Friday, August 31, 2012

Bed in Summer

Perhaps the best way to follow-up on the reflective thoughts in the post yesterday on the waning days of summer, is this simple beauty from Robert Louis Stevenson titled "Bed in Summer"
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?
Well, kids no longer will be complaining that they have to get to the bed--it gets pretty dark even by kids' sleep time.  Now that Labor Day is round the corner, it also means that summer vacation will come to an end for those kids whose school years have yet to begin.  Perhaps their parents have been prepping them up the last few days on a school day schedule of waking up at a certain time, and going to bed by a certain hour.

To everything, turn, turn, turn ...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The final full moon of the summer is a treat: a blue moon

It was a beautiful almost full moon earlier this evening, by when the temperate summer day had already cooled down. 

I didn't want to stop looking at the moon, almost as if I feared that if I did, then the gorgeous summer will end here in the paradise called the Willamette Valley.  Not content enough, I drove so that I could view it against a far more expansive sky than the one that the window at home permitted.

The moon kept rising and, with a feeling of joyful emptiness, I returned home.

All good things come to an end. Eventually.

Slowly and steadily, the days will get shorter.  The mornings are much cooler for longer periods of time than even a fortnight ago, and darkness comes earlier and earlier.

I am amazed at how much I, who grew up in near equatorial conditions, have come to appreciate the changing seasons and feel my life synchronized with it.  When the days are long and warm, I rarely feel like working and, instead, want to enjoy the daylight.  Now, the cooler mornings and evenings somehow seem a lot more conducive to getting real work done.  The reading and the writing is a lot more focused, and my mind is rapidly shifting towards the classes that I am looking forward to.

Prompted by the cooler temperatures, I even used the oven yesterday, after more than a couple of months when the air was so warm that I simply could not even imagine the oven being on.

Soon, the days will get shorter and shorter, and Christmas will prompt us to look forward to days getting longer by the minute.  The bright sunlight will become rare here, as the clouds gather to remind us that Oregon is wet and, therefore, green.  We won't long for cold salads, but for hot soups.  We will bake and cook.  Rarely will I see neighbors out and about as the rain and the clouds settle in for the long haul until late next spring.

The next full moon will be the first autumnal moon. The "harvest moon."  Once a friend had invited us to a backyard gathering where the after-dinner activities included poetry reading and howling at the first full moon of the fall season.  I don't remember if I howled. I wish I had.

Et tu, Condoleezza Rice? After your clusterf**k for eight years?

A political science professor who is also a former provost of Stanford intentionally misinterpreting the past, and misleading the public on what Romney/Ryan can do, while dissing what Obama has done?

First, from Daniel Drezner, who characterizes her tenure in the Bush cabinet as "clusterfuck":
it was a great speech -- so long as you skipped the opening paragraph: 
We gather here at a time of significance and challenge. This young century has been a difficult one. I will never forget the bright September day, standing at my desk in the White House, when my young assistant said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center – and then a second one – and a third, the Pentagon. And then the news of a fourth, driven into the ground by brave citizens that died so that many others would live. From that day on our sense of vulnerability and our understanding of security would be altered forever. Then in 2008 the global financial and economic crisis stunned us and still reverberates as unemployment, economic uncertainty and failed policies cast a pall over the American recovery so desperately needed at home and abroad
The problem with this paragraph is that, vague language aside, it reminds the listener that two of the three greatest negative foreign policy shocks of the last decade happened while Rice and the GOP ran the executive branch. Oh, and the third is Iraq, which also happened on their watch. 
Whatever foibles and errors the Obama administration has committed on foreign policy -- and they've had a healthy share -- nothing they have done has been remotely close on the clusterf**k scale to the events Rice mentions in her first paragraph. 
Once you skip that, though, it really is a great speech.  
Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Obama's track record on foreign policy is much better than that of Bush, whom Rice ably(!) assisted as the national security adviser and then as the Secretary of State.  Fred Kaplan writes about Rice's chutzpah, and that with her disastrous track record, she has "no business lecturing Obama on international politics
The facts of the matter are these. Obama’s foreign policy, while hardly perfect, has been quite successful. Uncommon for a first-term president, he hasn’t caused any outright catastrophes. He ended the Iraq war (a subject that neither Rice, who helped start it, nor McCain, who avidly promoted it, mentioned Wednesday night). He approved his generals’ plan for escalating the war in Afghanistan, but when it didn’t work, he backed off instead of plunging deeper into the big muddy. And—something the Republicans wish everyone would forget—he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden (a decision more fraught with risk than his critics acknowledge) and decimated al-Qaida.
For the first time in a half-century, the Democrats have a stronger image on national security than the Republicans do.
So, why such a distortion of reality?  Kaplan suggests a reason:
If elections were decided on issues, the Republicans would stay away from foreign policy this year. Even drifting into that realm risks reminding voters of Obama’s clear advantage. But some political strategist must have reasoned that they can’t just let the issue go, especially since foreign policy is the one area where presidents have a lot of power to do things by themselves. If the Republicans in 2004 could turn a war hero like John Kerry into a coward, and a reserve pilot who never saw battle like George W. Bush into a war hero, maybe they think they can turn the president who terminated the world’s most-wanted terrorist into a rudderless wimp.
Whoever booked McCain and Rice on the same night of the Republican National Convention must have thought, “It’s worth a shot.”
Perhaps the talk was worth the prized green jacket, eh!

We’re old, we’re white and we want our country back

Am following up on yesterday's post, with this Washington Post opinion piece that highlights the troubling facts about the GOP:
[Today's GOP] is almost entirely white — 92 percent, compared with just 58 percent of Democrats. It is disproportionately Southern — 49 percent of Republicans live in the South vs. 39 percent of Democrats.
It is a big tent all right--a big white tent in the South!
[How] is it that the South has come North in today’s GOP? The fact that Barack Obama is our first black president coincides with the United States’ transformation from a majority-white nation to a multiracial country no longer destined to remain the world’s hegemon. Augmented by an intractable recession rooted in a crisis of capitalism, this epochal shift has summoned the shades of racial resentment. To the extent that Republicans can depict government as the servant of this rising non-white America (precisely the purpose of Romney’s ads), the South’s antipathy toward government can find a receptive audience in other regions.
This transformation of the GOP has also been spurred by the Southernization of the economy. The U.S. economy’s dominant sector is no longer the unionized manufacturing of the Northeast and Midwest, whose leaders included such Republican moderates as George Romney, and whose white working-class employees were persuaded by their unions to back Democratic candidates. Instead, the economy is dominated by a mix of the low-wage, nonunion retail and service sectors, and by high finance, which has shown itself fiercely opposed to regulation and taxation, happy to reap and shield its profits abroad at the expense of U.S. workers, and willing to invest plenty in a party that does its bidding.
That party is meeting in Tampa this week. Cut through its self-justifying rhetoric and we’re left with a GOP whose existential credo is, “We’re old, we’re white and we want our country back.” The rest, as the sages say, is commentary.
As if to provide real and tangible evidence to all this, Andrew Sullivan draws attention to this utterance from Senator Lindsey Graham:
The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term

Looks like the right wing extremists have now become the GOP. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Republicans have become Social Darwinist dystopians!

