism is India's going to be?
The answer I thought of as I read it was almost identical to what Applebaum later explains: it is not the Russian model of aggression nor is it the Chinese version.  She could have easily used Amartya Sen's phrase of the "argumentative Indian" as the bottom line for the Indian flavor of patriotism!  Applebaum writes:
It's not nationalistic, not imperialist, not aggressive, but rather self-critical
Indeed!  I really like the way she ends the piece:
It's that sort of patriotism that, if it can be encouraged and maintained, will keep Indian politics diverse and democratic over time—even if the economy stops growing.
It's also that kind of patriotism that makes tourists like me feel so energized by a brief visit. Like economic cycles, political trends come and go. At the moment, democracy is out, authoritarianism is in, and it is fashionable, in many parts of Asia, to claim that rapid economic growth requires censorship and central political control. India presents a real alternative to that model. I know that many Indians will violently disagree with that assessment, and that makes me more optimistic still.
I suppose India trained me well; I love discussions--including critical of the country where I live, the industry in which I work, .... But, to those not used to the idea of patriotism that is self-critical, I suppose I might come across as a traitor of sorts.  No wonder I am frequently excommunicated. Does not matter though; in their letter a couple of months back, dad and mom wrote that they are absolutely proud of me and my values, despite all my rebellious frameworks.  Thanks dad.  Happy birthday!

Women: at universities, in the kitchens, and identity issues ....

Came across two interesting essays, both about women and housework.  And both come at if from very different perspectives.

The first one is by Sandra Tsing Loh.  Loh, whose writings I have followed for a while, went to extent of even writing about her divorce, which included discussing her indiscretion.  In an essay in the Atlantic a few months ago, Loh wrote:
I am divorcing. This was a 20-year partnership. My husband is a good man, though he did travel 20 weeks a year for work. I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued. This turn of events was a surprise.
Anyway, that is now old news.  In her latest essay, in the NY Times, which is the one that caught my attention today, it appears that she is continuing with that story after all.  Loh writes, this time, about her identity at home and about housework and a "recurring 1950s housewife fantasy" as she calls it of Nancy and her husband Brad.  She notes that:
Nancy arrives at the end of her day so fully socialized with, she is ready to glaze over amiably during her husband’s evening Work Monologue, and perhaps even later, during their customary five minutes of intimate relations. Being mistress of her own domain much as Brad is master of his, Nancy enjoys total domestic authority and the job satisfaction that comes with it. Even more important, as Brad unambiguously earns all the money, Nancy has the relational contract of sheer gratitude to pull on, due to his clearly measurable value. If the mortgage weren’t paid, Nancy would have to live in the same house as, God forbid, her mother! By contrast, Brad is relatively low maintenance.
Yes, Stepford Wives indeed!  But, then I wonder to what extent such a fantasy is a reality--what percentage of working women dream about this and how intensely .... To what extent are working women "jealous" of the stay-at-home women who are their own bosses from the time the husband leaves for work until he returns?  Loh wraps it up with:
[As] the breadwinner, I wish to be the husband, and hence what I’m looking for is a wife — a loyal helpmeet who keeps the home fires burning and offers uncritical emotional support when I, the gladiator, return exhausted from the arena. Who are the (actively listening!) men without money who can adapt to such a role? ...

In the end, we all want a wife. But the home has become increasingly invaded by the ethos of work, work, work, with twin sets of external clocks imposed on a household’s natural rhythms. And in the transformation of men and women into domestic co-laborers, the Art of the Wife is fast disappearing.
I read this earlier in the day. Now, after a cup of coffee late in the afternoon, it was another essay (ht) with a different perspective about housework but with the focus on "How to keep talented women scientists in the lab, where they belong."  In this essay in Academe, the authors write:
based on data collected in 2006–07, show that despite women’s considerable gains in science in recent decades, female scientists do nearly twice as much housework as their male counterparts. Partnered women scientists at places like Stanford University do 54 percent of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry in their households; partnered men scientists do just 28 percent. This translates to more than ten hours a week for women— in addition to the nearly sixty hours a week they are already working as scientists—and to just five hours for men. When the call came from Stockholm early one October morning, Nobel Prize– winner Carol W. Greider was not working in her lab or sleeping. She was doing laundry. She is far from alone. Highly talented women scientists are investing substantial time in housework.

