Friday, September 30, 2011

Can one ever hide from Facebook and Google?

A few days ago, a friend had posted in his Facebook page a link to a news item about his philosopher/musicologist grandfather.  I followed up on that link, and shared it with my siblings, through whom the news reached my parents, whose lives are untroubled by computers.

Later, when I returned to that same newspaper's website, as I do every day, it troubled me when the site listed the news items that a few other Facebook friends had shared with others.  Because I had read that news about the musicologist through my friend's Facebook feed, now the newspaper had data on who my Facebook friends are, and with a simple cross-checking with the database it tells me who else had read and shared other news items.

I now had to take my love-hate relationship with Facebook to the next level.

So, I am hoping that the solution I have come up with will work: all my regular web-related activities are through Firefox, while Facebook will be via the clunky and slow IE. 

Take that, Facebook, because now you won't know what I am up to :)

(It doesn't look like Facebook searches for Firefox cookies when I am using IE; maybe they will soon add that code, you think?)

Meanwhile, I am being stalked by Google!  It scans my emails, keeps track of what I am searching for, and who knows what else!

If you use the full range of its products, Google knows the identity of everyone you communicate with by email, instant messaging and phone, with a master list – accessible only by you, and by Google – of the people you contact most. If you use its products, Google knows the content of your emails and voicemail messages (a feature of Google Voice is that it transcribes messages and emails them to you, storing the text on Google servers indefinitely). If you find Google products compelling – and their promise of access-anywhere, conflagration and laptop-theft-proof document creation makes them quite compelling – Google knows the content of every document you write or spreadsheet you fiddle or presentation you construct. If as many Google-enabled robotic devices get installed as Google hopes, Google may soon know the contents of your fridge, your heart rate when you’re exercising, the weather outside your front door, the pattern of electricity use in your home.
Google knows or has sought to know, and may increasingly seek to know, your credit card numbers, your purchasing history, your date of birth, your medical history, your reading habits, your taste in music, your interest or otherwise (thanks to your searching habits) in the First Intifada or the career of Audrey Hepburn or flights to Mexico or interest-free loans, or whatever you idly speculate about at 3.45 on a Wednesday afternoon. Here’s something: if you have an Android phone, Google can guess your home address, since that’s where your phone tends to be at night. I don’t mean that in theory some rogue Google employee could hack into your phone to find out where you sleep; I mean that Google, as a system, explicitly deduces where you live and openly logs it as ‘home address’ in its location service, to put beside the ‘work address’ where you spend the majority of your daytime hours.
Some people find all this frightening.

Yep, I am one of those "some people" who find all these very, very troubling.  And, at how much complacent we are about all these.

And now this:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I hope Rick Perry stays on :)

For a little while, at least ... because ....

And then, eventually, this will happen, of course :)

If we are interested in student learning, does it matter if the teacher has a PhD?

One can easily imagine that many school districts in Oregon will be in situations similar to the Salem-Keizer School District, which is about $20 million short in its budget. 

We can expect education budgets to further tighten up because economic conditions might not dramatically improve soon—neither in Oregon nor in the country.  The anemic recovery from the Great Recession means that serious budget issues will continue to dog school districts for a couple of more years, at least.

If ever a case can be made that a crisis is also an opportunity to reexamine how we have always done business, then, in this context, I hope that school districts and state officials will look into the issue of the master’s degree salary bump.

Oregon, like most states, pays higher salaries to teachers with master’s degrees compared to those who do not.  However, when it comes to student learning and outcomes, there is nothing conclusive about differences between teachers with master’s degrees and otherwise.  Yet, compensation packages for teachers typically are higher for those with the master’s degree.

A national study completed in 2007 estimated that about 2.1 percent of expenditures were caused by the master’s degree bump.  The same study estimated that the master’s bump cost Oregon almost $110 million. 
When officials are searching for pennies in the budgets, and parents are ready to hold bake sales, do we want to overlook this expensive line item?

Advanced credentials alone do not make a successful teacher who can improve student learning.  One only needs to check with students in my classes in order to find out that even a doctorate doesn’t make a good teacher out of me!

To make things worse, by paying more for master’s degrees, we have also instituted an incentive system for the generation of graduate degrees, which are also partly paid for by taxpayers at public universities, including where I teach.  Thus, according to the same study, over a decade, the highest growth rate was in graduates in master’s degrees in education.

That means we taxpayers end up paying twice: first in partly subsidizing the production of these master’s graduates, and then paying higher salaries because teachers have those very degrees.  We do all these even though a master’s degree is neither required nor sufficient to improve student learning.

I should underscore here that this is not any partisan position.  President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, stated a few months ago that “state and local governments should rethink their policies of giving pay raises to teachers who have master’s degrees because evidence suggests that the degree alone does not improve student achievement.”

Perhaps this is the right time to ask ourselves, “does one really need a master's degree to teach at the elementary school level?” 

I love the pursuit of knowledge, and recognize that degree programs offer structured routes to advanced education.  But, with a stalled economic recovery and budget shortfalls, can we afford to pay more for these artificial salary bumps in schools, especially when they do not necessarily improve student learning?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This is exactly why I love the New Yorker cartoons :)

Reading the New Yorker is, to quite an extent, like reading the Scientific American, in that I need to have a minimum level of literacy to be able to read and understand the materials there.  And reading them is not any casual business either--requires attention.  I love the New Yorker because I get actively engaged in the process.

And, here is the best part: that active engagement part is applicable even when it comes to most of the cartoons, which, BTW, are the ones I scan through first.

Take the following cartoon, for instance:

This one requires cultural-literacy of sorts.  This cartoon will not, get across to most people who might not know anything about baseball--like how I was before I got to this country.  Back in India, the joke here would have simply sailed passed me like, ahem, a wild pitch :)

But, having been acculturated, and knowing the little bit that I do about baseball, made me pause for a sec, grasp the situation and then chuckle. The dog excitedly waiting with a leash and looking towards the pitcher who is not in the picture, with the catcher .. nah, I will let the magazine's cartoon editor explain it::

[If] you don’t know what sign catchers give when they want an intentional walk, or recognize that a dog wagging his tail often means he wants go for a walk, you won’t get this cartoon. And explaining it to you, as I have, won’t make it any funnier.

More here on my cartoon mania.

So, a college degree for all ...

There is a part of me that wonders whether it was my op-ed that triggered an opinion piece authored by the university's provost, in the same Statesman Journal.  Perhaps I am one of those he implies in writing "some people have suggested in various public forums (including this newspaper) that one's time and money may be better spent not pursuing a college degree."

In any case, that is immaterial.   There is a lot to debate, but I have a class to teach :)  More on this later today, time permitting.

BTW, last evening, I emailed the editor of that paper an opinion essay, for possible publication as an op-ed, in response to this news item.  If it is published, I would assume then that my name will be axed from more Christmas lists!  But, that is the nature of the business, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The end of liberal education. Has it already happened?

First this news update from the state, er, Republic of Texas, where Governor Rick Perry led the charge on making higher education more efficient and cost-effective:

Almost half of undergraduate programs at public colleges and universities in Texas are in danger of being eliminated because they do not meet a new state requirement of graduating at least 25 students every five years, UPI reported. ... Raymund Paredes, the Texas commissioner of higher education, said he would not back exceptions to the rule. "In this budgetary environment, we can't afford the luxury of programs not producing graduates," he told UPI. "It's up to academic departments faced with closure of programs to salvage them."

