Thursday, August 18, 2011

Political theatre: never a dull moment :)

For those of us who can't get enough of the fantastic political theatre, which is the best entertainment that money can ever buy, the latest actor to step up to amuse us all is the Texan of all Texans, Governor Rick Perry.

Comedians and cartoonists have enough material already to work with until whenever :)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Are CFLs a dim bulb approach to saving nature?

In this blog, and in my classes, I refer to arguments and analysis that Bjorn Lomborg offers.  With students, I typically present an environmental issue, and by discussing it they soon realize the tradeoffs that are needed.  It is always a rewarding moment for me when I see that metaphorical light bulb click on in a few of them, at least.

Light bulbs are what Lomborg tackles this time around--the government mandate that bans the use of  incandescent bulbs in favor of the compact fluorescent ones.  Lomborg, who has often argued for R&D investments that could lead us towards less carbon in our consumptive behaviors, reminds us, yet again, that:

The solution should be to focus on improving the technology—making the lights safer, brighter, warm up faster, and save more energy, so that more people will replace more of their lights. ...

Governments talk far too much about setting a relatively high carbon tax on emissions while focusing far too little on ensuring a meaningful increase in research and development to bring about necessary breakthroughs.

Limiting access to the "wrong" light bulbs or patio heaters is, ultimately, not the right path. We will only solve global warming by ensuring that alternative technologies are better than our current options. Then people the world over will choose to use them.

A mere mandate does no good.  Well, other than to get people all worked up.

With the exception of a few crazies who question the very climate change (and Lomborg is not one of them) most of us recognize the urgency to change the way we live on this lonely planet.

Some do get carried away to extremes--like those who want to restore nature to its pristine conditions and, sometimes, even represent humans as the worst living creature ever.  To these, Ron Bailey, while reviewing Emma Marris' new book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, reminds us that the pristine nature is a myth.

“Nature is almost everywhere. But wherever it is, there is one thing nature is not: pristine,” writes science journalist Emma Marris in her engaging new book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. She adds, “We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.” Marris’ message will discomfort both environmental activists and most ecologists who are in thrall to the damaging cult of pristine wilderness and the false ideology of the balance of nature. But it should encourage and inspire the rest of us.

I am reminded of a graduate course I took years ago, in which we were required to read a book, whose author/title completely escapes me.  The bottom line in that book was simple: everything will be great if only there were no humans.  The professor seemed so committed to this idea as well that, and being a highly self-conscious guy during those years, I opted not to challenge him.

Bailey wraps up the book review:

One hopes that readers will take to heart Marris’ chief insight about conservation: “There is no one best goal.” She bravely and correctly concludes, “We’ve forever altered the Earth, and so now we cannot abandon it to a random fate. It is our duty to manage it. Luckily, it can be a pleasant, even joyful task if we embrace it in the right spirit. Let the rambunctious gardening begin.”

Yes, a rambunctious gardening, with light from bulbs that we willingly purchase because they are wonderfully efficient and pleasing and do not trigger headaches.

The Anna Hazare moment is not any "Arab Spring" in India

One of the neatest first experiences for me when I came to the US was at the Social Security office in Los Angeles.  Right on the first day, I was advised by personnel at USC and by other students that I needed to get to the Soc. Sec. card at the earliest--the lack of which meant no paycheck.

At least now, the neighborhood around USC looks presentable, especially since the construction of the Staples Center and USC's basketball arena.  Those days, it was a typical downtown in deterioration,  A couple of us walked over to the Social Security office, all the while wondering whether this was really the richest country on the planet when the conditions around us were not pretty.

The organized system at the government office made it clear that this was no India.  The ticket number I grabbed gave me an idea of how long I might have to wait for my turn. There were chairs to sit on.  When my turn came, I presented my papers to the clerk, and we both had a little bit of problem with our respective pronunciations and accents.  And that was it.

This was no where near any of my experiences at government, and private sector, offices in India.

In India, there is a formal way, which takes a very long time, and another way that cuts through the process as long as one paid the prevailing bribe rates.  When I got my driver license in India, for instance, all I did was give a couple of portrait photos and money to the driving instructor, who took care of things for me--a week later I had my license!

Every visit to India, there are more experiences--direct or otherwise--that remind me about the strange inner workings of the Indian system characterized by bribes, corruption, and "black money."

Though most people complain about all these, they generally feel powerless to change anything by themselves.  Further, bribes and corruption and black money do not become serious political issues primarily because getting elected even to the lowliest office is a sure way to start getting ahead in economic terms.

A few are now voicing that old movie line, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

A small, quiet, 74-year old man has become the voice and symbol of this frustration.

Anna Hazare has quickly become a 21st century Mahatma Gandhi inspiration for millions of Indians fed up with rampant corruption, red tape and inadequate services provided by the state despite the country posting near-double digit economic growth for almost a decade.

As much as I am excited to follow the developments, I am equally confident that this too shall pass.  After all, India is a country with a history of exciting events, which eventually die down without doing any serious damage to the status quo.  Which is why I agree with this:

The anti-corruption movement has the simplicity of a third-rate fable.
There are the good guys (the reformers and the average Indian citizen) and the bad guys (the politicians). But the real story is not a fable but art cinema.
Indians have a deep and complicated relationship with corruption. As in any long marriage, it is not clear whether they are happily or unhappily married. The country’s economic system is fused with many strands of corruption and organized systems of tax evasion. The middle class is very much a part of this.
Most Indians have paid a bribe. Most Indian businesses cannot survive or remain competitive without stashing away undeclared earnings.
Almost everybody who has sold a house has taken one part of the payment in cash and evaded tax on it.
Yet, the branding of corruption is so powerful that Indians moan the moment they hear the word. The comic hypocrisy of it all was best evident in the past few months as the anti-corruption movement gathered unprecedented middle-class support. 

