Monday, January 31, 2011

The State of the Union in a map


But, ... wait, it is the same magazine newspaper that had the following map only a week ago:


‘Life of Pi' as a movie

Ang Lee is the director for the movie version, in 3D?, of the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi.  As in the novel, Pondicherry features a lot in the movie.  (Now the city is known as Puducherry)

The movie was shot in several places across the town including the Botanical gardens, Holy Rosary Church, Petit Seminaire and Calve College schools and several canals.
Mr. Lee said that almost one-third of the screen time will be occupied by shots from Puducherry.
Of course, life in Pondicherry is changing a lot, and not always for the better--like this one.

The last time I was in Pondi was way back in 1982 (?) I was there with Srikumar, who is now in the Czech Republic, and Kannan, who is now in Michigan.  What a journey in life over the 30 years!

What does fate have to do with it?

Robert Frost coined the famous phrase of the road not taken.  Every fork in the road means that decisions have consequences.  The following old couplet takes the idea one step further (ht): 
विषमां हि दशां प्राप्य दैवं गर्हयते नरः ।
आत्मनः कर्मदोषांस्तु नैव जानात्यपण्डितः ॥
- हितोपदेश, सन्धि

When a fool is in trouble, he will start blaming fate. A fool will never understand that his present state is the result of his past actions.
- Hitopadesha

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Do you believe in evolution? monkeys-r-us

Wouldn't this be a lovely question to ask every presidential candidate: "do you believe in evolution?"

This question should be featured at every primary--Republican and Democrat. I mean, imagine a Jim Lehrer posing such a question.  I will pay to watch the Republican primaries then :)

And, if the answer is "no" or with a great deal of hemming and hawing, why not follow it up with, as is the case in this video, a question related to antibiotics?  Watch the twisted and ill-informed response from a Republican representative from Georgia. ht

Oh, BTW, the woman threading the antibiotics argument there is the former Canadian prime minister, Kim Campbell--their first, and only, female prime minister.

Unemployment and Roe v. Wade

Obama plays the fiddle while the Maghreb burns

Meanwhile, back here in America, we are still fighting two major wars, and battling economic problems of magnitudes that should send most amongst us hibernating in caves.  I didn't watch the President's State of the Union address because, well, that is nothing but political theater.  It does appear that the President is increasingly going the Bill Clinton route, which makes me all the more convinced that I was correct, after all, when way back I characterized the candidate Senator Obama as "Slick Willie without the sex."

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with Bill Clinton's approach to presidential and national politics.  Even now I am a big supporter of Bill Clinton.  It is the facade that Obama presented, that he would be different from Bill/Hillary Clinton, with all that highfalutin rhetoric that did not impress me.  I was watching Bill Clinton's talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos yesterday.  Even now he makes way more sense to me that most of the Congress put together.

In the NY Review of Books, David Bromwich notes this comparison between Obama and Clinton:
Obama now speaks in strings of sentences like these: “The stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.” The stock market, it would seem, plus corporate profits equals the economy: an odd equation to hear from a Democrat. Bill Clinton in 1995 is Obama’s only precursor on this terrain, but even Clinton would quickly have added that corporate profits are not the measure of all good. By contrast, Obama is now convinced that there is no advantage in putting in qualifications except as a formality.
It does seem like Obama is firming up his chances on getting re-elected, and has given up on Congress, and wouldn't care if it went Republican. 
A main inference from the State of the Union is that in 2011 and 2012, the president will not initiate. He will broker. Every policy recommendation will be supported and, so far as possible, clinched by the testimony of a panel of experts.... The idea is to overwhelm us with expertise. In this way, a president may lighten the burden of decision and control by easing the job of persuasion into other hands. Obama seems to believe that the result of being seen in that attitude will do nothing but good for his stature.
Yes, his stature.
Today no one can easily say who Barack Obama is or what he stands for; and the coming year is unlikely to offer many clues, since all the thoughts of Obama in 2011 appear to concern Obama in 2012. 
Meanwhile, there is a good possibility that 2011 will turn out to be the year of the geopolitical game-changers that I have been blogging about.  Obama has been strangely missing in the picture. 

But, with his responses to the rapidly evolving situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Obama seems to be sending nothing but mixed messages.  Hey Mr. President, either talk principles of democracy, or talk realpolitik, but don't try to mix the two.  President Obama seemed to have lost the entire Middle East already:
Obama did surprisingly little to fulfill the hopes and dreams he unleashed worldwide during the election of 2008. Moreover, he deliberately magnified them in the Arab world with his 2009 Cairo speech. But coupled with his continuation of America's cynical policies to prop up tyrannical Arab regimes, and particularly his spectacular failure to rein in the illegal Israeli settlements in the so-called Arab-Israeli Peace Process in 2010, Mr. Obama may have inadvertently exacerbated the explosive combination of frustrated expectations and business-as-usual that pressurized the current eruption of resentment, anger, and alienation among the Arab people in 2011.
Kai Bird makes a similar point at Slate:
But now the moment has come when President Obama must demonstrate that his words were not just words. One way or the other, hard consequences will follow. The end of the Mubarak era will also spell an end to Egypt's cold peace with Israel. No post-Mubarak government, and certainly not one populated with Muslim Brotherhood members, will tolerate the continued blockade of their Hamas cousins in Gaza. Israel will thus be faced with additional strategic incentives to end its occupation of the West Bank, dismantle its settlements and quickly recognize a Palestinian state based largely on its 1967 borders. But as the recent leak of Palestinian-Israeli negotiating transcripts demonstrates, the detailed contours of a final settlement are all in place.
Change is coming to the Arab world. It can no longer be held back. So the pragmatist and not just the idealist in Obama would be wise to make it clear that he really is on the side of the protesters in the streets of Cairo. It is time to stop hedging our bets.
But, Obama seems to be even more cautious than ever :(  And, even worse, don't merely sit on that metaphorical fence.  Stanford's Middle East historian, Joel Beinin, writes:
our president has remained silent about the demonstrators’ goal: a democratic Egypt. In his June 2009 Cairo speech, when nothing was immediately at stake, President Obama uttered eloquent words of support for democracy. If he spoke out forcefully in support of the Egyptian people, as he did for the Tunisian people in his State of the Union address, he could tip events in a direction that would earn America the gratitude of the Egyptian people.
This would go far to undoing the damage to America’s standing in the Arab and Muslim world created by the catastrophically wrong-headed foreign policies of the George W. Bush era. It would also do more to undermine al-Qaeda’s international campaign of hatred and terrorism than has been achieved by two wars and over a trillion dollars in military spending.
The whole world is watching. If the tanks of Tiananmen Square roll into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the people of the Middle East will know who to blame. Tell them "No," Mr. President.
And, here is what Mohamed ElBaradei says, Mr. President.  I hope you are listening:
"It is better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, 'It's time for you to go," he told CNN.
ElBaradei, a possible candidate in Egypt's presidential election this year, dismissed U.S. calls for Mubarak to enact sweeping democratic and economic reforms in response to the protests.
"The American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years would be the one to implement democracy. This is a farce," he told the CBS program "Face the Nation."
"This first thing which will calm the situation is for Mubarak to leave, and leave with some dignity. Otherwise I fear that things will get bloody. And you (the United States) have to stop the life support to the dictator and root for the people."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Protest Like an Egyptian

