Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The one and only science celebrity: Einstein

I remember being absolutely impressed--as a curious elementary school student--when we learnt in geometry about π ... The Pythagoras Theorem was also really neat. 
It felt magical that I could not do anything to alter them. They determined the fate of geometry, and we had to simply obey them. Awesome.

But, all those dwarfed when in the "modern physics" part of physics we studied about mass and energy, and Einstein's equation.
It looked so simple.
So simple.
I mean, just ridiculously simple a formula.
And that simple formula meant that not only academic physics, but the world outside of the academic walls also would never be the same.  It was an equation that shook the world. A big bang of its own.  I was blown away.
It also helped that my best friend in high school was a physics nut himself. (Ironically, neither he nor I are anywhere near physics in our respective professions now!)

Even years--30 years--later, I am as blown away as I was the first time.

Over the years, I have also come to appreciate how much the name Einstein is recognized all over. People know Shakespeare even if they have never read any of his works. It is the same with Einstein too.  And, of course, his face with his hair as a halo perhaps one of the most recognized faces, I would assume.

I would imagine that people went to see him even if they cared not for physics or relativity.  I wonder if people walked up to him to get his autograph, or to take photos with him. 

And, he pre-dates Cher and Madonna as a one-name celebrity. Absolutely cool!

Too bad there is nobody like that today ... oh well ...

More on China versus America: warships

Not that I am on a anti-China warpath ... I am merely blogging the facts :)
Guess which country has the most number of warships on this planet?  You got that right!

Monday, August 30, 2010

China: Not "Good Earth" but "rare earth"

A month ago, I blogged about the rare earth elements, and quoted Sam Kean there (from his book) that America, which used to be the big boy in the business, closed it shutters while China rapidly moved ahead. 

Though I have a personal connection to rare earth elements, as I discussed in that post, I had no idea that China had become that powerful.  But, even that was nothing compared to the latest news on this topic:
China cut its export quotas for rare earth by 72 percent for the second half of this year, according to data from the Ministry of Commerce on July 8. Shipments will be capped at 7,976 metric tons, down from 28,417 tons for the same period a year ago.
Mining for rare earth minerals and processing them is not something that can be done right away by a new player just because there is an international market demand for them.  We are looking at a lead time at eight to ten years.Meanwhile, the newer technologies we develop demand a lot of that rare earth, which makes China's decision all the more critical.

So, what is China's rationale?
Restrictions on the rare earth industry will help protect the environment, the state-run Xinhua News Agency cited Chen Deming, China’s commerce minister, as saying yesterday at a media briefing during China-Japan economic talks in Beijing.
The Chinese government's concern for the environment is nothing but crocodile tears to camouflage its flexing muscles in the marketplace.  (editor: too many metaphors! And mixing them!! is this what you teach your students?)

Slowly, America is waking up to this reality.  Unfortunately, the dominant angle appears to be from a national security perspective:
Rare earth elements are critical to advanced military technologies, computer and cellphone hardware, hybrid car batteries and wind turbine magnets. In other words, if you were going to target an industry crucial to dominating key technologies of the 21st century, rare earth element processing would be near the top of the list.
Andrew Leonard states that is:
[The] primary conclusion to be gleaned from a review of three recent studies of Chinese dominance of rare earth element mining and processing, "Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain," a report published by the Congressional Research Service in July, the Government Accountability Office's "Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain," published in April, and China's Rare Earth Elements Industry: What Can the West Learn?" published by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in March.
The past decade has been one in which America was trapped in its wars, while China was all the more freer to pursue its strategic interests.  This is an important cost of war that we vastly underestimate.

Finally, the business model that China employs is pretty interesting: thanks to China, Wal-Mart was able to consistently lower prices, open stores all over the country and, thereby, wipe out local manufacturing and retailing.  China is now using the same model--it is a huge Wal-Mart by itself that takes over the global market, wipes out local competition (such as the American rare earth mining and manufacturing) and we are at its mercy now ... how oddly symmetrical!

BTW, Leonard notes that America did at least one thing right in this rare earth business:
I did not realize until reading the Hurst report was that the controversial, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the state-owned Chinese oil company to buy Unocal back in 2005 may have largely been a rare earth element play. There is one currently operating rare earth mine in the United States, California's Mountain Pass mine, owned by Molycorp.
In 1978, Unocal purchased Molycorp. In 1982, Mountain Pass Mine began processing samarium oxide and in 1989, it began processing neodymium oxide, both critical components of two types of permanent magnets. In 2005, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) submitted an $18.5 billion cash bid for Unocal, outbidding Chevron by half a billion dollars. CNOOC's bid raised a great deal of concern for U.S. energy security. While there was a media frenzy over these concerns, one issue received little attention -- repercussions of China gaining control over Molycorp through CNOOCs purchase of Unocal. If the deal were to have gone through, China would have gained control over Mountain Pass and therefore the country would have had a complete monopoly over all the current major rare earth element resources in the world.
In retrospect maybe it was a smart decision to block the Chinese purchase of Unocal, though I suspect that most of the politicians who were grandstanding the loudest about the dangers of letting China gobble up a U.S. oil company didn't have a clue as to the rare earth angle, and would likely have dismissed renewable energy technologies as hippie self-indulgence. But the bottom line is that China has its eye on the prize, while the U.S. continues to flail.

Image of the day: scatalogical?

Why this image?

