Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Mohammed Rafi, Heineken, and Auto-tuning

Trying to catch up on the Americana that I had missed out on by having been outside the country for a hundred days is impossible, I know.  But, I try :)

I read this piece about how Bollywood is slowly diffusing into the mainstream here in the US, and there I came across the following ad that apparently went viral:

So, naturally, I went after the original, which has Mohammed Rafi providing the vocals.  There is some high octane dancing--even without Shammi Kapoor, the actor whom I always imagine manically gyrating away whenever I hear such Hindi film music :)

Well, this is infinitely better than the auto-tuned "hits"--reading the New Yorker essay was one awfully depressing experience, to know that this is how the radio Top Forty hits are manufactured :(  In the Culture Desk blog, following up on the essay,  John Seabrook adds:
Almost all the music you hear on Top Forty radio these days is made on machines. You may hear a real guitar once in a while, but an actual drum sound is pretty rare. The singing is still done by humans, but the voices are never ever off pitch, thanks to Auto-Tuning. Is there a problem here?
Ahem, frankly I don't know if there is a problem here.  But, awfully depressing to think that a Rafi might not be necessary for the magic anymore.  Well, at least we have the gems, like the following one, from the past:

The Nobel Peace Prize recipient Obama is "warrior-in-chief"

Robert Wright is not happy, especially when it comes to drone attacks:
The fact is that, when it comes to drone strikes, President Obama has been much more reckless than any of us had reason to believe. He has lobbed missiles prolifically and sometimes undiscerningly into an allied country, embittering many of its citizens in a way that may come back to haunt us. He's also used a drone to assassinate an American citizen abroad, disregarding the constitution's guarantee of due process of law. Obama probably does qualify for the term "warrior in chief," but those of us who aren't happy about this have a right to feel betrayed.
I, for one, do not feel betrayed at all.

Because, from the moment Obama stepped up as a candidate, I have always viewed BHO as a version of Slick Willie but without the sex

This level of a hawkish presidency would have normally invited a whole lot of protests from Democrats.  But, they sweep it all away because BHO happens to be a Republican Democrat.  It continues to be a tragic irony that BHO is the only Peace prize recipient who has lobbed quite a few missiles that, as Wright links to, have killed many who were neither terrorists nor soldiers--often, we don't even know who they are, and apparently we don't care either. 

We live in a truly 1984-like world where war is now peace :(

The Buddha at Ayutthaya. Hey, I have seen that!

After having had a delicious pizza that I baked at home ... ok, I didn't start with making the dough, but in the grand traditions of praising fast food, I got the base with a little bit of sauce and cheese, to which I added: red chili flakes, onions that I sliced, tomato that I diced, cilantro that I chopped, and then, to top them all, cut up the chicken that I had cooked yesterday into tiny pieces.  This multi-topping pizza was awesome, and way better than a similar one that Wolfgang Puck's outlets serve--I did get the idea for this combination from having had one too many of Puck's pizzas!

Now, where was I?  Oh yeah, so, after the dinner, here I am scanning through some of my favorite web sites, and came across the following photo at Slate:

Caption at the source: AYUTTHAYA, Thailand—Buddha head embedded in a tree, 2008.
If not for the pizza still working its way through my stomach, I might have jumped up with excitement, for I have been to Ayutthaya, and have taken photos of this very Buddha:

Ayutthaya itself was simply amazing.  As I noted before.  I hope the place has recovered from all that nasty floods.

I think. Therefore, I am an atheist?

Last week, I had an opportunity to guest-lecture where I tapped into my autoethnographic ways of understanding the world.  In explaining a situation that I had experienced, I made what I thought was a passing comment about my atheism.  Turns out that quite a few students wanted to explore that aspect, too.  Some of the questions during the Q/A were strictly about atheism, which was quite a surprise to me.

After the meeting ended, one student walked up to me and asked whether the atheism resulted from my undergraduate in engineering.  Apparently the bunch of science courses he had taken had triggered him to ditch his faith.  And, consistent with the popular images of people of his faith, the toughest time he had about his atheism was with his mother.

I told him that while engineering might have played a part, it was a whole bunch of readings I had done that took me over to the other side.  I agreed with him that science tends to make us question everything around us, and that it is more than likely that science folks are atheists for a good reason that the physicist Weinberg so succinctly put it:  "science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe in God."

Thus, I am not at all surprised with a recent news:
Scientists have revealed one of the reasons why some folks are less religious than others: They think more analytically, rather than going with their gut. And thinking analytically can cause religious belief to wane — for skeptics and true believers alike.
The finding is, for all purposes, quite a duh! moment; I have always wondered how those trained to think have not managed to walk away from religion.  

A couple of times, I have shared with the less-doubtful this essay by Steven Weinberg, in which he writes:
Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God. 
Yep, humor--good or bad doesn't really matter, I think.  Wait, I did blog about humor contributing to my health and life :)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why don't people pursue their hobbies, instead of working?

"What are your two top hobbies, Dr. Khé?" asked a student, "D," as he was waiting for another faculty.


I am one who often comments to anybody who wants to know that my work is my hobby, and my hobby is my work.  I even add that I would do my work even if I didn't get paid, though it certainly does seem so sometimes :) 

In fact, Wikipedia notes that "hobbies are practiced for interest and enjoyment, rather than financial reward," which all the more convinces me that my work is a hobby because I am not in it for any financial rewards!

"My work is my first hobby" I replied.

"So, what is your second one?"

I thought for a while.  "Cooking."

"D" chuckled and quizzically looked at me.  "Cocaine?"

My accent garbled up cooking into cocaine.  One more to my list of stories to tell :)

Anyway, isn't life weird that apparently there are things we would do in life purely for enjoyment and out of our innate interests, and yet we do not engage with them full-time.  Instead, we take on "jobs" and secretly dream about the hobbies.  We drive around with bumper stickers that profess our hobbies, like "I would rather be fishing." 

Why have we become so focused on living a life where we pursue activities that do not really interest us at all?  To quite some extent, we are all living a split-life only because we think that our hobbies will not get us enough money to pay for the giant size flat screen TV?  If fishing is one's enjoyment, then what prevents that person from simply living a life by the river or lake or sea?  Because of the fear of being tagged a bum? A loser?  But then what about the tremendous opportunity cost, so to say, of the phenomenal enjoyment that was given up by stating locked up at work for hours day after day, week after week, year after year?