So, if physics is one of those programs that students are not gravitating towards, then where are the enrollments?  In professional and vocational programs--from nursing to criminal justice. And that generic "business" major.

This is the trend all across, and the university where I teach is no exception--business, criminal justice, teaching, nursing are the kind of programs that churn out graduates.

Yet, my employer describes the university as "a steadily emerging as a leading comprehensive public liberal arts institution," making me wonder, and worry, where exactly we champion the liberal arts!

The traditional liberal arts colleges are dying, and it is one hell of a rapid decline in their intellectual health and well being:

Students who major in liberal arts subjects are becoming fewer and fewer. Fifty-one of the 225 colleges had more than 50 percent vocational majors. Do we count those as those liberal arts colleges?

Truth in advertising might require universities, including mine, not to market themselves as "liberal arts" institutions when a majority of their graduates are not students who graduated in what would be considered the traditional liberal arts.  But then the notion of colleges and universities being truthful might be asking for too much anymore, eh :)

I, with my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, am not opposed to professional and vocation education at all. There is a place for that, and I resonate with this:

I’m not against vocational education; I’m suspicious of how good it is. I know for a certainty that one does not learn how to be a lawyer in law school. Do you learn how to be a parks and recreation person by taking parks and recreation courses? It is better to work at place as an unpaid volunteer even if you make nothing. You’ll still be better off than if you paid tuition. The problem is everyone says, “But you need the credential to get in the door.” Credentials are getting more important as the number of people looking for jobs is getting larger.

I have written in the past that "higher education" has now been downgraded into some kind of a job credentialing service.  I would way prefer that it is not viewed and treated that way, and I hope that external forces would actually take this credentialing aspect away from the mission of education and knowing.  That moment might be much closer than one would imagine:

The day when other organizations besides colleges provide a nondegree credential to signify learning might not be as far off as we think. One interesting project on this front is an effort to create “digital badges,” which would allow people to demonstrate their skills and knowledge to prospective employers without necessarily having a degree.
Badges could recognize, for example, informal learning that happens outside the classroom; “soft skills,” such as critical thinking and communication; and new literacies, such as aggregating information from various sources and judging its quality. And in a digital age, the badge could include links back to documents and other artifacts demonstrating the work that led to earning the stamp of approval.
At the announcement in Washington, the U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, called badges a “game-changing strategy” and said his agency would join with the Department of Veterans Affairs to award $25,000 for the best badge prototype that serves veterans looking for well-paying jobs.
Under a badge system, colleges would no longer be the sole providers of a credential. While badges could be awarded by traditional colleges, they could also be given out by professional organizations, online and open-courseware providers, companies, or community groups.

Welcome to a brave new world of higher education!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Jobs? Not going to be easy to get anymore?

So, jumping through a few hyperlinks (have no idea where I started) I ended up reading this:

The paradox is this. A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.
The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing.

As if he we reading my mind, and extending this logic of if it can be defined, it can then be automated, Farhad Manjoo has an awesome piece with a warning that you ought to be scared shitless--even if you happen to be highly educated and have a well-paying job"

if computers have already come for middle-skilled workers, and if low-skilled workers aren't an attractive enough target, who's left? That's right: Professionals—people whose jobs required years of schooling, and who, consequently, make a lot of money doing them. As someone who is fascinated with technology, the stuff I found in my investigation of robots and the workforce tickled me. I got to see a room-size pill-dispensing robot, machines that can find cervical cancer on pap-smear slides, and even servers than can write news stories. As someone who likes his job (and his paycheck), what I saw terrified me.

All the more the reason why developing our creative abilities becomes important, right?  It is only there, at least for now, computers fall behind human brains.

The Economist, while slicing and dicing through the data regarding Rick Perry's boasts on being a one-man job-creating machine, notes:

[An] argument has emerged that American politicians must focus on job quality, not just quantity. In general, any job is better than no job, but it is true that some jobs are dangerous, distressing, or fail to put workers above the poverty threshold. That last is a particular concern: on September 13th the Census Bureau announced that in 2010 the poverty rate was 15.1%, up from 14.2% in 2009.

Or, maybe we should go with the what Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy uber-champion, wrote in his answer to the final question, "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords" :(

Pakistan is a Catch-22 character, writes Hitchens. Yes, indeed!

Re-reading Catch-22 as a middle-aged fellow was one heck of an immeasurably more pleasing experience than when I read it a long time ago as a teenager.  Of course, reading it against the backdrop of insane wars, it was breathtakingly insightful.

One can, therefore, easily imagine how much my excitement multiplied over when I read the opening lines of Christopher Hitchens' column at Slate:

In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Lt. Milo Minderbinder transforms the mess accounts of the American airbase under his care into a "syndicate" under whose terms all servicemen are potential stakeholders. But this prince of entrepreneurs and middlemen eventually becomes overexposed, especially after some incautious forays into Egyptian cotton futures, and is forced to resort to some amoral subterfuges. The climactic one of these is his plan to arrange for himself to bomb the American base at Pianosa (for cost plus 6 percent, if my memory serves) with the contract going to the highest bidder.

One of the very few times I know exactly what Hitchens is writing about!  What a neat way to start a new academic year :)

Anyway, Hitchens writes that Pakistan is operating like Minderbinder.  How does this guy so easily connect the otherwise unconnected dots in the literary and geopolitical worlds!

Hitchens remarks that Pakistan makes an amateur out of Minderbinder:

In return for subventions of millions of American dollars, it now turns out, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency (the ISI) can "outsource" the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and several other NATO and Afghan targets, to a related crime family known as the Haqqani network. Coming, as it does, on the heels of the disclosure about the official hospitality afforded to Osama Bin Laden, this reveals the Pakistani military-intelligence elite as the most adroit double-dealing profiteer from terrorism in the entire region.

Minderbinder, er, Pakistan presses on full steam ahead; its foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar struck a defiant note:

Ms. Khar, however, lashed out at the role of the CIA, which most recently orchestrated the covert strike against Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. She said to Al Jazeera channel: “If we talk about links, I am sure the CIA also has links with many terrorist organisations around the world, by which we mean intelligence links.”
In a remark that raised eyebrows in both New York and Washington, Ms. Khar added: “And this particular network, which the U.S. continues to talk about, is a network which was the blue-eyed boy of the CIA itself for many years.”

Finally, we are all bound to lose it the way Yossarian did, after Snowden's blood and guts spill out on to him :(

The only saving grace is that, even though this might sound like "other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" the overall level of violence in human history has been decreasing, and decreasing really fast in recent years.

Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.
The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth. It has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

If Pakistan played well with the rest of the world, we can speed up the process even more ...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Photo of the day: Paul Krugman loses it :)

"I’ve Never Actually Seen the Resemblance" captions Krugman, from whose blog I got this graphic:

Pretty good, eh :)

Secular people oppose capital punishment, while the religious prefer death?

Christopher Hitchens clearly articulates my muddled thinking, which had the same bottom line as Hitchens'.  That guy is one talented and gifted intellectual!