It is from a link in an essay at Slate, which argues that:
sitting on toilets—a recent phenomenon, stemming from the invention of the flush toilet in 1591—might be unhealthy. ...
For most of human history—several hundred thousand years—we've squatted. Today, 1.2 billion people squat because they simply don't have a toilet, while many, many more in Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Europe use toilets designed specifically for squatting.
So, how about squatting in America?  Well, the same Slate essay notes:
Americans, now fatter than ever, are having trouble standing up from a sit, never mind a squat.
I have blogged often about the toilet issue, or the lack of, in many parts of the world, particularly in India.

Even now when I travel in India, it is disheartening that the country that spends gazillions on military infrastructure can't seem to put sanitation as a priority.  For 63 years since independence.  Unfortunate.

The liberal arts is dead. Long live the liberal arts.

There is nothing else I want to do but be immersed, the way I am, in liberal education.  To those who say put your money where your mouth is, well, I have: I gave up what would have certainly been a fantastically remunerative career in electrical engineering, which is more than enough evidence of my mouth and money.

This commitment and belief in liberal education is also why I am terribly disappointed with the contemporary state of liberal education.  Self-aggrandizing faculty through their endless intellectual Onanism have converted liberal education into a process to clone as many of their like-minded replicants as possible.  One unfortunate result of all this, among many, is that liberal education now arrogantly and systematically disses any kind of professional training--the trades, as Camille Paglia refers to them.

I have written about this and have, in the process, earned more enemies than I ever imagined would be possible.  But, it is an important issue that we cannot ignore--because, we are screwing up the futures of hundreds of thousands of youth.

Paglia's latest commentary is too good to merely provide an excerpt.  So, here is the entire piece--a short one to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the Chronicle Review.  (Only now do I realize then that my own essay that was published there in 2001 was in its infancy. Cool!)  Camille Paglia writes on "Revalorizing the Trades":
Vanishing of jobs will plague the rest of this decade and more. Meaningful employment is no longer guaranteed to dutiful, studious members of the middle class in the Western world. College education, which was hugely expanded after World War II and sold as a basic right, is doing a poor job of preparing young people for life outside of a narrow band of the professional class.
Yes, an elite education at stratospheric prices will smooth the way into law or medical school and supply a network of useful future contacts. But what if a student wants a different, less remunerative or status-oriented but more personally fulfilling career? There is little flexibility in American higher education to allow for alternative career tracks.
Jobs, and the preparation of students for them, should be front and center in the thinking of educators. The idea that college is a contemplative realm of humanistic inquiry, removed from vulgar material needs, is nonsense. The humanities have been gutted by four decades of pretentious postmodernist theory and insular identity politics. They bear little relationship to the liberal arts of broad perspective and profound erudition that I was lucky enough to experience in college in the 1960s.
Having taught in art schools for most of my four decades in the classroom, I am used to having students who work with their hands—ceramicists, weavers, woodworkers, metal smiths, jazz drummers. There is a calm, centered, Zen-like engagement with the physical world in their lives. In contrast, I see glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media. They have been ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations.
Jobs, jobs, jobs: We need a sweeping revalorization of the trades. The pressuring of middle-class young people into officebound, paper-pushing jobs is cruelly shortsighted. Concrete manual skills, once gained through the master-apprentice alliance in guilds, build a secure identity. Our present educational system defers credentialing and maturity for too long. When middle-class graduates in their mid-20s are just stepping on the bottom rung of the professional career ladder, many of their working-class peers are already self-supporting and married with young children.
The elite schools, predicated on molding students into mirror images of their professors, seem divorced from any rational consideration of human happiness. In a period of global economic turmoil, with manufacturing jobs migrating overseas and service-sector jobs diminishing in availability and prestige, educators whose salaries are paid by hopeful parents have an obligation to think in practical terms about the destinies of their charges. That may mean a radical stripping down of course offerings, with all teachers responsible for a core curriculum. But every four-year college or university should forge a reciprocal relationship with regional trade schools.

Sanskrit poem (couplet) of the day: on helping

मय्येव जीर्णतां यातु यत्त्वयोपकृतं मम ।
नरः प्रत्युपकारार्थी विपत्तिमनुकांक्षति ॥
- सुभाषितसुधानिधि
I do not wish to repay the help that you have done to me. Any person who wishes to do so, is actually wishing that you get into trouble so that he can help you back.
- Subhashitasudhanidhi

What a fantastic message!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Quote of the day: on Obama's presidency

If Obama’s politics leads to a Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress, and even to a Republican president in 2012, then much of what Obama has accomplished could be undone. It’s unlikely that a new Republican president and Congress would actually repeal the health care or the financial reform bill. But the former could be starved of public funds and deprived of regulatory oversight; and the latter could be neutered by a hostile treasury secretary and by weak or hostile presidential appointees to the Securities and Exchange Commission or the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Reform legislation needs administrations and congresses committed to reform. That is where politics has to come in; and that’s where the Obama administration, with its aversion to populism, has fallen short.
John B. Judis writing about Obama's (and the Democrats') "Unnecessary Fall"

A similar take on the President, all the way from Germany where Candidate Obama had a phenomenal summer (how do you say "Obamania" in Deutsch?) ... just two years ago:
Even a year ago, I don't think I would have imagined the 2010 midterm elections to become this important ... and setting up one hell of a 2012 election season ... crazy!

There is still one thing, if happens, which will be the mother of all game-changers: the capture or death of Osama bin Laden.

When I knew I am a mortal with an expiration date ...

I was about eight or nine years old, I think.  Dad was in the local hospital for a surgery, and I recall going there with my mother.  In the room adjacent to dad's was a young fellow, barely a year or two older than me, who, I was told, was rapidly nearing the end of his life because of "blood cancer."  A phrase that I would come across quite often in movies with a melodramatic tune in the background, and here was a kid like me who really had it. And was dying.