I would have thought that getting away from feudal conditions would have led humans to liberation to such an extent that we would not be chained by our economic conditions.  But, here we are.

Even as I blog away, I am reminded of a column from a few years ago; turns out my brain is functional!  In that column, Steven Landsburg wrote about the increasing inequality of leisure time:
By and large, the biggest leisure gains have gone precisely to those with the most stagnant incomes—that is, the least skilled and the least educated. And conversely, the smallest leisure gains have been concentrated among the most educated, the same group that's had the biggest gains in income....

First, man does not live by bread alone. Our happiness depends partly on our incomes, but also on the time we spend with our friends, our hobbies, and our favorite TV shows. So, it's a good exercise in perspective to remember that by and large, the big winners in the income derby have been the small winners in the leisure derby, and vice versa.
Second, a certain class of pundits and politicians are quick to see any increase in income inequality as a problem that needs fixing—usually through some form of redistributive taxation. Applying the same philosophy to leisure, you could conclude that something must be done to reverse the trends of the past 40 years—say, by rounding up all those folks with extra time on their hands and putting them to (unpaid) work in the kitchens of their "less fortunate" neighbors.
If only people would care less about money and simply enjoy pursuing whatever they want to do.  But then, humans we are! 

I often share with students the following joke that I heard for the first time back in graduate school:
A World Bank poverty expert goes to Bangladesh and finds a poor thirty-something man simply lying under a few trees during a mid-afternoon. 

"Why don't you work?" he asks.

"What for?"

"You can earn more money"

"Ok, what will I do with the money?"

"You can send your children to good colleges"

"Sounds good.  But, after that?"

"You can retire and travel to different places"

"That sounds exciting.  But, what will I do after that?"

"You can say you have had a great life, and simply lie down by a lake and enjoy it all."

The Bangladeshi is confused now.  "But, that is what I am doing even now!"
Oh well .... BTW, I did cook earlier today--tried out a new recipe.  Of course, my own concoction, and I have survived to write about it :)

What is right with war?

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

 That was Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 (ht)  You could say the same about the ongoing wars, too.

Student loan up 24%. Earnings down 15%. Do the math!

Won't it be in the interests of full disclosure if colleges and universities provided incoming freshman students with information like the following graph?

I am increasingly convinced that right from the early years of schooling, students hear all the time that they will suffer a loss of prestige if they do not go to college.  That they will be labeled "losers."  That they would be thought of as stupid if they didn't transition to college straight away from high school.  As one student told me, he was made to think that there were only two options he had: either go to college or sign up with the military.

Such an approach to higher education not only leads to a terrible misallocation of taxpayer and household capital, and to high levels of student debt, but it also defeats the whole idea of education that is to enable the youth realize their full potentials, whatever they might be.  Instead, we shove them through a higher education factory system in which the real beneficiaries are those suckling at the teats of the education-industry-complex!

Furthermore, as I noted earlier:
We push teenagers to higher education by scaring them about the earnings they could lose. Here, we commit two huge mistakes. First, we simply equate higher education to nothing but a passport to a job, instead of instilling in the young a joy for lifelong-learning as a path towards understanding their own respective potentials, of which earnings is merely one. On top of this, by constantly dangling the dollar sign in front of them, we are almost brainwashing teenagers to think that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is nothing but the pursuit of money.

Instead, the young ought to understand something entirely different--life entails making decisions all the time, and that this will mean difficult tradeoffs, which sometimes can be expensive. Thus, we would not simply push teenagers to college because they would otherwise be losers, but we would help them think and act every time they reached a fork in the road of life.  The tradeoffs that Robert Frost so elegantly articulated as "the road not taken."

By focusing on an economic argument, which is weak at best, in order to get students out the high school doors into college, we are rapidly reducing them to mere worker bees who have to compete against those in India and elsewhere.  Is that really what we want from the billions we invest in education?
Who ever listens to what I have to say, eh!  But then, hey, every once in a while students--yes, even students--tell me they read my blog.  I am sure they will do all right with all the warnings I provide them here.

Investment of $8 billion returns 16 times over. Support?

 What do you think is the catch here?
an additional $8 billion per year would, by 2050, reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 210 million and the number of underweight children by 10 million. Put into economic terms, the benefit-cost ratio of this spending is 16 to 1, indicating high returns to expanded investment in agricultural R&D.

No catch.

It is all about misplaced national and global priorities.

$8 billion is an accounting rounding off error in the grand scheme of things.  Apple, for instance, generated net profits of $11.6 billion in the second quarter alone!

I am shocked, shocked, that we pay very little attention to such pressing matters!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

How the New Yorker and the Onion extend my life :)

I thought this was funny enough when it popped up on my RSS feed. 
And then I scroll down the page to see this even more hysterically funny one:

I tell ya, these New Yorker humorists are simply awesome.

The Onion has a hilarious take on how Facebook will remember forever everything we do there.

Given my love-hate relationship with Facebook, I am tempted to agree with the commenter at the YouTube site that it is more real than satire :(

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What for is a college education if not to critique?

Glenn Greenwald writes in the context of an UCLA professor running into "trouble" for his views on Israel:
what kind of person goes to an academic institution and then demands to be shielded from political ideas that they find objectionable? Of all places, academia is supposed to permit and encourage the challenging of one’s assumptions and beliefs. At least in theory, that’s the prime value of studying at a university: learning how to think critically, which requires subjecting one’s views to rigorous dispute. 
Yep, one more reason to worry that there is something seriously wrong with how we approach higher education!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Herman Cain: I so miss him :)

Sarkozy in trouble because he didn't eat a sandwich alone?

Slate has a discussion on the typical American and French lunch breaks, which, for all purposes, is nothing but about the eating alone trait.  Interestingly enough, the Onion, too, has something to say about this, though about Obama eating alone :)

Obama's Approval Rating Down After Photos Surface Of Him Eating Big Sandwich All Alone

Nukes are better than TV sex because ....?