While the middle and upper classes might voice their support to the cause, particularly at the click of the computer mouse, as individuals they are trapped in a classic game theory situation: if they don't pay up for the service, then there is always somebody else who will, which makes a loser out of the one who wants to fight the system.  Not wanting to lose out, everybody becomes a participant.

Ultimately, it is the economically disadvantaged who get screwed.  Because, they cannot things the proper way, and nor do they have the resources to take the bribe route.  To make things worse, they trust the politicians to deliver for them :(

As I noted here earlier, in another context,

When I was a kid, I remember elected politicians switching parties like crazy depending on who offered a better deal.  And everybody knew that such deals were going on.  One politician was referred to as "aaya ram, gaya ram" (aaya meaning to come, and gaya means to leave--characterizing how the politician, ram, entered and left parties.  Hilarious it was to some extent, more so when we did not have television to entertain us ....

The Economist has a neat statistic about India:
The country’s politicians are mostly an unsavoury lot. Of the 522 members of India’s current parliament, 120 are facing criminal charges; around 40 of these are accused of serious crimes, including murder and rape. Most Indian politicians are presumed to be corrupt, which is less surprising. In India’s poor and fractious society patronage politics is inevitable. But Indian politics has got much muckier in recent years because of two factors: the rise of regional and caste-based parties, nakedly dedicated to delivering patronage; and the mutinous coalitions this has led to.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fox News revs up the anti-Muslim hysteria :(

I am so glad I don't get Faux News.  Why this anti-Muslim propaganda?  Awful!  The "mosque-ing of America?" Seriously, how low will these guys go?  One of the worst things that Murdoch could have ever done to America ... am so glad he is in trouble across the waters :)

Ron Paul is no Coriolanus. And, no media coverage even when he gets votes!

The presidential primary season has begun, and I am yet again reminded of Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

Coriolanus was one of the plays that I watched at Ashland, with freshmen--during my years as the Director of the Honors Program.  I had no clue about the play. My colleague, the theatre faculty, said that it was an absolutely perfect play to watch and think about, given the war and election season at that time--seems like it is always war and elections, eh! :(

As always, the folks at Ashland did a great job. (When the play ended, I was thankful that they did not adapt it to any other time period, as they occasionally do with Shakespearean plays.) Once again, Shakespeare punched the lights out of me--how did that guy manage to do all that fantastic stuff? And such profound dramas!

Even as the play was progressing, it was difficult not to compare it with contemporary American social and political events.  Politicians pretending to be one of the commoners so that they can get their approval--which Coriolanus resisted doing not because he was idealistic, but because he thought he was too good to seek approval from the masses.

Contemporary politicians know all too well that if they behaved like how Coriolanus did, well, they wouldn't get elected even as a dog catcher.  So, they put on different roles.  Last time around, it was Obama droppin' the "g" or not mentioning arugula after one mishap, in order to relate to the commoners. Similarly, the hilarious attempts by McCain to relate to Joe the Plumbers, and the "betcha" folksy Palin .... well, Shakespeare portrays these so well in Coriolanus.

Here is a neat essay on Coriolanus, from the New English Review (once again, thanks to AL Daily). The author notes that:
Has political life really changed very much since Shakespeare’s day, at least as portrayed in Coriolanus? If anything, it seems to have regressed towards it, having perhaps (but only perhaps) have moved away from it for an interlude of a century or two.

Demagogues and war heroes we have with us still, while discernable principles seem very few and far between. The crowds are still demanding that the candidates display their war wounds: when Mrs Clinton ‘mis-spoke’ she was trying to demonstrate that she, too, knew what it was to be under fire. The desire and willingness to present others in the worst possible light, as a sufficient argument in itself, is still with us.

Unfortunately, demagogues and demagoguery are alive and well.

Except with one guy--Ron Paul.

Paul doesn't seem to care about saying things that people might prefer to hear so that they will, in turn, approve of his candidacy.  Though I don't agree with a few of what Paul says, I find it absolutely refreshing that he mostly says what he means, and means what he says.  And he behaves that way not out of contempt for the public either.

But, the guy gets practically no media coverage.  Why so? (ht)

Mostly because the mainstream media and the Republican establishment wish he would just go away.
One reason the bipartisan establishment finds Paul so obnoxious is how much the past four years have proven him correct -- on the housing bubble, on the economy, on our foreign misadventures, and on our national debt.

The Daily Show also correctly points out this systematic exclusion of Ran Paul--doesn't it remind us of how Ralph Nader used to complain that the two parties and the media have rigged the system?

Geography and the global income inequality divide

A few months ago, I noted here from Catherine Rampbell's review of Branko Milanovic's The Haves and Have Nots

an astounding 60 percent of a person’s income is determined merely by where she was born (and an additional 20 percent is dictated by how rich her parents were)

As much as geographers hate any variation of the idea of geographic determinism, various factors, including border controls, do make it an irrefutable fact that income and wealth for most of us are determined by where we are born.

Joshua Keating offers another chart from Milanovic's book, looking at the gini coefficients (a reminder: smaller numbers mean less unequal distributions)

And this advice:

because "inequality is now determined more by where you live than the class you belong to." The best way to change your lot in life, it seems, is to move.

If only people had as much freedom to move as capital has, right! 

Of course, the other side of the argument is whether we need to focus on the growing inequality, or whether the growing prosperity deserves greater attention.  That calls for a serious debate, right?

For now, the lack of a freedom to move means that:

The typical person in the top 5 percent of the Indian population, for example, makes the same as or less than the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American population. That’s right: America’s poorest are, on average, richer than India’s richest — extravagant Mumbai mansions notwithstanding.

The ones who want tight controls over migration unnecessarily worry, out of heights of self-interest, a Camp of the Saints scenario, as if that dystopia is all that is possible when people are allowed the freedom to move.

Quote of the day: on stupids and geniuses

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid

 So said Einstein.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Facebook propaganda

Well, as real as this seems, remind yourself it is a creative critique.  More here:

Dr. Doom asks if capitalism is doomed. Was Marx right, after all?