It scared the shit out of me--that I could die. Of blood cancer.  In a culture where nobody talked about anything openly, I had to deal with this scare by myself.  (My other big scare then: after watching a Godzilla movie, I trembled quite a few nights thinking that any moment those creatures would come get me!) 

Even now the kid, frozen in time in my memory, but whose face has completely faded out, is a reminder of how much we are cartons with expiration dates of our own. 

A few years later, in the middle of my teenage years, I was in the taxicab as we took grandma to the same hospital.  We had been through the drill a few times--her enlarged heart would every once in a while make it extremely difficult to breathe, which then required a couple of days of appropriate medication in the hospital.  But, this time, as we were driving--mom in the back with grandma and me in the front with the driver--grandma stopped breathing.  And that was it.

It was quite a revelation that death could happen that fast. 

Grandma's death anniversary is a couple of days away.  Some memories don't fade away, and I am thankful they don't.

A new MIA: Muslims in America, that is

I didn't know this about Feisal Rauf--the man behind the Park51 project, which has become one insane controversy:
When a memorial service was held for murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Rauf declared: "I am a Jew." When the scandal of Abu Ghraib broke, Rauf was among those asked to appear in an apology advert that was broadcast on Arabic television.
A Jewish reporter dies after crazy militant Islamist radicals slit his throat and even air a video of that, which is why Rauf's declaration in the tradition of JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" is immensely admirable, and echoing Pearl's own last words, "I am Jewish." He said:
"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one."
What a contrast to this is the opposition to the Park51 project from Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League!

Media Matters notes that Feisal Rauf "has a long history of condemning terrorism, promoting pluralism, and arguing that the true meaning of Islam involves democracy, religious freedom and women's rights" and thanks that information-rich page I now know that, among other things,:
Bush administration sent Rauf on State Department trip in 2007. In an August 10 press briefing, Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley addressed the State Department travel program in which Rauf is participating, noting that its purpose is to promote "religious tolerance" and provide Muslim countries with a "moderate perspective" of being "Muslim in the United States." Crowley noted:
For Imam Feisal, this will be his third trip under this program. In 2007, he visited Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE and Qatar. And earlier this year in January, he also visited Egypt. So we have a long-term relationship with him. His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States. And our discussions with him about taking this trip preceded the current debate in New York over the center.
Rauf's wife has an Indian connection--Daisy Khan was born in Kashmir, and immigrated to the US when she was 15.  I can't track down how she got her first name of "Daisy" ... Am not sure if that was the name her parents gave her at birth, or whether she adopted it to Americanize her name ...

In one of Khan's bio-sketches, there is a quote from Rumi, the great Persian Sufi poet:
"I looked for God. I went to a temple, and I didn't find him there. Then I went to a church, and I didn't find him there. And then I went to a mosque, and I didn't find him there. And then finally I looked in my heart, and there he was."
I have had wonderful friends who were/are Muslims--one was even briefly a roommate back in graduate school. The talented plumber, Samad, who was a jack of all trades, is a Muslim and was my parents' trusted assistant.  The only music performance that I ever attended in the fabled Music Academy in Madras Chennai, before leaving for the US decades ago, was to listen to Amjad Ali Khan playing the sarod.  Creating the fantastic mats in the village of Pattamadai, where my dad grew up, is almost exclusively by Muslims.  These are a few of the personal connections to Muslims and Islam.  It simply jars me when the Park51 critics lump all these people with the insanely radical Islamists.  Crap!

Glenn Greenwald writes:
One of the most under-reported political stories is the increasingly vehement, nationwide movement -- far from Ground Zero -- to oppose new mosques and Islamic community centers.  These ugly campaigns are found across the country, in every region, and extend far beyond the warped extremists who are doing things such as sponsoring "Burn a Quran Day."  And now, from CBS News last night, we have this:
Fire at Tenn. Mosque Building Site Ruled Arson
Federal officials are investigating a fire that started overnight at the site of a new Islamic center in a Nashville suburb.
Ben Goodwin of the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department confirmed to CBS Affiliate WTVF that the fire, which burned construction equipment at the future site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, is being ruled as arson. . . .
It is the same Tennessee town that Aasif Mandvi reported about:
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Friday, August 27, 2010

Cartoons of the day: stem cell research

In the context of the latest news on the stem cell research controversy ...

Will be funny if it weren't true:
And just funny :)

Rights of women, minorities, poor ... long way to go yet

Real life is often infinitely more troubling than the fictional ones, as evidenced recently in this case of the Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia:
"A Saudi couple tortured their Sri Lankan maid after she complained of a too heavy workload by hammering 24 nails into her hands, legs and forehead" reports Reuters

BBC adds:
"LP Ariyawathie, 49, told staff at Kamburupitiya Hospital her employer inflicted the injuries as a punishment.
X-rays showed that there were 24 nails and needles in her body. Doctors said those remaining inside her body posed no immediate threat to her life.
The nails were up to 2in (5cm) long, a hospital official said."
Just awful :(

Even if you aren't willing to, force yourself to watch this video news report and remind yourself that it is not a movie clip!

Quote of the day: on why economics is not a science

anyone who sincerely believes that seemingly scientific, positive research in the sciences — especially the social sciences — is invariably free of the researcher’s own predilections is a Panglossian optimist.
That is from a fantastic commentary, with lots of links, by Professor Uwe Reinhardt on the dangers "When Value Judgments Masquerade as Science."
I wonder if those who ranted on because they were upset with an op-ed I wrote understand, to quote Reinhardt:
My advice to students and readers is: When you hear us economists wax eloquent on the virtue of greater efficiency — beware!