It feels like the topic is Iran everywhere I turn; but, enjoying it nonetheless.  The following sentences in this piece (ht) were way too good not to blog about:
In an interview with the New Yorker several years ago, an Iranian security official candidly assessed the challenge at hand:
The majority of the population is young.… Young people by nature are horny. Because they are horny, they like to watch satellite channels where there are films or programs they can jerk off to.… We have to do something about satellite television to keep society free from this horny jerk-off situation.
One might assume a country that suffers from chronic inflation and unemployment -- not to mention harsh international sanctions and a potential war over its nuclear program -- would have better things to do than discourage its youth from masturbating. Yet the regime continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Chinese censorship technology to create a moral Iron Dome against political and cultural subversion, with decidedly mixed results. Piped-in BBC Persian and Voice of America television are sometimes successfully scrambled, but those who want pornography have no shortage of outlets. That said, the censorship software sometimes get a bit overzealous. One Iranian friend told me of repeated unsuccessful attempts to access his British university's email account from Tehran, only to realize that the school's apparently bawdy name -- Essex -- was prohibited by the regime's Internet filters. 
 And we tremble in fear and shake in our boots over Iran's crazy clerics?  Maybe if they had a lot more sex, then they won't go after the bomb.  Oh wait, that logic does not work for the US, too!  I suppose we are doomed any which way: have sex and have nukes, or don't have sex and have nukes :(

Dealing with Iran: What it means to have all options on the table?

Jeff Goldberg seems to be convinced more than ever about the probable strike against Iran in June:
After the Netanyahu-Obama meeting last month, I thought the White House had bought some time with the Israelis. Though it makes no sense for the Israelis to strike Iran's nuclear sites after November (the political climate, and the actual climate, as in cloud-cover, makes a strike this winter implausible), I thought the Obama Administration had moved the Israeli clock back a bit, to September. But I think we're back to looking at June as a possible (I didn't say probable) month for an Israeli attack.

Here, by the way, is Slate's Fred Kaplan on the subject. I agree with Fred -- I hope I'm not mischaracterizing his position -- that if the Israelis don't strike by November, then they will have, in essence, decided to subcontract out the problem to the Americans:
(I)f the Israelis really are intent on attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities, they're likely to do so before this November's American presidential elections. If they started an attack and needed U.S. firepower to help them complete the task, Barack Obama might open himself up to perilous political attacks--for being indecisive, weak, appeasing, anti-Israel, you name it--if he didn't follow through. It could cost him the votes of crucial constituencies. If the Israelis tried to pressure the United States into joining an attack after the election, Obama would have (to borrow a phrase from another context) more flexibility. So, to the extent the Israeli leaders have decided to attack (and it's not at all clear they have), they are probably thinking: much better sooner than later.
One of several reason I think an attack, if it comes, will come sooner rather than later is a just-aired report from Israel's Channel 10 Television on the Israeli air force's preparedness for an attack. (Times of Israel has a synopsis). The fact that the Barak-run Defense Ministry allowed this report to air (it has the power to censor national security information) suggests something, I think. (And, yes, it could be part of a bluff, but I don't tend to think so. I think the airing of this report was more a signal to the White House and to the Europeans that Israel won't wait very long.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

One in two college graduates jobless or underemployed

If only people would listen to me, is what I end up thinking whenever I read reports like this one.

It is awful to read about real life examples like "Kelman Edwards Jr., 24, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., who is waiting to see the returns on his college education":
After earning a biology degree last May, the only job he could find was as a construction worker for five months before he quit to focus on finding a job in his academic field. He applied for positions in laboratories but was told they were looking for people with specialized certifications.

"I thought that me having a biology degree was a gold ticket for me getting into places, but every other job wants you to have previous history in the field," he said. Edwards, who has about $5,500 in student debt, recently met with a career counselor at Middle Tennessee State University. The counselor's main advice: Pursue further education.

"Everyone is always telling you, 'Go to college,'" Edwards said. "But when you graduate, it's kind of an empty cliff."
 What can be worse?  Well, ...
Edwards, who has about $5,500 in student debt, recently met with a career counselor at Middle Tennessee State University. The counselor's main advice: Pursue further education.
 But, of course!  Yes, more education.  I shall refrain from using my favorite metaphor here to describe how the education industry is run :(

Meanwhile, the presumed GOP presidential candidate has his own answer to why college grads are in this awful mess.  What is this guy smoking?  I bet his solution is more tax cuts!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The academic home page

Well, my academic home page is not like this one :)

Apt for Earth Day: how the poor have to live off the garbage!

So, first it was Foreign Policy with this photo essay on the rag pickers of Dandora, in Nairobi, which is the focus of this piece where the author notes:
Dandora is a symbol of a larger problem: Even as Kenya touts continued economic growth and cultural influence -- including proudly hosting the Nairobi Securities Exchange, the financial hub of east and central Africa, and regional headquarters for the likes of General Electric, Google, Coca-Cola, the United Nations Environmental Program, and U.N.-Habitat -- its poorest citizens have been left behind by their country's rise.

A new constitution, accelerated advances in information and communications technology, East African Community integration, and the discovery of oil have many optimistic that Kenya will continue to be the regional powerhouse economy. Nearly two thirds of Nairobi's population, though, will continue to live in the city's slums.
How tough it is for the typical person working through all that trash for a livelihood? A 42-year old mother of six says:
Working here is how I am able to feed my children. Of course it is not a usual job. Dodging pigs, used condoms, eating what I find; no, it's not good for me. But it is a job and I have to persevere.
Of course, Dandora is not unique at all.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of such places all over the world, including India, which is the focus of this LA Times report:
The children didn't notice the ravens and occasional vulture circling overhead, or the stream of black ooze that flowed nearby, or the inescapable stench of decay. They were squealing over a 4-cent ride on a small, hand-powered Ferris wheel.

The kids are growing up in New Delhi's 70-acre Ghazipur landfill, a post-apocalyptic world where hundreds of pickers climb a 100-foot-high trash pile daily, dodging and occasionally dying beneath belching bulldozers that reshape the putrid landscape.