I am just so fascinated with the developments in Egypt, and cheering the protesters from here.

I can't wait for Mubarak to flee the country; there are unconfirmed reports that his sons have already arrived in the UK.

Now, there is talk of possible protests in Syria.
Will all these happen?
Will the awful dictators be kicked out?
Will that provide the opening for outfits like al-Qaeda to cause more mayhem?

(The image on the right thanks to the comments below from a colleague/friend ... student?!)

"Naima." Understanding Egypt and dictators through a short story

If you want to read it online, well, it is behind a paywall.

Given the turmoil in Egypt, it is a fascinating coincidence that the January 24th issue of the New Yorker should feature a short story that is so much about Egypt, Cairo, politics, women, ...  I bow in appreciation to these writers who so easily are able to draw even moronic readers like me into the situations they present in their stories.

Like a lot of fiction, this one too might be based on the author's real life experiences--how loosely or closely I know not.  A Google search led me to to a powerful and emotional essay by the author, Hisham Matar, who was born in the pre-Gaddafi Libya,.in which he writes about how his father's political activities made them flee to Egypt after quite a few unsuccessful attempts.  And then to make things worse, the Egyptian government let the Libyans kidnap Matar's father and hold him indefinitely without any contact with the family:
What I want is to know what happened to my father. If he is alive, I wish to speak with him and see him. If he has broken the law, he ought to be tried and given a chance to defend himself. And if he is dead, then I want to know how, where and when it happened. I want a date, a detailed account and the location of his body.
And those awful people still run these countries--Gaddafi in Libya and Mubarak, who "inherited" the power thanks to Sadat's assassination.  It is awful that we have tolerated dictators like Mubarak and Gaddafi and so many others for this long.  Matar's observations on Gaddafi could apply to many other dictators too:
Gaddafi is unique among dictators in that he has few constant beliefs. A position which has afforded him an extraordinary instinct for survival.

Matar notes in that same essay:
living without one's country is a kind of daily death, that exile is, in essence, an endless mourning.
Here is to hoping for a quick end to the millions of such daily death.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why do women shop alone?


America was for democracy before it was against it?

As street protests started intensifying in Egypt, I blogged earlier that the US will have a tough time figuring out how to deal with the "our son a bitch" realpolitik that America has been pursuing, well, forever.
Vice President Joe Biden, who for decades was a senator who was actively involved with foreign policy issues as well, says that Mubarak is no dictator. 
Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
Really?  What then are the markings of a dictator?
Here is a headline from a few hours ago:
US speaks again, but no one seems to be listening
The Daily Show does a fantastic job of examining the American commitment to democracy:
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Rule of the Nile
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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Let my people go!

Looks like things are heating up really, really fast in Egypt.  Good for them, I say.  Here is to hoping that  pharoah dictator president Mubarak will flee the country.  Maybe he too should head to Saudi Arabia, which started the practice of hosting dictators quite a few years ago.  It is to the Kingdom of Saud that even the notorious Idi Amin fled.

The Guardian :
More ordinary citizens are now defying the police. A young demonstrator told me that, when running from the police on Tuesday, he entered a building and rang an apartment bell at random. It was 4am. A 60-year-old man opened the door, fear obvious on his face. The demonstrator asked the man to hide him from the police. The man asked to see his identity card and invited him in, waking one of his three daughters to prepare some food for the young man. They ate and drank tea together and chatted like lifelong friends.
In the morning, when the danger of arrest had receded, the man accompanied the young protester into the street, stopped a taxi for him and offered him some money. The young man refused and thanked them. As they embraced the older man said: "It is I who should be thanking you for defending me, my daughters and all Egyptians."
Could the sudden overthrow of such regimes be the geopolitical game-changer that I have been waiting for?  Certainly these were not on the horizon at all ...

The State of the Union is a joke :)

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Tennis: A new China? Cool!

From the Australian Open:
China’s Li Na could ascend to the final while charming everyone in Melbourne with a hilarious postmatch interview in which she blamed her snoring husband for her lack of sleep, among other humorous anecdotes. That spawned the idea that Li could be the crossover star in tennis that Yao Ming was in basketball, but Greg Couch writes on that he doesn’t believe she can capture enough attention in the United States. She will get attention in China, however, where tennis was once so obscure Li had to explain the sport to her mother when she decided to play it.

