Monday, December 10, 2012

A holiday from the blog, too! See you in 2013

This post is quite probably the final one for 2012, though the new year is three weeks away.  It will be my longest break from blogging in a long while.  But, hey, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do :)

Anticipating the new year, here is a poem from my favorite source:
The Old Year  
by John Clare
The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
     Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
     And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
     In every cot and hall--
A guest to every heart's desire,
     And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
     Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
     Are things identified;
But time once torn away
     No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
     Left the Old Year lost to all.

Education does not equal pursuing the GPA

Grading is done, and I am all set to begin the process all over again in the new year.

When a new term begins, I know I will remind students in my classes, quite a few times, that education is not about the tests and the eventual letter grade. The goal is not to work towards a letter grade, but to gain an understanding of how to make order out of the chaos that the world is.  It is this understanding that then gets reflected in the assignments and tests, which then determine the letter grade and the GPA.

A goal of making sense of the chaotic world would require students to take courses in as many fields of inquiry as possible--from physics to literature to music.  And, geography, too.

But, that is not how education works.  For all I know, it has rarely worked that way in recent history.

The net result is my worry that we have stopped educating students; here is a related excerpt from a thoughtful essay by Ellen Rupel Shell, who is a professor at Boston U.:
A grade of B- or C in freshman chemistry seems to steer many students away from taking upper level science courses. A low grade in freshman English or anthropology discourages physics majors from taking other than the least demanding selections from the humanities and social sciences. In their understandable effort to maintain the highest possible GPA, undergraduates seem to cut themselves off from experimentation, challenge, and risk taking, the very things that a university education is meant to stimulate.
The pursuit of the perfect GPA is a distraction that leads too many students away from the challenges they should be facing in their undergraduate years. At a time when public understanding of science is critical, fewer and fewer non-majors are taking demanding science courses, due at least in part to their fear of getting penalized for their efforts with a less than stellar grade.
Fully aware of the "rational" decisions that students make, I shall continue to remind them that my courses are not about employment skills and that their focus should not be on "will this be on the test?"  I am equally aware that this will not be final post on this topic either.

But, there is always hope--no, I ain't referring to a student by that name in my class, but the hope that Pandora didn't mess around with :)  Here is a postscript a student had included with the final exam:
As a final note I would like to thank you Dr. K for teaching me more than I would have ever assumed on my own about the working of the world and the people that live in it.  It has opened my  eyes to look past the little bubble that I was in and view everything as a much larger picture now.  For the knowledge and experience I thank you and I also thank you for making the class interesting.  Here's to wishing you a happy holiday and may your months to come be always to your liking.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Poem of the day: The Unknown Citizen

The Unknown Citizen
By W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content 
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

What She Said ... I was like give me a break

The poem, thanks to the Writers' Almanac:

What She Said

by Billy Collins
When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner,
I was like give me a break.

I was not the exact equivalent of give me a break.
I was just similar to give me a break.

As I said, I was like give me a break.

I would love to tell you
how I was able to resemble give me a break
without actually being identical to give me a break,

but all I can say is that I sensed
a similarity between me and give me a break.

And that was close enough
at that point in the evening

even if it meant I would fall short
of standing up from the table and screaming
give me a break,

for God's sake will you please give me a break?!

No, for that moment
with the rain streaking the restaurant windows
and the waiter approaching,

I felt the most I could be was like

to a certain degree

give me a break.
"What She Said" by Billy Collins, from Horoscopes for the Dead. © Random House, 2011.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Whiny Americans, and others too? Complaint is the poem for the day

First, a wonderful commentary from The Onion:

Incomprehensible Shouting Named Official U.S. Language

Now, here is a poem that is titled, and appropriately enough, "Complaint"
by William Logan

The faucets squeeze 
out a dribble of rust.  
The stained slip-covers 

fray like seaweed. Scruffy, haggled
weeds confined to broken pots; 
shy, disfigured poppies; 

a barked rose succumbing
to white-frocked aphids—
the garden doesn't work. The heater

doesn't work. Nothing works.
Who lives in such a house?  
The pipes piss and moan,

as if forced to pay taxes.
If there are dream houses, 
are there undreamed houses

full of the things we desire,
or only those we deserve?
Perhaps they are the homes 

of strange gods with some
incomprehensible, whimsical 
way of looking at things.

You said we waded through the mysteries to get here.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Che Guevara, the secular jihadist!

As a kid growing up in a left-leaning India, I remember being fascinated with Fidel Castro, and the legends of Che. At a meeting of the Non-Aligned countries, Fidel Castro went on and on, and I am now amazed at how I sat through and watched most of that rant speech on TV!

Then I grew up.

I read about the Soviet Union that Solzhenistyn wrote about, and Orwell's Big Brother.  The older and wiser me couldn't understand the violence that the Stalinists and Maoists inflicted upon their own people, leave alone those on the outside.  The communist regimes were nothing but killers and anti-democratic rulers; Fidel and Che, it turned out, were no different from the violent and maniacal Stalin.
In the decades since 1917, communism has led to more slaughter and suffering than any other cause in human history. Communist regimes on four continents sent an estimated 100 million men, women, and children to their deaths — not out of misplaced zeal in pursuit of a fundamentally beautiful theory, but out of utopian fanaticism and an unquenchable lust for power.
Che's use of violence to achieve his version of utopia is no different from how Osama bin Laden didn't find anything wrong in killing civilians.  Yet, while no rational person would walk around wearing an Osama t-shirt, thousands all across the world, including here in the US, think it is cool to wear a Che t-shirt.  I suppose Osama, too, would have gladly worn a Che t-shirt if only he weren't an infidel!

When The Motorcycle Diaries came out and people we are all gushing about it, I intentionally skipped that movie. I stayed away from engaging in discussions--contrary to my penchant for discussions. I didn't want to come across as an annoying dissenter--because commie sympathizers at any level, as much as the commie leaders like Che, do not appreciate dissenting views.

I wish the world would stop applauding Che and making a saint out of this killer and, instead, remember him for what he was:
The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Is India secular? Hint: No!

As long as I am outside India, I suppose I can dare to be critical, without worrying about the nationalist goondas coming after me?

In the civics portion of the curriculum, back when I was in grade IX or sometime then, the textbook presented a wonderful portrait of a secular India.  A secular public space despite all the gazillion religions and the tensions amongst them.  A convenient narrative that overlooked one thing: it was not the reality.

Over the years, I have only witnessed India's politics and society become increasingly colored by religion(s) and less and less secular:
the use of religion for political ends has substantially increased during the last few decades. Such a development has serious implications for a secular state and society. Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.
But, that was from a post back in 2009.  How are things now? 