I loved their observation that Greider was doing laundry when the Nobel people called.  It might have been a coincidence, after all, but a coincidence that is consistent with the statistical data.  So what can be done about this, you ask?  They have the most innovative proposal I have ever come across, and I think it has great value:
Many universities already offer retirement, health-care, and child-care supplements; some even support housing and tuition benefits. We recommend that institutions provide a package of flexible benefits that employees can customize to support aspects of their private lives in ways that save time and enhance professional productivity. Institutions need to think of housework benefits as part of the structural cost of doing business. With lab costs running into the millions of dollars, supporting the human resource involved—scientists’ ability to be more productive—takes full advantage of investments in space and equipment.
And, I really like this point they make:
Employee needs can change over the course of a lifetime. Younger people, for example, may need assistance with household labor when salaries are low. Those who have children may choose to put resources into child care and later into college tuition. Some employees may need help with elder care. A flexible benefits package—providing a specific yearly dollar amount—could be used for any aspect of private life that saves employee time and hence enhances productivity. One appealing aspect of this benefit proposal is its inclusivity—one need not be partnered or have children to gain access to the full range of services under its umbrella.
You read until here? Really? Then, here is a bonus for you :)

More on education, and the need for reforms

Two in a row doesn't make a trend :)  While the previous post was about higher education, the following comment--about K-12--is equally applicable to higher ed:
unfortunately, society does not generally invest enough in innovation—especially in areas where it would help the poor (who aren't an attractive market) and where there isn't an agreed-upon measure of excellence. In the U.S., that means we have not invested nearly what we should in innovation for education. Our education system has been fundamental to our success as a nation, but the way we prepare students has barely changed in 100 years.
So, in case you think it was some nutcase blogger (ahem, present company excluded) who said this, well, think again.  That comment was by Bill Gates, in Newsweek, who goes on to note:
Another crucial innovation in education involves using interactive technology to deliver high-quality materials for teachers and students. Now that watching videos is a standard part of the Internet experience, we can put great lectures online so that everyone can benefit from the best teachers. (Personally, I like the online physics and chemistry courses from MIT.) Alternatively, software can also be used to tailor lessons to individual students, so kids can stop spending time on the things they already know and focus on the areas they are confused about. While it won't replace face-to-face teaching, it could make remedial courses far more effective—helping students move on to the next phase of their education instead of discouraging them into dropping out. That's the kind of innovation that can lead to a brighter future for everyone.
Hmmm .... but does he know about the resistance from higher education faculty to distance and online education?  Yes, I too love those online and video materials from MIT and other places that are all active members of the OperCourseWare Consortium, and use those materials in my classes too.  Oh, yes, not to forget the fantastic lectures through .... well, I wonder when higher education will change, for the better!

Rethink the definitions of scholarship and scholarly activity

Talk about Mission Impossible!!!  Here are a bunch of higher education professionals calling for motivating professors to improve their teaching and, even more difficult a task of restructuring the tenure/promotion criteria:

Motivating Faculty Members

During a session on Friday that was devoted to "unasked questions" about liberal education, Amy Jessen-Marshall, associate vice president for academic affairs at Otterbein College, speculated about how to change faculty incentive systems.
"What would happen," she asked, "if we fundamentally rethink the definitions of scholarship and scholarly activity, or at least broaden them?" Such a change, she said, could allow colleges to reward faculty members for various types of civic and community engagement, and also for working on interdisciplinary undergraduate-research projects that could increase students' engagement and understanding.
I am all for improving teaching, and changing the absolutely screwed-up criteria for tenure and promotion. But, I am tired of tilting at windmills :(

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Quote of the day

"Work somewhere in a soup kitchen or something if you can’t take the pressure."
I suppose this is a rephrasing of "if you can't stand the heat ...." Anyway, that is California's governor quoted in Maureen Dowd's column.  I cannot understand though why that is a column--it is more like Dowd reporting on a meeting/interview.  Where is the analysis/insight?  I say this not because I am not a fan of Dowd.  Well, of course, I am not a fan of Dowd; but, that is beside the point.

Speaking of NY Times columns, Frank Rich, as always, has a good commentary and with hyperlinks.  Nicholas Kristoff has taken a break from detailing something on the freaky side of unfortunate aspects of lives somewhere, and has a neat column on an offbeat and upbeat experience. The good thing about Thomas Friedman's column is that he does not lead with how he had yet another insightful conversation at lunch with somebody.  The bad news is that his penchant for manipulating metaphors is right at the title for the column! 

Seth Meyers is worried about Conan and the Tonight Show because ....