Tennis is, of course, like gymnastics and diving, an individual sport.  Here is a column I wrote on how China doesn't seem to make it in team sports though.

In suddenly mighty India, America is fading

Posted to Web: Wednesday, Jan 26, 2011 05:37PM
Appeared in print: Thursday, Jan 27, 2011, page A9
The last couple of months have erased any doubt about how open India is for business with the rest of the world. One after another, the leaders of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council came calling on India’s political and business establishments.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was the first to visit. Then came President Obama, whose visit was right after the “shellacking” he and the Democratic Party suffered at the midterm elections. The Americans had barely left the country when French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived with a huge delegation that included seven of his ministers and more than 60 business leaders. Finally, December ended with state visits by China’s Wen Jiabao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The visits were intended to strengthen economic ties, in contrast to the Cold War geopolitical calculations that shaped leading nations’ policies toward India in past decades. Prime Minister Wen made this clear when he publicly expressed his displeasure at the Indian media that constantly questioned him about the political differences between the two countries, when he was focused on the rapidly growing trade relationship.

By the way, China runs a trade surplus with India, as it does with America.

The impression is that the French were the big winners. The total of the Indo-French civilian and military deals is estimated to be more than double the value of agreements that America negotiated with India.

Russia and China have another mutual economic relationship with India, and also with Brazil. These countries are collectively referred to as BRIC, and their third summit meeting will be in China this year.

This could soon take on a plural form, BRICS, with the inclusion of South Africa, which has been invited as an observer. As one reporter phrased it, BRIC is “emerging as a symbol of gradual transfer of economic power from the West to emerging economies.”

While visiting India from America, I felt the urgency to stand up and paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. But there is no point in bemoaning the premature declarations of America’s and the West’s demise because of the enormous sense of economic confidence that is prevalent in India.

The rhetorical “yes, we can” that has become a faded memory in America is fully alive and well in a vibrant India. An analysis in the publication Business India noted that unlike the past when “Indians as a community were low on the confidence quotient,” now things are different — “the overall growth in this decade has increased the confidence of all Indians.”

Such attitudes are reflected even at casual conversations when I am the American representative. By chance I met a retired physician, who wasted no time to ask me “how come America is in so much trouble while India is flourishing.” Her husband, who is now retired after a career as an executive with an Indian multinational company, commented that perhaps only university teaching and the medical professions were safe in America. Even two years ago, I would certainly not have faced those kinds of questions and comments during a visit to India.

Economic collaborations are happening in unexpected areas. The headline of a newspaper item was one such shocker: “China gives green light to first ‘Made in China’ Bollywood film.” China’s official film production company is backing a $10 million movie that will be set in India and China, and will star a few of India’s leading actors.

While not intended as a statement on the current economic climate, the title of this Chinese-Indian Bollywood movie is absolutely appropriate — “Gold Struck.” With a combined population of nearly 2.5 billion, “Chindia” has a large and growing movie market. If “Gold Struck” succeeds and is followed by more, one can imagine the implications for one of America’s famous and valuable brands ever — Hollywood.

It is depressing that we in the United States. seem oblivious to such rapidly transforming economic realities in other parts of the world. Even more worrisome is the appearance that we are fixated on trivialities from “Jersey Shore” to the president’s birth certificate. I suppose I have a tougher job ahead in my classes when I discuss global issues with students!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Should I stay or should I go?

In case any of my faculty or administrative colleagues come across the title of this blog and hastily start celebrating that I am quitting, ... ahem, it is about Egypt and Mubarak :)
(editor: are you sure they want to be publicly identified as your colleagues?  Awshutup!)

I suppose the US is in one hell of a pickle ... almost like when protests were mounting against the Shah of Iran, back in 1978 and 1979.  Support the dictator because he is "our son of a bitch" or side with the freer expressions in society that will mean then to help the dictator flee the country.  After all, Egypt is no Tunisia--the US has over the decades invested billions and billions not merely in the country, but in Mubarak too. 

Glad it is not my job to make the decision.  Well, it is mine not when it comes to whether or not to support Mubarak, but if it is about quitting my job.  (editor: are you planning to? party on!!! Awshutup already!)

"Guest" post: Why religious arguments in political matters?

One of the sheer joys of being in the profession that I am is this: every once in a while a student decides to engage me in discussions and debates that are not necessarily within the topic areas of the courses I teach.  I cannot think of even one term where I haven't had such an experience.  (A complete contrast to faculty colleagues, who have decided that I am not worth listening to! hahaha!!!)

What follows here is a part of ongoing discussions between me and a student "T" on the topic of science in American political discourse, especially about the problems that Creationists have with science and religion in the public space.  So, with thanks to "T" who has already made this term worth all the time and effort:
In the past, I have engaged in calm discourse with people from the creationist side, but the biggest problem for me is that ignorance is almost a staple in Christian beliefs. Everything relies on faith. To most Christians my age, being confronted with what philosophers call 'The Problem of Evil' should, in my opinion, make people question the true nature of their God. However, in my experience all dissent, reason and logic is viewed as a test of faith. The problem with faith is that reason can never be trumped by reason if people continue to have faith.

To me, this is not a big deal. I believe that there is a considerable amount of people who either can not, or refuse to think for themselves. It is especially hard when those values have been instilled since childhood. And it certainly is easier being able to get a one hour lesson every week on what is right or what is wrong. Or to be able to watch Fox News and know who you should vote for, or what the opposition is trying to do to destroy your familial values. That, to me, is my biggest qualm with the Christian establishment.