Suggestions for Glenn Beck's speech :)

Sarah "refudiate" Palin triggered an avalanche of Shakespalinisms.  Now, it is is Glenn Beck's turn as he gets ready to do his crap speech.
However, there is no such comparable creativity on Twitter :(
It can't be the case that the vacation-hating Americans are out for the month ... As Marvin Gaye sang, "what's going on?"
The best that the Daily Beast could do was .... "I have a nightmare"
The Daily Show does "I have a scheme"
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Colbert says that "Besides the date, the location, the march and the threat of assassination, Glenn Beck's rally has nothing to do with Martin Luther King Jr."
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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spending on athletics in public universities: need for a lemon law!

In 2008-09, university support accounted for more than half of the $4 million athletic budget this past year, reaching $2.2 million from just less than $900,000 in 2006.
This news item wouldn't matter if it were a report on a private university.  But, at the taxpayer supported institution that is also my employer?

I don't want my tax dollars to be spent  wasted this way, when students at the same university pay the highest per-credit tuition rate in the system--even more than at the research universities!  And, when there is very little on the horizon to suggest that the state's economic picture will get better any time soon.

So, why all these expenses anyway?
Since moving from NAIA to NCAA Division II in 2000, Western Oregon University has been adjusting to the economic realities of competing at a higher level.More money was needed for scholarships, travel and increased investment in facilities, such as the new Health and Wellness Center opening this year, that will relocate the football team from the Old PE Building on campus.
Well, wouldn't it have made economic sense then to have stayed in NAIA and, therefore, not have incurred all these additional expenses?  "It's elementary, my dear Watson."

To a large extent, universities--yes, academics, too, and not merely athletics--reflect decision-making and resource allocations that result from information asymmetry as best illustrated through the lemons (defective cars) sold, which is also why we have lemon laws.  In contrast to the automobile consumer market, however, the public has no clue about the defects in the lemons here--higher education--and has to pay whatever the asking price is, and is stuck with the purchased product.  In case the public has questions, the people who can clarify that are also from, guess what, higher education. ...  

Universities as ponzi schemes

An earlier post on Andrew Hacker's Higher Education? included details on the humor controversies it generated on campus.  Well, it is truly humorous when Stephen Colbert chats with Hacker :)
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The compartmentalized and polarized worlds in which we live

When I was new to this country, C-Span fascinated me for its uniqueness—it provided politics in the raw without filters of any kind, and offered me multiple perspectives that I could not have ever otherwise followed.  It even seemed rather quaint that the channel would list separate phone numbers for Republican and Democratic viewers to call in with their comments and questions.

Whether it was from C-Span or from other sources, the old days at least held out a possibility of conversations across political or religious lines and about the issues of the day, both profound and trivial. 

However, just as the common water cooler has been replaced by individualized water bottles, news sources and discussion forums have also become customized.  Thus, it is now easy to remain within our own narrowly defined identities, whatever they might be and, thereby, shut ourselves from anything that does not correspond to our views of the world.

Professor Cass Sunstein wrote about this rapidly emerging trend back in 2001—eons ago in the modern digital timelines!  Sunstein, currently the Director of the office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote then that one of the vices of the exponentially expanding modern communications involved “the risk of fragmentation, as the increased power of individual choice allows people to sort themselves into innumerable homogeneous groups, which often results in amplifying their preexisting views.”

Empirical evidence confirms this.  In a recent research paper, Shanto Iyengar of Stanford and Kyu Hahn of UCLA note that “although an infinite variety of information is available, individuals may well limit their exposure to news or sources that they expect to find agreeable. Over time, this behavior is likely to become habituated so that users turn to their preferred sources automatically no matter what the subject matter.”

Therefore, if at all, I am surprised that it has taken this long to loudly recognize that modern communication technologies that feed us with more news than we could possibly digest, have also made it remarkably easy for us to choose our own filters. 

Fragmentation in the news media will then be a logical outcome in such an information world.  As a matter of fact, this is already the case in the part of India that I visited last summer, and there does not appear to be a great deal of concern over it either.

In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the two main political parties are represented through their leaders Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi.  Interestingly enough, they both also own stakes in two television cable channels.  The channel “JayaTV” is aligned with Jayalalitha, while “SunTV” is pro-Karunanidhi.  These channels offer the usual entertainment staples of dramas and movies.  But, it is during the regional news programs that their political slant becomes obvious.  Because Karunanidhi is in power now, JayaTV is forever critical of the government, and the roles reverse when the political fortunes shift!

It was equally fascinating that the audience is also fully aware that the news from these two television channels is not unbiased.  Thus, news items that are highly critical or laudatory are then appropriately scaled by the viewers!

Perhaps then all we need in America is a similar sort of full-disclosure of political affiliations from “news” organizations in America

Now, as Sunstein argued eight years ago, such fragmentation might not advance the cause of healthy democratic participation.  Instead of having constructive conversations where differences are articulated, we then end up with “shoutfests” where the objective is not to listen to differing views but to drown out the opposing voices. 

But then, as the old saying goes, the genie is, unfortunately, out of the bottle!  We have no choice but to get used to the reality that, thanks to technological wonders, most Americans—and the rest of the world, too—will increasingly live in polarized and fragmented political worlds.

If only Faux Noose would add a permanent full-disclosure of sorts, then it can easily preclude the kind of satire it provokes and receives from the Daily Show :)
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and then follow it up with Colbert
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The Economist Envy

The magazine, that is, not the profession.  (Though, it might work as well.)