Science means never having to say you're sorry :)

A quick follow-up to the Himalayan glaciers controversy.
The IPCC chief formally regrets the error:
Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the panel, told reporters in New Delhi that he regretted including the forecast in the report but said the mistake should not obscure mounting evidence that climate change was a real threat.
"Our procedures are very robust, they are very solid," he said. "All we need to make sure about, is the fact that we adhere to implementing these procedures."
Pachauri brushed aside questions about whether the error would strengthen the hand of climate change sceptics and should prompt him to step down.
"Rational people ... see the larger the picture. They are not going to be distracted by this one error, which of course is regrettable," he said. "I have no intention of resigning from my position."
No word, yet, on whether he has apologized for his labeling of the counter-arguments as "voodoo science" :)

"Can I catch a train from Fiji to New Zealand?"

ALDaily had a link to a report on dumb questions that tourists ask, which is from where I got the title of this post.  A hilarious read.
A few excerpts from the questions that were reportedly asked by tourists:
 "Why did they build so many ruined castles and abbeys in England?"
"if they would end up in Holland if they drove through New York's Holland Tunnel."
"what type of car they would need to drive overnight from the Great Barrier Reef to Perth'
BTW, in case you are still wondering where Fiji is, here is a map that shows Fiji relative to New Zealand and Australia :)

What happened to the march of freedom? OMD :(


Why are we fat? Let me count the ways ....

Over at the Atlantic:
One in five US teenagers has unhealthy cholesterol levels, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two stats that stick out from this study are: (1) 1/3 of teens are sufficiently overweight to qualify for cholesterol screening and (2) 14% of normal weight teens have unhealthy cholesterol levels.
How does this happen, you ask?  Well, images like the ones below are worth a gazillion words, don't you think?  Warning: do not look at them if you ate only a couple of minutes ago; after all, you don't want to taste that food again, do you? :)

And here is that classic scene where Jack Nicholson orders a toast at a diner :)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dalai Lama, we don't care. But, up in arms over Google?

It is funny how President Obama did not even want to meet with the Dalai Lama, lest our creditor our friend China get all offended.  But, oh, when Google says it experienced cyberattacks from China, the administration jumps up and down.  Yet again showing that money talks and everything else can take a hike.  Including the Dalai Lama!
I like the tongue-in-cheek comment that Hillary Clinton suddenly transformed into Google's Secretary of State :) But, wait, this joke is in Forbes magazine?  How ironic!

Even more hilarious and quite strange is the comment from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer:
in a speech to oil company executives in Houston on Thursday, criticized Google for its threats to leave China after the cyber-attacks, suggesting that Google’s decision to no longer filter out Internet searches objectionable to the Chinese government were an irrational business decision. After all, Ballmer said, the U.S. imports oil from Saudi Arabia despite the censorship that goes on in that country.
There, that is a good logic, and consistent too: We are business folks and we don't care how horrible the regimes are. 

Anyway, there are other countries, too, where Google censors information in order to satisfy the home country:
India: To abide by obscenity laws, Google strips out certain pornographic results from its Indian search pages. It has also removed content from the Indian version of its social networking site, Orkut, that's deemed by the government to be politically incendiary, like one group representing the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena.
France and Germany: Their strict ban on hate speech extends to the Web. Google obliges them by blocking search results for extremist groups like the neo-Nazi group Stormfront and the Holocaust denial association AAARGH.
Thailand: Lése-majesté, or insulting the king, is a serious crime in Thailand. Hence Google's agreement to block Thai users from viewing videos on YouTube (owned by Google) that mocked king Bhumibol Adulyadej, including one that showed him with feet on his head, a symbol of degradation to Thai Buddhists.
Turkey: Google has kowtowed to Turkish government demands that it block a handful of YouTube videos that portrayed Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the revered founder of the country, as a homosexual. Turkey has banned YouTube anyway for the past two years in an attempt to persuade Google to remove the Atatürk clips from global distribution.

A beer ad in favor of health care reform. Ahem :)


Will Justices Stevens and Ginsburg please quite the Court ASAP?

I have absolutely nothing against Justices Stevens and Ginsburg.  I am thankful they were there in that court to duke it out with Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, and Roberts on a daily basis.  I wish we had more of these kind of people up there, instead of "scalitomas" Hmmm .... maybe I ought to copyright this "scalitomas"--sounds like it merits medical attention, eh!  Ha ha

Anyway, the reason I want Stevens and Ginsburg to quit now?  I am not sure how much more the Democrats will fumble the ball and, therefore, how much more they will lose their advantage in the Senate.  It will be terrible if in 2011 we end up with a much stronger Republican presence in the Senate, and an even readier-to-fold Democrats, and then comes up the need to nominate two for vacancies in the Supreme Court.  I am tired of nominees who will mouth off being "umpires" who are merely people who have well hidden their ideological track records.  To lose these two liberals and then to replace them with "centrists" is not what I am looking forward to.