The best sentence I read today:
Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it. 
Well, this might be an insult to the British Empire, of which I am no fan either!  Even if it was from their own selfish interests, the British at least did a few good things--even something like this "anicut" in a remote small town in Tamil Nadu.

Anyway, that sentence is from this essay in The American Conservative (ht) that makes a wonderful point that "our financial elites are the new secessionists."
Being in the country but not of it is what gives the contemporary American super-rich their quality of being abstracted and clueless. Perhaps that explains why Mitt Romney’s regular-guy anecdotes always seem a bit strained.
Keep in mind that this is a criticism not coming from The Nation or Harper's, but from a conservative publication.  But then, this is a truly intellectually conservative publication, which has become a minority among the atrocious likes of the Weekly Standard.

The essay is only warming up.  The author, Mike Lofgren, "served 16 years on the Republican staff of the House and Senate Budget Committees" and yet the following sentences of his might easily be mistaken as something that was authored by the late Alexander Cockburn:
In both world wars, even a Harvard man or a New York socialite might know the weight of an army pack. Now the military is for suckers from the laboring classes whose subprime mortgages you just sliced into CDOs and sold to gullible investors in order to buy your second Bentley or rustle up the cash to get Rod Stewart to perform at your birthday party. The sentiment among the super-rich towards the rest of America is often one of contempt rather than noblesse.
The kind of true conservatism echoes Ralph Nader's characterization of the two parties as tweedledum-and-tweedledee:
After the biggest financial meltdown in 80 years and a consequent long, steep drop in the American standard of living, who is the nominee for one of the only two parties allowed to be competitive in American politics? None other than Mitt Romney, the man who says corporations are people. Opposing him will be the incumbent president, who will raise up to a billion dollars to compete. Much of that loot will come from the same corporations, hedge-fund managers, merger-and-acquisition specialists, and leveraged-buyout artists the president will denounce in pro forma fashion. ...
the rich, rather than having the modesty to temper their demands, this time have made the calculated bet that they are politically invulnerable—Wall Street moguls angrily and successfully rejected executive-compensation limits even for banks that had been bailed out by taxpayer funds. And what I saw in Congress after the 2008 crash confirms what economist Simon Johnson has said: that Wall Street, and behind it the commanding heights of power that control Wall Street, has seized the policy-making apparatus in Washington. Both parties are in thrall to what our great-grandparents would have called the Money Power. One party is furtive and hypocritical in its money chase; the other enthusiastically embraces it as the embodiment of the American Way.
I am getting way more depressed and way more pissed off the more I think about all these.  What an awful state of affairs :(
Conservatives need to think about the world they want: do they really desire a social Darwinist dystopia?
But then, can Lofgren get, for instance, Grover "bathtub"  Norquist to read this essay in the first place, and then make Norquist think about all these?
What if Christopher Lasch came closer to the truth in The Revolt of the Elites, wherein he wrote, “In our time, the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses”? Lasch held that the elites—by which he meant not just the super-wealthy but also their managerial coat holders and professional apologists—were undermining the country’s promise as a constitutional republic with their prehensile greed, their asocial cultural values, and their absence of civic responsibility.
Lasch wrote that in 1995. Now, almost two decades later, the super-rich have achieved escape velocity from the gravitational pull of the very society they rule over. They have seceded from America.
For a few years now, I have been remarking in appropriate contexts in my classes something I picked up from Joseph Stiglitz (I think it was him.)  And that is: the rich--I mean the real people and not the "corporations people"--live transnational lives, sometimes literally with more than one passport.  On the other hand, the middle and lower income classes are geographically tied down and their sense of nationalism has no effect on the transnationalism of the rich.  To some extent, Mike Lofgren is a tad late to this bottom-line.  That can only mean only one thing: we are way screwed than how much I thought we were!

The situation is so Category-5 that perhaps Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, would have fled from the GOP!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A very strange vaginal fixation in ... India?

Growing up in India, I was used to the advertisements for "Fair and Lovely" products that (falsely, of course) promised a lighter skin color when those products are used.  It was simply the market forces responding to the social preference for a "lighter" skin color.  Actually prized more than preferred.  As this BBC news report noted, this genre of skincare products add up to a whole lot of money--more than the sales of Coca Cola in India.

But, it seemed like the skin color issue had reached new lows, and mean "low" in the literal sense as well, when I across a news item about a product to bleach/lighten the pubic hair!  How crazy is that!  This Jezebel post, which is a must-read for its phenomenal satire, noted about the product and the ad:
In this commercial for an Indian product called Clean and Dry Intimate Wash, a (very light-skinned) couple sits down for what would have been a peaceful cup of morning coffee—if the woman's disgusting brown vagina hadn't ruined everything! The dude can't even bring himself look at her. He can't look at his coffee either, because it only reminds him of his wife's dripping, coffee-brown hole! Fortunately, the quick-thinking woman takes a shower, scrubbing her swarthy snatch with Clean and Dry Intimate Wash ("Freshness + Fairness"). And poof! Her vadge comes out blinding white like a downy baby lamb (and NOT THE GROSS BLACK KIND) and her husband—whose penis, I can only assume, is literally a light saber—is all, "Hey, lady! Cancel them divorce papers and LET'S BONE."
Hysterically funny the Jezebel post is, and laugh we should because there is nothing else we can do about this madness :(

If that product was bizarre enough, well, it turns out that there is another one that is being peddled now in India--a cream to tighten the vagina so that women can feel 18 again!  The BBC notes that the ad is:
to market a vaginal "rejuvenation and tightening" product, which was launched this month in India.
The makers of 18 Again, the Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company Ultratech, say it is the first of its kind in India (similar creams are already available in other parts of the world such as the USA), and fills a gap in the market.
That is right--if it can be sold in the US, then why not in India, right?  USA! USA! USA!