On "trash mountain," families earn $1 to $2 a day slogging through waist-deep muck. But the residents also marry, have children on their dirt floors, pray and celebrate life's other milestones.
As I noted in this blog post, I had observed similar rag-picking everywhere in the city.  It is a tough life, as the LA Times report adds:
Pickers complain that even now they can't keep pace with rising food costs.

"I manage to make enough to feed us," said Habibullah, as a small boy walked by naked except for flip-flops. "But I can never get ahead."

The more ambitious are no longer content to wait for belching garbage trucks, so they head into neighborhoods to get higher-quality waste from residents, earning more money.
Every once in a while, when such discussions come up in classes, the wide-eyed idealistic youth find such happenings intolerable.  They want to get rid of all these.  I then ask them what alternatives might exist for the poor?  Then they begin to wonder.  I then further drive home the point with the following video commentary from Nicholas Kristof:

We have no idea how phenomenal life is when we do not have to struggle for existence that way, and we rarely pause to thank for the life we have.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

College affordability and student loan in election year politics

First, from the LA Times:
President Obama used his weekly video address to launch what will be a weeklong push on the issue of college affordability, pressing lawmakers to act to prevent a sharp increase in interest rates for student loans.

The president noted that at a time of economic distress, a college degree has never been more important. But "it's also never been more expensive."
It has never been more expensive is true.  But, I am not sure whether it has never been more important.  Anyway, that debate aside, the immediacy is in the fact that
In 2006, the rate on all types of Stafford loans was 6.8 percent. But in 2007, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed a bill that cut the rate on subsidized Stafford loans for undergrads in half over four years.
The rate dropped to 6 percent in 2008-09, to 5.6 percent the next year, then to 4.5 percent and to 3.4 percent for the 2011-12 school year. Under that act, the rate jumps back to 6.8 percent starting July 1.
"It's not surprising the 3.4 percent rate expired in an election year," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of "Normally Congress passes legislation with a five- or 10-year window. The four-year window was timed perfectly for an election."
In other words, Democrats knew Republicans would have a hard time letting a rate increase take effect on the eve of an election.
When one can get 30-year mortgages for 4%, 
letting the rate increase now, when jobs are harder to find and schools are cutting other types of financial aid, would be a "triple whammy" on students.An argument could be made that at a time when banks are paying almost nothing on deposits and mortgages can be had for 4 percent, a rate of 6.8 percent is too high for all student borrowers.
As Judith Scott-Clayton noted a few weeks ago, 
With a bachelor’s degree, even $40,000 may be a manageable level of debt over the long term. But for those who are unemployed – including 9.1 percent of the 20- to 24-year-old college graduate labor force and 20.4 percent of their peers with no college degree, according to a recent report – even much smaller amounts may be unmanageable in the short term.
The worst one could do is to go to graduate school to get non-professional and non-terminal degrees--these will merely add to the debt.  Yet, students continue to flock to graduate school, especially in the humanities and the social sciences!

Friday, April 20, 2012

All that glitters is not Indian!

"I have intense positive emotions about so many things that I like about the old country" I told a friend.  One of them, of course, is about the old movie songs.  They stir up emotions somewhere deep within.  Even the songs in Hindi, a language in which all I have is a basic, survival, level vocabulary.

In fact, the old Hindi film music gets me more than the old Tamil ones do.  Music is music irrespective of the language of the lyrics.  No wonder then that I willingly go to opera performances too, even when in alien territory.

YouTube suggested this old Hindi film song when I checked in at that portal.

A lovely piece, yes.  But then I remembered the tune from another place too: Henry Mancini's Charade.

Back in India, when I was growing up, I had a next-to-nothing level of exposure to Hollywood movies, not only because those were some prehistoric days but also because it was a small town where English movies played rarely ever at the only cinema, and the outdoor screening at the local club showed movies that seemed to be at least twenty years old, if not older.  Thus, I had no reason to imagine that the music for some of the wonderful Hindi and Tamil melodies that I enjoyed could have been adapted from somewhere else. Especially from America.

There are many, many things about life that we discover as we grow up and many if them end up bursting our bubbles.  Understanding India has also meant sorting out the real from the fake, even in something as trivial as old film music.  In this case, a couple of years into my arrival here in this country, I watched Charade on television.  It was the beginning years of my falling in love with Audrey Hepburn.  To then find out that Mancini's music was what I was listening to in India in that song was one of the many instances was yet another occasion when I realized that everything that was without a question "Indian" back when I was a kid in India was not necessarily unadulterated "Indian" as I had imagined them to be.

But, why didn't they tell me back then before the bubbles grew in size?

Life is a charade, I suppose.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

GOP: the party of true diversity :)

First Amendment and free speech on campus

As I sip coffee and read the the campus newspaper, I am drawn to the front page news story on the "First Amendment Week" with the following quotes in bold:
The First Amendment is the bedrock of our rights, since it is theoretically the foundation of our ability to think, gather and communicate freely ...
Profound it will be if only it were consistent with how the two faculty identified in the report actually practiced  it.

While gushing with such rhetoric, these advocates for free speech did their best to make sure I would not have any on the same campus!

As I blogged before:
I don't have any free expression on campus here.  A few years ago, the faculty union's president wrote in an email to me:
join the union and go through the Bargaining Team.  If not, then please shut up 
I suppose we ought to appreciate the politeness in "please shut up" and not merely "shut up" :)

The in-coming union president at that time wrote in an email to me:
I think you should apologize for your self-serving attempt to mislead the faculty
A few months after all these, another faculty colleague walked into my office, closed the door behind him and proceeded to advise me on how I ought to respect the "hallway culture" and by not following that bottom-line, I had essentially pissed them off.  When I reminded him about my freedom of speech, his reply was hilarious: "I knew even before coming to your office that you would say these things."

Oh well, "Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men."

Maybe they should have celebrated First Amendment Weak!

Is there a politics of income inequality? Why are the 90 percent so docile?

We have reached a point in discussions on income inequality in the US where there is practically an unanimous agreement that inequality has widened.  The disagreement is in the "so what?"

One tempting question then is always this: in a democracy where every voter has the same number of votes--one--irrespective of the millions they own or the thousands they owe, then how come the ballot is not used effectively to trigger a greater redistribution?