Not better by any means, opines this op-ed writer in the NY Times, in the context of the twentieth anniversary of a shameful display of anything but secularism when a mob of Hindu fanatics demolished a mosque:
The movement eventually hoisted the Bharatiya Janata Party as a major national party, which led India through two short spells, then for a full five-year term, starting in 1999. It was a period of economic growth, and the confident party went back to the polls in 2004 with the joyous slogan “India Shining.” But it was defeated because there were apparently still too many poor people in the country who did not see the shine.
Now the party hopes it will triumph in the 2014 general elections, chiefly riding on the back of a man linked to the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and now a possible prime ministerial candidate, was accused of discouraging the police from protecting Muslims, accusations he has denied. But he understood very early in his political career that any nation that has to declare that it is “secular” probably is not. 
Narendra Modi, who has never tried to hide his ambitions to become India's prime minister, is resorting to that old election strategy all over again: targeting Muslims:
At one public meeting after another, as the campaign hots up, Mr. Modi says the Congress has a secret plan to pitchfork Ahmed Patel, political secretary of party chief Sonia Gandhi, into the job of Chief Minister. To ensure that the message reaches home, Mr. Modi now refers to Mr. Patel as “Ahmed-miyan,” a suffix he used in the run-up to the 2002 poll campaign to call the former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf Miyan-Musharraf, to refer to the larger Muslim population in Gujarat — something that worked well in the State. This was in reference to the attack on the Sabarmati Express train in Godhra in 2002 that left 58 people dead
It is such a tragic irony that this maniacal nationalist comes from the same part of India that produced that ultimate champion of tolerance and coexistence: Gandhi.

The Namesake and Hindi film music

Was listening to a Susheela Raman CD--yes, I listen to CDs, not the iCraps (ha ha.) Anyway, this CD is from a long time ago (2001) and her voice reminded me of her rendition of a classic Hindi film song that was used in The Namesake.

It was from a review of her CD in 2001 that I came to know about Raman's music.  The name itself made me wonder if she was from the same part of India as I am and, indeed, that was the case.  Well, her parents are from Tamil Nadu, as I am.  Like Jhumpa Lahiri, who wrote The Namesake, Raman too is the child of immigrants--in the UK and Australia.

It is neat, therefore, that Mira Nair used Raman's music in the movie based on Lahiri's novel.

Hmmm .... as I think more about all these, I am reminded of a fellow-student from my graduate school days, Sushma Raman.  I wonder if the two Ramans are related ....

Thanks to YouTube, here is Susheela Raman interpreting that awesome Hindi film song:

And that original Hindi film song? Again, thanks to YouTube:

PS: A google search of Sushma pulls up this one :)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Climate change, and the hypocritical and impotent US

After a long time, I swung by to have coffee with a retired colleague.  "Oh, lemme get a coat" she said as I started walking towards the car.

"It is rather pleasant outside, and you might not need one" I replied.  It was about 55 degrees outside. And dry.

So, no coat.  As we started driving to the coffee shop, I asked her if the temperature was ok.

"No, it is not.  This time of the year, it typically is much cooler than this.  The climate change is messing up our weather patterns" the scientist in her replied.

For all we know, this unusually warmer temperature has got nothing to do with climate change. Just as Hurricane Sandy had nothing to do with climate change. Just as the drought had nothing to do with ...

Even if all these weather issues are not related to climate change, there is that pesky issue.  Global warming and climate change and the role of carbon.

So, where stands the US on the global attempts to bring carbon dioxide levels down?
The supposed goal of the climate negotiations is to keep the globe's average temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees celsius over the pre-industrial average by capping the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm). Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide were at 280 ppm; it is now at 391 ppm. The poor countries are arguing that "climate justice" means that the 170 ppm (the difference between 280 and 450 ppm) must be divvied up based on population. As they see it, the rich countries have more or less already used up 110 ppm, meaning that the remaining 60 ppm should be allocated to the poor countries. This climate justice formula actually implies that rich countries would have to emit "negative" amounts of greenhouse gases.
However, in a supposedly off-the-record meeting U.S. chief climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing pushed back against these demands. The Times of India reported:
Pershing said, "It's a vision you can say that the atmosphere can take an X quantity of coal emissions and therefore what you do is you divide that number into percentages. The obligation it states is that you (the US) would have to reduce its emissions down to negative 37% (below 1990 levels). And the obligation of China will be a tiny bit, but India can still grow quite a lot. The politics of that quite frankly really don't work. I can't really sell that to the US Congress."
Suggesting that the US preferred to take the domestic constituency into confidence while making the commitment and not go by scientific requirements, he reasoned, "One way to think about it is what you could deliver. You say what you are going to do and you will be held to that. So how do you marry the reality of what you are doing with the reality of what is needed. To me, it's going to be a hybrid. It's going to be something between those two."
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol approach where the UN convention first decides how much reduction is required and then apportions the burden, Pershing suggested in what's dubbed not a new US position "that each country decides independently what it wants to do and put it on the global table."
Reiterating that US domestic political compulsions were paramount, he added, "Because if we can't take it home and sell it at home, in whatever political economy we are living in, we won't do it."
Way back in 1997, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution 95 to 0 that rejected the Kyoto Protocol which would have limited U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below their 1990 levels. The resolution declared the sense of the Senate to be that the U.S. should not consider any climate change treaty that did not include limits on developing country emissions and that would "result in serious harm to the economy of the United States."
The Obama administration evidently recognizes that such a treaty would is still not saleable to Congress and the American public.
Yep, it was ok for us to burn carbon and get materially rich.  But, to heck with those poorer countries and their peoples!

Now, one could argue that this maybe it is because the US politicians of all stripes don't care much for government intervention, and that they would favor using market mechanisms.  So, perhaps a carbon tax then?
Perhaps because a carbon tax makes so much sense—researchers at M.I.T. recently described it as a possible “win-win-win” response to several of the country’s most pressing problems—economists on both ends of the political spectrum have championed it. Liberals like Robert Frank, of Cornell, and Paul Krugman, of Princeton, support the idea, as do conservatives like Gary Becker, at the University of Chicago, and Greg Mankiw, of Harvard. (Mankiw, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush and as an adviser to Mitt Romney, is the founding member of what he calls the Pigou Club.) A few weeks ago, more than a hundred major corporations, including Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever, issued a joint statement calling on lawmakers around the globe to impose a “clear, transparent and unambiguous price on carbon emissions,” which, while not an explicit endorsement of a carbon tax, certainly comes close. Even ExxonMobil, once a leading sponsor of climate-change denial, has expressed support for a carbon tax. “A well-designed carbon tax could play a significant role in addressing the challenge of rising emissions,” a spokeswoman for the company said recently in an e-mail to Bloomberg News.
See, a wonderful level of agreement.  Yay!  So, time to start discussing the carbon tax with voters and implement it?  Right?