The music and the dance in the ad are not at all Indian, however:

The setting and the characters give it a South Indian--Tamil--feel.  I wonder if there are variations that play at different regions?

Oh Madonna!

Funny pages vs. news pages

From today's cartoons:


But, wait a sec, this is serious stuff!

From the news reports, this one about the candidate for the senate seat from Pennsylvania:
Asked by a reporter how he would counsel a daughter or granddaughter who had been impregnated by rape, Smith said: "I lived something similar to that with my own family. She chose life, and I commend her for that. . . . Don't get me wrong; it wasn't rape."
Pressed as to what he was talking about, Smith responded: "Having a baby out of wedlock." After that, he seemed to struggle to articulate what he meant.
"That's similar to rape?" a reporter asked.
"No, no, no," said Smith, who was referring to a daughter's decision to have a child outside marriage. Then he added, "But, well, put yourself in a father's position. Yes, I mean, it is similar."
Brick wall.
Ouch, it hurts!

Monday, August 27, 2012

To stay healthy, cook your food. And, oh, use your inner microbes!

It was the tight budget in a foreign land that motivated me to start cooking.  The Sri Lankan roommate was in his fifth year of life in the US and he had a pretty good grasp of groceries and fast cooking.  The first year was a blur, as far as cooking went.

Year two, more budget issues but a little more experience in the kitchen.  It has been a slow and steady progress since then.  Now, comfort in the kitchen coupled with budgetary constraints of a different kind mean that I cook and bake a lot more than what I would have ever imagined

But, when I really feel cooking to be a chore, I will now remember to tell myself, “Suck it up, buttercup.”  The dirty secret, the author notes, is:
When you have no choice but to cook for yourself every single day, no matter what, it is not a fun, gratifying adventure. It is a chore. On many days, it kind of sucks.
Yep. A chore to shop. A chore it is to cut, chop, dice, and season the food. And then to wash and clean. Empty the trash.

A long time ago, when I was a kid, I asked my mother whether she felt shortchanged about having to work all seven days of the week in her role as a home-maker--"housewife," as they were referred to then--in contrast to father who got time off his work.  She simply answered that everybody has a certain role and she was doing hers.  Much later in life I found her response echoing in Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players."

So, yes, we do what we do in the kitchen.

We certainly don't want to forget that there is a lot more to cooking and eating than it merely being a response to budget constraints, argues this Scientific American piece:. 
For one, our bodies seem to expend different quantities of energy to deal with different kinds of food (the energy expended produces heat and so is referred to by scientists as “diet-induced thermogensis”); some foods require us to do more work than others. Proteins can require ten to twenty times as much heat-energy to digest as fats, but the loss of calories as heat energy is not accounted for at all on packaging.
For another, foods differ in how and where they are digested in our guts. Some foods such as honey are so readily used that our digestive system is really not even put to good use. They are absorbed in our small intestines; game mostly over. More complex foods, on the other hand, such as cassava or almonds, have to travel to the colon where they meet up with the largest concentrations of our little friends, the microbes. 
 So, there is food, and then there is food.  Choose wisely, grasshopper!
It is a testament to human ingenuity that we have now figured out how to provide as many calories as possible in our foods. We don’t even really need for our intestines to do much work, our bacteria either, or even our teeth for that matter. Our modern diets are a measure of our evolutionary success, or at least they would be from the perspective of our paleo ancestors who needed and wanted excess calories. They are not successes from our modern perspective. We now have too many calories and too many of those calories are of low quality. One in three Americans is now obese. Over the last thirty years the number of calories we eat has increased, but so has the number of those calories that come from highly processed foods. In this light, we would do well to eat fewer processed foods and more raw ones.
Sounds good.  But, dammit, I ended up slicing my thumb while working some wonderfully fresh and tender green beans!

Paul "Ahmadinejad" Ryan and Ayn Rand

Like many teenagers in my times, I read Ayn Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  I even read her play, The Night of January 16th.  All these even as I read Russian literature, Dickens, and plain old commie stuff, all of which would have confused the hell out of a profile-creating algorithm :)

Eventually, I grew up. I ditched the commie ideas. I ditched Ayn Rand's too.  Now, it simply fascinates me when old men continue to call themselves socialists and communists, or when they proudly talk about their Randian fixations.

Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand stories are, therefore, wonderful material, which Michael Kinsley, true to his form, exploits well:
Paul Ryan laughed. He stood naked on top of the vice president's desk in the Senate chamber, scanning the crowd of sniveling politicians below him.
He flexed his muscles, the result of hours spent in the House gymnasium. Look at these pathetic specimens, he thought. Not one of them could do a one-armed push-up if his life depended on it. Not one was worthy of so much as cosponsoring one of Ryan's bills. Every single one of them had been elected by appealing to the average citizen in his (or her — Ryan snorted at the thought) district. It occurred to him, and not for the first time, that of all the men and women in this room, only he, Paul Ryan, had been selected for his current office by the president himself.

Speaking of Ayn Rand, how was her Atlas Shrugged received by critics when it was published?  The LA Times offers a few excerpts, out of which I liked this the following two the best:
Robert R. Kirsch, Los Angeles Times:
It is probably the worst piece of large fiction written since Miss Rand's equally weighty "The Fountainhead." Miss Rand writes in the breathless hyperbole of soap opera. Her characters are of billboard size; her situations incredible and illogical; her story is feverishly imaginative. It would be hard to find such a display of grotesque eccentricity outside an asylum.
and this one:
Whittaker Chambers, National Review
"Atlas Shrugged" can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. etc. (This book's aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned "higher morality," which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world…. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.
 Now, those were book reviewers, unlike the contemporary state of reviewing!

Not to be outdone by America's Finest News Source, the original real-news publication that featured spy-vs-spy reports that Democrats are spreading all kinds of misinformation about Paul Ryan:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paul Ryan's supply-side economics is a high stakes gamble

Simon Says.