Not being religious, I think our government should be secular as it was written. However, the religious establishment refuses to allow this. Regardless of what a president actually believes, none have been elected without a proclamation of religion. If an atheist or agnostic ran for office, there is no way they would succeed in today's political climate. For example, the governor of Alabama recently proclaimed that non-Christians 'weren't his brothers or sisters.' He ended up apologizing for his remarks, but his apology didn't seem to extend to people who were not religious just those of 'all faiths.' To me, it makes me wonder how that is not a violation of the separation of church and state? It sent the message that regardless of if you pay taxes, vote, participate in our democracy, lacking Christian ideals puts you a step below those who do.

This separation to me alludes to the possibility of a tyranny of a majority. A religious establishment under the guise of a secular one. Were the founding fathers wrong when they wrote our Constitution? Minorities only seem to gain protection after great social upheaval. It took a war for slavery. Since then, women have had to protest on a national stage, then African-Americans, and currently homosexuals. In the 1850s it was a legitimate argument to say that people owned slaves in the bible, so it wasn't wrong. Since then, behind every minority group suppressed there was a religious argument, something I don't understand. In a court of law, if evidence is obtained illegally, it can't be used. Why are religious arguments allowed to be used in social matters, when religion is specifically excluded from the state?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oregon is Pakistan. So, Washington is Greece?

From The Economist: (more at this interactive site)

Comedians react to Keith Olbermann's exit from MSNBC :)

Yakov Smirnoff said it beautifully, "America, what a country!"

The story of America in five cartoons. Special SOTU edition :)

All from the New Yorker, of course :)
First up: the very basis of the political arrangement--the Constitution
Next up, the fact that we have a government means that a second certainty gets added:
As money started coming in, our government found lots of uses
And, often, not enough comes in, which doesn't prevent government actions
And now we find ourselves with a much less valued greenback

Monday, January 24, 2011

2011 is not off to a good start

Time periods are arbitrary, and just because December 31st ended giving way to January 1st does not mean a whole lot of change, yes.  But, we have been conditioned into thinking in terms of discrete time units, and we usually think of a new year as something that will be different, and better, than the old year.

So far, things have not looked promising.  Violence in the US--with the Tucson incident foremost on lots of minds--and abroad, increase in food prices and street protests, instability in Sudan, Ivory Coast and many other parts of Africa, ... and earlier this morning, a huge bomb explosion in Moscow's airport, ...

Well, ... Michael T. Klare, who is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, thinks that things might not turn out well, in his essay "welcome to the year of living dangerously"
Over at The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb has his own list--of the profound and the silly

Me?  Some time ago I had blogged that we are due for another game-changing geopolitical event.  I think this might be the year for that.
in recent years the dramatic game changers in global history have been quite regular, about a decade apart:
1968: the Tet Offensive
1979: annus horribilis
1989: The Berlin Wall tumbles down
2001: 9/11

Football: offside versus ineligible receiver :)

It seems like every game has its own quirky rules.  American football has plenty of those.  Cricket is nothing but one quirky rule after another.  Which is why Calvin developing his own rules for playing baseball with Hobbes was all the more hilarious.

Here is John Cleese explaining football's soccer's offside rule:

Ineligible receiver downfield? click here

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Out-compete any other nation." Really?

President Obama talks about competition and international trade, which are Paul Krugman's forte.  What does Krugman have to say?  Ahem, the I wonder if the President will read this Krugman column:
Take the case of General Electric, whose chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, has just been appointed to head that renamed advisory board. I have nothing against either G.E. or Mr. Immelt. But with fewer than half its workers based in the United States and less than half its revenues coming from U.S. operations, G.E.’s fortunes have very little to do with U.S. prosperity.
By the way, some have praised Mr. Immelt’s appointment on the grounds that at least he represents a company that actually makes things, rather than being yet another financial wheeler-dealer. Sorry to burst this bubble, but these days G.E. derives more revenue from its financial operations than it does from manufacturing — indeed, GE Capital, which received a government guarantee for its debt, was a major beneficiary of the Wall Street bailout.
When Krugman writes like this with facts and logic, it is a sheer pleasure to read his columns, as against the rare ones where he gets a tad shrill.
Anyway, Krugman has more:
Mr. Obama himself may do all right: his approval rating is up, the economy is showing signs of life, and his chances of re-election look pretty good. But the ideology that brought economic disaster in 2008 is back on top — and seems likely to stay there until it brings disaster again. 
Doesn't sound all too good.

Tony Blair's ignorance of Iraq, and now Iran too?

The main impression I got from both Mr Blair's evidence to the inquiry last year and his autobiography was his extraordinary ignorance of Iraq. 
 Thus writes Patrick Cockburn in the Independent (ht) ... And Cockburn adds:
Mr Blair's enthusiasm for a confrontation with Iran stems partly from the fact that he never seems to have understood what went wrong for him in Iraq. It was not so much the war against Saddam Hussein that doomed the venture as the occupation which followed. He and President George Bush might have got away with overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his regime if they had swiftly withdrawn and handed over real power to an interim Iraqi government.
They did the exact opposite. Instead of withdrawing, the Americans and British occupied the whole country and showed every sign of wanting to remain in control. The occupation was, as Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister and one of the more pro-Western of Iraqi leaders, said, "the mother of all mistakes".
Interesting to note, BTW, how the Wall Street Journal viewed Tony Blair dealing with questions from the Chilcot Commission ....  "The prosecution of Tony Blair" .... muahahahaha  .... Can Faux Noose beat WSJ's headline?  (Update: in light of the comment--below--I now wish all the more for the prosecution of these war criminals.  But, we will have to start with Kissinger for his Vietnam and Chile decisions.)

Unfortunately, our President froze any potential for investigative commissions by declaring that he was only moving forward and not looking back.  One of the worst decisions he made--well, good politics, but atrocious for principles and democracy.