More than a year ago, the Atlantic (itself suffering from the very envy!) observer this in the context of Time and Newsweek trying to compete against this magazine newspaper from Britain:
The Economist is truly a remarkable invention—a weekly newspaper, as it calls itself, that canvasses the globe with an assurance that no one else can match. Where else, really, can you actually keep up with Africa? But even as The Economist signals its gravitas with every strenuously reader-unfriendly page, it has never been quite as brilliant as its more devoted fans would have the rest of us believe. (Though, one must add, nor is it as shallow as its detractors would tell you it is.) ...
Repositioning your brand today is so much harder than it was in the old days, especially when you’re destined to be seen as a copycat product.
Fast forward a few months. Newsweek has been sold, and is fast disappearing. US News decided to become a web-based arbiter of everything from best hospitals to universities, and the Onion has a great satire on  Time:

TIME Announces New Version Of Magazine Aimed At Adults

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bahrain: a "canary in the coal mine"

In my late teenage years and later on, it seemed like every other person had plans to get to the "Gulf": to the many countries around the Persian Gulf.  One cousin has now lived practically his entire adult life there, and we joke that he has become a sheikh himself! 

Bahrain was one of those attractors.  It was favored, in particular, over destinations like Saudi Arabia, because of its better climatic conditions thanks to it being a small island, and because of its relatively liberal and relaxed attitudes .  BTW, Bahrain is so liberal that a sex shop opened there, and owned by a woman, and generated a whole lot of controversy!

Thomas Friedman pointed out in articulating his "First Law of Petropolitics" why Bahrain might be on this path that is far away from the rigid social structure in neighboring Saudi Arabia to which it is linked by a fantastic engineering creation that extends over 16 miles--it was dealing with very limited petroleum reserves.  Friedman summarized it succinctly:
Bahrain is the first Arab gulf state to be running out of oil. It also happens to be the first Arab gulf state to hold a free and fair election where women could run and vote. And it also happens to be the first Arab gulf state to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. And it also happens to be the first Arab gulf state to be reforming its labor laws so its people can no longer be dependent on foreign workers.
So, what is the problem that merits the tag of "canary in the coal mine" you ask?  Seventy percent of the Bahraini population is Shia, like the majority in Iran, and very much unlike the overwhelmingly Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Which is why recent reports, like this one, merit our serious attention:
Bahrain's top Shiite politician said a crackdown on Shiite protesters by Sunni rulers has destroyed a decade of stable sectarian relations as the tiny Gulf state heads into parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

The wave of detentions — at least 160, according to one lawyer — has spilled over into near daily clashes between the majority Shiites and Sunni-led security forces and fueled concerns of deeper unrest and heavy-handed tactics in the home of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Any serious breakdown in Bahrain has possible wider repercussions. The country's two groups mirror the regional tug-of-war between Shiite giant Iran and the mostly Sunni Gulf nations that fear Tehran's efforts to expand its influence.
Given Bahrain's location--right in the Persian Gulf and near the 30-mile wide Strait of Hormuz, one can easily see why developments in this island country can reveal a lot about the geopolitical tensions there.

The Pakistan crisis: Easy ways to donate

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to be upset with the Pakistani government.

But, for now,we can't afford to look past the 20 million whose lives are completely messed up.

One easy way to donate, here in the US:
"text CERF to 90999 and give $5, up to 5 times. The donation will appear on your cell phone bill"

For donations of larger amounts, a number of options exist; here are two of them:

The Red Cross/Red Crescent

The UN Fund

The end of the "peer review" is quite near :)

[Some] humanities scholars have begun to challenge the monopoly that peer review has on admission to career-making journals and, as a consequence, to the charmed circle of tenured academe. They argue that in an era of digital media there is a better way to assess the quality of work. Instead of relying on a few experts selected by leading publications, they advocate using the Internet to expose scholarly thinking to the swift collective judgment of a much broader interested audience.
“What we’re experiencing now is the most important transformation in our reading and writing tools since the invention of movable type,” said Katherine Rowe, a Renaissance specialist and media historian at Bryn Mawr College. “The way scholarly exchange is moving is radical, and we need to think about what it means for our fields.”
Oh my!  Finally people are figuring this out--that the peer-review system that we have in place is awfully antiquated!!!  Maybe Pandora did open up that box a second time to let hope out--no, not the music Pandora, but the mythological one :)
Clubby exclusiveness, sloppy editing and fraud have all marred peer review on occasion. Anonymity can help prevent personal bias, but it can also make reviewers less accountable; exclusiveness can help ensure quality control but can also narrow the range of feedback and participants. Open review more closely resembles Wikipedia behind the scenes, where anyone with an interest can post a comment. This open-door policy has made Wikipedia, on balance, a crucial reference resource.
Yes, indeed.  About time.
And, more ...
The most daunting obstacle to opening up the process is that peer-review publishing is the path to a job and tenure, and no would-be professor wants to be the academic canary in the coal mine.
... “There is an ethical imperative to share information,” said Mr. Cohen, who regularly posts his work online, where he said thousands read it. Engaging people in different disciplines and from outside academia has made his scholarship better, he said.
To Mr. Cohen, the most pressing intellectual issue in the next decade is this tension between the insular, specialized world of expert scholarship and the open and free-wheeling exchange of information on the Web. “And academia,” he said, “is caught in the middle.”
When I interviewed for the position of Book Review Editor for Professional Geographer, I told them that one reason why the editorship would be truly exciting is this: this coming decade will be one of revolutions in the manner in which intellectual ideas are shared, and I wanted to be right in the middle of that action.