Simon Johnson, that is:
Ryan and members of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party undoubtedly want to cut the size of the federal government, and they have articulated plans to do this over several decades. But, in the near term, what they promise is primarily tax cuts: their entire practical program is front-loaded in that direction. The calculation is that this will prove politically popular (probably true) while making it easier to implement spending cuts down the road (less obvious). The vulnerability caused by higher public debt over the next few decades is simply ignored.
For example, Ryan supported George W. Bush’s spending spree. He also supports maintaining defense spending at or near its current level – resisting the cuts that were put in place under the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The assumption here – unstated and highly questionable – is that the US will be able to sell an unlimited amount of government debt at low interest rates for the foreseeable future. There is no other country in the world where fiscal conservatives would want to be associated with such a high-stakes gamble.
Or, if you prefer a picture instead of Johnson's thousand words:

Hey, have people forgotten about the war in Afghanistan?

We will soon mark the eleventh anniversary of the horrific events of 9/11. The infamous day could easily be the defining moment from the primary school years of the typical freshman students whom I will soon welcome when the fall term begins.

To those freshman students, it could also mean that the US has always been at war since their earliest memories—the war in Afghanistan began in October 2001. Since then, the US military fatalities in the Afghan campaign alone recently exceeded 2,100, with the rest of the coalition suffering another thousand. And then there are the thousands who have been injured, physically or mentally or both. We have to add to all these tragic statistics the combat fatalities on the “other” side and the destruction of civilian lives and property.

Unfortunately, the Afghan war is rarely ever discussed by the major party candidates for the Presidency of the United States. Even when any reference is made, it is almost as if it is a footnote in the policy discussions.

Along with the explicit war in Afghanistan, we have also been engaged in battles in Pakistan, even though officially we do not refer to this as "war." Perhaps because a significant aspect of the operations in Pakistan is conducted by the CIA and through unmanned drones, and not by the military and “boots on the ground?” We are barely past the midpoint of 2012 and the US has already conducted 33 drone missile strikes in Pakistan. The latest drone attack was during the celebratory festival of Eidul Fitr, which concluded the month‐long Ramadan fasting.

It seems that every year, even every day, is a critical one in shaping Pakistan’s destiny, and this year is no different. The highest court in Pakistan forced out the country’s prime minister, Yousuf Gilani, after he repeatedly refused to re‐open investigations on frauds committed by the president, Asif Ali Zardari. Even though he served only for a little over four years, Gilani holds the record as the person who served the longest continuous term in that office in the country’s 65‐year history. That record, by itself, is a huge measure of the fragile political conditions in Pakistan.

Gilani’s successor as the head of government, Raja Pervez Ashraf, has indicated that he will also refuse to comply with the judicial ruling. The confrontation between the parliamentary and judicial branches will further complicate governance in a country that is rife with problems, including the US drone attacks that the Pakistani people detest.

As more and more Pakistanis feel that the country’s government has lost even its feeble abilities to govern, yet again there will be worries, internally and externally, about the military exercising its influence through a coup before the scheduled general elections in February 2013.

With so much at stake, it is quite a shame that neither Obama and Biden, nor Romney and Ryan, have anything to say about Pakistan and how they will shape their policies towards Pakistan. I suppose that when Afghanistan and the war there receive such scant attention, it ought not to surprise us that there is practically nothing said about Pakistan!

I understand that an anemic economic growth and high unemployment will mean that the focus will be on domestic issues. But, it is not that the domestic economic issues are unconnected to the military conflicts. At some point in the very near future, the US will exit Afghanistan similar to the earlier “foreign” retreats, especially those of the Soviets and the British, and by when we will have spent a trillion dollars, in addition to the trillion‐plus in Iraq.  The Afghanistan war, along with the disastrous excursion in Iraq, has been significant factors behind the rapid growth in the US debt.

Further, the Afghanistan war and, therefore, our calculated interests in Pakistan, pre‐date the Great recession by six years and continue to haunt us even after the end of the recession. Don’t they deserve at least a little bit of air time? At least more than the time we spent discussing how the female body shuts down to prevent pregnancy during illegitimate rapes?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Two depressing articles on Obama's "race" for a second term

I wonder what the reason was for me, even as a kid, to have gotten so interested in the news and events around me.  I remember even keenly following changes in the price of gold, and the exchange rates for the Indian rupee. Local and international politics--especially the Cold War issues--fascinated me.

Now, if only I hadn't that infection in my early years!  Because, then I would have never stuck my nose so seriously into attempting to understand this complex world.  I could have chosen a professional life where I could simply have punched-in and punched-out, and not worried about a damn thing.

Nah, that is an alternative that I would never have chosen! 

Thus, I end up reading and thinking and driving myself crazy.

A horrible feeling it was to read two articles, in two different publications, and feel that there is nothing I, or even millions of us, could ever do to change the way things are.

In the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the worrisome fear of a black President, and he notes:
After Obama won, the longed-for post-­racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified.
Yes, it is awful how much race has become a divisive issue.  Coates' essay is intense, and I hope that it will gain a much, much wider audience.  Towards the end, he writes:
In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.
Reading that essay while getting ready to sleep was a bad idea.  Instead of calmly drifting off into sleep, there I was wide awake, thinking about all the subtle and explicit racist jokes I have heard or read about Obama.  I wanted to yell out a big FUCK YOU in the middle of the night.

Sleep I did, eventually, and back to the routines of reading.  After laughing through the cartoons in the New Yorker, I settled down to read Jane Mayer's piece on the other race in this election--the race for money.  The more Obama falls behind in this race, Mayer thinks that he could even lose this election!  The idea(l) of one-person-one-vote is threatened ever more than before:
the top .07 per cent of donors are exerting greater influence on the 2012 race than the bottom eighty-six per cent. And this accounts only for publicly disclosed donations: much of the money raised during this election cycle consists of secret gifts to “nonprofit public-welfare” groups that claim to have no overt political agenda.
Rare are billionaires who donate gazillions to the Democratic Party and not to the GOP.  In the age of SuperPACs, that means disaster for Obama, or any candidate anywhere who is not aligned with the billionaire Republicans.
looking ahead, many Democrats grow more concerned. Bill Burton, the former White House aide who is now running Priorities USA, says, “My worry is that the numbers will just get even more astronomical. It could easily be doubled, or quadrupled, by 2016. Once big business realizes it can purchase the White House, you have to wonder what the limit is.”
Tell me why I should not be worried, and why I should not yell a big FUCK YOU in the day time as well.  You can now understand why sometimes I wish that I didn't have this intellectual curiosity when I was young!

Our roads are fast enough. Why is the internet connection slow?

Driving two thousand miles all the way to San Diego and back was a wonderful lesson on the role of infrastructure.