One key player who has not embraced the idea is Barack Obama. The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, was asked about the tax last month, en route, as it happens, to visit storm-ravaged areas of New York with the President. “We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one,” Carney told reporters.

The New Yorker piece concludes thus:
In either case, the White House is making a big mistake. Pigovian taxes are rarely politically popular—something they have in common with virtually all taxes. But, as Obama embarks on his second term, it’s time for him to take some risks. Several countries, including Australia and Sweden, already have a carbon tax. Were the United States to impose one, it would have global significance. It would show that Americans are ready to acknowledge, finally, that we are part of the problem. There is a price to be paid for living as we do, and everyone is going to get stuck with the bill.
It appears that the US President and politicians are happy to stick the bill on the poorer countries!

Monday, December 03, 2012

My salary finally is up to what I earned twelve years ago!

I do not know if money can or can't buy one love, but I do know that I never have cared to test out that proposition because I have not been drawn to earning a lot in the first place.

My daughter has joked many times, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that she has rarely met anybody like me who has systematically changed careers in order to earn lower earnings. 

The engineering undergraduate track would have, in the normal process, led someone like me to a management degree or the IT revolution, or both, in India or the US, and in either scenario I would be immensely richer than where I am now.

After that first transition away from engineering, I worked as a transportation planner.  Continuing in that profession would have translated to quite a few more tens of thousands of dollars over the years.

The move after that was to the academic world, where it was clear at the interview with the Dean and in the employment contract that I received later that my earnings would drop by twenty-five percent.

As if all these were not enough, I moved from California to Oregon, and the contract, at the university where I teach even after ten years, brought my salary down a further fifth from the academic salary at California.

I noticed that finally, my contracted salary for this academic year has risen to the dollar amount that I earned in my final year as a transportation planner.

Of course, all these are nominal numbers, without adjusting for inflation over the twelve years.

Yet, I am fairly confident that I am where I can truly be myself.  I am doing what I really, really like doing. 

In the language of economics, it is all about tradeoff.  Matt Yglesias briefly notes about how such tradeoffs affect the conventional approaches to calculations of national incomes and productivity.  He writes:
Another thing people can do is deliberately earn lower wages in order to obtain better job amenities. I was reading the other day about Pecan Lodge in Dallas: Newcomer of the Year at the 2012 Texas Monthly BBQ Festival. Its founders used to be consultants with Accenture, but they decided they'd rather quit and smoke meat.
That's really the same kind of leisure/income tradeoff as you see if workers cut back their hours, but it'll show up differently in national statistics. Instead of wages and productivity rising while income stays flat and hours fall, you'll see hours stay flat while wages and productivity fall. Phlogiston economics will say that Pecan Lodge is an example of technological innovation slowing down since it reduces total factor productivity, when it's really just an example of people taking advantage of the fact that America is a wealthy society to try to improve their unpriced job amenities.
The important point to note is the one that Yglesias also raises: this is possible only because I live in a phenomenally wealthy society where I have the luxury of engaging in such tradeoffs that do not push me into a daily battle for mere survival.

To a large extent, such a leisure/income tradeoff is what one would expect as individuals and societies get wealthier.  But, ironically, it is turning out that the rich and the super-rich estimate leisure in terms of earnings foregone and, perhaps not irrationally, decide against giving up those dollars, as Steven Landsburg noted a few years ago.

The tradeoff works for me. For the most part.

Did the budget "affect" or "effect" you? Should you care?

Forget the fiscal cliff.  We need to worry about the grammar gorge!

Yesterday, as is a part of my typical routine, I scanned the Statesman Journal when I came across the headline that caught my attention only because of the grammar issue, and I grabbed a screen shot:
Curiosity being my middle name, I wondered whether the editors might have realized that they, too, had "affect" and "effect" messed up.  Surprise, surprise, ... a corrected headline in place!
For some reason, the screen shot this time is warped; bad grammar = good shot?

Of course, I, too, am no good with the grammar.  But, hey, that doesn't stop me from pointing fingers :)

Sunday, December 02, 2012

As I get older, ... what was I saying?

A few years ago, as the family dog, Congo, was struggling through his enlarged heart and it was increasingly clear that sooner or later the decision had to made to put him down, the vet said something that made a whole lot of sense then, and all the more with every passing day: "getting old is not for sissies" ...

I have always worried about losing my memory.  Way back, when my clock had flipped over from a "2" to a "3" in the leading digit of the double-digit age, I expressed to a friend my worries about Alzheimer's.  He said I had nothing to worry about that one.  "The beauty of that disease is that you will be somebody else's problem" was his humorous way to help me think about it.

Here is to hoping that I have some ways to go before I start forgetting, and ...
Billy Collins
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Term ends. No poems. But, prose will work, too

Students tell me that I require a lot more writing in my classes compared to the average faculty.  And, even worse, that I actually read them all too, which apparently impresses them.  (Such student feedback doesn't then speak highly of my profession, does it!)

It is true; I read them all.  Especially when there are poems buried within them--a rare event, of course.  Often, students write in ways that tell me how much the readings and concepts made them reflect on their own lives and how they begin to see the world in new ways. 

Thanks to such close readings, and reading between the lines also, I think I am able to connect with students that much more. 

With one student, for instance, I asked her about her experience in Spain, because there was a passing reference to that in one essay.  Another student had written about how the readings made her think more about the future as a mother that she was.  A few days ago, I asked about her child's age.  She sported a smilingly quizzical expression on her face and asked "which one?" 

Now, I was the one with the raised eyebrows.

"They are four, six, and two" she added with a grin.

"Three children? Wow!"  She didn't even look like a mother of one, and she had three kids!

She smiled.  Two other female students sitting close by also chuckled.

Every student in my classes is a real person, with their own lives.  And to be able to treat them as real people and interact with them and do my part to make their lives a tad better is a privilege.  The human that I am, well, I fall short sometimes.  Education is not merely about the professor yakking a few things in the classroom, and students passing or failing the tests.  But then, these are old and traditional ideas for which fewer and fewer people--even faculty colleagues, let alone students--have any patience anymore. 

Anyway, there I was reading the last of the assignments from students.  No poems anywhere.  But, the concluding lines of one assignment, from a "non-traditional" student, is no dull prose:
What a real shame it is, as a born and bred American citizen I had to have my eyes opened by a person who was not born in the United States, who immigrated to my country and chose to become a citizen and cared to learn more about his adopted country than I did about my birth country.
Thus ends another term with at least a few students, like this one, convinced that it was all worth it.  If a few students are convinced, then I am more than ready to call it a grand success and will gladly continue to tilt at windmills :)

Walking by the Willamette

Blue sky
with white and grey clouds.

And Sun.

Cool and crisp
are the air and the river

There is more.
A bald eagle
atop a fir tree.