Once again, Nicholas Lemann provides an insightful book-review essay, in which he concludes:
[That] ninety-nine per cent of Americans are being left behind economically isn’t of much use politically. The ninety-nine per cent is too big a category to be an effective political force. For all that, inequality already is a political cause, though in strange and unexpected ways. ... But if we are to go further—and get the political system to try seriously to reverse the trends of the past thirty years—somebody will have to figure out how to stitch together a coalition of distinct, smaller interest groups that, in their different ways, care deeply about inequality, and, together, can pressure Washington in favor of specific policies. It’s an unlovely business, but if you believe that government is the best instrument with which to address the problem it’s also a morally urgent one.
In other words, it is all a restatement of that classic argument offered by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action.  I wish Lemann had highlighted Olson's arguments in this context.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why did the chicken cross the road? Are you not entertained?

College is not a rite of passage, but a (risky) financial investment

Again, not a new topic in this blog.  The only real feature is that the connection with Springfield, Oregon!

Are students and taxpayers listening?

Trickle down works! In athletics, not economics

First an excerpt from this piece:
As professional sports grew into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, colleges followed suit. Small programs grew big; big programs grew huge, all chasing ESPN glory and cash. So, in turn, high-school athletics programs grow, emulating their big siblings on campuses.

There is a widespread consensus that our public-education systems are in serious trouble. But amid the conflicting diagnoses of the problem—teacher training, standardized testing, socioeconomic conditions—we have missed this obvious one: The growth of high-school athletics over the past generation has necessarily meant fewer resources devoted to academics, especially in the zero-sum budgetary environment of so many school districts.
Yep, the effect trickles down to high schools (and lower too?) despite any number of horrible problems at the professional and collegiate levels.
After annus horribilis 2011, no one can deny with a straight face the corrupting effect of our athletics-business complex on higher education. We need to reckon, however, with the toll that college athletics and all its trappings take on high-school education as well.
Should we then be surprised at all that our public education doesn't deliver?
Recently, American school reformers have been flocking to Finland to discover what makes their primary and secondary education so good. However, as my Ohio State colleague Kenneth Kolson wrote recently in a letter to The New York Review of Books, most of them fail to acknowledge that Finnish schools "offer no team sports, which means no 'student-athlete' hypocrisy, no cheerleaders, no pep rallies, and no architectural shrines devoted to the cult of youthful athletic prowess." He is under no illusion that the Finnish model can be replicated here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

How we avoid Titanic-like disasters now?

Tupac shakur hologram and laptop orchestras: technology leaps!

Remember the movie Simone?  Simone is a computer generated/animated woman. The software, Simulation One, gave the name Simone, which the world thought was a real life beautiful woman.  The movie couldn't build on this novel idea, and even now might not be worth your Netflix time.  But, that idea of computer generated human with appropriate emotions and body language, ....

Consider this news:
Nearly 16 years after he was gunned down at age 25, the iconic California MC appeared with his Death Row cronies Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg during their all-star set through the magic of technology, as a gruff, tatted-up hologram. Snoop and Dre got current - and living - hip-hop superstars like Eminem, Wiz Khalifa, and 50 Cent to perform during the set, but it was pretend 'Pac's appearance that got the Web - which wasn't even really a thing when the rapper was alive - abuzz.
Decked out in a computer-generated chain and digital desert boots, e-Pac started with a rendition of "Hail Mary" from his final album, "The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory." The hologram 'Pac also shouted out Coachella fans and riled up the crowd in a convincing version of the MC's throaty, fiery voice. Then a somewhat stiff "Shakur" joined Snoop for their '96 collabo "2 of Amerika's Most Wanted." And just as the crowd seemed to be getting used to the technology-assisted performance from beyond the grave, "Tupac" evaporated into a flash of light.

The company that created the hologram says that it can similarly "bring back to life" any dead person:
The Tupac hologram was several months in the planning and took nearly four months to create in a studio and though Smith was not able to reveal the exact price tag for the illusion, he said a comparable one could cost anywhere from $100,000 to more than $400,000 to pull off. "I can't say how much that event cost, but I can say it's affordable in the sense that if we had to bring entertainers around world and create concerts across the country, we could put [artists] in every venue in the country," he said.
The life-size Tupac was amazingly realistic, down to the late rapper's signature tattoos, Timberland boots, jewelry and movements, all of which were also recreated under the direction of Dre and his team. 
Maybe they can create holograms of lecturers and eliminate tenured-faculty, eh!  Oh, wait, I should stop giving them ideas :)

If you are not much into rap and hip hop, and prefer classical music, well, how about this news:
“Laptop orchestras” in seven locations — from Stanford University to Louisiana State to Queens University in Belfast — are scheduled to perform together tonight, virtually, as part of the first Symposium on Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras, which is being held in Baton Rouge.
What is so special about these laptop orchestras, you ask?
“What binds this gamut of noise-creation together is programming code, says Jeff Snyder, [Princeton Laptop Orchestra's] associate director: “Generally, each composer writes new code for each piece . . . if the composers are writing new code for their pieces, then they have the ability to make it do exactly what they want, and it opens their horizons for what is possible.”
This might mean allowing players to improvise within certain sonic parameters, or directing them to follow a more traditional musical structure. The possibilities are practically endless, with the route from composition to performance constantly being played with.
 Holy crap!  I don't think I can keep up ever with how rapidly everything is changing by the day hour minute :)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hey, corporate professors and universities, what about education and intellectual activities?

After writing this essay, which I plan to send to the editor of our local paper, I have been thinking a lot more about education and the miserable state of affairs that contemporary higher education has become.  In my case, misery does not mean drowning in alcohol, though I wonder if that might help, but is to lose myself in essays that really smart people have authored.