No, Nouriel Roubini doesn't imply that we will soon return to the bad old days of the Soviet bloc, even though he reminds us that:

Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalization, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct (though his view that socialism would be better has proved wrong).

So, Roubini's recommendations?

To enable market-oriented economies to operate as they should and can, we need to return to the right balance between markets and provision of public goods. That means moving away from both the Anglo-Saxon model of laissez-faire and voodoo economics and the continental European model of deficit-driven welfare states. Both are broken.
The right balance today requires creating jobs partly through additional fiscal stimulus aimed at productive infrastructure investment. It also requires more progressive taxation; more short-term fiscal stimulus with medium- and long-term fiscal discipline; lender-of-last-resort support by monetary authorities to prevent ruinous runs on banks; reduction of the debt burden for insolvent households and other distressed economic agents; and stricter supervision and regulation of a financial system run amok; breaking up too-big-to-fail banks and oligopolistic trusts.

Didn't we have a wonderful series of opportunities, up until the recent debt deal, to do all these things?  And we didn't!  So, how high is the probability that we will come anywhere near this list? :(

Catch-22 and war

I am only a few pages into the book and I am amazed at how much I missed when I read Catch-22 the previous time, when I was in high school back in Neyveli, in India.

Here is a sampler:
... Outside the hospital the war was still going on.  Men went mad and were rewarded with medals.  All over the world, boys on very side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all he boys who were laying down their young lives.  There was no end in sight. The only end in sight was Yossarian's own ...
War is hell.

Humor in daily life ... another checkout beauty :)

One of the many favorites to read during my younger days was the "Humor in daily life" (I think that was the title) in the Readers Digest--funny and simple incidents from everyday living.  I used to wonder why nothing like that ever happened to me, without realizing I was merely a kid yet to crawl out of the sheltered nest.

Now that I am older, I find humor everyday in my own interactions.

Like, for instance, at the grocery store the other day.

It was a slow morning, I suppose, and there was hardly any customer.  When I reached the checkout, two clerks, female and about my age, were chatting.

As I started placing my groceries on the counter, one said "we are talking about makeup and mascara.  Feel free to join in."

"No thanks. I am happy if my beard is trimmed" I replied.

"Me too" jumped in the other woman without missing a beat and while stroking her chin for the added effect!

It was ha ha ha all around.

What a boring and painful life it would be without humor, and without a sense of wit in people, eh!

Prior checkout posts: here, here, and here

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fox News invents a new physics to debunk climate change

The good news is that I get only limited cable, which means I do not get any of the 24x7 news channels, nor the cartoon channels like Fox News.

The bad news is that as a news junkie, I watch Jon Stewart and Colbert who watch, digest, and spit out the best moments from the (un)Fair and (un)Balanced network.

When even the folks at Scientific American begin to write about Faux News, well, we are in very deep shit thanks to Fox Noose:

On the August 6 edition of Fox and Friends Saturday, the hosts interviewed Joe Bastardi—whom they introduced as “chief meteorologist at WeatherBell”—on global warming.

Before introducing Bastardi the hosts said that the global warming debate was heating up “after a new NASA study seems to debunk whether it’s actually manmade.” No further details were provided. Instead, as evidence the hosts provided the results of a poll. But presumably the Fox presenters were referring to a study that has created a lot of controversy and media hype.

The most jarring part however came later, when Bastardi commented that he didn’t believe CO2 emissions could ever affect the climate. Unfortunately, Bastardi’s argument was based on what seemed to be poor understanding of basic physics, including thermodynamics and atmospheric physics.

Hey, if the "lamestream" physics doesn't work, then invent your own, Folks News:

Bastardi claimed that the idea of manmade global warming is incompatible with the laws of physics.
“[Saying that CO2 could affect the climate] contradicts what we call the first law of thermodynamics: energy can never be created nor destroyed,” Bastardi said. “So, to look for an input of energy into the atmosphere you have to come from a foreign source.” His prepared remarks were accompanied by screens that seemed to display an intent from the TV show to be pedagogical.

The first law of thermodynamics does indeed guarantee conservation of energy. And the CO2 injected into the atmosphere does not carry energy with it—or rather, it does, because matter always carries energy, but not in a way that would raise temperatures significantly, if at all. But no one has ever claimed that CO2 would raise temperature by itself. Putting it this way is a grotesque distortion of what climatologists say.

What climate science says is not that CO2 carries energy into the atmosphere or somehow magically generates it out of nowhere. Instead, it says that CO2 and other gases acts as a blanket, keeping heat from escaping into space. This, as Bastardi should know, is called the greenhouse effect.

All in a day's work!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Shammi Kapoor dies ....

Reports the BBC

Here is one of my favorite Hindi film song with Shammi Kapoor (and Sharmila Tagore)

Of course, such slow numbers are not what he was really known for ... so, here is one of his crazy ones; I like this one too :)

Cruel Summer :)

From afar, I heard this song when out on the bike path:

Quote of the day, on dark and dirty Tamils

I was very dirty and dark,” she said, and after a pause, “I was looking like a Tamilian

 If it were in a movie, in an appropriate context, it would have drawn loud laughs from the audience.  But, ...

... it was a US diplomat in Chennai, Vice-Consul Maureen Chao, who said that.  A very un-diplomatic moment!

A consulate press release said the Vice-Consul was describing positive memories from her own study abroad experiences in India 23 years ago. “During the speech Ms. Chao made an inappropriate comment. Ms. Chao deeply regrets if her unfortunate remarks offended anyone, as that was certainly not her intent.” 

 Ahem, "if" offended anyone?  Why the "if" there?  Didn't the diplomat and the PR folks realize that the "if" only makes it worse?

For the record, I am a dark-skinned " Tamilian ... I think I am clean :)

Of course, we all make stupid comments. Some more than the others. Remember Joe Biden's comment about candidate Senator Obama and about Indians at 7-11?