For whatever reason, I was not selected and was bummed out for a while.  But, that non-selection does not change in any way my conviction that changes are coming.  And, if faculty and higher education are any wise (editor: isn't that asking for too much?) then the changes will come from within.  Else ...

Monday, August 23, 2010

"India. India ... take me to your heart" ... a John Lennon song

Thanks to YouTube, we can listen to this rare song--apparently a demo version ... that never got past the demo version; really?
I like these lines, in particular:
Reveal your ancient mysteries to me
I'm searchin' for an answer, but somewhere deep inside
I know I'll never find it here - it's already in my mind
That is a neat way to describe the complex nature of India, and why it is so goddamn hard to understand that country, even for a guy like me who was born there and has always had a serious interest that strange place.  I am glad though that I have reached a stage where I no longer fight to understand it and, instead, as my mother always says is her approach to life, I "try to float along with the currents" ... Perhaps given the centuries of history there, life has its own speed and direction, and our choice is to either go with it or simply step aside :)

The question that you, the reader, have is probably this: why this blog post out of the blue? (editor: are you talking to yourself, again?)
I came across a reference to this Lennon song while reading what Nigel Thrift had to say.  Who is Thrift?   He is a British geographer, and now a university vice-chancellor, whom I vaguely recall meeting at a graduate student gathering about twenty years ago!  I think he was the one who remarked that Southern Californians are strange that we kept saying "Santa Monica Freeway" when we could easily say "I-10" ... how strange that some trivial remarks stay with us for years, eh ...

Why I hate "fertility tourism"

Here is a suggestion for NBC--a follow-up to the planned sitcom "Outsourced": a soap opera/drama/reality-show on the agonies and ecstasies of foreign couples going to India to outsource pregnancy and childbirth.  I can guarantee that this will be one hell of a hit. 

Outsourcing pregnancy, which used to be one of my standard jokes in discussions on globalization and outsourcing stopped being funny when it became true.

The reason for this outsourcing is obvious.  For starters, most people are surprised when they find out that the world's second test tube baby was in India.  For some reason, India's medical and scientific community latched on to fertility issues, even though the country has had no problems with population growth.

Surrogacy in India is, like any other outsourcing operation, about a tenth of the costs in America.  It is a labor-intensive process, and India is full of poor labor--female, in this activity--many of whom would gladly rent out their wombs for money. Commercial surrogacy, aka fertility tourism or reproductive tourism, is a fast growing industry in India.  How big is this?  About $500 million a year ... and growing.
The country’s low cost of treatments, lax regulations governing IVF (In-vitro fertilisation) and ART (assisted reproductive techniques) and women who rent out wombs for a modest fee have spawned a US$445mil (RM1.5bil) fertility tourism business. The industry figures are projected to ratchet up to US$6bil by 2012.
According to the private Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction (ISAR), there are over 500 IVF clinics in the country
I hate this economic activity not because it is highly unregulated, or because of how poor women get could, and do, get exploited, or because of the many different legal complications that are inter-national--such as the first ever "surrogate orphan":
In 2007 the Japanese couple Ikufumi and Yuki Yamada came to visit India's "Surrogacy Queen," Dr. Nayna Patel, founder of the Akanksha Infertility Clinic. A donor egg and surrogate mother was found and the embryo was implanted in the surrogate's womb. Before the child was born, however, the Yamadas divorced and Mrs. Yamada no longer wanted the child, which was not biologically hers. Mr. Yamada wanted the baby but could not adopt it due to an Indian colonial-era law that forbids single men from adopting girls. The absence of regulation meant that Baby Manji became India's first "surrogate orphan" until the father was finally able to adopt her several months, after the Supreme Court intervened.  
 All these are serious issues and deserve our undivided attention.  And, as the writer puts it,
These problems are hardly going to stop the phenomena of surrogacy in India from spreading, though. In fact, one might even suggest that India is moving towards a surrogacy-based economy, in which Indians—in call centers and fertility clinics alike—specialize in substituting Westerners in a cheaper, more efficient way.
I hate it because of how much life is then reduced to the crude material aspects.  The factory-like production of life ... I wonder if those children will have on their bottoms a sticker of sorts that says "Made in India" ... I fear we have already rushed too far and too fast without pausing to think about various ethical issues.   

Now, it might seem crazy and contradictory to the atheist in me.  Yes, aren't we all a bundle of contradictions!

And, soon after the product, er, child, is delivered, the parents begin their search to outsource child-rearing.  More on this from America's Finest News Source:

Report: Many U.S. Parents Outsourcing Child Care Overseas

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hollywood scripted it before it all happened

Bruce Willis' General Devereaux character reminds me of this prize-winning paper on the American military coup--in 2012, which is next year .... :)
Maybe there is a lot of truth in this cartoon:

This, too, is India ... rain, train, and pain?

The caption for this photo at the source:
Passengers travel on the roof of an overloaded narrow-gauge train which travels on flooded tracks, after rains in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: PTI

Fewer babies in India. What will grandma think?

My paternal grandmother got married when she was nine.

Of course, this was a long time ago--back in 1922.  Grandmother had funny anecdotes on how children, who didn't quite understand what was going on, would sometimes throw temper tantrums like how kids typically do. Or, even funnier--fall asleep even as the wedding ceremony rituals were being carried out.

It is simply bizarre that such child marriages were the norm at one time, though it makes sense on one level--when we project this against the time frame of life expectancy then, which was about 35 years.  If we were to use that same ratio, then it might be comparable to a 20-year old getting married in contemporary times.

Grandmother did live past that 35 years of life expectancy at birth, but the husband she was married to did not.  She was 18 when she became a widow.

A lot happened even in those nine years between the marriage at nine and widowhood at 18.