Not Milton's paradise to lose.
This is heaven on earth.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Now, my turn to get emotional over what a student said ...

Yesterday, I got an email from a student, requesting that I serve as a reference.  In that email, she wrote:
You were my professor years ago, back in 2006. I asked you to help me with a independent credit through writing a paper. Maybe the topic might ring a bell. The paper explained why students from Hawaii chose to go to a college like WOU, a far location all the way in Oregon.
As if I could have ever forgotten this student.  Because, and as I wrote back to her:
Many times I have used you and your work as an example of how students can feel that they did something substantive as opposed to merely going through the motions of the class requirements.  I also remember that my comment made you emotional--when I said you can show that report to your mother and tell her, "look ma, I did this" .... I felt so terrible when you told me, after composing yourself, that your mother had passed away only a few months prior ....
It is such a typical line used so often in America: "look ma, .."  I felt so terrible when that phrase made this young woman cry. 

After I emailed her, I regretted even reminding her about my faux pas.  I worried that I might have made her cry all over again.

Turns out that it only prompted her to recall the rest of the story, which I had forgotten.  She--now a mother of two kids--writes:
You know the best thing that happened out of that emotional encounter was .... chocolate! You were so nice, and tried to console me with a bar of chocolate. And it absolutely worked. Until this day, when I visit the mainland and go to a Trader Joes, there is no way I'm leaving the store without that Belgium chocolate bar. So that incident was a true gem, and stuck with me all these years. Chocolate can fix any problem!
I suppose I felt so awful about having triggered an emotional response in her that I had forgotten what happened after that.

I am not surprised, however, that I offered her chocolate.  I do that even now.  Even when students do not cry in my office.

I have no idea about the lyrics in this old favorite of mine that I have embedded here ... the melody feels just appropriate for the moment ...

Friday, November 30, 2012

"Tell the Truth and Run" ... story of my life? But, I stay!

Many, many moons ago, when I was a young graduate student, I went across town to listen to Pranab Bardhan, among others, at a symposium at UCLA.  A question Bardhan was asked was whether he would like to serve the Indian government in an official capacity.  This was back when India was beginning to think about liberalizing its economy.  Bardhan's reply resonated with me: he said that he could best contribute by being a constructive critic from the outside.

While life after graduation convinced me all the more that I am nowhere near Bardhan's smartness, I equally understood that constructive criticism is how I can best serve my fellow humans. 

I was/am thankful get back to the academic world, which provides the best possible environment from which we can engage in constructive criticism.  After all, if we do not, and cannot, critique then what good are colleges for?

However, it seems like criticism is increasingly of the destructive and thoughtless kind.  On television, it is yelling matches devoid of reason and evidence.  Literary criticism has all but disappeared from the public scene.  Was the death of Christopher Hitchens the final, ahem, nail in the coffin?

At the other end, it is nothing but standing ovations for any activity, all the way from kindergarten to graduate school.  Why this nauseating level of all enthusiasm and ovation all the time, and whatever happened to critics?  Not every work deserves that gold star, writes this professional critic:
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star. 
What he writes about the book world is equally applicable to the world outside of publishing too.
[Criticism] doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.
He puts it really, really, well: criticism comes out of a love for ideas and their beauty, whether that idea is scientific, musical, literary, or whatever.  It is precisely to develop an appreciation and understanding of these that we (supposedly) engage in higher education where we (supposedly) emphasize "critical thinking."

Of course, engaging in criticism might not win friends:
Until you work up the nerve to say what you think and stand behind it, young critics and fellow amiable tweeters, there’s always the advice the critic George Seldes gave in the title of his 1953 memoir: “Tell the Truth and Run.”
I suppose my problem is that I don't run even when it is clear that is what I am told to do!

I am here; deal with it :)

Life's lessons on a dreary Oregon morning

Thursday morning made the previous day seem like a picnic at the park!  It was, as a neighbor put it, dreary, though that might have been an understatement.

I decided to wait a tad.  But, there was no change in the weather conditions.  After a while, I started driving, and took the back roads again.  After all, it is highly probable that, come January, I will take the freeway and avoid old man winter on the back roads until spring is in the air.

It was dark even at 830 in the morning.  And pouring.  Yet, it was a pleasure to drive.  Rain and clouds and fog have become familiar to me over the years, and for the most part, they have been harmless to me.

About half way to the college, the skies started to clear up, and the rain stopped.  Traces of blue sky amidst the dark clouds were remarkably beautiful, and I started humming "I can see clearly now, the rain is gone...."

It was a short-lived excitement, however.

Emergency vehicle lights at a distance.  I started slowing down, and soon, it was a complete stop.  Quite a few vehicles behind me, and in front as well.  I turned the engine off, confident that it would be a while.

There was something odd about the deeply sagging cables from the utility poles on the side, which meant that a pole was down not too far away.  There were only two possibilities: either the winds toppled a pole in the water-sogged ground, or a vehicle had rammed into a post.

I hoped it was not the latter, especially because in these back roads, there is not any steady slope from the road to the ground.  Instead, it is a sharp two-plus feet drop from the road to the ditch.  It would be a lucky driver to escape that kind of an accident without any injury whatsoever.

I stepped out of the vehicle.  The air felt crisp and clean.  With so many vehicles stopped right on the road, I was reminded of the summer when I was among the many who patiently waited for the highway patrol to lead us through the forest fires.  All of a sudden, it felt like I was on a vacation and not on my way to work and, strangely enough, I felt happy that we had been forced to stop and reflect on life.

A few vehicles ahead of me started making sharp u-turns and headed back, and I climbed back on to my seat.  I wondered what these drivers were hurrying for, and what they were going to gain by turning around and taking some other route.  If only they had read Rumi:
What is this competition we feel then,
before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?
It surely was their loss, because it seemed like the emergency lights were disappearing.  Sure enough, traffic started flowing from the other side.  And soon we started moving too.

Over on the side, a utility pole was flat on the ground and a tow-truck was hauling away a pickup.

Life resumed for me.  I wonder how much life changed that morning for the occupants of that pickup truck.  We never know how good we have it all until disaster strikes.  I should know by now!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Student loan delinquency. O.M.G.!

The student loan issue is not new to this blog by any means.  I have been wondering and worrying when the higher education bubble would burst, and how that will mess up the lives of the youth. 

Despite all the mental prep, it was mind-numbing when I came across the following chart (ht):

You see how the rate has shot up?  Should scare the bejesus out of anybody!