Libya: War is hell. Er, "kinetic military action" is hell!

Back on March 18th, which seems like a long, long time ago:
President Obama told a bipartisan group of members of Congress today that he expects the U.S. would be actively involved in any military action against Libya for "days, not weeks," after which he said the U.S. would take more of a supporting role, sources tell ABC News.

I suppose it is too much to ask for a president who will not lie to, and mislead, the public!

Of course, we can always count the "days" from then until today and whenever this war, er, "kinetic military action" ends the number of "days" we have been in Afghanistan. Or the number of "days" in Iraq.

And thus I start to re-read Catch-22 after a number of years, in order to commemorate the fifty years since it was first published.  I have with me a copy of the first edition, which I have borrowed from the library.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Breaking news: GOP supports Obama for 2012

America's Finest News Source has the scoop of the year:

GOP Supports Obama For 2012: 'We Need More Time To Completely Ruin His Life'

Rising college enrollment isn't as good as it seems

As with many of my opinion columns that have been published, this latest one too draws on quite a few of my blog posts.  Blogging has in many ways helped me with the learning about issues and, of course, writing about them as well.

The title of the post here is the title of the op-ed in the Statesman Journal (August 12, 2011)

Enrollment growth in Oregon's community colleges and universities is not necessarily a healthy sign as the Statesman Journal's report on July 31 implies.

Economic recessions are always correlated with increases in the number of students in higher education. During recessionary times, there is not much of a job creation and, therefore, the unemployed and underemployed labor tend to fall back on college education as a way to keep themselves busy and to improve their chances of meaningful employment as the economy recovers.

Economists tell us that the Great Recession ended in June 2009 with growth in the economy over consecutive quarters after an 18-month downturn. However, a significant number of Americans are yet to see that growth translated into jobs, which is the only way their own "personal recessions" will come to an end.

Thus, the lingering 9 percent-plus unemployment means that some of them take up college courses. Graduating high school seniors, on the other hand, realize the stiff competition even for the minimum wage jobs and, they too are more likely to try to beat the odds by signing up for college.

Therefore, the record enrollment level is far from any celebratory milestone, per se.

Instead, we ought to be acutely worried that joblessness might be driving quite a few Oregonians to college, even at the risk of being overqualified at the end.

This unemployment scenario turns even gloomier when I hear from students who completed their undergraduate degrees within the past few years but are yet to find any productive employment. Recently received emails included one from a former student who wants my advice on certificate programs that she could do in order to get an entry-level job.

Further, studies show that students who graduate during recessions almost always are never able to catch up with the earnings lost because of unemployment and underemployment.

Merely increasing the numbers of people going to college is, thus, no panacea for the short-term economic crisis, nor to necessarily provide society with a robust economic future.

To make things worse, public colleges and universities are also keen on maximizing enrollment, and even aggressively sell themselves not only within Oregon, but also in the other 49 states and the rest of the world. As the Pulitzer-winning David Leonhardt observed, a big problem with higher education was "the focus on enrollment rather than completion, the fact that colleges are not held to account for their failures."

Imagine if we ran hospitals based on the number of patients admitted and not on the more important metrics of survival and health of those admitted. We would be aghast, and rightfully so, at the failures in the medical system, more so when it is so darned expensive. Higher education is, unfortunately, not that different from an expensive health care industry where the patients are not being well served.

It is past the critical hour that we asked ourselves whether society ought to promote 16 years of education without understanding the marginal costs and benefits of a population supersaturated with undergraduates and doctorates

I wonder what the comments will be this time around--from my esteemed faculty colleagues that is :)

BTW, want an example of how colleges aggressively sell themselves their degree programs?  The following is an ad that appeared when I was reading a piece at Economix.  Higher education has become an industry that pushes college degrees like how spammers sell Viagra :)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How financial aid makes a ponzi of higher education?

Like many commentators, I have been worried for a while about the escalating student debt crisis, and the role that financial aid plays in the college enrollment ponzi scheme that benefits the higher education industry. 

A wonderful example: Here is an ad that popped up when I was reading and blogging:

Need I say more?

What about our SuperPAC? Rick Parry for President

Beware the spelling though :)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Quote of the day: on the scum of the earth. Who? Read on!

A phrase that really gets to me, for instance, would be one of those neoconservative references to Vietnam as a national tragedy, but only because we lost. That thought fills me with ire. To begin with, the person who says it is typically untouched by tragedy; like me, he has not lost a son or a job. In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic. People with that mentality, I have to admit, impress me as being the scum of the earth.

 That is Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 (ht)

Catch-22 is now fifty years old.  I have read a few essays in this context.  The best one of them all is this one by Ron Rosenbaum

In a way, it was a coincidence that those essays came up as I was wrapping up reading and blogging about A farewell to arms

"War is not won by victory. ... We think. We read. We are not peasants.  We are mechanics.  But even the peasants know better than to believe in a war.  Everybody hates this war."

"There is a class that controls a country that is stupid and does not realize anything and never can. That is why we have this war."

"Also they make money out of it."

A beauty at the checkout. No, not what you think!

I went to the nearby Goodwill Store to see if I might be able to pick up a used book or two for my summer readings.  I had to go in search because I have given up on Faulkner's As I lay dying.  The title of the book pretty much captures my feeling every single time I tried to read yet another page.

I lucked out; I spotted a copy of Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.  I have read a couple of his short stories in the New Yorker.  But that is not why I picked up the book.  A couple of years ago, when I was the director of the university's Honors Program, one of the students, "K," worked on a thesis in which she analyzed Doyle's novels.  It has been on my list since then.

I picked up two LP vinyls also--Doris Day, and the Carpenters.

I was scanning for more when the public address system blasted, "attention shoppers, the store will close in 15 minutes."

I lined up at a counter where the customers were finishing up. I was next.