After the wedding, she continued to live with her parents until she became a woman--the much talked about 'aunt flo' in our times.  During those years, her husband would come over for important occasions.  Craziness!  Parents now rush around organizing parties and playdates for kids that age, and kids might even play house--whereas back then it was kids being husband and wife for real!

Soon after that biological metamorphosis, grandmother went to live with her in-laws and was a little older than 15 when she had her first child.  15 and a half, and she was a mother. And she was nearing her 18 when her second son was born, and slightly over a month later grandfather died, and she lived almost 50 years after that as a widow.  

Life has changed a lot since then. Thankfully!

Child marriages are now illegal, though they do happen sometimes, particularly in states far away from the progressive-thinking southern part of India where my grandparents lived and died.  Now, women have considerably more rights, though there is a lot more to go to achieve equality between the genders.  One of the biggest impacts has been in the rapidly decreasing fertility rates in India, without the draconian Chinese approach to population control.  Continuing the tremendous decline in birth rates, India has been trying quite a few approaches, including "Cash Bonuses to Slow Birthrates":
“I want to tell you about our honeymoon package,” began Ms. Jadhav, an auxiliary nurse, during a recent house call on a new bride in this farming region in the state of Maharashtra. Ms. Jadhav explained that the district government would pay 5,000 rupees, or about $106, if the couple waited to have children. ...
The program here in Satara is a pilot program — one of several initiatives across the country that have used a softer approach — trying to slow down population growth by challenging deeply ingrained rural customs. Experts say far too many rural women wed as teenagers, usually in arranged marriages, and then have babies in quick succession — a pattern that exacerbates poverty and spurs what demographers call “population momentum” by bunching children together. In Satara, local health officials have led campaigns to curb teenage weddings, as well as promoting the “honeymoon package” of cash bonuses and encouraging the use of contraceptives so that couples wait to start a family.
I am confident that grandmother would be very happy with these approaches.  She was delighted to see my sister breeze through school, and was visibly proud of the granddaughter getting a college degree--not just the undergraduate, but a master's degree as well.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

China is second largest economy. So, ...?

I play bridge online (for free, through BridgeBase) and rarely are even two of the four hands around the table American.  Once, a few days ago, to my right was a player from Greece.  After a few games, he informed the table that he was leaving, to go for a swim.  A fellow player then chimed in that Greece is so beautiful, to which the Greek replied that it was the most beautiful country in the world and that he knows because he has been to 36 countries.

I chuckled away thinking that in Europe it is quite easy to drive a couple of hundred kilometers and be in another country!  Here in the US, driving north from San Diego, it will take about 800 miles to even get to another state within the same country.  (Ahem, that is about 1300 kilometers!  So, having traveled 36 countries doesn't say any damn thing.
China is one bloody huge country--it ought to be viewed as a continent.  And it has the population too to be a continent.  After all, China as one single country has a population that exceeds the combined population of all the European countries together.

So, when the world's press announces with great drama that China has overtaken Japan to become the second largest economy in the world, yes, it is commendable that China has progressed a lot.  But, even for a moment did the media pause to consider, for instance, Japan's population is just about a tenth of China's?   

Why is then that China's economy captures our attention so much?

One is a very simple reason--over the years, China's Communist leaders have preferred to use a good chunk of the generated wealth to loan to America.  And now, China is locked into it, and has no choice but to keep this going.  As Larry Summers described it a long time, this is the Mutually Assured Destruction in the post-Cold War era.

The American interest in the Chinese economic story comes, I think, with this in mind.  For Europeans, it is more about environmental impacts, and human rights (or lack thereof) in China.

India is not far behind--as a continent, similar to China.  But is a lot poorer; when Europe was clawing its way out of its Dark Ages, India might have been way more advanced compared to the rest of the world.  "The twin stories of India and China are the most dramatic in the world economy. In 1820, the two countries contributed to nearly half of the world's income. In 1950, their share was less than a tenth"  Now, it is one poor country, where about every third Indian is poor.  The fact that these two continents countries now have some of the highest economic growth rates doesn't surprise me nor worry me.

What does worry me is the uneasy tension that lies under the surface in the relationship between these two countries.  As the Economist points out,
China and India are in many ways rivals, not Asian brothers, and their relationship is by any standard vexed—as recent quarrelling has made abundantly plain. If you then consider that they are, despite their mutual good wishes, old enemies, bad neighbours and nuclear powers, and have two of the world’s biggest armies—with almost 4m troops between them—this may seem troubling.
One scenario that has always been of concern to me is this: so far, the Communist Party has managed to keep a tight hold on the political aspects, while freeing up a lot on the economic front.  But, what if the pressure builds up to an extent that it threatens the very hold of the party?  The contested territory could then become an ideal relief valve for China--hey, nothing holds a country together and legitimizes a government's power like a foreign war!
The basic problem is twofold. In the undefined northern part of the frontier India claims an area the size of Switzerland, occupied by China, for its region of Ladakh. In the eastern part, China claims an Indian-occupied area three times bigger, including most of Arunachal. This 890km stretch of frontier was settled in 1914 by the governments of Britain and Tibet, which was then in effect independent, and named the McMahon Line after its creator, Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of British-ruled India. For China—which was afforded mere observer status at the negotiations preceding the agreement—the McMahon Line represents a dire humiliation.