Hitchens writes, while discussing the difference in the manner in which the US differs from the West:

The point of the penalty was that it was death. It expressed righteous revulsion and symbolized rectitude and retribution. Voila tout! The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.)

And he concludes thus:

In a primitive society or a theocratic state based on moral absolutism, there may be a certain “rough” justice in hauling the condemned man straight from his “trial” to the place of stoning, where at least the aggrieved relatives of his victim can have their moment of cruel catharsis. But in a modern state that allows for appeals, judicial review, and the admission of new evidence, the death sentence is only the beginning of a protracted and tortuous process to which we give—and I apologize for using the expression myself—the apotropaic name of “Death Row.” At once too random and too institutional and systematic, this dire business has now become an offense both to law and to justice.

Yes, an "offense both to law and justice."

Kathleen Parker, whose columns I usually do not care for, addresses the death sentence, and writes

I'm no wimp when it comes to justice and spent the first few decades of my life backstroking in the Old Testament. An eye-for-an-eye was fine by me.
But I have matured and these days wear glibness — and righteousness — like a hair shirt. Satisfaction can never come from the termination of a human life except to protect one's own and that of one's dependents. Thus, our barbaric practice of capital punishment, premeditated and coldblooded, is, since we're in a biblical mood, an abomination. That we grant the state the power to end a citizen's life is a harrowing-enough thought. That we do so even when we know with certainty that sometimes innocents are killed is beyond comprehension.

Dahlia Lithwick noted the unfortunate irony that most of the ardent supporters of the death sentence are simultaneously the same ones denouncing the role of government, and their primary reason is that the government can't get any damn thing right:

when you hear Republicans moan about the bureaucratic burdens and failures of government-run education, health care, and disaster-relief systems, doesn't any part of you wonder why they have such boundless confidence in the capital justice system

But, you can't argue with logic, can you, with these people!  They are notoriously anti-logic, anti-intellectual arguments, and rely on their gut instincts :(

Photo of the day: One heck of a funny juxtaposition :)

As one who always is interested in every damn thing, a couple of months ago I downloaded the Groupon app in order to find out what it was all about.  Soon, given my lack of interest in goods and services that are only in the discretionary category, I figured Groupon was one of those in the been-there, done-that list.

But then I haven't figured out yet how to delete apps!  Which is why Groupon and a few others continue to stare at me, and then sometimes I end up checking them ... and so I checked out what deal Groupon had for me this time ...

Turned out that it was a hilarious juxtaposition of two unrelated advertisements on the same screen, but if you are into pun as much as I am (or more!!!) then you will certainly laugh at the screen that I immediately captured with my camera :)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Quotes of the day: on teachers and education in India

Where have all these teachers gone today?
Real teachers simply do not exist. We as a nation erased the framework and the climate to create good teachers. In our hurry to become a superpower, we forgot the elementary. We started first with creating engineers, followed by doctors. Then we created ‘tech coolies' and ‘nurses'. Then we created an army of generalists who claim to be educated, have paper degrees and could easily take up any of the service sector jobs — ranging from being an ‘officer' in a corporate to the ‘fast moving' retail sector to the financial services sector.
Teachers, along with other nation-building professionals, fell by the wayside. 

The entire opinion piece here.

As for the drive to generate engineers, well, to use Dr. Phil's language, "how's that workin' for you?"  Here is one about Kerala, and from what I have read and heard, this is not unique to one state, but is a country-wide issue:

[Nearly] one-third of the students enrolled in many of these private self-financing engineering colleges end up never taking the university degree — they remain Bachelor divorced from Technology (for life). Those without even the basic mathematical sense succeed in sneaking into some of the private self-financing engineering institutions, only to fail all the way accumulating back papers semester after semester. Certainly, the money their parents dish out, by way of loans, nay mortgage, contribute to the overall liquidity and provides employment and business opportunities to many. Beyond that social function, what becomes of the family from which the forlorn student hails is the moot question. 

Simply awful :(
All the more the reasons why increasingly Indians are frustrated with the current situation, and are even tempted to turn to the likes of the fascist Narendra Modi for leadership and a government that can deliver, even if that potentially means infringements on freedoms.

Because, as China, Singapore, South Korea, and the likes have demonstrated, those countries have surged way ahead of India, whose only claim seems to be its "democracy." 

How I wish I could somehow force these opinion essays down the throat (metaphorically speaking, of course!) of the author of that one hell of a stupid op-ed on the "better" education system in India!

Your teenager troubles you? Read on ...

It was an inconsequential, and yet a serious, chat with "S" about parenting and children.  Coming from different backgrounds and age didn't seem to matter at all when he and I speculated that the troubling adolescent behavior is coded somewhere in the human genes only to ensure that the child will wean away from the parent.  Else, given the unique ways in which humans take care of their young, well, this split might not happen--in an extreme case--and that could threaten the propagation.

Hey, every casual conversation doesn't have to be about politics, you know.

Speaking of which, did you catch this beauty from Bill Maher on the allegation in the book that Sarah Palin did cocaine?  Maher said, “Sarah Palin doing cocaine? That’s ridiculous. That stuff can make you yammer like an imbecile.”

Ok, stay focused here. Adolescent behavior. No, for the final time, this post on adolescent behavior is not about Palin :)

One of the typical adolescent attitude is towards risk--they seem to care less about actions that we older folks might think are way too risky.  

Teens take more risks not because they don't understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.

Interesting.  I had always worked with the assumption that the teenage behavior is framed by the context of inadequate information about the risks.  But, if they are aware of the risks, at levels comparable to adult understanding, then it has tremendous implications for public policies too, right?  Ok, I am getting ahead of myself.  The researchers add:

"They didn't take more chances because they suddenly downgraded the risk," says Steinberg. "They did so because they gave more weight to the payoff."
Researchers such as Steinberg and Casey believe this risk-friendly weighing of cost versus reward has been selected for because, over the course of human evolution, the willingness to take risks during this period of life has granted an adaptive edge. Succeeding often requires moving out of the home and into less secure situations. "The more you seek novelty and take risks," says Baird, "the better you do." This responsiveness to reward thus works like the desire for new sensation: It gets you out of the house and into new turf.

Risks and the high that comes from novelty, which are further enhanced in the company of peers.  Gets them out of the parents' shadows:

The move outward from home is the most difficult thing that humans do, as well as the most critical—not just for individuals but for a species that has shown an unmatched ability to master challenging new environments. In scientific terms, teenagers can be a pain in the ass. But they are quite possibly the most fully, crucially adaptive human beings around. Without them, humanity might not have so readily spread across the globe.

A painful aspect in parenting.  But, a critical part of the remarkable success we humans have had as a species.

Hmmm ... so, "S" and I were really on to something in that casual chat; maybe I should forward this to him.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Remember the ancestors ... the reward in a few days is "sundal"

"The days before Navarathri is a special time to remember one's ancestors" dad said earlier when I called to check on my parents.

Something new I find out every single day!

I had no idea about this special time, though I am all too familiar with Navarathri.

One major reason I fondly recall the nine days?  Because of the wonderful "sundal"--every day a different one.

My favorite of them all is a sweet sundal made with jaggery, which my mother says is very easy to make but am yet to try in my kitchen.  Maybe I shall soon, and stop this awful, awful drool over the keyboard :)

BTW, I didn't care much about the tenth day, when we had to get back to studying!