As comforting as this exercise is, well, it is equally depressing that the issues that I worry about now were the same set of issues that were talked and written about even a few years ago. It has been only a rapid worsening of the situation.  For instance, in this essay from twelve years ago--yes, twelve--Jackson Lears writes:
The contemporary academic crisis is not about job security any more than it is about how many classes are online or which departments get the most resources. It is about the attitudes we take to our most important audience, a non-academic audience. Professors are constantly berating themselves and being berated for withdrawing into the insular  world of scholarship, for not connecting with the real world. The real world is right in front of us, in the classroom; it is composed of students, 99 percent of whom have no intention of entering the academy themselves. They are a non-academic audience; they require us, however implicitly and imperfectly, to become public intellectuals.
The attitude towards students and their learning is appalling, to put it mildly.  Increasingly, colleges see students as nothing more than warm bodies who bring in monies, which they can use to build Taj Mahals and create more "student-services" administrative positions.  Faculty, too, are only happy to be active participants in fashioning revenue-maximizing strategies.  For instance, a couple of days ago, I received an all-campus email that described the introduction of yet another undergraduate degree called the "AB," because the existing BA and BS options do not serve a certain market niche!

Even back in 2000, Lears noted that the chief threat to education came from attempts to commodify knowledge and sell it in crazy ways:
Contrary to received opinion, the chief threat to intellectual freedom in the academy is not political correctness–though the tyranny of various ideological fashions (right and left) is real, and can be oppressive. The main menace is market-driven managerial influence: the impulse to subject universities to quantitative standards of efficiency and productivity, to turn knowledge into a commodity, to transform open sites of inquiry into corporate research laboratories and job training centers.
Thus, the higher education industry keeps charging ahead at full speed, consuming the monies students, taxpayers, and philanthropists keep throwing its way.  Are we surprised then at all with the following sentences from Jackson Lears?
Prussian productivism melded with American vocationalism and anti-intellectualism–the love of the practical, the demand for cash value now. The result was the accentuation of a fundamental conflict in the university’s mission, between furthering the pursuit of truth and serving the needs of established power. The modern American university was to continue to preserve a place for the free play of ideas, but also to provide technical expertise for government and business elites. The marriage of Prussian productivism and American vocationalism produced a monstrous spawn. James called it “the Ph.D. Octopus.” 
What a lovely metaphor "the Ph.D. Octopus" is!

In that same issue of the Hedgehog Review, Russell Jacoby writes:
Driven by academic discontent and boredom, professors might want to reinvent themselves as public writers. ... 
But, simultaneously recognizes the challenge when we have:
institutional imperatives that reward technical rather than public contributions.Will they be successful? It is not clear.
It is a lot clearer now, twelve years later, that only technical contributions matter, even if they are less than third-rate.

Jacoby worried then about specialization, well before the introduction of gerontology as a major in a small time public university where I teach!  Jacoby wrote:
it should be possible to raise the issue of insular specialization without pledging fealty to progress and industrial society. The incarceration of specialists and a return to bloodletting or phrenology is hardly the goal; nor is the point to foster anti-intellectual populism or half-educated generalists. Specialization inheres in industrial society. We need specialists. No one wants to hear a cheery announcement that today your airline pilot will be a family therapist. Nevertheless this truth does not justify every micro-field or subdiscipline or new jargon. Specialization can also be obscurantism, turf building, careerism, and regression, as well as a simple waste of talent and resources.
 So much has been said in the years past by intellectuals that there is very little for this pseudo-intellectual to contribute, it seems like!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

What for an education?

Are we hastily "tracking" children onto a college-bound path right from their high school freshman years, and perhaps even from middle school on?

Over the last couple of years, I have gotten into a habit of chatting with students, especially those in my freshman-level classes, about their reasons for attending college. It never surprises me when I find out that most would be doing something else, if they really had a say in the matter.

But, they end up in college because of the tremendous pressure on them to have a college plan from the moment they enter high school, or even earlier. It is not difficult to imagine that most fifteen year olds have the vaguest idea of career plans, and yet they are forced to think about college and, sometimes, even the kinds of subjects they would like to major in the undergraduate program. As one student recently put it, "I didn't even know how to drive and these people were telling me I had to know what to do in college."

Interestingly enough, similar thoughts about the role of higher education are beginning to preoccupy at least a few educators and parents in India, too.  Spending a hundred days there, and observing the American scene from the other side of the planet, was a learning experience, in this context also.

For instance, the director of the Madras campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, which is recognized as one of the ten best universities in India, noted, tongue-cheek, that the public would prefer a college major even for children in kindergarten!  Meanwhile, he is opening up to the idea that engineering students could take literature classes also during their undergraduate programs.

This need for breadth was echoed by a college classmate, who, unlike me, continued on with a career in engineering, and is now a senior executive at a leading outsourcing firm, and oversees nearly 30,000 employees. His complaint is that it is getting harder for them to recruit college graduates with good thinking and communicating abilities.  He reasons that the system is failing right from the early years of schooling, and worries about the future if schools continued to focus on tests as the pathway to college.

Despite our own healthy experiences of the past, when high schools and colleges promoted thinking and creativity, and despite those from faraway places like India, we tell thousands of Oregon children, explicitly and implicitly, that K-12 schooling is nothing but the road to college.  Even worse is the notion that they are losers in life if they do not go to college immediately after graduating from high school, and many students I have talked with are keen on avoiding that "loser" tag. A new "scarlet letter" that we have created through the schooling process.

We push teenagers to higher education by scaring them about the earnings they could lose. Here, we commit two huge mistakes. First, we simply equate higher education to nothing but a passport to a job, instead of instilling in the young a joy for lifelong-learning as a path towards understanding their own respective potentials, of which earnings is merely one. On top of this, by constantly dangling the dollar sign in front of them, we are almost brainwashing teenagers to think that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is nothing but the pursuit of money.

Instead, the young ought to understand something entirely different--life entails making decisions all the time, and that this will mean difficult tradeoffs, which sometimes can be expensive. Thus, we would not simply push teenagers to college because they would otherwise be losers, but we would help them think and act every time they reached a fork in the road of life.  The tradeoffs that Robert Frost so elegantly articulated as "the road not taken."

By focusing on an economic argument, which is weak at best, in order to get students out the high school doors into college, we are rapidly reducing them to mere worker bees who have to compete against those in India and elsewhere.  Is that really what we want from the billions we invest in education?