By infrastructure, I mean more than the interstate highway system for which we owe a lot to President Dwight Eisenhower's leadership. As efficient as driving on I-5 was, it was even more of a pleasure to take in the sights and experience the country along the complex web of state highways, and state and county roads.

This intricate network of roadways was, of course, not the first one in the country, when we refer to transport infrastructure.  The networks of railroads and canals had been developed even earlier.  The growth of railroads was remarkably correlated with the industrial revolution in the US, with the result that it is always tempting to ask economic historians whether the railroads led and triggered the American industrial revolution or whether the two simply went hand-in-hand.

Canals, railroads, and roads, along with air transport systems, are from centuries prior to this twenty-first century.  While in the contemporary world, we do transport goods and passengers by these different transport avenues, there is an important difference: our economic activities are not tied to manufacturing, which dominated the American economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Of course, a great deal of manufacturing happens even now in the US.  But, manufacturing is not the economic prime-mover as it was when Eisenhower led the charge to construct the interstate highway system. Now, almost eighty percent of our incomes and jobs are through the remarkably varied services sector.  The manner in which some of these can be bought and sold doesn't always require us consumers to travel by roads or planes, and instead our participation in the economy in increasingly electronic.  Streaming movies on Netflix means we do not have to head to theaters and video-rental stores.  Purchasing jeans at the Amazon website eliminates the need to drive to the nearest mall.  But, the infrastructure required to facilitate the rapidly growing cyber-economic activities do not seem to be the best in the world, unlike how the road systems complemented the previous economic landscape.

When it comes to the information superhighways, the US does not seem to have the numbers that will wow the rest of the world.  A recent report pegs the US with a number twelve ranking in a global comparison of average broadband speeds.  At an average speed of 6.7megabits-per-second (Mbps,) the US considerably lags behind the chart topper, South Korea, where internet connectivity speeds averaged at 15.7 Mbps.

This lagging behind in the twenty-first century highways ought to concern us in the country that created the internet in the first place. 

Instead, we are obsessed with winning the old-school infrastructure race; an example is this one, which asks:
"When will Americans realize we're losing the infrastructure race to China?"
Ahem, we are not losing any race, especially when it comes to roads and bridges.

Speaking of bridges and losing to China,
Oh, man, China’s infrastructure! President Barack Obama has praised China’s infrastructure investments and has frequently argued that we’ve got to follow in their footsteps.
Cue the sad trombones (via BBC):
A section of a multi-million dollar bridge in China that opened in November has collapsed, leaving three people dead and five injured, state media say.
Four lorries fell off the Yangmingtan Bridge in Harbin City, Heilongjiang province, when part of it collapsed, Xinhua news agency said.
Shoddy construction and over-loading have been blamed for the incident, it added.
This is the sixth major bridge collapse in China in a year. We can only hope the firms who built these bridges aren't the same Chinese firms that have been contracted to build bridges here in America.
I will mention it for the umpteenth time in this blog: China or India is not our competition!

Thank Iran (Persia) for Bollywood!

There is a good chance that most of the buffoons who chant "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" don't care to know anything at all about the country's gloriously rich history.  The theocratic buffoons ruining running the country seem to be hell bent on making sure the world would understand Iran only as a country of nutcases.

A long time ago, I read somewhere (where? the older I get, the more I forget such details!) that even as Arabic gained currency in West Asia as the language of science, Persian reigned supreme as the language of culture.  Something like the comparison between French and German, I suppose.

It was a good thing that the Central Asians invading India brought along with them the Persian culture, which then filtered all the way down to memorable Bollywood stars who played memorable Muslim characters with memorable melodies.

Some of my favorites:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Lies, damned lines, and political campaigns!

So, as if the Missouri intellectual's comments on illegitimate rape and pregnancy weren't dumb enough, the presidential candidate representing the Gross Old Party says this at a campaign rally:
“No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place where we were born and raised.”

WTF, eh!

Maybe there is a lot more truth than humor in the following editorial cartoon that explains why all those damned lies work!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Excitement building up for the GOP convention in Tampa

Hurricane Isaac, the size of Texas, is heading towards Tampa:
"Tampa is just as vulnerable as New Orleans was in the sense that the water will funnel into the bay area and from the storm surge which will flood completely the whole entire city of Tampa," Golembo said referring to Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005.
"It would be a disaster in the Tampa area," Golembo said.
Which, of course, is generating a great deal of enthusiastic tweets, like this one, for instance:
With or without Isaac, one group is gearing up for action, reports America's Finest News Source (ht):

Monday, August 20, 2012

Chief Marketing Officers at universities? What next?

My neighbor "J" has for years criticized the "education business" as he calls it for a big reason that it behaves like a business but doesn't want to actually follow the rules of business.  This WSJ report will add more to his argument:

Marketing the institution is not really new, of course.  Even our small little university sends its administrative personnel to far flung states like Alaska or Hawaii to recruit students, and the president and provost even led delegations to China to recruit students from there.  Last year, a student told me that she went to China in one such recruitment trip, with all expenses paid for by the university.  I am not sure if the university paid for the trip with taxpayer dollars or privately raised money, though odds are high that the trip was publicly financed.

It was only a matter of time, therefore, that universities went that one additional step and hired Chief Marketing Officers.  As per Parkinson's Law, this office will quickly morph into a monstrous division with quite a few employees, and ... oh well, if only I did not cherish some outdated Platonic version of the academy--I could have financially gained as well from all the marketing.

As Professor Harry Frankfurt poignantly noted, bullshit is what happens when we have to market anything, even if that is higher education!

The line between a university and a diploma mill is getting increasingly blurry :(

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I blame Steinbeck for my disappointment at Salinas!

It was neat to connect with with "S" and "J" over lunch (grilled chicken breast on focaccia, with brie, caramelized onions, local apple, garlic dill aioli.)

A short walk back to the car,  and northward bound I was again.

After holding steady in the mid to high 80s, the temperature started shooting up past the mid 90s, and was nearly into the triple digits when I pulled into the rest stop a little over an hour later.  But, I didn't worry much, because I was confident that the temperature would rapidly drop soon.  It did, and the winds picked up as well.

As I neared Salinas, it was barely at 70 degrees.

I swung by Salinas all because of John Steinbeck.  Years ago, I was in Monterey, which Steinbeck made familiar to us even in India through Cannery Row.  Later, living in Bakersfield meant that I was right there in the locale described in The Grapes of Wrath.  I have read a few short stories of his also.