Dad's comment about the days prior was news to me.  In the memory of the ancestors who made possible this wonderful life, he said he donates food to the needy.  And boy aren't there people in need in India.

"Ultimately it is to remember the ancestors, and not to forget those people, and helping others is a fantastic idea" I said.

"Yes" he said and asked me, "do you know the poem 'Abou Ben Adhem'?"

Of course I don't. 

Every single day is a revelation of my ignorance as well!

So, dad then proceeded to recite the poem, which I tracked down from the web:

Abou Ben Adhem
By James Leigh Hunt

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An Angel writing in a book of gold:
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?" The Vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men."
The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!

So, hey, 'tis the season to remember. Go ahead and do your part.  And enjoy the sundal, too :)

On the death of Pataudi, and of cricket itself

As one who grew up in India, I have tons of memories rushing through my head after reading that Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi is no more.

Pataudi was the the charming player and captain, with a famous film actress wife to boot, when I started following the game in what feels like several lifetimes ago.

Those were the years in Neyveli before television.  Test matches were of the old style--five days with a rest-day in between, after the second or the third day of the match.  Listening to the radio commentaries, with expert comments by what always sounded as a senile Lala Amarnath, then reading about the day's proceedings in The Hiindu the next morning, and finally talking about it with classmates at school provided way more excitement than I could have ever wanted.

All these despite the fact that I was no good at sports!  I was one of those kids who was reluctantly picked last to be on a team in schoolyard or neighborhood games.  But, that didn't matter one bit--cricket was exciting.

The much talked about West Indian team came to India to play.  I was ten-plus years old and this was my first serious test match series as a cricket-crazy kid.  I had read about them: Llyod, Richards, Holding, Roberts, Greenidge, Julien ... as a kid rooting for India, I was convinced that "we" would lose, and lose horribly. 

Those were also the years that mom sent us lunch through the maid, "Thayee."  Along with the lunch that was packed in "tiffin carriers" mother always included a note on the latest score in the test after play began at about ten in the morning.  Perhaps, like most mothers, my mom too followed the game only because of the kids.

As tasty as the food was, it was the cricket score that I waited for whenever the tests were played.  If the score indicated that India was not doing well, or if the West Indies were doing great, then it was quite a sad afternoon.  I would race back home after school ended in order to catch the final few minutes of the radio commentary.

Thus began my cricket-mania.

Caption at the source:
(From left) Bishen Singh Bedi, Pataudi, B. Chandrasekar, Anshuman Gaekwad and G. Viswanath run towards the pavilion with joy after India defeated the West Indies in the 1974-75 series

But, soon, the game started changing.  It became increasingly competitive. Players engaged in acts that were no longer cricket.  As exciting it was when television made cricket matches wonderfully visual spectacles, perhaps it also quickly transformed the game for the worse.

Meanwhile, I, too, was changing, and found intellectual ideas to be way more fascinating than being a passive spectator for the five days of every test match.

Slowly I drifted away from cricket.

Slightly over a decade after that memorable first cricket series, I headed to the US, where I quickly fell in love with the local baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  I had barely figured out the basics of this game, which was so similar to cricket, and yet so different from it, when Kirk Gibson hit that memorable home run, Orel Hershiser was simply unhittable, and the Dodgers won it all

Hello baseball, and goodbye cricket.

Two more decades have passed by, and now I couldn't care for baseball either.  Every morning, while reading the newspaper over breakfast, I do look up the box scores and the standings out of sheer habit, and it makes my day if the damn Yankees are not on top :)

Cricket?  Up until a month ago, I didn't even know that the rest-day concept had been abandoned a long time back!

But, Pataudi I remember. And I thank.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quote(s) of the day: on the shameful business of college sports

“I’m not hiding,” Sonny Vaccaro told a closed hearing at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2001. “We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes, and the best way to do that is buy your school. Or buy your coach.” ...
“Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”
Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir,” Vaccaro added with irrepressible good cheer, “but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.” 

Simply awful.  Faustian bargains!

This is merely the beginning of a lengthy essay by Taylor Branch on "The Shame of College Sports" (ht.) Read it, pass it around, and talk about the essay even when you are watching the ball game on TV.

Branch writes:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”...
Dale Brown, the retired longtime basketball coach at LSU. “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids,” Brown once reflected. “We’re the whoremasters.”  

A long time ago, at least it feels that way, I used to follow college football, primarily because of the school I attended.  Through the years, I have slowly drifted out of it.  To the level that when a few days ago, on game day, when I ran into two neighbors and one of them asked me whether I was stepping out because it was half-time, the other answered for me, "he doesn't follow football."  I added "That is true. I couldn't care."  A long-running joke about the business of college sports that another neighbor has is this: "Hey, until recently I didn't know that there is a university and a whole lot of buildings associated with the Oregon Ducks."

But, I do care--about the horrible business it has become, and which has led higher education far, far, away from its educational mission. Away from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of dollars on the backs of unpaid labor. So much so that even a small school like the one where I teach wants to emphasize athletics more than it wants to do anything about education and the long-term success of its students.

Branch concludes the essay with these comments:

“Scholarship athletes are already paid,” declared the Knight Commission members, “in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education.” This evasion by prominent educators severed my last reluctant, emotional tie with imposed amateurism. I found it worse than self-serving. It echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves. In the era when our college sports first arose, colonial powers were turning the whole world upside down to define their own interests as all-inclusive and benevolent. Just so, the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn.

All the more the reasons for me to stay away from college football.  Oh, and when I made a comment about how even my faculty colleagues, who normally spew socialist language, are college-sports crazy and even organize betting pools during March Madness, well, they went ballistic.  These "leftist" rabid fans of college sports who defend the big business of college sports are the most hypocritical of them all.  They are so ready to criticize, for instance, Wal-Mart, yet are so religiously faithful to college sports.  Compared to the mercenary tyrannies in NCAA sports, Wal-Mart is a gazillion times better as an employer and as a provider of goods and services.

The crazy language called English ... and the wonderful game of bridge.

I loved the following description:

It defies logic. If English made any sense, the word 'lackadaisical' would refer to a shortage of flowers

Awesome, no?

It didn't come from some obscure pedant.  This is from the column by Frank Stewart--his daily columns are on the game of bridge.  I read his bridge columns not only because I play bridge, but all the more because of the wit and word play he brings to the discussion.

We siblings learnt playing bridge from dad (and mom, who would reluctantly join us.)  Now, I play online, which eliminates the need to organize a bridge-playing group in the real world. 

In the small town where I grew up, there were some serious bridge players, who organized tournaments at the local Park Club.  I mean, it was more than a game to them--serious, serious looks they sported.  I particularly remember one of them because of the picture he presented: he was an engineer, with a traditional brahmin tuft of hair, and there he was playing bridge in a room which was cigarette-smoke filled.  Strange juxtapositions.  In a way, a more visible version of the mixed bags that each and every one of us are.

Mom taught us the other thinking game--chess.  My brother and I have fought quite a few physical fights only a few minutes into a round of chess--perhaps rarely ever did we complete a game :)

One of my favorite movies from India also deals with the game of chess--Shatranj ke Khilari.  