Friday, April 13, 2012

We are the global elite who could have done things differently

Doesn't the following chart tell one heck of a story:
[The] take of the very rich peaking in the late nineteen-twenties, at close to twenty per cent of total income, then falling sharply for forty years, only to turn back up in the late nineteen-seventies, and peak again in 2007.
Cassidy links to this paper, where the authors provide a similar looking chart for changes in the top income decile:

The question is always the same, right: why bother about income distribution?  Among other reasons, we want to understand how much of the national income goes to the top one and ten percent because of:
their impact on overall growth and resources, their impact on overall inequality, and their global significance.
At the same time, keep in mind that:
In the grand scheme of things, even the poorest 5% of Americans are better off financially than two thirds of the entire world
So, at the end of it all, could we have done things differently since the late 1970s, which is when we notice the sharp uptick in the graphs?
Yes, without thirty years of rising inequality, and with the same overall national income, income of the middle class would have been greater. People with middling incomes have many more priority needs to satisfy before they become preoccupied with the best investment opportunities for their excess money. Thus, the structure of consumption would have been different: probably more money would have been spent on home-cooked meals than on restaurants, on near-home vacations than on exotic destinations, on kids’ clothes than on designer apparel. More equitable development would have removed the need for the politicians to look around in order to find palliatives with which to assuage the anger of the middle-class constituents. In other words, there would have been more equitable and stable development which would have spared the United States, and increasingly the world, an unnecessary crisis.

Video of the day: Holi. Yes, the festival of colors


Damn illegal aliens!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Quote of the day (Ashley Judd fights back)

Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women. ...

The insanity has to stop, because as focused on me as it appears to have been, it is about all girls and women. In fact, it’s about boys and men, too, who are equally objectified and ridiculed, according to heteronormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of their personhood. It affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human beings. Join in—and help change—the Conversation.
 All because Judd did not look her usual stunning best.  Her puffed up face, Judd writes, was from being "sick for more than a month and on medication (multiple rounds of steroids),"

You go, girl!

Play ball! Obama v. Romney

BTW, notice that the magazine newspaper cover says "excluding UK" .... so, what is the cover for the UK version you ask?

I wish the UK cover had been a cricket version of the Obama v. Romney caricature :)

Cartoon/comic of the day. Wait, the story of my life?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

We pay taxes. So, ... where does that money go?

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (ht):
At the federal level:

And at the typical state:

Here in Oregon, where we pay "income taxes pay to educate, medicate and incarcerate Oregonians" the trend has been to pay more for incarceration than for education:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Quote of the day: On Václav Havel

“Ten years ago,” Černý told me, Havel “would probably immediately give them a pardon. But that asshole in the Castle won’t.” 
That was the final sentence in this short piece on protest art in the Czech Republic.  The "conservative Czech President Václav Klaus" is the one referred to by that anatomical metaphor, in contrast to the liberal intellectual Havel, who died a few months ago.  Yes, Klaus the pen stealer :)

Until I read the essay, I had no idea about this:
In April 2007, Czech artist David Hons replaced the human silhouettes in 48 Prague crosswalk signals with figures engaged in decidedly less pedestrian activities. One signal depicted a man urinating; another had a bottle raised to his mouth. A man squatted to defecate; another appeared to be falling down drunk. “I wanted to show people, they don’t have to walk or stand when the system says so,” Hons wrote on his website.
That is bloody creative, and what a wonderful way to convey that idea.

What was even more exciting was when I read the following:
In May 2010, as the country was preparing for a nationwide election, Roman Smetana, a 29-year-old bus driver from the city of Olomouc, defaced some 30 campaign posters, scrawling, “Liars,” “Idiots,” “Corruptioneers,” and “Prostitutes” across them in Magic Marker. After the election, the victorious center-right Civic Democrats took legal action. Smetana was found guilty of vandalizing private property, fined $800, and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service. He complied with the fine (to avoid debt collectors) but resisted the second half of the punishment. His graffiti, he told the court, “was the free expression of opinion by a citizen who, unlike political parties, does not have huge funds for publicity at his disposal.” For refusing the community service, he was sentenced to 100 days in jail. Yet this month, Smetana refused to show up at the prison to begin his sentence; he could now spend three years behind bars for defying the court’s orders.
Not only is the protest format itself neat, I even know this place, Olomouc; it was where I visited my old friend almost fourteen years ago :)

The trillion dollar question: When my salary is financed by student debt ...?

Not a new topic in this blog, and yet the following graphic (ht) made me pause and think:

Of course, since that 2011 Q3, the amount has crossed the one trillion dollar mark.  It is one thing if a medical school student takes on a $100,000 debt, because of the potential earnings.  But:
individuals risk being over their head when their loan debt exceeds their annual income. Take a former student with a $50,000 debt with a $40,000 income. While the future interest rate on student loans is uncertain let us assume one of 5 percent, lower than what the law for the next fiscal year requires but more than President Obama wants. A person with a $40,000 income might have only $28,000 of what the Feds define as discretionary income. Devoting 10 percent of that income to debt servicing (the maximum required under an executive order), a debtor would pay $2,800 annually in debt service, $2,500 of which would go for interest, and only $300 for principal. Since federal policy puts a 20-year time limit on repayment, and it is likely it might take more than 20 years to repay the loan, it likely will never be fully repaid—the government will take a hit. When the debt-income ratio is under one, that is much less likely to occur. My wife, a retired guidance counselor, talked to a former student of hers recently with a six-digit debt incurred while in undergraduate and law school that is perhaps three times her income, and she literally has health problems from worrying about the crushing burden. This is not rare these days.

Even scarier? Like this:
According to the College Board’s 2011 Trends in Student Aid report, 13 percent of people who started at a four-year institution in 2003-04 but did not complete their bachelor’s degree by 2009 have more than $28,000 in student loan debt.
For some, the debt burden can be far worse. Jim VanNest, 30, has been struggling with more than $100,000 in student loan debt since he dropped out of Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2005, where he had been studying voice and audio engineering for three years. Since then, he has worked as a customer service representative for a telecom company, a receptionist, a janitor, and “hit a low point” when he got a job at Petco.
 Not looking good .... :(

Monday, April 09, 2012

Axe murderers explain the significance of philosophical novels

[The] puzzles and paradoxes of philosophical reflection are not best aired in the narrow, arid corridors of philosophical tracts; and that Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy. It is one thing to study John Stuart Mill’s defence of utilitarianism in ethics; quite another to read the passage in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where Raskolnikov tests utilitarianism to its limits by taking an axe and cleaving an old lady’s head in two. Illustrations of this sort might even persuade us that moral philosophy needs the novel for the fullest possible expression of its aims.
 That was the best part of this essay, which is on  the rapidly disappearing field of philosophical novels.