The pregnant twenty-something totaled up and said "$2.73"

And after she handed me back the 27 cents change, she said "but, I didn't give your discount."

I was confused.  I get discounts at the Goodwill?  Is my suddenly less-affluent state beginning to show, like how her pregnancy was obvious?

She clarified for me.

"Your senior discount.  You are over 55, right?"

I burst out laughing.  "This is hilarious. I am not 55"

With the utmost sincerity, she asked "so how old are you then?"

"Way less than 55. I am just 47."

"You have all this white hair all over. That is why"

"I started graying early in life.  This is so funny."

"It is funny all right" she said.

In my mind, I feel I am just about 30.

The time meter says I am 47.

This clerk thinks I am at least 55.

My students think I am ancient.

I suppose time is relative.

But, ... but, ....
55 ??? :)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Higher education: heal thyself ... or else?

A year ago, I blogged about the critique of higher education by Professors Hacker and Dreifus.  In the post, I noted how the university where I work made it to their list of the good ones, and also the irony of faculty and administrators alike explicitly disassociating from Hacker and Dreifus.  Oh, good times those were!

Now, it is time for the release of the paperback edition.  Timed with that, Hacker and Dreifus have authored this commentary in the Chronicle, where they write:
Whether one feels that a little or a lot needs fixing, what is missing are signs that colleges and universities see themselves as part of the problem. That is what's most disheartening of all, because if today's higher-education leaders won't take steps on their own, they shouldn't be surprised when outside forces step in—and that won't augur well for academic freedom. The responsibility is theirs to take.
As one who has also been saying this for years, I doubt whether colleges and universities will ever take that first step of admitting that they themselves are the biggest part of the problem.  Naturally, the pressure will come from the outside--and it will come really, really, soon, in the form of various restrictions on funding.  After all, money talks and everything else walks!

I don't ever expect colleges and universities to clean up the mess by themselves.   Unfortunately, it will then be maniacs like the Tea Party folks who will then force us to throw the proverbial baby and the bathwater.

Anyway, what do I get in return for my approach to this academic profession that I absolutely cherish?

In the latest annual evaluation report of my service, the Division Chair notes in effect that I am not a collegial team player.  I then had to file a rejoinder to protest his remark!

Am reminded of the advice that a friend/ senior colleague gave me back in California: faculty do not like anybody who threatens the status quo that works well for them, and all the more so if the dissenter from the ranks is a non-White.  He knew it firsthand and, he too, was from India :)

Oh, BTW, the bizarre reaction from my colleagues was echoed elsewhere too; Hacker and Dreifus write:
At one point, we praised Earlham College for putting students first and playing down research; the college's reaction was immediate and incensed. 
Muahahaha :)

The "India" connection to the S&P downgrade :)

No, it is not about me :)

The Wall Street Journal had this:
Have you met Deven Sharma, president of the credit rating firm Standard & Poor’s, which stripped the U.S. of its top-notch triple-A credit rating?

Deven Sharma? An Indian name?  Which is when my mind echoed Johnny Carson's "I did not know that!"

The WSJ adds:
The Man Who Downgraded America: Get to know Deven Sharma, president of the credit rating firm Standard & Poor’s, which stripped the U.S. of its top-notch triple-A credit rating on Friday. Sharma didn’t come to S&P with a background on ratings or credit markets, but he had worked on S&P’s strategy for several years since taking on the ratings company as a client in his previous role at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. The promotion of Sharma, who was  born in India 55 years ago, was taken as an indication that S&P would continue to emphasize growing its business outside the U.S.

I was sure that my favorite newspaper in India will have something on this Indian connection; of course:
He holds a bachelor's degree from the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin and a doctoral degree in Business Management from Ohio State University.
He did his schooling in Jharkhand's Dhanbad district. 
A long way from Bihar and Jharkhand, which are some of the poorest states in India, if not the two poorest states!
The paper then reminds us of another Indian connection during at the onset of the financial crisis:
Mr. Sharma is part of an expanding league of Indian-origin persons heading global financial institutions.

Incidentally, another Indian-born executive Vikram Pandit was at the helm of the efforts to steer global banking giant Citigroup out of the financial crisis of 2008.

Hmmm ... I am not sure if I ought to celebrate such Indian connections :)

Here is Sharma explaining the decision to downgrade:

Monday, August 08, 2011

Stupidest op-ed of the day: Lessons from India: Blame students, not teachers

It was one of those mornings when I wondered if my life will be more, or less, exciting if my vocation and my hobby alike were not as focused as they are on various public policy issues, which make a news junkie of me.

No, I am not referring to the stock market free fall.

My news addiction means that I catch up with a few local papers, including the Oregonian, which is where I came across this op-ed on the lessons to learn about schooling--from India.

Naturally, I had to read it.

And then got so pissed off with the op-ed--I was reminded of an earlier post on my displeasure at politicians hyping up the "competition" from India.

I have emailed the following to the editor, and am hoping it will be published.

While I appreciate Tracy Groom’s overall objective in her op-ed (August 8th) to improve the learning conditions in schools here in Oregon, there is very little for me to agree with her observations on India’s education system.

In the first place, comparisons of the US with India conveniently overlook the fundamental point—most of India is poor.  America’s poorest are, on average, richer than India’s upper-middle class.

Wealth is concentrated in major metropolitan areas.  Thus, cities like New Delhi, where Ms. Groom spent a semester as a Fulbright exchange teacher, often have some of the best schools also.  Typically, schools in such cities have English as the medium of instruction and the students also come from literate families—often highly educated too.  Thus, Ms. Groom’s observations about India’s educational system are highly skewed, at best. 

Even in schools in urban areas, students are often forced to become experts at rote memorization because most of the education in India is less about fostering the ability to think and is more about teaching to the tests.  But then these are the better schools, so to say. 