Anyway, back to English. One hell of a crazy language it is.  I joke with students that most of them lucked out with English being their first language--they, therefore, have no idea what a pain the rear end learning it can be!  More here, and here, for starters.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Men are finished! Save the males :)

So, the Intelligence Squared debate on whether men have lost out in the battle between the sexes ended yesterday :

After hearing the arguments, the audience made its final decision. With 66 percent voting in favor of and 29 percent against the motion, and 5 percent remaining undecided, the majority of the audience agreed that men "really are finished."

Before the debate began, as is customary in this format, the audience was polled about this, and "22 percent of the audience voted for the notion, 54 percent against and 26 percent said they were undecided."  That is some serious swaying of the audience then!

Of course, these debates are not to establish the ultimate proofs for either side, as much as they are to help us think through some of the pressing issues of the day.  The difference in opportunities and performance of males and females is one of those, and one which has significant implications for social policies too.

The debate hasn't ended by any means.  Well, maybe it is the beginning of the end ... of males :)

The Indian-Chinese pissing match in the waters of the South China Sea

We are fast nearing the fiftieth anniversary of the war between India and China.  A little after Jawaharlal Nehru, India's prime minister at that time, loudly and proudly proclaimed "Hindi Chini bhai bhai"--Indians and Chinese are brothers--China decided to re-enact a recurring theme in the story of humans: a battle between brothers.

It was a short war in which India was humiliated. Even after all these years, territorial claims remain unresolved.

As if those land-based issues were not enough for geopolitical tensions, the two countries now seem to want to take their fight to the open seas. In the South China Sea, to be specific.


To borrow from Bill Clinton's election slogan, it's the energy, stupid!

More than two years ago, Robert Kaplan wrote in Foreign Affairs:
Already the world's preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more in the future. Global energy needs are expected to rise by 45 percent between 2006 and 2030, and almost half of the growth in demand will come from India and China. China's demand for crude oil doubled between 1995 and 2005 and will double again in the coming 15 years or so; by 2020, China is expected to import 7.3 million barrels of crude per day -- half of Saudi Arabia's planned output. More than 85 percent of the oil and oil products bound for China cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the Strait of Malacca.
India -- soon to become the world's fourth-largest energy consumer, after the United States, China, and Japan -- is dependent on oil for roughly 33 percent of its energy needs, 65 percent of which it imports. And 90 percent of its oil imports could soon come from the Persian Gulf. India must satisfy a population that will, by 2030, be the largest of any country in the world. Its coal imports from far-off Mozambique are set to increase substantially, adding to the coal that India already imports from other Indian Ocean countries, such as South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia. In the future, India-bound ships will also be carrying increasingly large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG) across the seas from southern Africa, even as it continues importing LNG from Qatar, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
As the whole Indian Ocean seaboard, including Africa's eastern shores, becomes a vast web of energy trade, India is seeking to increase its influence from the Plateau of Iran to the Gulf of Thailand -- an expansion west and east meant to span the zone of influence of the Raj's viceroys. India's trade with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and Iran, with which India has long enjoyed close economic and cultural ties, is booming. Approximately 3.5 million Indians work in the six Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council and send home $4 billion in remittances annually. As India's economy continues to grow, so will its trade with Iran and, once the country recovers, Iraq. Iran, like Afghanistan, has become a strategic rear base for India against Pakistan, and it is poised to become an important energy partner. ...
India has also been expanding its military and economic ties with Myanmar, to the east. Democratic India does not have the luxury of spurning Myanmar's junta because Myanmar is rich in natural resources -- oil, natural gas, coal, zinc, copper, uranium, timber, and hydropower -- resources in which the Chinese are also heavily invested. India hopes that a network of east-west roads and energy pipelines will eventually allow it to be connected to Iran, Pakistan, and Myanmar.
India is enlarging its navy in the same spirit. With its 155 warships, the Indian navy is already one of the world's largest, and it expects to add three nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers to its arsenal by 2015. One major impetus for the buildup was the humiliating inability of its navy to evacuate Indian citizens from Iraq and Kuwait during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Another is what Mohan Malik, a scholar at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Hawaii, has called India's "Hormuz dilemma," its dependence on imports passing through the strait, close to the shores of Pakistan's Makran coast, where the Chinese are helping the Pakistanis develop deep-water ports.
Indeed, as India extends its influence east and west, on land and at sea, it is bumping into China, which, also concerned about protecting its interests throughout the region, is expanding its reach southward. Chinese President Hu Jintao has bemoaned China's "Malacca dilemma." The Chinese government hopes to eventually be able to partly bypass that strait by transporting oil and other energy products via roads and pipelines from ports on the Indian Ocean into the heart of China. One reason that Beijing wants desperately to integrate Taiwan into its dominion is so that it can redirect its naval energies away from the Taiwan Strait and toward the Indian Ocean.
The Chinese government has already adopted a "string of pearls" strategy for the Indian Ocean, which consists of setting up a series of ports in friendly countries along the ocean's northern seaboard. It is building a large naval base and listening post in Gwadar, Pakistan, (from which it may already be monitoring ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz); a port in Pasni, Pakistan, 75 miles east of Gwadar, which is to be joined to the Gwadar facility by a new highway; a fueling station on the southern coast of Sri Lanka; and a container facility with extensive naval and commercial access in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Beijing operates surveillance facilities on islands deep in the Bay of Bengal. In Myanmar, whose junta gets billions of dollars in military assistance from Beijing, the Chinese are constructing (or upgrading) commercial and naval bases and building roads, waterways, and pipelines in order to link the Bay of Bengal to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Some of these facilities are closer to cities in central and western China than those cities are to Beijing and Shanghai, and so building road and rail links from these facilities into China will help spur the economies of China's landlocked provinces. The Chinese government is also envisioning a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, in Thailand, to link the Indian Ocean to China's Pacific coast -- a project on the scale of the Panama Canal and one that could further tip Asia's balance of power in China's favor by giving China's burgeoning navy and commercial maritime fleet easy access to a vast oceanic continuum stretching all the way from East Africa to Japan and the Korean Peninsula
All of these activities are unnerving the Indian government. With China building deep-water ports to its west and east and a preponderance of Chinese arms sales going to Indian Ocean states, India fears being encircled by China unless it expands its own sphere of influence. The two countries' overlapping commercial and political interests are fostering competition, and even more so in the naval realm than on land. Zhao Nanqi, former director of the General Logistics Department of the People's Liberation Army, proclaimed in 1993, "We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as an ocean only of the Indians." India has responded to China's building of a naval base in Gwadar by further developing one of its own, that in Karwar, India, south of Goa. Meanwhile, Zhang Ming, a Chinese naval analyst, has warned that the 244 islands that form India's Andaman and Nicobar archipelago could be used like a "metal chain" to block the western entrance to the Strait of Malacca, on which China so desperately depends. "India is perhaps China's most realistic strategic adversary," Zhang has written. "Once India commands the Indian Ocean, it will not be satisfied with its position and will continuously seek to extend its influence, and its eastward strategy will have a particular impact on China." These may sound like the words of a professional worrier from China's own theory class, but these worries are revealing: Beijing already considers New Delhi to be a major sea power.
As the competition between India and China suggests, the Indian Ocean is where global struggles will play out in the twenty-first century.