In order to address a concern that maybe this chart is incorrect, I went to the source--the report from the Fed, which has the following on student debt, and, the comparative data for other kinds of debt too.  (The bullet-format of the excerpted quotes and the added emphasis are mine)
  • Aggregate consumer debt fell again in the third quarter, by $74 billion, continuing the nearly four-year downward trend in household debt.
  • Mortgage delinquency rates continued to improve, with 5.9% of mortgage balances 90+ days delinquent, compared to 6.3% in 2012Q2.
  • The percentage of auto loan debt that is 90 or more days delinquent held roughly steady, at 4.2%.
  • Outstanding student loan balances increased to $956 billion as of September 30, 2012, an increase of $42 billion from the previous quarter. However, of the $42 billion, $23 billion is new debt while the remaining $19 billion is attributed to previously defaulted student loans that have been newly updated on credit reports this quarter2
  • This increase has boosted the delinquency rate for student loans balances. The percent of student loan balances 90 or more days delinquent stands at 11.0%
This is awful.  .

The report also has the following chart, which highlights the growing share of student loan in the debt:

Good grief!  Let us have more football :(

Universities are for sports? All of us ain't Stanford!

As the BCS adrenaline rushes through the blood of "real" Americans, this might not be a good time to comment that we cannot hope to build Oregon’s economy merely on football and sports.  But then not often do I stop myself from writing anything unpopular; when will I ever learn!

Way back in the 1980s, when I was a graduate student at USC, the storied football program was far from perfect on the field.  In fact, “Tailback U.” went into a tailspin, which resulted in a quick shuffling of coaches. 

John Robinson was shown the door almost as soon as he was invited.  When Larry Smith was the coach, USC lost to a then unknown team from Arizona, and towards the end of the game the loyal Trojans in the stands were singing in chorus “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” but with the word “Larry” taking the place of “kiss him.”  And, yes, soon Smith was gone.  Those who bleed “cardinal and gold” would rather airbrush the coach Paul Hackett out of the otherwise fabulous legends from Troy.

Meanwhile, something more important was happening: USC’s academic reputation was on the rise.  The university’s academic quality, whose overall ranking in the early 1980s made it obvious that it was no Harvard, was the focus of the new university president, Steven Sample.  Without marginalizing the athletic traditions of the university, Sample led the university’s campaign to become known for academics as much as, if not more than, it was famous for football.

If the proof is in eating the pudding, well, the results are in.  Two decades later, USC, and its cross-town rival, UCLA, have marched ahead in their respective academic rankings.  US News and World Report, whose rankings of academic institutions are closely followed even when highly disputed, now ranks USC and UCLA tied at #24.

The money kept flowing in as USC's academic reputation gained, and there was a turnaround in football too.  It might very well be decades before USC wins another football title or UCLA grabs one in basketball.  But, it is highly doubtful that these two universities are ever going to stop their forward momentum in what ought to be the fundamental focus of any university—academics.  A little north of these two schools, Stanford, whose academic reputation has never been questionable, soars high with a football team too.  Perhaps recruitment into the football team at Stanford is as highly selective as academic admissions are?

It is not any coincidence that all these happened amidst an even more interesting sports background in Southern California.  In 1994, the region said adios to the two professional football teams—the Rams and the Raiders.  Since their exit, there has not been a professional football team in the metropolitan area, despite the many attempts by the National Football League to locate a team in this huge market. 

Thus, as we celebrate the success of college sports in Oregon, let us not forget that the economic future of the state and its peoples depend not on whatever happens at Autzen Stadium or the brand new Matthew Knight Arena, but on the employment conditions in economic activities from machine shops to semiconductor factories. 

The challenge is to successfully re-build Oregon’s economy.  It is difficult to ignore the depressing news about continuing unemployment, and that Oregon’s per capita income trails behind the national average.  It is a tough challenge for which there is no easy solution, particularly in a rapidly changing global economy. 

However, we do know that the academic quality and reputation of our universities—public and private—is an important ingredient to this rebuilding effort.  Relegating academics--the very reason for the existence of universities--to the dark background will certainly not be a winning formula for the future of Oregonians.

Oh, in case you are wondering.... the University of Oregon is ranked #115 and Oregon State University is at 139.  I suppose we should merely be excited about their football and basketball programs, right?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Grey. Foggy. Bleak. Rainy. Cold. Winter? Must be Oregon!

I told the class that the morning looked like the descriptions of the last days of Pompeii.  It was dark even at nine, thanks to the low-hanging grey cloud cover, to penetrate through which the sun's light and heat were simply not enough.

"Did it rain too at that time" asked a student, to which another replied "he looks old, but he is not that old."

If there is this much humor at the end of the term, I suppose it is a success that I have not driven them into insanity.  Yet!

Driving to campus this time of the year is an experience that is very different from how things were when the term began.  Unlike a few weeks ago, the entire landscape looks like a still-life painting.  Fog-enveloped nude trees are beautiful in their own ways, but the same trees looked a lot more lively and joyful when they had their clothes on.  As the green started turning yellow and read and brown, it was like a colorful party.  That colorful party has ended.

The term, too, is ending.

As we wrap up the term, and head towards the shortest day of the year, we know that it can only get better.  Every day after the solstice will have a few more seconds of daylight over what the previous day offered.  That alone will give me enough joy, even as old man winter sets in.

Thanks to the trees having already shed their leaves, I get a good view of the street and the neighborhood when I am home. Extremely rare it is anymore to see any neighbor doing anything outside.  Even the stray cats seem to have decided against showing up.

Through the stillness and frost of winter, signs of life will appear. Slowly. On the ground it will be in the form of green shoots of daffodils and tulips and crocuses.  Then the trees will begin to grow leaves and flowers.  Soon there will be a riot of colors all over the place. 

We will sneeze and complain about the pollen, forgetting how much more miserable it was during the cold and dark days of winter.  Because, our frame of reference would have shifted to the expectations of the warmth in the paradise that the Willamette Valley becomes in the summer.  With every passing spring day, we will complain how delayed summer is this time around, though that is the very complaint we have every year. 

Well, ... all those complaints come much later.  It is now the season to complain about the grey skies.  If to everything there is a season, well, there is a season to complain about the grey conditions too!

When driving back home yesterday, the flashing red at the railroad crossing was such a brilliant contrast to the grey that was all around me. By the time I fumbled around and located my phone in my jacket pocket, the short-length train was gone, and all I was left with was this image at the gates.  Ain't complainin'

Bearded bandits: Grover Norquist and Mohamed Morsi

It is such an interesting coincidence that two bearded fellows are making lives difficult for most of the peoples in the countries within which they operate.

(Of course, it is a bearded blogger making such an observation!)

One thinks that he is the pharaoh of Egypt and the other believes that he can reduce government to a small enough size to be able to flush it down the drain.

In fact, they kind of sort of look alike, too, which is scary!
I intentionally chose these images (sources 1 and 2) of the two of them with their respective country flags in the background for two reasons: first, for the easy affiliation, of course.

The second reason is the more important one--to convey the old Samuel Johnson line that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."  And such patriots often wrap themselves up in flags and other symbols.