As one ventures out to the rural areas, conditions deteriorate rapidly.  Many rural schools lack even proper buildings. Students rarely have textbooks and rely on whatever the teachers might ask them to do in the classrooms. Most teachers are horribly ill-qualified and, according to news reports, quite a few of them collect their paychecks even without reporting to work!

If all these fail to dampen the natural curiosities of children, then there is always the possibility of punishment—from forcing students to stand outside under the blistering tropical sun, to beatings.  This is no trivial matter even in India, which is why the Indian government has addressed "corporal punishment" in the “Right to Education Act” that was recently passed. 

There are many more problems that plague India’s education system.  Even a relatively minor observation that Ms. Groom makes about students not needing tutoring services is atrociously incorrect—most parents in India have no choice but to spend a lot of money on private tutors for their children because of the lack of quality teaching at schools, and because of the intense pressure to score well in the all important tests. 

While I could point out a lot more that is incorrect in Ms. Groom’s op-ed, I would instead conclude on the note that many of the elite schools in India’s cities systematically work to introduce American-style education that encourages students to discover their strengths and weaknesses through discussions and learning by doing. 

We need to ensure that Oregon’s schools provide the best environment for the children to be all they can be. But, let us not slide down to towards the lowest common denominator, and that too based on highly uninformed and incorrect judgments on a more “successful” system in a remarkably poor India.  Tracy Groom’s op-ed does a great disservice to India and the US by projecting incorrect impressions about  teachers, students, and parents on the other side of the planet.

A focus on enrollment quickly leads to cooking up the numbers!

Only a couple of days back I posted here my concerns over public colleges and universities being keen on enrollment growth.

And, what do I read today?  The president of a public university has been fired for errors in the enrollment numbers reported:

An internal audit by the university system that was made public last week blamed Mr. McCallum for inflated enrollment numbers, which were posted not only in university documents but also in official reports to the U.S. Department of Education

Seriously, even a drunk monkey could have predicted such developments!  (editor: are you drunk now?)

It is like the old Soviet system--keep reporting good numbers all the time.  Often this led to awards and honors.  In the worst case, you get caught, which is better than not having a job because you are reporting bad numbers!

Universities, which one might think are the arbiters of truth, are now increasingly in the business of self-promotion, which often leads to bullshit, lies, and criminal acts like the North Dakota incident.

Running a university as a business with a focus on enrollment and financial bottom-line also means that we end up in situations like this: neither the university president nor the system's chancellor has any professional academic background, which one would think is fundamental requirement to lead in higher education.  Oh well, ... can't do a damn thing about these, eh!

Yes, we "can"

I owe a lot to R.K. Laxman and his cartoons for what has thus far been a life-long ultra-fascination for editorial cartoons :)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Why is India like Warren Buffett?

Who woulda thunk it, eh!

In the context of the S&P downgrade of the US' creditworthiness:
the Indian exposure is equivalent to an estimated USD 40 billion worth treasury bonds held by one single entity, Warren Buffett-led Berkshire Hathaway.

The US dollar being an international currency and a safe haven means that India, too, holds T-bills:
As one of the 15-largest foreign creditors to the U.S., India’s exposure to the United States’ ballooning debts is estimated at USD 41 billion — higher than the money America owes to countries like France and Australia.
One crazy, modern world we live in!

I suppose this is the equivalent of people saving their hard-earned money in a bank, only to realize later that there was something seriously wrong with the bank.  But, by the time they figure it out, there is no way to withdraw the money too.

Meanwhile, emergency meetings have been scheduled to prevent any nasty contagion from the combined US/Euro issues.

On the other side of the issue, turns out that S&P itself has erred in its computations?
The reality seems to be that S&P made a very embarrassing error in the numbers that it initially sent to the Treasury – one that could have made a substantive difference to its downgrade decision.
The administration’s counterattack, however, is a convenient distraction from the harsh criticism of the political process that was at the heart of S&P’s decision.
The initial numbers that S&P sent to the Treasury at 1.45pm on Friday were based on the “Alternative Fiscal Scenario” prepared by the Congressional Budget Office. That assumes that discretionary federal spending will grow in line with the economy. S&P then subtracted the roughly $900bn in savings created by the debt ceiling deal to estimate net debt.
However, the CBO had calculated the $900bn savings from a different baseline, which assumed that spending would grow in line with inflation. Calculated from the higher alternative scenario, the budget savings would be closer to $3,000bn. Adjusting for this would mean that net public debt only rose to 79 per cent of gross domestic product in 2015 instead of the 81 per cent in S&P’s initial estimate.
Sure enough, Paul Krugman has written about this:
The point here is not so much the $2 trillion, which makes very little difference to real US fiscal prospects; it’s the fact that S&P stands revealed as not understanding basic analysis of budget estimates.

Rajiv Sethi says we simply ought to say F*&% You to the credit agencies (ht):
Perhaps the time has come to consider a complete overhaul of this dysfunctional system. Withdraw the special designation accorded to the major agencies, so that they compete on a level playing field with new entrants. If they really do have the expertise to make assessments of credit risk that are more accurate than the market, let them build reputation and find clients willing to pay for their pronouncements. Make capital requirements for financial institutions independent of ratings, thus stripping the agencies of their monopoly power and guaranteed sources of income. And in the meantime, greet their pronouncements on sovereign debt not with an anxious wringing of hands, but with a collective yawn.

Funny, though, that the F-you arguments were far from this loud here in the US when the credit agencies went around downgrading sovereign governments elsewhere, and even though those governments were complaining about S&P and the like :)

All these remind me of the old quote attributed to Casey Stengel: "Can't anybody here play this game?"

Seriously, were things always like this?  What a fine mess!

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Now the credit agencies are on to the other debt: student loans

Unless students limit their debt burdens, choose fields of study that are in demand, and successfully complete their degrees on time, they will find themselves in worse financial positions and unable to earn the projected income that justified taking out their loans in the first place.