Geographers immediately pounced on this argument, and denounced it as old-fashioned geopolitical theories that have been thrown out.  I disagreed with them, and worried all the more after reading Kaplan's essay.  (Though, there is a little bit of tiredness and ennui when I see Kaplan talking up anarchy and disorder over and over again!)

Turns out that Kaplan was quite on the mark--India and China have upped the competition for access to oil and natural gas.  And, it is not in the hilly terrains by the Brahmaputra or Burma, but near Vietnam.

The Hindu reports:
The Chinese government on Monday reiterated its opposition to exploration projects by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh and Vietnam in the South China Sea, saying any deal without its approval would be “illegal and invalid” and an infringement on China’s sovereignty.
The comments from the Foreign Ministry came as Indian officials said ONGC Videsh would continue with exploration projects in two blocks, located near the Paracel Islands, over which Vietnam claims sovereignty. India has reportedly taken the position that Vietnamese claims were in accordance with international laws.
China, however, has conveyed its opposition to the Indian government about the project, citing its claims of sovereignty over all the South China Sea and the disputed islands. China’s claims are contested by a number of countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Asked about India’s reported decision to go ahead with the projects, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, without directly referring to India, said on Monday that China enjoyed “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea islands.
“Any country engaging in oil and gas exploration activities in this jurisdiction without the approval of the Chinese government,” he said, “constitutes an infringement upon China’s sovereignty and national interest.”
The Times of India adds:
Soon after India announced its decision to go ahead with oil exploration in South China Sea with Vietnam, China on Saturday said it would expand its exploration of 10,000 sq km of seabed in southwest Indian Ocean. This was announced as part of its 2011-2015 oceanic development policy. ...
In an opinion piece in Xinhua, China asked India to wise up and "refrain" from moves in the South China Sea, where China retains "absolute sovereignty". "For countries outside the region, we hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve this dispute through bilateral channels," the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said while responding to a question concerning ONGC's plans to explore in two offshore oil blocks in South China Sea.
As the old Swahili saying goes, "when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers."

Of course, China has most countries in this region quite tense, even without this showdown with India.  Richard Rousseau notes in Foreign Policy Journal:
The importance of the sea routes, the presence of hydrocarbons and the abundant marine resources in the South China Sea are the three main causes of sovereignty disputes over the high number of islands. Guaranteeing sovereignty to any country over any part of the sea, and thus laying the basis for its legal right to exclusive exploitation of the seabed and the surrounding waters and islands, remain a controversial issue. This situation is further complicated by the strategic interests of the United States, which for its part consider the area vitally important for its strategic interests.
So, hey, why not change the name from South China Sea, eh!
Some ASEAN nations proposed a name change of the South China Sea to the Southeast Asia Sea.

The South China Sea has been known as the East Sea to the Vietnamese, the West Philippine Sea to Filipinos and the South Sea to the Chinese. The South China Sea has been used so long by Western mapmakers without Southeast Asian people’s consent.

It might have originated from mapmakers in Europe who were not conscious of the probable impact afterward. The naming of the sea is becoming a sensitive issue to ASEAN nations, as much as that of the sea between Korea and Japan is for the Korean people.

National Geographic has accepted a dual name, the East Sea/the Sea of Japan. Some proposed a neutral sea name such as the Blue Sea or the Green Sea. 
I wrote about a similar name issue quite some time ago, in the context of the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf controversy.  We humans can make a fight out of anything!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ganesh v. Hitler. Fight canceled, already?

Have we forgotten how to have a good laugh? (ht)

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is yet to open at the Melbourne Festival, but news of its storyline has caused consternation among the Indian community.
In the play, which has been described by its producers as rambunctious fable brimming with humour, the elephant-headed Hindu god rampages through Germany on a quest to reclaim the ancient Hindu symbol of goodwill from the Nazis.

What is the big deal?  Laugh it off, folks.

BTW, there is a difference between the Hindu and Nazi swastikas:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cartoon of the day: Obama and poverty in America

More here.

And, here is how a Republican Congressman responded to proposals to increase taxes (ht) and why he cannot afford a tax increase:

By the time I feed my family, I have maybe $400,000 left over

Yes, let them eat cakes!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Where have all the (public) intellectuals gone?

From this essay by Jessa Crispin (ht):

Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, Havel gave a public speech in which he assessed the current state of the free Czech Republic. “On the one hand everything is getting better — a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week,” he said. “But in order to make use of them, you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks... The new consumer society is accomplished by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value.”

The artistic and literary scene that flourished paradoxically under censorship and repression has died off. The public intellectual is, for the most part, no longer invited to the most important parties. Anna Porter writes, “Now that everyone can publish what they want, what is the role of the intellectuals?” and she can’t find an answer. It’s no longer the police state that’s attacking the intelligentsia — it’s disinterest and boredom. It’s distraction. It’s a trade off. And it’s one that we should be able to acknowledge and be allowed to mourn. When the historian Timothy Garton Ash visited Poland in the 1980s, he admitted to an envy for the environment there. “Here is a place where people care, passionately, about ideas.” The people of Central Europe traded in ideas for groceries and for not being beaten to death by the police. No one could possibly blame them, but at the same time, Havel and the other leaders had no sense of the true cost of democracy.

If only Havel were correct in opining that instruction manuals are the only books that people read--I suspect they don't even read that much, which is why we use the abbreviation RTFM :)

Seriously though, it is depressing that the profit motive invariably leads us away from intellectual pursuits.  I do not mean to imply that these are necessarily mutually-exclusive.  Any television interview with many of the ultra-rich shows that they have deep intellectual pockets as well, and most of them do seem to value intellectual activities.  But the vast middle class ...?

The author observes in concluding the essay that the overwhelming economic culture:

is stripping us of our environment, our creativity, and our personal happiness. We are, for the most part, bogged down in the daily struggle for survival, too worried about losing our fragile position within a corporation to envision an entirely different way of being. It’s going to take another Havel, someone who can see the world for what it is and find a better story to tell.

I am afraid we left that station a long time ago, and there is no going back :(

Details on the Arab Spring in a series of graphics

The Economist uses technology better than most publications that I care to read.  This one here is really cool (except for the annoying part that it doesn't begin with "1 of 40" and you have to manually go to the beginning!):

There is ozone, and there is ozone. The US doesn't care for either?

Thanks to a friend, whose Facebook post led me to this news item, I came to know that there is something called International Ozone Day, which was a couple of days ago on the 16th.  In this case, it is to remind ourselves of the need to preserve the ozone in the stratosphere, about 20 miles above us.

So, what was the news?

Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan said developed nations were hesitant to vow for such a step during discussions on climate change-related issues.
“The transfer of technology is the most important issue. And developed countries took the responsibility under the Montreal Protocol, which has not yet happened under other discussions that we are having,” she said, while addressing International Ozone Day celebrations in New Delhi.
She said the widely ratified Montreal Protocol dealing with the issue of ozone layer depletion could serve as a model of global cooperation while addressing serious environmental concerns.
Ms. Natarajan’s remarks came a day after she made it clear that India will press for developed nations to agree to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the Durban conference on climate change later this year. 