The scoundrel on the left wrapped up in the American flag is Grover Norquist, and the other scoundrel is Egypt's Mohamed Morsi.

As George "papa" H. W. Bush famously asked two decades ago, "Who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?"  And who made Morsi the pharaoh?

They give us bearded men a bad reputation; no wonder Americans are deeply suspicious of men with facial hair, and we haven't had a bearded president since Benjamin Harrison!

PS: No offense meant, Santa; please deliver me the gifts, and more :)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The meaning of life?

Take it away, Confucius:
We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know what comes after death? We do not yet know how to live. Do not trouble with another life before you know how to live a good life with men on earth. Live in one world at a time.
And, here is a related take on life :)

Ban the word "incentivise" and stop the monetization of everything

Right from my graduate school days, I have maintained a love-hate relationship with economics and the logic of markets in every aspect of our lives.  My roommate, Avu, who was also from Tamil Nadu, was at USC pursuing a doctoral degree in marketing and was a convert to the Milton Friedman and Hayek way of reducing everything to an utilitarian framework and a bottom-line of the price one is willing to pay.  While I enjoyed the intellectual argument, and often agreed with him, I knew well that it wasn't my religion. 

In my own studies, I opted to work with a professor who was clearly way more in favor of market forces than a couple of others were.  Even to this day, I am puzzled, and profoundly thankful, that he agreed to guide me along in the doctoral process even when it was clear to him that my philosophical preferences were elsewhere.

It is not that I hate the market.  I am no rabid socialist.  I understand what a wonderful tool that is in order to achieve a certain set of outcomes.  But, the logic of supply, demand, and price has its limits, and I detest any limitless application of those into every sphere of our lives.

Not aware of my bounded admiration for the market, faculty colleagues and students erroneously conclude that I am a right-wing free market enthusiast.  Don't judge a book by its cover, they say, and I seem to have one unattractive cover :)

My political position as a Libertarian-Democrat reflects this admiration from a distance of the market and economics.

Which is why I empathize with the sentiments expressed by Michael Sandel (ht):
Today, we often confuse market reasoning for moral reasoning. We fall into thinking that economic efficiency—getting goods to those with the greatest willingness and ability to pay for them—defines the common good. But this is a mistake.
I urge students not to simply mouth the rhetoric from what they have been told about the market or the state or religion, but to instead learn and think about other interpretations as well.  And that is what Dierdre McCloskey notes, while critiquing Sandel's work:
Over the front door of the late-medieval city hall in the Dutch city of Gouda is the motto of the first modern economy, the first large society in which commerce and innovation instead of state regulation and social status were honored. It says, Audite et alteram partem—Listen even to the other side. It's good advice for a society of the bourgeoisie, and for a classroom for students of philosophy. 
I wonder if before I die I will ever settle this love-hate relationship one way or the other.  My guess is that I will carry these mixed feelings with me until the very end, which apparently happens at the eleventh hour :)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Do you know when you'll die? At the eleventh hour!

Back in India, it seemed like everybody had a "sardaji joke" to tell.  While those sounded funny when young, the older I grew, the more I understood how awful it is to make fun of any particular group of people, especially when they are minorities.  It was one thing for Khushwant Singh to crack sardaji jokes--a few quite raunchy too--given that he was well within the comedic rights of joking about one's own group.  But, ...

One of those "jokes" was about the noon-hour, implying that a sardar was not his brightest self at that time.  That noon-hour syndrome could very well be the case for all of us who are getting older--a recent study indicates that if left to natural biological processes, and if medicines and machines do not interfere, then the probability that death might strike us at 11:00 am is quite significant compared to other times of the day!
[For] the population of people who have made it to old age -- the people who will die of natural causes rather than circumstantial ones -- there's a probabilistic element to the time that they will die. And that's because death by "natural" cause is natural in the fullest sense. Once we take leave of our technologies, our biologies take over. The genetic messages that empower our lives will also, eventually, orchestrate our deaths.
"A time to be born, a time to die" indeed!

Why, you ask?
Because, just as circadian rhythms regulate things like preferred sleep periods and the time of peak cognitive performance, they also regulate the times during which we're most likely to experience an acute medical event like a stroke or heart attack. As study co-author Clifford Saper -- who is also the James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, and also the chairman of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Department of Neurology -- explained to me over email: There is a "biological clock ticking in each of us."
Tick, tick, tiick, tiiick, tiiiiick, tiiii ....

So, for someone like me who was born in India but is now living on the other side of the planet, should I worry about 11:00 am in India or here? :)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Maps: A line in the sand. Or, on the rocks. Or, in the waters.

I suppose we humans have been fighting over stuff even from our ape years.  Despite that long track record of beating the crap out of others, and despite the likes of Steve Pinker trying to convince me that we fight and kill less than ever before, I can't help but wonder at the extent to which we continue to duke it out.

The latest exhibit: a "paper fight" of sorts.

The paper happens to be passports.

It appears that China is hell bent on asserting its territorial rights over land and sea.  In the latest iteration, the country has apparently been issuing passports with maps that have ticked off quite a few of its neighbors.
China has enraged its neighbours by claiming ownership of the entire South China Sea and Taiwan on a map printed in its newly revised passports.
Inside the documents, an outline of China printed in the upper left corner includes Taiwan and the sea, hemmed in by dashes. The change highlights China's longstanding claim to the South China Sea in its entirety, though parts of the waters also are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
China's official maps have long included Taiwan and the South China Sea as its territory, but reproducing this on passports could be seen as a provocation since it requires other countries to tacitly endorse the claims by affixing their official seals to the documents.
Smooth!  Every visa stamped on those passport pages is an affirmation of the maps too. Brilliant mandarins!

Well, if only the others were born suckers, right?
The Indian embassy in Beijing is said to have retaliated by stamping Chinese visas with a map of their own which shows the territories in India.
Several of China's neighbours have also protested against the new map.
Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan have all objected because it shows disputed islands in the South China Sea and Taiwan to be a part of China.
They have described the new design as a violation of their sovereignty. 
Vietnam is playing defense against this paper offense:
Chinese state media reported Saturday that Vietnam was refusing to stamp the passports, instead admitting Chinese visitors whose passports show the map by stamping a separate piece of paper.
 India, which fought a losing war in 1962 against China has gone into a tit-for-tat approach:
After the practice was discovered three to four weeks ago, India mulled over the issue for some time and decided the best response would be to issue visa stickers stamped with a map ``as we know it'', said an official, which means including Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh.  
All because of the unresolved territorial disputes with India:
In New Delhi, China is viewed with suspicion as a longtime ally and weapons supplier to Pakistan, India’s bitter rival. For Beijing, the presence in India of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and 120,000 other exiles from Tibet remains a source of tension.
India says China controls 41,440 square kilometers (16,000 square miles) of its territory in Aksai Chin in Kashmir, while Beijing claims that the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a 1,050-kilometer (650-mile) border with the Chinese-run region of Tibet, is rightfully Chinese territory.
The Economist notes from India's border state of Arunachal Pradesh:
Back in the Tawang valley, Dorjee Khandu Thongdok, a jovial politician, campaigns to raise awareness over the “agony and sufferings during the Chinese aggression” of 1962. Munching on roasted sweetcorn just harvested from nearby fields, he has no trust in talks with China. A military solution is certainly no answer, he insists. But he would, he says, not be surprised if the Chinese again invade Arunachal, just as they did half a century ago. The task of both Indian and Chinese leaders is to ensure that he is wrong.
Time for a Hollywood take on "the Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming"