 That is the analysis from the credit rating agency, Moody's, and Reason adds:
In August 2010 financial aid guru Mark Kantrowitz announced that student loan debt had, for the first time, surpassed credit card debt. A month later, the Department of Education announced that default rates for student loans had jumped from 4.6 percent in 2005 to 7 percent in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available. While the two announcements went largely unnoticed, some took the data points as evidence that America's next big bubble—higher education—was becoming dangerously inflated.
My reaction? a big yawn! 
I have been writing about the higher education bubble for more than a couple of years now!  (Search for "higher education ponzi")

More from Reason:
the college industry had more in common with Detroit than the housing crisis.
“These subsidies are kind of like propping up the auto industry with cash for clunkers, or the housing industry with cash for first-time buyers,” he told me last year. “We have this financial aid system that is keeping the system alive.”
Seriously, tell me something new!  

When will the policymakers and the public wake up to the fact that we are overselling higher education, which benefits neither the students nor the idea of "education," and the only beneficiaries are those in the higher education business? 

I am doing my part--like this recent opinion piece in the Oregonian, and this one that I hope that the Statesman Journal will publish.  How about you, dear reader? (editor: what makes you think there are readers?)

I, a stranger and afraid ... In a world I never made

I wasn't even reading an essay or a poem when I came across these profound words.

I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made

Instead, it was in an animation (ht) that I have embedded here:

A World I Never Made from Rachel Kwak on Vimeo.

Curiosity being my metaphorical middle name, I searched for more info about this animation, and came across this in practically no time all:
Animator Rachel Kwak painstakingly created the elaborate part flip-book short film,  A World I Never Made, for her final project at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.  The inventive piece combines an animated story based on English poet A.E. Housman‘s book of the same name and an actual copy of the book that houses the poem. Silhouettes of rabbits  jump right off the page in seeming synchronicity to the song Eon Blue Apocalypse by Tool.
Her former Experimental Animation professor at Pratt Institute, Robert Lyons, explains:
…this film is a beautiful example of visual poetry. A variety of techniques are employed including; cut-outs, hand-drawn, stop motion and replacement animation.
 Yes, I like the descriptor "visual poetry" ...

So, back to the quote; another search reveals the rest of the lines from the poem by Housman

The Laws of God
THE laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I , and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God's?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
Ignorant about pretty much everything, I am not surprised that I have never heard of Housman.  So, another search .... I liked this YouTube clip; it is so wonderful to hear the poem being read, as opposed to the eyes scanning the printed words

Photo of the day: remembering Hiroshima and the A-Bomb

Caption at the source:
Doves fly by the gutted Atomic Bomb Dome, (seen in the background), preserved as a landmark for the tribute to the A-Bomb attack, following a speech delivered by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, marking the 66th anniversary of the world's first atomic bombing in Hiroshima on Saturday.
 The photo below shows the remnants of the building (Industrial Promotion Hall) which was capped by this dome:

More photos of the post-bomb Hiroshima here.

So many wars over the thousands of years humans have been on this planet  The Japanese included. So unfortunate.  Even more tragic is the reality that we haven't gotten rid of our instinct to bomb the shit out of life anywhere on earth :(

As Hemingway wrote:
There is nothing as bad as war. ... When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy. 

Friday, August 05, 2011

Make up your own damn mind. About religion too!

The noble idea of liberal education is that students will not only have a broad understanding of the universe in which we are a tiny piece of cosmic dust, but also that they will be able to independently think--and think critically.

But, more and more it seems like that the rapid development and diffusion of information technology does a tragic run about this liberal education: it is now a lot more possible than ever before not to have a broad understanding and, yet, comment and critique without any independent, critical thinking:
The Internet-begotten abundance of absolutely everything has given rise to a parallel universe of stars, rankings, most-recommended lists, and other valuations designed to help us sort the wheat from all the chaff we’re drowning in. 

Even more is this:
“We exalt in being able to know as much as possible. And that’s great on many levels. But we’re forgetting the pleasures of not knowing. I’m no Luddite, but we’ve started replacing actual experience with someone else’s already digested knowledge.”

Wait a sec' if I am citing from somebody else critiquing this aspect of predigested knowledge, then am I not providing a classic example of what the author has set out to convince me about?  So, if the author is correct, then no reader will ever cite this essay?  Muahahaha, a paradox indeed!

Ok, seriously, I am sick and tired of uninformed people rating articles and news reports that I frequently bypass the listings that most media sites have--the "most emailed" or the "most viewed" ... I have come to seriously worry about the wisdom of crowds. Hey, wasn't it the crowd that elected Bush/Cheney for a second term?
we have to watch how much outside assessment we let in. There’s something heartbreaking about surrendering to strangers the delicate moment of giving order to the world. In those instances when we bring our cognitive reasoning to bear on our surroundings, when we aim our singularly human powers of evaluation at a piece of art or a fellow person, it’s a fundamental expression of the self. 

Well said.

One could make a similar argument about the role of religion, too, no?  After all, the overwhelming majority of believers follow that religion only because they were born into it.  And they accept the wisdom of the crowd to which they belong.

We look for articles and news reports that support our beliefs and then click on that "like" or "dislike" buttons.  For all purposes, the IT explosion has merely created a zillion different monstrous versions of Faux Noose, er, Fox News.

For the most part, whether it is religion or reading and thinking about the secular world, it turns out that:
Beliefs come first; reasons second.

So, beliefs first.  As one of the sleaziest characters, Karl Rove, put it, we then invent our own reality to support that belief!  Oh well, back to the point:
That's the insightful message of The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine. In the book, he brilliantly lays out what modern cognitive research has to tell us about his subject—namely, that our brains are "belief engines" that naturally "look for and find patterns" and then infuse them with meaning. These meaningful patterns form beliefs that shape our understanding of reality. Our brains tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, ignoring information that contradicts them. Mr. Shermer calls this "belief-dependent reality." The well-worn phrase "seeing is believing" has it backward: Our believing dictates what we're seeing.