My first thought was this: Natarajan is the environment minister? What happened to Jairam Ramesh?  Wikipedia notes that he has been moved to a different ministry now--I suppose it was because how his closer-to-truth statements and decisions were triggers for discomfort all around.  Let us see how much of an old self he is after this "promotion."  Too bad; as I have blogged before, I liked that guy!

Anyway, Natarajan correctly points out that developed countries need to do a lot more than they say on these global issues.

Meanwhile, there is also a ground-level ozone issue--well, way closer to the ground, that is.  And this ozone is not something we want to protect, but want to reduce instead.  This is the ozone that causes a great deal of health problems.  Here too, the US recently said that we simply don't care!  

Maybe we ought to celebrate the consistent approach the US takes? :)

As even the business-friendly Wall Street Journal notes, Obama's decision to scrap proposed rules to toughen air quality standards was a "political bet."  And then, after such actions, we walk around as the world's cop complaining about the emissions from India and China?  And expect them to fold?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Trapped in political bubbles: my bubble can kick your bubble's butt :(

Three years, yes, exactly three years ago, in responding to an essay, I blogged:

we will not see any "uniter" anymore. Bush couldn't do it. Obama says he will, but I doubt it.

Why?  Not because of politics, but more so because of the phenomenal growth in information technology and the internet:

the political system in the US is not compatible with the multiplication of factions we see, more so thanks to the internet. On the other hand, such divisions will work well with parliamentary systems that have a gazillion political parties, and with proportional representation.

So, that was three years ago.  Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy then.  Where are we after three years?  While reviewing The Filter Bubble, Henry Farrell writes: (ht)

We are beginning to live in what Pariser calls “filter bubbles,” personalized micro-universes of information that overemphasize what we want to hear and filter out what we don’t. Not only are we unaware of the information that is filtered out, but we are unaware that we are unaware. Our personal economies of information seem complete despite their deficiencies. Personal decisions contribute to this pattern, and ever more sophisticated technologies add to it. Google’s understanding of our tastes and interests is still a crude one, but it shapes the information that we find via Google searches. And because the information we are exposed to perpetually reshapes our interests, we can become trapped in feedback loops: Google’s perception of what we want to read shapes the information we receive, which in turn affects our interests and browsing behavior, providing Google with new information. The result, Pariser suggests, may be “a static ever-narrowing version of yourself.”

I was worried about our own echo chambers even before this technological explosion, and I am hyper-worried now.  Back in graduate school, one term I was simultaneously registered in a course on international development in the economics department, and another in international relations.  Timur Kuran offered the conventional economic analysis, and Thomas Biersteker seemed like he was speaking an entirely different language.  My economics classmates, most of them from India and other developing countries, hadn't taken anything with Biersteker.  How could it be, I wondered.

And worried.

Worried because if that was how doctoral students took to scholarship and understanding of the world, and they wanted to devote their lives to this cause, then what about the rest of the vast majority who have real work to do and can't allocate the time and energy to listen to competing, alternative explanations?

Now, of course, everyday life is about most people, including faculty like my colleagues who are religious about their ideological beliefs, aligning themselves with certain points of view, subscribing to news outlets that reinforce their perspectives and thus, completely shutting ourselves from the rest.  The internet facilitates this filtering with more and more sophistication every single day.

This cannot be good for governing ourselves, when politics is nothing but a reconciliation of multiple perspectives.

This self-reinforcement may have unhappy consequences for politics. Pariser, who is inspired by the philosophy of John Dewey, argues that ideological opponents need to agree on facts and understand each other’s point of view if democracy is to work well. Exposure to the other side allows for the creation of a healthy “public” that can organize around important public issues. Traditional media, in which editors choose stories they believe to be of public interest, have done this job better than do trivia-obsessed new media. Furthermore, intellectual cocooning may stifle creativity, which is spurred by the collision of different ways of thinking about the world. If we are not regularly confronted with surprising facts and points of view, we are less likely to come up with innovative solutions.

Such a "collision" might sound a tad Hegelian with a synthesis arising out of thesis/anti-thesis, and this synthesis being challenged again by another anti-thesis, ad infinitum.  But, hey, isn't science as in "knowledge" a constant process of challenging conventional wisdom?

Now, re-read that quote from my three-year old post:

The Web doesn't bridge divisions; it multiplies and sharpens them. It doesn't build consensus or national coalitions; it grows factions. Truth be told, the Web doesn't network people at all--it lets them network themselves, which is quite different. The Web is the place where people can roll their own, and given that freedom, people tend to coalesce in relatively small, insular groups.
The real genius of the Web, in short, is that it lets people disconnect.

Tell me why this ain't so!

Post 9/11, it does appear that we have retreated en masse into echo chambers of our own.  George Packer writes in the New Yorker that:

The political division of America into red and blue hardened into the mutually hostile and unintelligible universes in which we live today. Bush, already viewed as illegitimate by many Democrats, became one of the most hated Presidents in American history; the writer Nicholson Baker even published a novella about the merits of assassinating him. Meanwhile, the Republican Party fell completely under the control of its most extreme elements, and “traitor” became a routine term for its opponents. For all the talk of national unity and a new sense of purpose, the terror attacks did nothing to bring together the country. America after September 11th was like a couch potato who survives a heart attack, vows to start a strict regimen of diet and exercise, and after a few weeks still finds himself camped out in the living room.

Farrell is optimistic though:

Information bubbles are hardly new, even though they now take new forms. In many societies, political parties long created information bubbles. Nineteenth-century America had partisan newspapers. In many 20th-century European countries, Social Democrats read Social Democratic newspapers, went to Social Democratic social clubs, joined Social Democratic trade unions, married other Social Democrats, and had Social Democratic babies. Christian Democrats and Communists had their own separate worlds. Nonetheless, democracy somehow kept working. As Harvard political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has argued, partisanship creates its own checks and balances. As long as partisans are contending for a majority of public support, they have to temper their own beliefs in ways that will allow them to appeal to the public and to respond to potentially persuasive arguments from their opponents. This is far from perfect (the public has its own problems). Nonetheless, as John Stuart Mill argued, it can sometimes bring us closer to the truth.
Democratic competition is not a complete solution. It does not protect individuals from a narrowing of their horizons. It would be a good thing if Google and Facebook deliberately injected “inefficient” connections into online social networks and search results to encourage people to follow new paths, but it’s not likely to happen. Even so, democracies are far more robust against information bubbles than Pariser believes. After all, they’ve survived bubbles for hundreds of years.

Here is to hope :)

Cartoon of the day: President Bush, er, Obama, er Barack O'Bush

More here

Modi begins his campaign to become India's PM. I wish him defeat!

Blogging about Gujarat's Narendra Modi means only one thing: I am worried about his increasing popularity--I have been doing this since this in March 2009! 

First came this news that a "US report lauds Modi"
Identifying Gujarat as perhaps the best example of effective governance and impressive development in India, a congressional report has showered praise on Chief Minister Narendra Modi, saying the State, under him, has become a key driver of national economic growth. ...
“Perhaps India's best example of effective governance and impressive development is found in Gujarat, where controversial Chief Minister Narendra Modi has streamlined economic processes, removing red tape and curtailing corruption in ways that have made the State a key driver of the national economic growth,” said the report.
An independent and bipartisan wing of Congress, the CRS prepares periodic reports on issues of interest to lawmakers.
Typical American perspective, I thought to myself.  After all, it is the same America that appreciates China, while conveniently sidelining human rights issues most of the time.  The Chinese model of controlled political expression with relatively free economic expression is becoming a favored model.  This itself is not that different from a pioneer's--Singapore's development model, led by Lee Kuan Yew.