Another tough essay on death--from Joyce Carol Oates

As I have noted often in this blog, the inevitability of death and the emotions that event draws from those who are alive is a topic that I have been drawn to ever since I was young.  And over the years, an indifferent stoicism, which was primary my defense against the tragedy of it all, has slowly yielded to an embrace of all the emotions that come with it--from before the event to long after as well.

Joyce Carol Oates writes about her husband's death in an essay that brought me to tears more than once while reading it.  Oates is a phenomenal writer, and every sentence there made me feel that I was the going through those same emotions.

While reading that essay (subscription required) I was struck with these thoughts:
  • They drove a Honda Accord.  Until reading that line in the essay, I hadn't given any thought to what kind of cars famous writers drove.  But that got me thinking--I would expect Oates and her husband to have earned and owned enough to have been in the top five percentile of households, or somewhere there.  Yet, it was an Accord they drove.  If I recall correctly, it was a 2007 model.  Why does this matter?  This small piece of data lends enormous credibility to the emotions and descriptions of their lives that Oates writes about.
  • Death is lonesome.  Oates writes that when her husband died in the hospital, in the middle of the night, she was home.
  • Given their influence, I would have expected the couple to have had an army of friends with them in such situations.  But, Oates writes about driving by herself in the middle of the night, by herself in the ER, .... I wonder if that was how they lived--things personal were strictly personal ...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Photo of the day: Jatinga, Assam

From The Hindu:
Dimasa girls in their traditional dress taking part in the first International Jatinga Festival in Jatinga. On a moonless night, when the mist and fog bearing south-westerly winds blow over the Jatinga valley, different species of local migratory birds get attracted to strong light sources or “bird trap lights.” Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
Awesome colors :)

Palin's America: Let's go out with a bang

Wouldn't want to find out what the worst could ever happen if Sarah Palin became the president?  Aren't you curious?  Morbidly curious?  Here is a news report just for you  :)

Morbid Curiosity Leading Many Voters To Support Palin

What is the matter with academic sociologists?

I know, it is far too difficult to restrain oneself from offering a gazillion punchlines as responses to such a question.  But, I suppose we could ask such a question of many academic disciplines and their scholars, too.  It is this question about sociology and sociologists that Russel Jacoby takes up in his funny, sarcastic, and biting review of a book by the president of the American Sociological Association (ht).  Jacoby has plenty of zingers there, which had me laughing aloud.  Like these:
The book is startling and depressing evidence of what has happened to American academic Marxism, at least its sociological variant, over the last thirty years. It has become turgid, vapid, and self-referential.
In a memoir elsewhere, Wright comments that every September since kindergarten in 1952 he has been in school. It might be time for him to take a break.
That he did not label this book Volume One and promise Volumes Two through Ten shows restraint.
To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water.
[Only] sociologists force-fed as graduate students will not choke on this book. That many of them have come to adore this stuff is only striking proof of the discipline’s collapse.
 Jacoby's concluding comments?l:
C.Wright Mills, who despised sociological jargon, has been succeeded by Erik Olin Wright, once given the C.Wright Mills Distinguished Professor Award at Wisconsin, who cranks out sociological cant. With Wright as elected president of the sociological profession, the conservative nightmare of radicals taking over the university has in part come to pass. But if this book exemplifies academic Marxism, conservatives can rest easy. We should all fear, however, what it suggests about the contemporary university and its scholarship.
And in another book review, again thanks to A&L Daily, are these concluding comments, which fit into this discussion really well:
[When] it comes to the state of contemporary higher education, there are no quick fixes. That is why, today, Herbert London continues to cast his vote against liberal academia​—​but from the outside: “I realize, like G.K. Chesterton, that the problem with pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reaching new lows in political discussions :(

First up, Rush Limbaugh ...
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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And, from across the political spectrum, well ... some unknown Dem with a warped sense of what it means to lower the tone after the Arizona shooting ...
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Word Warcraft
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And back to Colbert who does a fantastic job with this clip (his ending comments are a letdown though!)
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How good ideas can be easily hijacked: microcredit

A few years ago, in an upper division course, I started including essays and news articles on microfinance as an innovative approach to economic development in the poorer countries of Asia and Africa.  It helped a lot when Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank were recognized with the Nobel Prize for the pioneering efforts in micro finance and rural development.  Students seemed to be excited too--one of them a week or so after the class discussions sought my permission first to talk to the rest of the class about that she had "discovered" on the web and used it ...

Slowly the idea spread in India.  And it was only a matter of time before a few Indians also decided to corrupt it as any good idea is almost always distorted in that country.  A classic example is Gandhi's message of civil disobedience and satyagraha, and fasting until corrective measures are implemented.  Within a few years of his death, every third rate politician started launching satyagrahas, and fasting photo-ops for every trivial pet cause one might imagine.  The end of the Gandhian ideas, so to say.

So, why should micro finance be exempt from such corruption in order to pursue most ulterior self-interests of profits, right? And that has what has happened in India over the last few years.  Unfortunately!  Yunus wrote in the NY Times:
I never imagined that one day microcredit would give rise to its own breed of loan sharks.
I am surprised that Yunus didn't know his fellow South Asians any better :(

Microcredit has morphed into the ugly loan shark modes, with all the typical attitudes that we knew about them.  The Hindu's caption for the photo below is:
There were reports of suicides, allegedly due to extreme harassment by loan recovery officials from MFIs. A family mourns one such death reported from Rolakal village, Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh last October. Photo: Singam Venkata Ramana
Once again, it is a screw-the-poor, which is a tragic irony in a culture that talks a lot about helping the poor.  More on this in my earlier postings in the context of "Peepli Live"

As Yunus writes:
The kind of empathy that had once been shown toward borrowers when the lenders were nonprofits disappeared. The people whom microcredit was supposed to help were being harmed. In India, borrowers came to believe lenders were taking advantage of them, and stopped repaying their loans.
Commercialization has been a terrible wrong turn for microfinance, and it indicates a worrying “mission drift” in the motivation of those lending to the poor. Poverty should be eradicated, not seen as a money-making opportunity.