China also particularly resents being deprived of Tawang, which—though south of the McMahon Line—was occupied by Indian troops only in 1951, shortly after China’s new Communist rulers dispatched troops to Tibet. This district of almost 40,000 people, scattered over 2,000 square kilometres of valley and high mountains, was the birthplace in the 17th century of the sixth Dalai Lama (the incumbent incarnation is the 14th). Tawang is a centre of Tibet’s Buddhist culture, with one of the biggest Tibetan monasteries outside Lhasa. Traditionally, its ethnic Monpa inhabitants offered fealty to Tibet’s rulers—which those aged peasants around Tawang also remember. “The Tibetans came for money and did nothing for us,” said Mr Nansey, referring to the fur-cloaked Tibetan officials who until the late 1940s went from village to village extracting a share of the harvest.

Making matters worse, the McMahon Line was drawn with a fat nib, establishing a ten-kilometre margin for error, and it has never been demarcated. With more confusion in the central sector, bordering India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, there are in all a dozen stretches of frontier where neither side knows where even the disputed border should be. In these “pockets”, as they are called, Indian and Chinese border guards circle each other endlessly while littering the Himalayan hillsides—as dogs mark lampposts—to make their presence known.
I suppose my grandmother said it best when we were kids and when we complained about somebody else getting a larger portion (we perceived it thus).  Grandma always then directed us to simply focus on our own plates and finish what was served.  Similarly, we will be much better off worrying about our own internal problems--which we have in plenty--than to point to China's or India's economic growth rates.

My blog readers ... and other readers :)

Oddest email of the day:
Dear Sriram Khe,

I am one of the followers of your blog, I enjoy reading your articles.
May I ask you to review our System Optimizer product in exchange
for the full version? I work for Digeus, Inc and may give
you and all your readers such present (in case they also write
a review somewhere and provide me with the link to it).

Am reminded of blogs that are in reality those of paid product reviewers/advertisers ... Hey, I can't do this because in my blog I deal only with intellectual products (editor: so, you think you are an intellectual? stop being so funny!)

War in Iraq ends. Really? "Shock and aw, man!"

Yesterday, I watched on C-Span (how do I ever live without that!) a rerun.  Yes, a repeat.  Of Britain's Iraq (Chilcot) Inquiry hearings, with Claire Short providing testimony.  Short was a loud dissenter in Tony "the poodle" Blair's cabinet, and she quit as a result of her differences, after serving for six years.

Watching that was depressing because it reminded me all over again about the bloody lies from the 'Bushies' ever since the day after 9/11.  I still recall watching on TV Colin Powell presenting his case at the UN--from the beginning until the end, and feeling so let down ... I, like many, used to think of him as presidential material, but there he was at the UN serving as his excellency's the president's minion.  While I don't condone how Harry Belafonte described Powell, it is not difficult to see how emotionally upset the Banana Boat singer would have been about another luminary with West Indian roots.

After all those lies, Obama (a better political version of Slick Willie, without the sex at least thus far) did nothing to change the warmongering.  Which is why it did not surprise me at all that Obama as the president was not in favor of any inquiry even about one side-story--the tortures--when declared that he was not going to look back, and would only look forward.  If that was the case about torture (editor: the US does not torture--only enhanced interrogations!)  If only we had an inquiry commission of our own ...

Now, we are told that the combat operations in Iraq are over.  In effect, we ought to be celebrating the end of war, right?  Leave it to Colbert to talk about this:
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - What If You Threw a Peace and Nobody Came?
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

So, how are things in Iraq, anyway?  Do they have a government yet?

And the key person to determine Iraq's political fate has been living in exile in Iran for the last three years: Moqtada al-Sadr

Sadr reminds of me of many wily and opportunistic politicians in India who know well how to manipulate the system and the peoples by appealing to the basest religious, communal, and ethnic biases.  (editor: how different is this from the Manhattan Mosque controversy?)  and to quite an extent, the Khalistan movement's Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

So, what is Sadr up to now?
More than a year before the elections in March, Sadr and his top aides set up an election strategy committee they dubbed the "machine." The goal was to game the electoral system as best as they could. A team of seven pored over the election law, dissected district maps, and built an extensive database of voters in every province. In the end, Sadr's Free Movement party won 39 seats in parliament, giving his followers a decisive vote within the National Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite bloc of which they are part.
Now that Sadr has those valuable seats, ...
So what does Sadr want? One issue that has come up again and again in the negotiations to form the government is detainees. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Sadr estimated that there are as many as 2,000 detainees linked to his movement, most swept up in U.S. operations in 2007 and 2008, whom he would like to see released. ...

But the detainees are only a short-term bargaining chip. What Sadr is after is power itself -- and if his past record is any indication, he won't be shy about using it. There are any number of issues he could block or help push through parliament. Sadr has previously butted heads with Kurdish groups about the final status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that the Kurds claim as their capital. He is a proponent of putting oil revenues under central government control, a position at odds with the Kurds as well as some rival Shiite groups, such as ISCI. Women's rights groups have already voiced strong concerns that the Sadrists could block their attempts to reform laws that cover property ownership, divorce, and child custody. Some even fear that Mahdi fighters will again target women's rights activists, as they did in Basra in 2007 and 2008.

Sadr's ambitions don't cover Iraq's domestic agenda alone. His high-profile trips to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere indicate that he wants to be seen as a prominent regional player. He would like to promote his Mahdi Army as a member of the so-called "axis of resistance" made up by Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have made their names by confronting the United States and Israel.

For now, Sadr is undoubtedly pleased by his opportunity to have a key vote in who becomes the next prime minister. And it's hard to miss the irony from a man who has built his image on being among the people. He's not casting that vote from Baghdad, where he could rally millions of supporters, but from a comfortable perch hundreds of miles away in neighboring Iran.
Welcome to the post-war Iraq.

And, BTW, Iran is firing up its nuclear reactor.