The American blessing of sorts was immediately echoed in India, where the current government led by its silent and figurehead prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has to deal with scandals mushrooming by the hour, it seems like!
Former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani has startled the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership with an apparent endorsement of Gujarat Chief Minister's claims to be the party's candidate for Prime Minister in the next general election.
In an article posted on his blog on Friday, Mr. Advani wrote: “Now, American lawmakers and the State Department are being primed for the return of the BJP to power in New Delhi, with [Mr.]Modi at the helm as Prime Minister, following what U.S. analysts say is a precipitous decline in the Congress party's fortunes due to a string of corruption scandals.”
For his assessment of United States official opinion, Mr. Advani has relied on a recent report of the Washington DC-based Congressional Research Service.
Holy crap!

The Indian electorate voting for fascists maniacs like Modi is not unimaginable--they are sick and tired of scandals and corruption, and voting for a guy with a track record of fiscal integrity will be way tempting, even if they know well Modi's guilt in the communal violence when he was the chief minister.

Modi is all too ready to seize the opportunity:
Fighting hard to remove the taint of 2002 violence, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday began a three-day fast for peace and communal harmony vowing to end votebank politics but said nothing directly by way of regret for the post-Godhra carnage.
Buoyed by the Supreme Court’s refusal to pass any order against him in the Ehsan Jafri murder case and words of praise from a U.S. Congressional report, Mr. Modi sat on fast on his birthday in the air-conditioned Gujarat University Convention Centre flanked by top BJP and allied party leaders.
“I had said at that time (2002) these riots should not have happened in a civilised society. At that time I had felt the pain and now also I am feeling the pain,” he said in his speech to an audience that had a sprinkling of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs among others. 
Hmmm ... a 'sprinkling" of minorities :(


Friday, September 16, 2011

Sex and the Indian movies. Nope, not about Bollywood

As Shikha Dalmia wrote recently, the "suggestive eroticism" in Indian, especially Bollywood, movies, to go with the typical story line of constrained social relationships across the genders, add up to a formula that finds a receptive audience not only in India, but in the Middle East too.  Hollywood movies are alien to this huge population belt, compared to the social norms.

The movies were even tamer, way tamer, back when I was a kid.  I remember feeling that I had attained nirvana of sorts, as a teenager, when I watched Barbara Bach as the sexy Russian spy in The Spy Who Loved Me--my first ever James Bond experience.  Women with a lot of skin exposed was not the way Indian movies were made.

This particular Bond movie was fantastic for a memorable movie experience: as the movie ended and the credits started rolling, the middle aged man in the adjacent seat asked me, in Tamil, what the movie's story was, making it explicit that he had other reasons to come to the theatre :)

There was one genre of movies that were considered risque, and they were all Malayalam movies, some of which were then remade in other languages.  One of the biggest success of them all was "Avalude Ravukal," which means "Her Nights" and this was the title of the movie in the Hindi remake as well.

I recall the posters splashed all over, and it was the talk among the boys, who, as boys often did, exaggerated a great deal about the movie because, well, I doubt any of us had actually watched it!

The reality, as I later understood from an academic exploration, was far from anything we had imagined as teenagers.  It was even considered "soft porn" material at that time only because the movie had pushed the theme of "suggestive eroticism" a little more than what people were used to.  There was no nudity--not even partial--and, as this poster shows, the man shows a lot more skin than the woman does!

What I didn't know, until I read this BBC report, is this: there were special "morning shows" of this genre of movies:
Back in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s so-called "morning shows" were hugely popular - their all-male audiences consisted largely of schoolboys and bachelors seeking a rare glimpse of female flesh.
Because they dealt with the taboo subject of sex in a conservative India, the films were considered soft porn here.
But despite their suggestive titles and racy posters, the films were really pretty tame by international standards.
Every single day it is something new about India!

Anyway, these posters, apparently, are the theme of an exhibit in New Delhi.  Strange how something that happened in my short life has become aged and quaint enough to morph into exhibits.  Boy, am I getting old then!
"Morning shows" - and their hand-painted posters - did a thriving business until the advent of 24-hour television, cheap videos and DVDs and the internet began their downward slide. ...
The exhibition, Morning Show, is perhaps the first time such posters have gone on display in India.
"The morning show culture is almost gone now," says V Sunil, the curator of the exhibition.
"In the pre-internet and television era, a whole generation of Indian men learnt their birds and bees from these films," he says.
The shows usually began at 10am and finished before the hordes descended on the cinemas to see mainstream Bollywood offerings.
Mr Sunil is the creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, a US-based advertising firm, and the show at the swish art gallery at their office in south Delhi's Sheikh Sarai area has 23 posters on display.
The gallery, rated the city's best by Delhi Time Out magazine last year, might seem an unlikely venue to show posters about films which were regarded as a bit sleazy. No woman was ever seen queuing to get into a morning show.
But organisers say the exhibition has attracted a steady stream of visitors - and a surprisingly large number of them have been women.
India has come quite some ways since those days, but "sex" continues to be a highly delicate topic, in contrast to the rather mundane nature in this part of the world.

Sexual relations take on entirely different dynamics there.  When an actor, Kushboo championed sex education and even remarked that “no educated man would expect his [bride] to be a virgin," criminal proceedings against her were litigated all the way to India's highest court, which ruled that:
[Unmarried couples] have the right to live together after hearing a case involving a Tamil actress accused of corrupting young minds by promoting premarital sex.
The judges pointed out that even the Hindu gods, Lord Krishna and Radha, were co-habiting lovers rather than man and wife. “When two adult people want to live together, what is the offence?” they said. “Living together is not an offence. Living together is a right to life.”
India is one heck of a complicated country, to say the least.

A recent incident further illustrates how institutions are having a tough time in these contexts:
The Kannada Film Producers' Association imposed the three-year ban earlier this week, saying Ms Thukral had spoiled the "domestic harmony of a fellow actor".
But opposition within the film industry convinced producers to reverse the ban.
Ms Thukral denies having an affair with the actor, known as Darshan, a popular action hero in south India.
"Looking back it was a hasty decision. We have written to her expressing regret," the president of the Karnataka Film Producers' Association, Munirathnam, told reporters.
The association initially said the ban would be reconsidered only if she apologised but Ms Thukral refused, insisting she had had no inappropriate relationship with Darshan.
From here, we would wonder why the movie producers have to even remotely think about penalizing an actor even if she had had sexual liaisons with a married actor.

The unequal gender treatment becomes clear when one reads this:
The ban was imposed after Darshan was arrested on charges of domestic violence last week, following a complaint from his wife, Vijaylakshmi.
She alleged that he had beaten her and threatened her with a gun but she later withdrew the complaint, a police official told the BBC. The argument was reportedly over the alleged affair with Ms Thukral.
So, the married male actor may or may not have had an affair with a female actor.  The female actor was banned from the industry.  The male actor is reported to have physically assaulted his wife and threatened her with a gun and no action was taken against him?  Strange are the ways, I suppose.