Even while disagreeing with Yunus' argument, David Roodman has this important observation:
Credit is not an ordinary product. It is weighed down by millennia of baggage, for the good reason that it can do real harm. It is like a drug in that it is potentially healthy in small doses, but also potentially addictive. So it stands to reason that sellers of this product must take unusual steps to counteract its special problems of reputation and risk.
Things have taken quite a nasty turn, and Yunus is being compelled to defend those ideas and himself:
[In] his native Bangladesh Mr Yunus’s reputation is under attack. His supporters fear that the government plans to remove him from Grameen Bank, the microlender he founded, and take it over. In late December Mr Yunus had to issue a statement denying claims by some in the Bangladeshi government that he had resigned from his post as the managing director of Grameen. ...
Mr Yunus denies all the charges against him but has made powerful enemies among Bangladesh’s politicians. During a period of rule by a military-backed caretaker government a few years ago, he announced the formation of a political party, a project he soon dropped. Some reckon Sheikh Hasina is miffed that Mr Yunus and Grameen got the Nobel prize. It remains unclear how far the government, which already has three seats on Grameen Bank’s board, will go. Some fear that if the government succeeds in taking Grameen over it could turn its sights on other successful outfits, like BRAC. Bangladeshi microlenders can no longer consider themselves safe from the country’s messy politics.
The strange story of Yunus doesn't end there; he was hauled before the court, but not for any wrongdoings related to Grameen:
The current defamation charges against Yunus stem from comments he made in an interview with French news agency AFP four years ago, in which he reportedly criticized politicians and said they were only in "power to make money." The remarks came shortly after a military-backed interim government took over amid deadly political violence in Bangladesh.
A leftist politician in Mymensingh filed the defamation case on January 21, 2007, with a local magistrate court after Yunus' interview was published in local media.
The court last month asked Yunus to appear after a judicial probe found enough evidence to support the allegations, court inspector Md. Shahid Sukrana told CNN.
Nazrul Islam Chunnu, who filed the case, is a politician and district joint general secretary of the socialist party JSD. He charged that Yunus branded politicians as "corrupt and greedy" and said the politicians were "devoid of ideologies."
If Yunus is convicted of the charges, he faces a maximum two years in prison and/or a fine, said a court official.
That is right--all because Yunus aired in public the truth that is well known that politicians are corrupt and greedy!  How dare he, eh!

A Fistful Of Dollars: The Story of a Loan from Kieran Ball on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Facebook votes to disband UN

In 2040 ... according to this scenario of life in megacities, visualized by Forum for the Future (ht)
The emphasis here is on individual neighborhoods rather than cities, lessening transportation issues since people don't have to travel as far. Robotic cars have completely taken over from mass transit.

Megacities on the move - Communi-city from Forum for the Future on Vimeo.

Eric Hobsbawm's comments on liberal democracy. Wait, he is alive?

It was in the early part of my graduate student life that I went across town to UCLA to listen to a bunch of visiting academics, including Eric Hobsbawm.  He was old even then, and I had assumed that he would have been gone by now.

Turns out that not only is he alive and well at 93, he has even published a book:
Eric himself has changed. He suffered a nasty fall over Christmas and can no longer escape the physical constraints of his 93 years. But the humour and the hospitality of himself and his wife, Marlene, as well as the intellect, political incisiveness and breadth of vision, remain wonderfully undimmed. With a well-thumbed copy of the Financial Times on the coffee table, Eric moved seamlessly from the outgoing President Lula of Brazil's poll ratings to the ideological difficulties faced by the Communist party in West Bengal to the convulsions in Indonesia following the 1857 global crash. The global sensibility and lack of parochialism, always such a strength of his work, continue to shape his politics and history.
I wish I were this alive even now, while I am only half his age!

Even though I have always disagreed with his ideological framework, I am always humbled by how much he knows (and by contrast, how little I do!)  But, there is no disagreement with the following point he makes:
What I'm saying now is that the basic problems of the 21st century would require solutions that neither the pure market, nor pure liberal democracy can adequately deal with. And to that extent, a different combination, a different mix of public and private, of state action and control and freedom would have to be worked out.
What you will call that, I don't know. But it may well no longer be capitalism, certainly not in the sense in which we have known it in this country and the United States.
I wish that in the US we would get rid of the rigid political/ideological bottom-line that the partisans spout, and begin to explore a 21st century approach.  Which is why I hope the LibCons would be daring enough ...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Unemployment data leave economists puzzled. Can they explain anything at all?

For corporate America, the Great Recession is over. For the American work force, it’s not. 
No, this is not a quote from Robert Reich, who has consistently been trying to get policymakers to focus on the horrendous joblessness of the economic recovery.
That was a quote from the NY Times' business columnist, David Leonhardt, who writes:
The unemployment rate is higher in this country than in Britain or Russia and much higher than in Germany or Japan, according to a study of worldwide job markets that Gallup will release on Wednesday. The American jobless rate is also higher than China’s, Gallup found. The European countries with worse unemployment than the United States tend to be those still mired in crisis, like Greece, Ireland and Spain.
Economists are now engaged in a spirited debate, much of it conducted on popular blogs like Marginal Revolution, about the causes of the American jobs slump. Lawrence Katz, a Harvard labor economist, calls the full picture “genuinely puzzling.”
Leonhardt notes that employees having a lot more power in Western Europe or Canada, compared to here in the US, where employers reign supreme, might be a significant factor.  Whatever the reasons might be, I agree with him that:
The jobs slump has become too severe to disappear anytime soon. It will be part of the American economy and American politics for years to come. But there is no reason to treat it as a problem that’s immune from solutions. For starters, it would be worth figuring out what other countries are doing right.
Meanwhile, here in Oregon, unemployment rates don't want to budge:
Oregon lost 1,800 payroll jobs in December as the unemployment rate held flat at 10.6 percent, essentially unchanged for more than a year. 
Just awful.  A leading economics blogger, and a fellow Oregonian, Mark Thoma, has a timely column on the urgency to reinforce America's social safety net

Image of the day: How large is the new Trenta from Starbucks?