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Some day, I will travel to the abode of the clouds ... Meghalaya

For a couple of minutes, I simply stared at the following photo, from The Hindu:
If you are like me (well, I feel sorry for you if that were the case!) then you already dreaming a vacation to this place, to get a feel for the people and their culture and the landscape and ...

It is, apparently, the time for winter harvest festivals in Western Meghalaya:
During the festival, the Garo — indigenous residents of the sub-tropical hills in Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura and Bangladesh — offer produce from the first harvest to Misi Saljong, the giver or the Sun God, in a ritual called Rugala. Nokmas or village chieftains lead troupes of male drummers and female dancers in a parade, accompanied by buffalo-horn trumpets and flutes.
Of course, I have drooled about this part of the world earlier too--three Novembers ago--and there I had included this photo, also from The Hindu:

Thanks to my American citizenship, I will need an extra level of government clearance if I want to visit these areas in India!  Wikipedia reports that Protected Area Permits will not needed if I want to travel to Meghalaya, but will need one for Nagaland.

Well, at least not a concern for now!

A final note from The Hindu:
Alva Sangma, the editor of Achik Songbad, a Garo weekly, offered this reporter a lift from Tura. Alva, a former rally driver, drifts past the hairpin bends through the hills with terrifying ease. Rod Stewart keeps her company from the stereo. “Garos are confident drivers and musicians.
Maybe in December 2013, equipped with a whole lot of dramamine?  I have an inalienable right to dream, right? :)

Liberalizing immigration will not lead to the Camp of the Saints

Russell Peters has a funny routine about the mixing of different groups and the coming "beige-ification" of the planet--that eventually we the global population will be a mix of Indian and Chinese genes with the rest, because these two populations account for a third of the world.

There is a serious demographic argument underlying that joke--the different rates of population growth across the geographic areas, especially across countries.  With Europe and Japan rapidly depopulating, whether or not to allow foreigners into the borders will take on a more urgent tone.  In relatively immigration-friendly countries like the US and the UK, it also means that we are at important crossroads where the tightening or relaxing of immigration policies could have long lasting economic implications.

In the absence of tight border controls against migration, people would move around a lot more than they do now because of the immense economic incentives:
An individual worker, however talented, cannot hope to replicate the fertile environment of a rich economy all on his own. But transplanting a worker into rich soil can supercharge his productivity. A Mexican worker earns more in the United States than in Mexico because he can produce more, thanks to the quality of US technology and institutions.
This is, after all, another way of presenting Warren Buffett's argument on winning the "ovarian lottery" and that he couldn't have produced all the wealth that he did if he had been born in some country that is much poorer than the US. 

What could happen in a hypothetical scenario where half of the developing world’s workforce moved to to the rich world?
If migration closes a quarter of the migrants’ productivity gap with the rich world, their average income would rise by $7,000. That would be enough to raise global output by 30%, or about $21 trillion. Other studies find even bigger effects. A 2007 paper by Paul Klein, now at Simon Fraser University, and Gustavo Ventura, now at Arizona State University, reckons that full labour mobility could raise global output by up to 122%. Such gains swamp the benefits of eliminating remaining barriers to trade, which amount to just 1.8-2.8% of GDP, reckons Mr Mukand.
Yes, a strictly theoretical argument it is, because there is no way that such a large-scale movement of people will ever be allowed, despite the healthy track record that we have about the successes: from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, the Persian Gulf countries, Singapore, ...

There is, of course, a gut-level economic opposition to an inflow of labor--from the worry that it will depress wages.  That it could lead to a Grapes of Wrath scenario of labor undercutting each other's wages as they search for productive employment. But, more often than not, our guts mislead us:
In a recent paper on western Europe Francesco D’Amuri of the Italian central bank and Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis find that immigration encourages natives to take more complex work. Such “job upgrades” are responsible for a 0.6% increase in native wages for each doubling in immigrant labour-force share. Where immigration disadvantages subsets of the population, Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego reckons that charging an entry fee to migrants or their employers could help pay for training or benefits for those who lose out.
There is then the social opposition to immigration: people coming in from other cultures will mess up the "native" culture.  The controversial novel, The Camp of the Saints, captured this very well, though, when I read it a few years ago, there were many instances when I had to force myself to read through despite the atrocious attitudes towards the brown skin.  People might couch the same worries in more polite and politically-correct ways, but the non-economic reasons might perhaps be even weightier than the "they will take my jobs" argument.  It is considerably easier to present the logic and evidence on economic issues than it is to educate people to get rid of their biases against peoples of other cultures.  

As the GOP found out from the recently concluded elections, demographics is destiny.  It is yet another case of political contradictions: the Democrats will all their unions are stereotypically against more labor coming into the country, and yet they are the party overwhelmingly preferred by the non-Whites, including the immigrant population.  The GOP, which talks way more economic liberalization, is increasingly hostile to reforming immigration policies because of the worry deep down that immigrants and their children vote Democratic.

The rich countries have very little time left to figure out how they want to deal with immigration.  It is a demographic race against the clock. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Remembrance of things past: The beat goes on ...

Trading emails with the usual suspects, R and S, means that there are enough and more reasons to think about life that was three and four decades ago.  Sometimes, when I think about the days past, I do worry whether that old adage is true: the more we look back means that there is less to look forward to.  I hope not!

Remembrance of things past can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what the mind recalls.  I am thankful then that I do not have to worry about hyperthymesia!

Anyway, primarily thanks to S, and partly because it is almost a year since the school reunion, in the process of thinking about a few classmates I ended up recalling how Prasad often entertained us with his percussion skills.  With his fingers and palms rhythmically beating against the rudimentary wooden desk, he easily entertained us with popular beats.

BoneyM's Rasputin and  were his specialty, and we often requested him too:
The other one was a Hindi song, which was a trailblazer in a number of ways:
Prasad was not at the reunion; I am sure he is enjoying the beat somewhere!

Ah, memories!

How faculty screw up students by (not) grading

A friend had a Facebook status message that I can easily relate to:
the downside of giving tests to students - you got to correct them, groan :(
One of those occasions when I can easily join with "amen, sister!"