A couple of years ago, I noticed on the first day of classes that a female student had the last name of Steinbeck.  As students introduced themselves one after another, when it came to her turn, I remember asking her after her self-intro, "are you related to the Steinbeck?"  She excitedly said yes.  I asked her if she gets asked this question all the time.  Her repose shocked me: in her couple of years in college, that was the first time ever that she was asked that question.  Naturally, I took a couple of minutes to engage the class about Steinbeck, and it was even more depressing that very few of the students had ever read anything at all by Steinbeck.  Apparently none of his works are good enough for a high school English literature canon?

So, of course, I wanted to swing by Salinas and check out the place where he was born and also visit the National Steinbeck Center

Even before the exit, and while driving into town, I couldn't help thinking that it looked like a run down place.  As I drove through the town via John Street, I was shocked at how economically poor the town seemed.

The more I drove in town, the more I felt I was not enjoying this.  I had assumed--yes, my mistake--that with all the Steinbeck heritage, and its proximity to Silicon Valley, that the town will be, well, very different from what I experienced.  It was as if somebody played a joke on me--inviting me to a party, but intentionally giving me the incorrect address!

I decided to skip the Steinbeck Center, and simply get the heck back on the freeway.  But, perhaps coffee first?

I parked.  I took out my camera, but decided against using it.  It says a lot when don't feel like clicking especially when I had so much planned on coming here.  I walked a few paces to see if there might be a good coffee place.

View Larger Mapa

There were a few interesting pastry items on the shelf.  One read "apricot raspberry," which sounded like an unusual combination.

"I'll have a cup of coffee and one of these apricot-raspberry things" I told the young fellow, who was engaged in a non-stop conversation with a young woman, also an employee, behind the counter.

With a light chuckle, he said "that will be a great combination.  But, those two are different.  We are out of the apricot ones, and only raspberry is available."

After a pause, he added, "actually, raspberry is the better one."

"Sounds good to me" I said.

I paid, grabbed the plate and coffee and a napkin and sat outside.  The town looked even bleaker.  The shortbread-ish raspberry-jam-topped snack and coffee was a delicious combination though.

I walked in with the empty plate, and asked where the restroom was. Coffee in and non-potable water out is how the system works, and increasingly so as I age. 

The young woman said it was all the way in the back.  "You need this token to get in" she said as she handed me a tiny coin.  When a cafe's customers have to be given a coin for restroom access, it is not a good place to hang out!

I followed the young man's instructions to get back to the freeway.  Oddly, in contrast to all my expectations, it felt great to leave Salinas.  How sad!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Can Imran Khan undo Zia -ul-Haq's monsters?

It was the primitive days of the internet back in 1988 and, for all practical purposes, it was still the DARPNnet that was what research universities had made accessible to students like me also.  In those internet-prehistoric times, we relied on groups like soc.culture.indian to get informed about the latest news on India. 

It was through that group that I knew, within hours of the incident, of Zia-ul-Haq's demise twenty-four years ago.

I celebrated.

I never liked Zia.  Primarily because I didn't care for anybody who got into power through a coup and did everything to weaken the democratic institutions and processes, which were weak to begin with in Pakistan.  Further, as a kid, I had a soft spot for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the atrocious manner in which Zia had him tried and executed didn't appeal to the teenager that I was then.

Zia's worst act was his systematic Islamization of Pakistan's society and politics, which has completely messed up the country.  The country's founder, Jinnah, was a westernized counterpart to India's Nehru, and the newly independent country even chose to be under the British crown for a decade, when it became "Islamic" even in its official name.  It took Zia's coup and his evil machinations for religion to enter into the public space in a big way, which then resulted in everything from assassinations to television censorship, all in the name of blasphemy.

The US conveniently made use of Zia and his Islamic allies, and actively supported and financed those fighting the Soviet Union, and the fighters included Osama bin Laden.  The tangled webs we weave!  Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder summarized the US relationship with Pakistan really well: "The ally from hell."  There is a good chance that within Pakistan, it is a similar feeling towards the US too!

Now, Pakistan is far from any "land of the pure" and comes across as one unruly place, with political and military leaders who seem to be remarkably messed up. 

The New Yorker asks "Can a sex symbol and cricket legend run Pakistan?"  In profiling the cricket legend Imran Khan, the article (subscription required) notes that whatever the outcome in the elections in 2013 (if there is no military coup before then!) "Khan is accomplishing at least one of his goals, by keeping alive a narrative of change in Pakistan."

I cannot imagine Imran Khan being able to sweep clean Pakistan's politics the way he pulverized India's cricket team time and again.  The few times I have watched him being interviewed, it is understandable why the West finds him appealing.  He is charismatic, talks wonderfully, and seems compatibly westernized.

But, when it comes to the ballot, I suspect that the typical Pakistani, how much ever they idolize Imran Khan for his cricket talent and success, might not vote in huge numbers for his political party and candidates.  As in his personal life, politically too Imran Khan will turn out to be the proverbial guy with whom you have an affair but not marry and settle down for good.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The rich are different from you and me

The title of this post is, of course, from The Great Gatsby.  That is a phenomenally succinct way to sum it up.  Life is not the same as scaling with respect to incomes.  The rich lead lives that are simply way different from yours and mine.

I have no hassles at all that there are rich people.  We need more of them.  But, it does make for interesting conversations and humor and, sometimes, schadenfreude too, like in this Zuckerberg wealth-o-meter from the Wall Street Journal :)

Forbes has always had a running list of big losers and winners--"real time billionaires"  I have often wondered when a typical billionaire loses sleep: is it when they lose 300 million versus losing only 10 million?  Do they simply ignore the daily fluctuations in their wealth?  Or, win or lose, like Scrooge McDuck, do they go into the vault and roll around in their gold coins? :)

But, of course, all rich are not created equal.  Some are more rich than others, and the difference is as significant (or even more, perhaps?) than the difference between the rich and me.

With two wonderfully informative charts, this Atlantic post notes
Forget gold. If Scrooge McDuck were around today, he'd be diving into a big pile of capital gains. Okay, and maybe some dividends too.
They don't seem to work for salaries, as much as how money works for them!

Remember the Kerala professor whose arm was chopped off?

It was two years ago that extremists, in the name of defending their religion, chopped off the arm of a college professor in Kerala.  In front of his family. 