This much! (ht)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MLK Day sell-a-bration :)

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The Ponzi scheme called higher education is "Academically Adrift"

Today is one of those days that I am wearing dress-shirt and a tie.  Oh, yes, am wearing pants too :)  Students are bound to be surprised.  Some faculty colleagues, the ones who talk to me (editor: there are a few, still? awshutup!) might wisecrack that perhaps somebody died, more so because of the color of the tie--black.  If such a remark comes up, my response is ready: yes, I am mourning--the death of higher education.

Here is one more reason to add to the list--this one resulting from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) study:
Forty-five percent of students made no gains on the CLA during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no gains over the entire four years. They learned nothing. On average, students improved by less than half a standard deviation in four years. "American higher education," the researchers found, "is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students."
Apparently the worst culprits include some of the fastest growing majors across the US--"business"
Students majoring in business, education, and social work did not. Our future teachers aren't learning much in college, apparently, which goes a long way toward explaining why students arrive in college unprepared in the first place.
Makes sense, give that it is the world of business that taught us about Ponzi schemes :)

So, who gets messed up the most in this scheme?
Students saddled with thousands of dollars in debt and no valuable skills, certainly. Even worse, workers who never went to college in the first place, languishing in their careers for lack of a college credential. To them, the higher-education system must seem like a gigantic confidence game, with students and colleges conspiring to produce hollow degrees that nonetheless define the boundaries of opportunity.
Terrible.  Any way out?
Federal and state lawmakers should stop providing hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies based purely on enrollment, and should start holding colleges accountable for learning. Lawmakers also need to shore up crumbling budgets, restrain college prices, and mitigate higher education's growing dependence on debt.
Deep down, everyone knows that learning has long been neglected. But they don't want to know. Policy makers who have poured gigantic sums of money into financial-aid programs designed to get people into college don't want to know that many of the graduates, leaving with degrees in hand, didn't learn anything. College presidents don't want to know, because fixing the problem means arguing with faculty. Faculty don't want to know, because it would expose the weakness of their teaching and take time from research. Students don't want to know, because they'd have to work harder, and it would undermine the value of their credentials.
It has been a conspiracy of convenience. This study should bring the "trust us" era of American higher education to a close.
I like his polite phrasing--"conspiracy of convenience" .... Ponzi scheme is straightforward ;)

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a lot more to say on this--all related to the latest addition to research and books critiquing the state of higher education.  Check them out here and click here for an excerpt from the book

Monday, January 17, 2011

Photo of the day: True love

Completely outsourced to Andrew Sullivan:
A dog, 'Leao', sits for a second consecutive day, next to the grave of her owner, Cristina Maria Cesario Santana, who died in the week's catastrophic landslides in Brazil, at the cemetery in Teresopolis, near Rio de Janiero, on January 15, 2011. By Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty.

The State of the Union, in a cartoon :)

The President will address Congress and the country on January 25th.  Senator Mark Udall has pitched the idea of a bipartisan seating arrangement.
Cartoonists, take it away :)

More on the darkening space, Pongal, and gods in India

Since the earlier post, I have been thinking a lot about physics--a love for the subject that goes all the way back to high school days.  And, about the wonderfully gifted popularizer of science and physics: Carl Sagan.  Of course, growing up in India, and without television, meant that I had no idea about Sagan; I hadn't even completed high school when PBS began airing Cosmos here in the US.  It was much later in life, as a graduate student, that I started reading/watching Sagan.  (One of my greatest regrets was that I missed out on an opportunity to go to a Richard Feynman lecture at Caltech, during my first semester in this country, and a year later he died!!!)

Anyway, thinking more about how lonely we humans are in this universe, which is rapidly expanding, made me go back to Carl Sagan's Cosmos.  What a coincidence it was that I should watch it now, as in during this time of January--"Pongal" that Sagan talks about in this video was two days ago, and I watched this video on "Maattu Pongal"!  Of course, Sagan butchers the pronunciation, but that is ok :)

It is shame that even a series like Cosmos has not been able to rid the creationists who make a caricature of American scientific enterprise.  The pursuit of science and truth is being ridiculed on a daily basis, when it really ought to be the other way around.  This ought to worry us a lot as a metric of the decline of America :(