Some fun stuff; hey, this is my blog!!!

  • Air France is now charging obese passengers for two seats. On the bright side, two seats, two meals.
  • Today officially marks the beginning of President Obama’s second year in office. He has three years left, but NBC offered him $45 million to leave altogether.
  • [Newly]-elected Sen. Scott Brown told the crowd that his daughters are both “available.” Man, so many great American speeches. “Four score and seven years ago,” “Ask not what your country can do for you,” “I have a dream,” and now, “My daughters are both available.”
  • It’s Thursday, Jan. 21, or as John Edwards calls it, “Father’s Day.”

Destroying "Intelligent Design" into single-cells :)

I wish I had more time to read up on science articles that are not too complicated for me.  I am glad with this recommendation that Ron Bailey had.  This article, in the Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology that offers a lit-review of the evidence that punctures the argument of the Intelligent Design folks.  And the evidence is all from the single-celled world! 

While it is true that I will not be able to comprehend the finer details of the terms used, I was blown away by this paragraph in that article:
When one considers the tremendous diversity of protistan forms (see Adl et al. 2005), the array of body plans among the Cambrian metazoa pales in comparison. In terms of biological diversity it can be argued that no group approaches that of the protists, especially if one considers that all the plants, fungi, and animals, including the famously diverse Coleoptera, are merely sub-groups of the protistan clades Archaeplastida and Opisthokonta (Adl et al. 2005). Even with the exclusion of the multicellular ‘‘higher’’ eukaryotes, the morphological and physiological diversity among protists is staggering. The major clades of protists contain everything from photosynthetic autotrophs to amitochondriate flagellates and are found in virtually every habitat on Earth (Foissner 2008). The extant diversity of the protists should therefore be seen as the ‘‘background radiation’’ of the eukaryotic Big Bang, with the Cambrian radiation of the metazoa being a subsequent event within a specific group.
I had no idea that there was such a tremendous diversity of those tiny single-celled critters.  The metaphor of the "background radiation" before the biological big bang also really, really appeals to me
And when I read the following paragraph, I thought how cool it will be if the DNA had some kind of a time-stamp on it!!!  I mean, that time-stamp alone can come in handy in everything from crime-scene-investigations to solving the puzzle of when life originated.  Hey, maybe it is encoded somewhere and we are yet to figure it out :-)
As readers of this journal know, DNA sequences are not like birth certificates, stamping an organism with the time and place of its origin. Ancestries inferred from DNA-based methods are founded on comparison of sequence or genomic data, evidence-based modeling of how DNA changes over time, and calculations of the most credible relationship between genetic sequences or patterns. This is just as true for variable number of tandem repeats (VNTR, or so-called ‘‘DNA fingerprint’’) analysis, which is broadly accepted in courts of law, as it is for deep phylogenetic analyses encompassing hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history. For that matter, acceptance of ‘‘written geneaological records’ requires confidence that the records are not false or misread. Therefore, all methods for determining the history of an organism (except for the direct observation described in the previous section) require theory and well-grounded inference, just as stratigraphic analysis does; they stand or fall together.

What voters really care about: bullshit

Here is how the Onion News Network reported how voters elect candidates who not only talk the most bullshit, but also live it

And here is Professor Harry Frankfurt talking about Bullshit

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Climate change war heats up over the himalayan glaciers

First the news, and then the reaction.  The news is from the NY Times:
Leaders of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change apologized yesterday for making a "poorly substantiated" claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. .... Experts said the gaffes that came to light in recent weeks don't undermine the IPCC report's main conclusion -- that evidence for global warming is "unequivocal," and human activities are driving the climate shift.
Reaction #1:
IPCC Chairman R K Pachauri on Thursday declined to speak to the media on the Himalayan glacier goof-up issue amid questions being raised about the UN climate body’s credibility in the wake of the controversy.
“I would hold a press conference tomorrow on the issue.
This event is strictly confined to the energy security-related matter,” he said at an event organised by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) which is headed by him.
Despite a barrage of questions from the media who insisted that the issue was of global importance and his reaction could clear the air on the matter, Pachauri remained evasive and refused to budge.
“I do not want to speak on the issue (controversy) right now,” maintained Pachauri who had vociferously dismissed a report last year by India’s senior-most glaciologist V K Raina that questioned IPCC’s claim as “voodoo science”.
Reaction #2:
V.K. Raina, the former Deputy Director-General of the Geological Survey of India -- whose research document on the Himalayan glaciers debunked the claims of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that these glaciers would disappear by 2035 -- is not satisfied by the regret expressed by the United Nations agency.
“I want a personal apology from the IPCC chairperson R.K. Pachauri who had described my research as voodoo science,” Mr. Raina told The Hindu over phone from Panchkula. “Forget IPCC, Dr. Pachauri has not even expressed regret over what he said after my report -- Himalayan Glaciers: a state-of-art review of glacial studies, glacial retreat and climate change -- was released in November last year.”
With over 100 scientific papers and three books to his credit, Mr. Raina said he had not read the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC that made the prediction on melting of the Himalayan glaciers, but read the contents only from what was published in newspapers and magazine.
“But all along I knew that this was not based on facts. During my 50 years of research and several expeditions to the region, I never found anything as sensational as was predicted in the IPCC, but no one heard me then.”
It was only after he was asked by the Minister of Environment and Forests to come out with a report that a global debate was initiated on the issue.
So, who you gonna believe? Everyday something exciting, I tell ya :)