As if this wasn't enough, his employer soon fired him from his teaching job.

Whatever happened to him since then?
Two years after his right palm was chopped off by alleged activists of the Popular Front of India (PFI), T.J. Joseph, former professor of Newman College, Thodupuzha, is still battling physical disability.
The palm that was stitched back, his left hand and left leg still give him a great deal of pain and discomfort.
All these mean that he has been forced to learn to live a new life:
“I learned to write with the left hand and I still struggle with the fingers in the right hand as I can’t fold them. I also can’t fold the little finger in my left hand. I can’t walk properly as I had multiple fractures on the left leg as well,” he said.
How terrible!

I am certain that I do not have even the tiniest percentage of the perseverance and determination that Joseph has.
Writhing in pain, T J Joseph is writing a book with his left hand, two years after that fateful Sunday.
In between, life taught some bitter lessons to Joseph who taught Malayalam language and literature for hundreds of students over the years.
 But he is on a positive note.
 “There is a cause for every action. I am writing the book to tell the world that don’t ever give up,” he reveals his intention behind the endeavour.
Writing is not an easy affair for Joseph as his right hand is yet to regain its strength after the attack while his family considers July 4 as his day of resurrection.
The book would narrate his life in exile after a case against him, the attack, the painful hospital days and his vision about life.
 He expects to complete the book in a year’s time.
So, were the brutal attackers tried and sentenced to time in prison?  Did the college realize its idiocy in firing him? 

No and No :(
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) which conducted the probe is yet to file the final chargesheet.
The case Joseph filed against the college management is before the University Appellate Tribunal in Thiruvananthapuram. “I have two more years of service and I hope I will be reinstated as I have done nothing wrong,” he said.
A tragic irony that all these happened in Kerala, which is often hailed as a progressive state!  To put it differently, if such things can happen in a "progressive" Kerala, then one has to wonder how much worse things might be in Bihar or Orissa--more than whatever is reported, that is!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Food, Friendships, and Facebook

Before my (un)professional colleagues shut me up at work, I used to take, every once in a while, cookies, brownies, and cakes to work, and share with a few--students and faculty.  One faculty colleague remarked that sharing food--especially food made at home--rarely happens anymore in America.  This contemporary state was unlike his own experiences when he was younger, and he argued that the reason was the price of food: it is now way less expensive than before and, therefore, we don't care about food itself that much anymore.

It is true that food is in plenty and accounts for a much smaller share of the household budget compared to even a generation ago.  But, that could also be the basis for arguing that one would then expect more people to share food with others, right?

This issue came up when I met with my friends, "D" and "J" over lunch (thanks for the lunch, "D.")  We caught up with our lives, which included a great deal of unfortunate developments, including deaths in the families.  "D" remarked that the response across the generations was sharply different--the younger generations texted, or posted on Facebook, or emailed sympathetic messages, whereas the older generations who lived close by went beyond that and asked if they could help out by bring over food.  The younger generations who lived close by didn't think about the food aspect.

I told her that sharing food with friends and neighbors is rapidly becoming a dying tradition.  "Literally" said "J" whose mother recently passed away.

My best memory of a neighbor sharing food left me with a deep appreciation of the neighbor and the idea of sharing food.  I was in high school when my grandmother died.  In the traditional brahminical context in which I grew up, no celebrations for a year, which meant that we kids wouldn't get to eat all those wonderful goodies that mother would have otherwise made.

Well, fully aware of this, our neighbor then sent across home-made sweets for every major religious event that entire year.  Not just a couple of pieces, but a tray full of tasty eats every single time.

It was not the sweets per se.  The neighbor's actions were immensely louder than powerful than the most commonly expressed phrase of "I am sorry to hear about your loss."

Of course, the situation doesn't have to be mournful in order to share food.  We can do it on good days too.  One of my best experiences when I reconnected with old school mates was when they invited me over to have food at their homes.  Equally wonderful was when I got some of them to come over to my parents' home to spend some time together and break that proverbial bread.

These experiences of interacting with, and understanding, friends is not the same as interactions with friends on Facebook.  There is simply no comparison at all, which is what the NY Times' David Carr found out a few months ago when he was invited to a dinner with a bunch of people with whom he had had extensive online interactions.  The host had baked the bread that Carr found to be very tasty, and he writes:
Now, he could have told that story in a blog post or in an e-mail chain, but it became a very different story because we were tasting what he talked about. The connection in an online conversation may seem real and intimate, but you never get to taste the bread. To people who lead a less-than-wired existence, that may seem like a bit of a “duh,” but I spend so much interacting with people on the Web that I have become a little socially deficient.
As I have often blogged (like here,) interactions on Facebook seem far from the real and substantive friendships that most of us prefer.

Carr notes:
you can follow someone on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, quote or be quoted by them in a newspaper article, but until you taste their bread, you don’t really know them.
I suppose living in a neighborhood with a whole bunch of people much older than me means that I am lucky in having a lot more food-sharing people around me.  "J" and "S" routinely invite me over to their place, and sometimes it is when "J" does that tastiest steaks I have ever had.  "ML" brought me lemon bars that were simply fantastic.  The cupcakes from "B" were awesome.

A few months ago, my neighbor Carol was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  A couple of times, I took food over to them.  At the last one, before my road trip, I took her husband and son a chicken salad that I had made.  Her husband, Jim, asked me whether I wanted to visit with Carol.  I followed him to the bedroom, but she was asleep.

Carol died a couple of days ago

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Stop and smell the ... forest fires?

The morning could not have started any better--a cool 59 degrees, and two cups of good coffee.  I intentionally delayed having breakfast because I wanted to have it at Granzella's, which I hoped to reach after an hour and a half of driving.

The long and winding drive was absolutely scenic, initially through the wine country, and then on the leeward side of the mountains.  All of a sudden, I smelled smoke.  Momentarily I panicked that the engine had overheated.  But, to my immense relief, the gauge reported normal conditions.  No smoke behind me either.

That meant only one thing--there was some serious fire and I was driving towards it.

On the mountain stretch, it was not like I had any alternative routes to consider either.  My only hassle was mundane--I hadn't had breakfast, and my stomach was making noises!

A couple of miles later, a digital message board said a delay of 30 minutes to two hours was possible because of fires.  So, there was the confirmation.

Soon, I had visual proof of the fires, and it was not a pleasant landscape anymore.  I pulled over to take in the scenery, and to take photographs as well.