No more debutante balls for the rich

The economic divide between the rich and the rest of us is very different from the Great Gatsby of F.Scott Fitzgerald, writes Chrystia Freeland in the Atlantic.  While the inequality numbers might seem to be the same, there are plenty of differences between the two, such as this one:
To grasp the difference between today’s plutocrats and the hereditary elite, who (to use John Stuart Mill’s memorable phrase) “grow rich in their sleep,” one need merely glance at the events that now fill high-end social calendars. The debutante balls and hunts and regattas of yesteryear may not be quite obsolete, but they are headed in that direction. The real community life of the 21st-century plutocracy occurs on the international conference circuit. 
What happens in in the international conference circuit?
it has the intense, earnest atmosphere of a gathering of college summa cum laudes. This is not a group that plays hooky: the conference room is full from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and during coffee breaks the lawns are crowded with executives checking their BlackBerrys and iPads. ... Though the china is Sèvres and the paintings are museum quality (Marie-Josée is, after all, president of the Museum of Modern Art’s board), the dinner-table conversation would not be out of place in a graduate seminar.
And then, of course, even the latest gazillionaires like Facebook's Zuckerberg soon becomes a philanthrocapitalist:
What is notable about today’s plutocrats is that they tend to bestow their fortunes in much the same way they made them: entrepreneurially. Rather than merely donate to worthy charities or endow existing institutions (though they of course do this as well), they are using their wealth to test new ways to solve big problems. The journalists Matthew Bishop and Michael Green have dubbed the approach “philanthrocapitalism” in their book of the same name. “There is a connection between their ways of thinking as businesspeople and their ways of giving,” Bishop told me. “They are used to operating on a grand scale, and so they operate on a grand scale in their philanthropy as well. And they are doing it at a much earlier age.”
So, ... ?
America really does need many of its plutocrats. We benefit from the goods they produce and the jobs they create. And even if a growing portion of those jobs are overseas, it is better to be the home of these innovators—native and immigrant alike—than not. In today’s hypercompetitive global environment, we need a creative, dynamic super-elite more than ever.
There is also the simple fact that someone will have to pay for the improved public education and social safety net the American middle class will need in order to navigate the wrenching transformations of the global economy. (That’s not to mention the small matter of the budget deficit.) Inevitably, a lot of that money will have to come from the wealthy—after all, as the bank robbers say, that’s where the money is.
It is not much of a surprise that the plutocrats themselves oppose such analysis and consider themselves singled out, unfairly maligned, or even punished for their success. Self-interest, after all, is the mother of rationalization, and—as we have seen—many of the plutocracy’s rationalizations have more than a bit of truth to them: as a class, they are generally more hardworking and meritocratic than their forebears; their philanthropic efforts are innovative and important; and the recent losses of the American middle class have in many cases entailed gains for the rest of the world.
But if the plutocrats’ opposition to increases in their taxes and tighter regulation of their economic activities is understandable, it is also a mistake. The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn’t modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Patriots lose to Jets. Behlichick throws acid on Brady

Ahem, that was from the Onion's new show :)

Portlandia: where young people go to retire :)

Pretty funny, actually

More on the senior citizen faculty

According to my blog statistics, an earlier post on the problems related to senior-citizen faculty in higher education is one of the more visited posts.  The interesting aspect is that visitors did not come there because they searched for it.  (So, how then did they visit, you ask?  Hey, there is more than one way to Rome, because, after all, all roads lead to it!!!)

So, given the economics of it all, it is not a surprise that many university systems have implemented, and are trying, variations of policies that would provide incentives for the senior-citizen faculty to walk away from their offices forever.  Like this in Texas:
More than 130 tenured professors at Texas' two flagship universities have accepted buyouts that are expected to save their financially constrained departments nearly $18-million a year.
The offers, which included up to two years of pay for some liberal-arts professors, have provided a needed cushion for faculty members who were ready to retire, a bonus for some who wanted to move to other jobs, and new leases on life for a few lecturers who were due to be terminated. But they also created end-of-semester headaches for department chairs who had to quickly reshuffle their teaching rosters.
The retirement incentives are the latest responses by the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station to continued state budget cuts. State universities absorbed a 5-percent cut during the 2010-11 biennium and have been asked to plan for an additional 2.5-percent cut this fiscal year and a possible 10-percent reduction over the next two-year budget period, which starts this coming fall.
I would hypothesize that faculty in the sciences stick around way less than those in the social sciences and humanities.  The logic here being that the nature of inquiry in the sciences requires a great deal of constant updating of one's technological skills and bringing in research money, which is not necessarily the case in the humanities and the social sciences.  In the non-science fields, the situation is analogous to owning a car that you have fully paid up--every single day that you can get from using it, without going in for any major repair work, is a wonderful return on the investment :)

So, would you retire for a buyout?  And, no, I am far too young for your tempting offers, though many times it seems that many of my faculty and administrative colleagues wish that I were gone :)

Lunatics running the asylum that Pakistan has become

What a ghastly story of an assassination it was when Salman Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard, all because Taseer had advocated for clemency for a woman who expressed her thoughts, and happened to be a Christian.  The killer is now being celebrated by ignorant fundamentalists, who have increased their ever tightening grip on the political arteries:
The funeral of his victim was sparsely attended: a couple of thousand mourners at most. A frightened President Zardari and numerous other politicians didn’t show up. A group of mullahs had declared that anyone attending the funeral would be regarded as guilty of blasphemy. No mullah (that includes those on the state payroll) was prepared to lead the funeral prayers. The federal minister for the interior, Rehman Malik, a creature of Zardari’s, has declared that anyone trying to tamper with or amend the blasphemy laws will be dealt with severely. In the New York Times version he said he would shoot any blasphemer himself.
Tariq Ali, while reminiscing fond memories of Taseer, warns about the increasingly loud chants within Pakistan that clamor for a military coup, yet again.  Everything is going the wrong way for this country, which seems to have been cursed at birth. The decade-long US presence in Afghanistan is further precipitating the internal crisis:
Take the Af-Pak war. Few now would dispute that its escalation has further destabilised Pakistan, increasing the flow of recruits to suicide bomber command. The CIA’s New Year message to Pakistan consisted of three drone attacks in North Waziristan, killing 19 people. There were 116 drone strikes in 2010, double the number ordered in the first year of the Obama presidency. Serious Pakistani newspapers, Dawn and the News, claim that 98 per cent of those killed in the strikes over the last five years – the number of deaths is estimated to be between two and three thousand – were civilians, a percentage endorsed by David Kilcullen, a former senior adviser to General Petraeus. The Brookings Institution gives a grim ratio of one militant killed for every ten civilians. The drones are operated by the CIA, which isn’t subject to military rules of engagement
What a mess!  I wonder how this story will end--will the lunatics win, or will we be able to take control?