Obama, the movie

Choose the movie you prefer based on the following trailers :)

It is not merely Massachusetts. Remember Virginia and New Jersey?

Losing the seat held by a Kennedy since 1953 in a very blue state is, of course, a huge loss to the Democratic Party.  But, this is being seen as some kind of a one crazy shot out of nowhere.  Well, how quickly we forget other results that were not too long ago:
This is how the NY Times reported the results of the elections in Virginia--elections held just over two months ago, on November 3, 2009:
Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican and a former state attorney general, won a decisive victory in Virginia’s governor’s race Tuesday, a stark reversal of fortune for Democrats who have held control in Richmond for the past eight years.
Mr. McDonnell defeated the Democratic candidate, R. Creigh Deeds, an 18-year state senator from rural Bath County in western Virginia. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. McDonnell had 59 percent of the vote, and Mr. Deeds 41 percent.
Republicans cited the victory as a repudiation of the Obama administration and the national Democratic Party’s agenda, especially that of departing Gov. Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
And, there was one other election that same day, in New Jersey.  And what happened there?  Over to the NY Times again--after all, this was in their backyard:
In New Jersey, a former federal prosecutor, Christopher J. Christie, became the first Republican to win statewide in 12 years by vowing to attack the state’s fiscal problems with the same aggressiveness he used to lock up corrupt politicians.
He overcame a huge Democratic voter advantage and a relentless barrage of negative commercials to defeat Jon S. Corzine, an unpopular incumbent who outspent him by more than two to one and drew heavily on political help from the White House, including three visits to the state from President Obama.
The way I read the results is this: none of the election results was about Obama per se.  We Americans are less comfortable with one-party rule, and we way prefer divided governance.  Bush would have experienced similar situations, if not for the events of 9/11 and then the wars that got him and the Republicans the extra vote needed to win seats.

I am used to people expressing their preference for a divided government.  It used to happen all too often in the state, Tamil Nadu, where I lived until I came here to the US.  Electors routinely would send one party's candidates to the parilament but elect the other party's candidates for the state government.

So, as far as I am concerned, both the Republicans and Democrats are making a mistake when they interpret the election of Brown as some kind of a statement on healthcare, Obama, ..... whatever.
BTW, it also seems like voters are making a clear distinction between Obama's popularity and the issues on which they have to vote.  So, whether it is the Olympics, or NJ governor race, or the MA senate race, well, Obama might attract crowds, but if the proof is in eating the pudding, well, ....

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

High court bans same-sex friendships

US recovery creates jobs .... but, in India :)

Footloose capitalism at work:
India’s top three outsourcing companies are ramping up hiring and increasing pay as global corporations, mainly from the U.S., send more work offshore to cut costs as they emerge from the downturn.
Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro expanded their global workforces by an average of 5.1 per cent last quarter, together adding 16,701 employees, company documents show - an early sign that the Great Recession may ultimately benefit India as cost-conscious companies outsource more work, just as they did after the dot-com bust.
So, is this good for the US?
cost savings from off-shoring has helped U.S. companies survive - and that’s good for the American worker.
“You might say jobs in the U.S. are getting displaced by jobs in India, but because of the value provided by Indian companies and lower costs, there are firms who are able to keep their heads above water and continue to employ their existing employees,” he said.

And how is this working for the financial bottom line of the corporations and employees in those firms in India?
After about a year of hiring slowdowns, all three companies are sweetening compensation as the fight to hold on to talented employees in India heats up.
Infosys offered its Indian employees an average 8 per cent pay hike in October, their first raise since April 2008, and executives said last week they are considering another raise to combat rising attrition.
“The market is heating up and we want to retain talent,” human resources director Mohandas Pai told reporters.

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