I often joke with students that I will gladly teach even if they do not pay me.  I will keep reading and writing even if I am not paid.  But, grading?  That is the only professional activity for which I get paid, and not enough of it either.  (There is no amount of money they can ever pay me to go to all those insanely painful and stupid meetings, however!)

One place where we mess up is with grading--or the lack of it.  Evaluating students' understanding is a tough task.

Early on in my career, I decided against multiple-choice, true-false, ... type questions.  I tell my students that I want to make sure that they have figured out how to think through the context I give them because that is a critical ingredient to success in life.  This means that I get to listen to them in the classrooms, and read a lot of what they have written about.  Carefully reading their papers and then giving feedback on what worked in their thinking, and what didn't, and in the process whether they demonstrated well their writing abilities ... that is a lot of work.

An essay in Academe urges faculty to tighten up their evaluation frameworks, and that "it is time for the faculties of American colleges and universities to take teaching—and their students’ futures—more seriously."
Despite the annoyance it may engender among students, conscientious grading plays an important role in fostering student learning. Students feel compelled to study more when they believe that the grades they receive will reflect genuine mastery of the subject matter. The psychology professors Basil Johnson and Hall Beck of Appalachian State University demonstrated that students who expected tough grading significantly outperformed students who expected lenient grades on examinations in eleven sections of an educational psychology course. ...
At the college level, examination of grade distributions in prerequisite courses that are delivered in multiple sections and are regularly followed by multiple ensuing courses reveals a similar relationship between rigorous grading and learning outcomes. ...
The lesson is clear: teachers should not cater to perceived student preferences for gain (high grades) without pain (the investment of time and intellect required to master substantive course material).
I have heard enough horror stories from students on how much they never received detailed feedback from their isntructors, or how much they have received inflated grades for the work they themselves consider plain Bullshit.

A couple of terms ago, a student brought me one of her papers from another class, and showed me how much she had bullshitted her way through the paper.  It was clear from the professor's evaluation of the paper that he had not read the student's paper, but had awarded a high grade nonetheless. 

I then turned to the rest of the class--about twenty students in the class--and asked them for their experiences.  They all thought I was being stupid by asking the obvious, whether students Bullshit and faculty Bullshit a lot more.  We had some quite some conversation--laughing at ourselves--but left me horribly disappointed with the state of higher education.

It is depressingly ironical that most of these awful faculty are also almost the ones who think any serious discussion of teaching and learning is useless. (I bet they don't read publications like Academe either.)  A full-professor once told me, as we were nearing the restrooms: "we all have PhDs and we know how to teach. Nobody needs to tell us how to teach."  I so much wanted to explain to him that having a PhD doesn't say anything at all about our teaching skills, but I followed Socrates' advice not to argue with fools.  I told him that I had a restroom emergency, and was thankful he didn't follow me into the stalls :)

I better get back to the grading now!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The idea of travel has me drooling because ...

यस्तु संचरते देशान् यस्तु सेवेत पण्डितान् ।
तस्य विस्तारिता बुद्धिः तैलबिंदुरिवांभसि ॥
- सम्योचित पद्यमालिका

He who wanders various countries and serves wise men there
will expand his knowledge just like oil on water.
- Samayochita Padyamalika

The same idea reflected in the old adage that travel makes a man wiser?

Oh wait, it is "travel makes a wise man better, and a fool worse?"  That might explain my misery :)

When I re-enter the US after a trip abroad, I love it when the immigration officer finishes the processing and says "welcome home."  I truly appreciate what G.K. Chesterton wrote:
The object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country
 Yes, to set foot on one's own country--hopefully all the wiser.

The wisdom comes because I am often heading into the unknown.  Unknown in many ways and full of paradoxes.  As Paul Theroux wrote:
[The] world has been made more restless, more volatile, more impatient through the Internet, and it has robbed people of contemplative solitude and introduced a new solitude, a sort of loneliness induced by a buzz of information. But these very alterations in culture, far from diminishing curiosity, have made much of the world less predictable, more dramatic and accessible, full of paradoxes that have to be seen to be believed.
 Already looking forward to the trip in December.  And then the one after that in June.

 Wish me well, dear reader :)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving: thankful for the end of elections, for now?

An excerpt from one of my newspaper columns a few years ago ...

I have thought about this calendar issue many a time and wondered if the date chosen for the occasion had another strategic value as well: Perhaps an unintended idea was that late in November we can be thankful about the conclusion of elections.
To a large extent, the campaign calls and election pamphlets are indicators that there is still a strong pulse in the democracy.  The highly involved and dedicated volunteers, along with the paid staff, make sure that the elections and the issues are in our faces, day after day.  We are forced to recognize the issues, how much ever trivial or profound they rate in our individual political meters, and we decide on a yea or nay.  If we did not have those people, elections and democracy could morph into a political equivalent of a tree falling in the forest and nobody being there to hear it.

I am also quite thankful to the dedicated party loyalists, across the political spectrum, who work hard to get their candidate’s name on the ballot in the first place.  Thanks to such a process, it is the people who choose their candidates here in the US.  (Full disclosure: I am not registered with any political party.) 

This is a welcome contrast to the political system in India, which still continues on, where candidates at any level are handpicked by the party bosses.  My first exposure to this as a kid was when my grandmother was sick, and had to be admitted to the hospital.  We got to know the young doctor who treated her for her enlarged heart.  He was quiet, and even a tad shy to talk to people. 

A few months later, we were surprised to read in the newspaper that he had been selected as a party’s candidate.  He went on to win the election, and represented us at the parliament for a full term.  The doctor was chosen for a number of tactical reasons—but, even the party faithful had no idea who he was.

In fact, the “handpick” method was pretty much how many things were done in India, even at schools.  I can’t recall a single audition ever for any play, for instance, all through my schooling.  The teachers chose their favorites or the best academic achievers—anything other than an open process.  Here in the US though, while it is indeed a tragedy that we do not allocate enough resources for music or theatre, students are invited to participate and compete.  I suspect that even acts like these at school help promote an understanding of democracy—you too can enter that beauty contest.

I am far from being Polyannaish here—I recognize that there are a number of flaws in the process.  But, just as we take enormous care into producing that best thanksgiving turkey ever, it is equally up to us to pitch in to make it an even better democratic process than the one that we inherited. 

In a historical perspective, we have indeed improved the system a lot: from voting rights for women and minorities, to making voting more accessible than before.  To such an extent that here in Oregon, we even have the pleasure of voting at our kitchen tables dressed in our pajamas.

So, whether your candidate won or lost, or even if your candidate’s name never made it to the ballot, take a moment, before you head for that second helping of yams, to yell out a thank you to the democratic system that is alive and well.

Most read this past month