Even with that wonderfully rich treasure trove of philosophical novels, it appears that academia routinely misuses and abuses them.  If ever a Russian literature (in translation) course, for instance, is offered at most colleges and universities that are not the big-time research universities, it seems like that the focus is on the stories and rarely ever on the philosophical issues.  
I spent three years in college and wrote three and a half stories but I read everything I could get my hands on. White Teeth is really the product of that time; it's like the regurgitation of the kind of beautiful, antiquated, left-side-of-the-brain liberal arts education which is dying a death even as I write this. Generally, an English Lit degree trains you to be a useless member of the modern world
When increasingly students are not led towards reading and understanding some of those masterful and insightful works, well, it becomes difficult for them to appreciate many other things in life, including this awesome satire from The Onion:

Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Competition, altruism, and social darwinism, in biology and US politics

Slowly catching up with issues of the New Yorker that I had missed reading, thanks to the sabbatical--I had to wait until now to read the articles that are paywalled at the magazine's site. 

Jonah Lehrer's essay on the genetics of altruism is one of those inaccessible behind the paywall.  The essay is very much a story of the scientific method, as much as it is about altruism and selfishness.  From Charles Darwin, who regarded altruism "as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection" to William Hamilton, in 1964, explaining that as a cost/benefit equation, rB > C, where "genes for altruism could evolve if the benefit (B) of an action exceeded the cost (C) to the individual once relatedness (r) was taken into account."  This was born the "inclusive fitness theory."

Lehrer writes that E.O. Wilson was the biggest champion of this neat little equation, though it was not an idea that was easy to sell.  But then, Wilson himself begins to question the validity of this equation--a classic example of the scientific method to forever question any explanatory framework, even if it is your own favorite one.  Wilson came up with a dramatically different framework about relatedness that it is "a consequence of eusociality, not the cause."

But, what about the evidence for this? In 2010, Wilson co-authors a paper in Nature that presents a lot more complicated mathematical model on the evolution of eusociality, which apparently has ignited one hell of a firestorm amongst biologists.  "Wilson is the only one who seems to be enjoying the controversy.  His appetite for scientific brawls seems, if anything, to be increasing with age." 

Wilson continues with an essay in The Daily Beast, on what drives humans to form tribes and then make wars of many types with other tribes. 
The drive to join is deeply ingrained, a result of a complicated evolution that has led our species to a condition that biologists call eusociality. “Eu-,” of course, is a prefix meaning pleasant or good: euphony is something that sounds wonderful; eugenics is the attempt to improve the gene pool. And the eusocial group contains multiple generations whose members perform altruistic acts, sometimes against their own personal interests, to benefit their group. Eusociality is an outgrowth of a new way of understanding evolution, which blends traditionally popular individual selection (based on individuals competing against each other) with group selection (based on competition among groups). Individual selection tends to favor selfish behavior. Group selection favors altruistic behavior and is responsible for the origin of the most advanced level of social behavior, that attained by ants, bees, termites—and humans.
He concludes with this:
Civilization appears to be the ultimate redeeming product of competition between groups. Because of it, we struggle on behalf of good and against evil, and reward generosity, compassion, and altruism while punishing or downplaying selfishness. But if group conflict created the best in us, it also created the deadliest. As humans, this is our greatest, and worst, genetic inheritance.
Now, compare such complex analyses of how humans behave, and how we might have evolved, with the President casually tossing out highly flammable rhetoric when criticizing the GOP budget plan:
 Reigniting his clash with Republicans over how to tame the debt and deficits, President Obama delivered a blistering attack on the House Republican budget Tuesday, calling it “thinly veiled social Darwinism” and a “prescription for decline.”
To some extent, this is a kind of war between two tribes, right?  And such a war is also an example of how our greatest genetic inheritance is also our worst inheritance :(

Robert Reich runs fast with the President's comments:
We are likely to hear a lot more about social Darwinism in the months ahead. It was the conservative creed during the late 19th century – legitimizing a politics in which the lackeys of robber barons deposited sacks of money on legislators’ desks, and justifying an economy in which sweat shops were common, urban slums festered, and a significant portion of America was impoverished.
Seriously?  Come on; Social Darwinism?  Even if the President uses it as battle rhetoric, for Reich the academic to re-use that?

Professor Linda Hirshman's column is a lot more substantive than is Reich's.  I agree with her bottom line about the election: "Let the wild rumpus begin."

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Class warfare: poverty is, literally, days at the park

From this NY Times report on the nearly two decades since President Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich revolution combined to "end welfare as we know it":
One family ruled out crime and rummaged through trash cans instead. The mother, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, could not get aid for herself but received $164 a month for her four American-born children until their time limit expired. Distraught at losing her only steady source of cash, she asked the children if they would be ashamed to help her collect discarded cans.
“I told her I would be embarrassed to steal from someone — not to pick up cans,” her teenage daughter said.
Weekly park patrols ensued, and recycling money replaced about half of the welfare check.
Despite having a father in prison and a mother who could be deported, the children exude earnest cheer. A daughter in the fifth grade won a contest at school for reading the most books. A son in the eighth grade is a student leader praised by his principal for tutoring younger students, using supplies he pays for himself.
“That’s just the kind of character he has,” the principal said.
After losing cash aid, the mother found a cleaning job but lost it when her boss discovered that she was in the United States illegally. The family still gets subsidized housing and $650 a month in food stamps.
The boy worries about homelessness, but his younger sisters, 9 and 10, see an upside in scavenging.
“It’s kind of fun because you get to look through the trash,” one of the girls said.
“And you get to play in the park a little while before you go home,” her sister agreed. 
Something seriously wrong in these United States, where, as Warren Buffett noted
there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won.

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