But then, is to read Shermer also a confirmation bias?
A human ancestor hears a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or a lion? If he assumes it's the wind and the rustling turns out to be a lion, then he's not an ancestor anymore. Since early man had only a split second to make such decisions, Mr. Shermer says, we are descendants of ancestors whose "default position is to assume that all patterns are real; that is, assume that all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not the wind."

So, those of us who use reason can blame the beliefs first on those apes in the savanna, the evolution from whom retained this "believing is seeing."  Creationists of various stripes, on the other hand, can blame their respective gods :)

Can somebody in the crowd tell me what to think and do?  Muahahaha :)

BTW, thanks to my favorite go-to-site for the links to both these essays.

The second dip cometh? A Republican Recession?

So, the stock market sank faster than I can in water (yes, despite numerous attempts to learn, I can't even float, leave alone swim!)
The stock market plunged by more than 4 percent yesterday in its worst day in more than two years and investors flooded safe-haven investment alternatives, driven by escalating fears the wobbly global economy may stumble into a new recession.
While one swallow doesn't make a summer, the high probability of an economic catastrophe has always been talked and written about, even in this blog. And I am not even an economist or a banker!  So, it is not as if we are merely looking at this one day stock market event.

First, a recap of the nightmarish situation:

A Month of Awful News
June was a very weak month for the U.S. economy, and our data from July so far isn't looking good. Some quick highlights:
These would all be very bad signs in a healthy economy. In a weak recovery -- a time when business activity should be above average -- they're even worse. Although we appeared to climbing out of the abyss in early 2011, it no longer looks like we're even treading water. In fact, we may be drowning again.
Robert Reich is furious, and he is darn right:

Republicans repeatedly assured the nation that once the debt-limit deal was done – capping spending, cutting the budget deficit, and getting “90 percent” of what they wanted — the economy would bounce back.
 Just the opposite seems to be happening.
Call it the Republican’s double-dip recession.
Wall Street investors aren’t ideologues. They don’t obsess about budget deficits ten years from now, or the size of the government. One day doesn’t make a trend, but a giant sell-off like this is motivated by hard, cold realities.
Dr. Doom is on a spree of what essentially is "I told you so" ... like this one:
QE3 started in Japan & Switzerland via fx action &/or monetary easing. Fed will eventually get to QE3 but it will be too little too late
Oh, how I wish I had no interest in public policy issues at all; life will be so much without worries!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Wind turbines kill ducks. So, ban 'em. Cuz, we want to hunt 'em :)

In pretty much every course I teach, I devote a week to environmental aspects.  The bottom line that I hope students get from that one week, and from elsewhere too, is that most environmental issues require tradeoffs.  And, therefore, it often comes down to political power. Examples abound--including this satirical piece on the ecologically sensitive Florida Everglades and wind turbines.

This is, of course, not the first time that the Daily Show has pointed out the craziness with which those at either ends of issues launch their arguments.

In the following classic, the same Mandvi pokes fun of asbestos exports from Canada, which seems to otherwise walk around with some kind of a environmental smug attitude

Equally hilarious, and tragic, is the following one by Wyatt Cenac about residents in Turkey Creek fighting to protect their land.  In this case, only the environmentalists could help them--and that too by fighting to protect the birds!

If only we had bold, responsible, and no-nonsense leaders like Gov. Christie

What an awesome statement from Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. (ht)  And in time for Ramadan ...
Makes me damn proud to be an American :)

What a crazy anti-Muslim hysteria we have in this country. 

I wonder how this anti-Muslim mania compares with the anti-Catholic and anti-Semite viruses of the past. It is awful that we haven't learnt from those and many other ugly aspects of our history.

Even more pathetic: there are very few politicians like Governor Christie who bluntly dismiss such hysteria with the kind of an attitude and words he uses.  Yes, "crazies" and "crap" are the best way to deal with them.

And, by the way, what ever happened to the Islamic Center project across from NJ, in the Empire State?  Remember that one?

Photo of the day: Ramadan begins

Caption at the source:
Indonesian Muslim women pray on the first night of Ramadan on July 31 in Jakarta.

A remarkable coincidence with the Ramadan this year: I re-connected with an old classmate, "Y," from my childhood years, the poignant memory of whom I have is from the second grade--doing watercolors and art work together. The coincidence because that "Y" notes in the email about observing Ramadan.

The call to prayer in the early minutes of daybreak--even on regular and not any special days--from the loudspeakers at the local mosque, is one of the best ways to start a day.

At my parents' old place, I always headed out to the local park for a brisk walk.
Picture this:
early dawn, dark enough that some of the street lights are still on
no traffic on the roads
only a couple of stray dogs stretching themselves
a few squatters on the sidewalks getting ready for the day

Overlay on this the lovely call to prayer from afar.

One of the best reasons to be an early bird!

BTW, the park has a tower, which was built for an exposition in the early 1970s.  The photo here is a view from that tower from quite a few years ago.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Regrets? None?

Today, I felt my shadow lengthening in the twilight of a mediocre career.

Perhaps that is why my walk along the river was extremely slow.  It was a two-hour walk punctuated with stops, in contrast to the brisk non-stop 75-minute rush through those five miles.

Which song would resonate with me then to wrap up this mediocrity, I wondered.

Would it be Frank Sinatra's "My Way" where he sings that the regrets are too few to mention:

Or, would it be Edith Piaf's "Non je ne regrette rien" where she says "I regret nothing" ...

Or, would I want to seek consolation in Chandrababu's song (the first line, in translation, means "the smart ones are not necessarily successful, and the successful ones are not necessarily smart")

Those were the thoughts as I walked with ...

I reached home.

As I unlocked the door, I heard Louis Armstrong's "What a wonderful world" ... (the radio is almost always on, even when I am out of the house)

It was a serendipitous moment.

Wisdom dawned, even if only temporarily, that I can afford to postpone worrying about the lengthening shadows ... for now ...

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