It was like a gray winter landscape on a warm summer day.  Surreal.  And that smoky smell.

I got into the car, and heard a helicopter approaching.  So, I was off the vehicle again, and watched the chopper fly over the area, and proceed towards where the fire was being fought, I guessed.

Quite a few fire engines suddenly came from around the bend, and raced on.  I wondered how large the fire was, and how long the eventual road block would last for.

I drove, but barely for a few minutes and stopped, again, when I passed what seemed to a staging area for firefighters.

A couple more miles--the traffic had been stopped.  It was obvious that one of the two lanes had been reserved for the emergency vehicles, and the regular vehicles in both directions will have to alternatively use the other lane.  The line became longer and longer and longer.

More emergency vehicles rushed past us.  As always, people were polite and even friendly and engaged in chit-chat while waiting out.  After about half an hour, the long convoy of vehicles started showing up from the other direction, led by a highway patrol escort.  Soon, that flow ebbed to nil, and it was our turn, with the highway patrol car as our leader.

As we slowly drove, I took photos of the smoke that got more intense on the side.

 Flames were visible in some areas even through the thick smoke, though the flame is barely a speck in the photo below.

One of the first things I did after reaching home was to look for update on this fire.  Apparently more than 300 firefighters are involved in this effort, which is significantly under control, and more than 7000 acres have been burnt.

This is merely one of the fires during the heat wave.  I thank the firefighters, and wish them well. 

Cool it, Sriram, cool it!

Time to head back home.  As if to prove that all the proverbial roads lead to the same place, I am taking a different route back, for at least part of the way.

And it makes all the difference, it seems like.

At least with respect to the temperature--no 104 degrees.  Not yet!

As I drove along the wonderfully scenic Pacific Coast, I glanced up to the rear-view mirror to make sure that the traffic was ok for me to pull over, when I noticed the temperature display.  So, even as I was driving, I fished out my phone, and recorded the temperature:

The waves of the Pacific + Sun + 64 + a light breeze = Sriram pulling over to stop for a few minutes.  Life is so unpredictable that if I didn't grab this, and what if I don't get such a chance again?

I got out of the car and inhaled the salty air.  I felt so lightened of all my worries and tensions and stresses.  No wonder an old advice was to take the ill to the seaside--a wonderful natural therapy it is.  I wonder whether Obamacare will allow for trips to Tahiti as valid treatment protocols :)

I turned to scan the horizon and noticed a bird cautiously watching me.  I got my camera out.  It was, as I sensed, the man and the machine to capture the moment the bird would decide it had to get away from the human.  I clicked, it turns out, at an opportune moment:

I lingered on for a while.  Everything was too perfect to walk away.  But, life is a lot more than a day at the beach.  I got back on the road.

Every few miles, I checked on the temperature display.  It eventually reached uncomfortable temperatures.  But, this was not any moment in life where I could turn back.

The unbearable temperatures were only for a little while. Soon, it was in the bearable range.  And then as the sun started descending, the temperature also went down--even faster.  The walk after dinner confirmed that night time is the right time.

Tomorrow is another day!

Monday, August 13, 2012

In the US, I met my enemies. And we became friends

As India and Pakistan mark their respective Independence Days, it occurred to me, yet again, that one of the many wonderful experiences in the US has been meeting people from India’s “enemies”—Pakistan and China—and becoming their friends.

As a kid, I was convinced by news reports that Pakistan and China were sworn enemies.  After all, by then India had fought a total of four wars with them.  One of the wars, in 1971 when I was barely seven years old, resulted in Bangladesh becoming an independent country, instead of its previous status as East Pakistan.  During this war, there were nights when we were required to shut off all lights and maintain darkness—even though our small town was hundreds of miles from the battlefront itself. 

Thus, it was no surprise that in schoolyard war games during the breaks between classes, many of us boys delighted in pretending that we were in the Indian army fighting the good fight against the Pakistanis and Chinese.

As the wars wore down the countries, Pakistan and India decided to embark on “cricket diplomacy” which made possible for the teams from both the countries to play against each other.  It also coincided with the slow spread of television in India. 

I had just about stepped into the teenage years when for the first time I watched on live television one of those cricket matches while on a visit to the big city of Madras.  

The Pakistani players were nothing like what I had imagined and, in complete contrast, looked and behaved pretty much like the Indian players.  I could not figure out how they could be so much like most of the Indians and yet be the enemy.  And, yes, they played a wonderful game, too, which made it all the more difficult not to applaud them!

That cricket match on live television alone completely demolished the simplistic formula that Pakistan equaled enemy. 

A few years later, a Pakistani was one of the first students I met as a new graduate student in Los Angeles.  Like me, Siddiqui was also a first year graduate student, but in engineering.  As we started talking, I realized that he was no different from me in many ways.  There was no doubt that my elementary school buddies and I had seriously erred when we caricatured Pakistanis, and fired imaginary bullets in Siddiqui’s direction.

It was a similar story with students from China.  Rongsheng routinely brought me Chinese snacks that either he had picked up from the stores or his wife had made.  Tibet and the Dalai Lama were the only real issues over which we could not agree.  But, friends we remained, even as we progressed from being students to fellow interns at a planning agency in Los Angeles. 

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, used a rhetorical phrase of “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” that means Indians and Chinese are brothers.  However, it took coming half way around the planet for me to quite easily realize that idealism of brotherhood among neighbors. 

Over the years since, I have lost contact with the Siddiquis and Rongshengs from graduate school.  There is a good chance that I would never have met such “neighbors” had I not emigrated from India.  And what a terrible loss that would have been!

Of course, territorial disputes among between these countries persist.  All is not well in the land of call centers that we imagine India to be.  The simmering discontent in the disputed Kashmir flares up periodically, which is the current state of affairs up there in the Himalayas.  On India’s eastern front, which neighbors China, most of the area is off-limits to foreigners because of geopolitical tensions, some of which are internal and others are related to China.  It is quite an irony that I would need a special clearance from the Indian government if I decide to visit those scenic areas—because of the American passport that I carry. 

As we mark the 65th birthdays of India and Pakstan, here is to hoping kids in these countries will not grow up thinking of their neighbors as enemies, and that the younger versions of Srirams and Siddiquis and Rongshengs will become very good friends.

U.S. outsourcing not fault of China or India

(For The Register-Guard, August 13, 2012)

The sudden populism over outsourcing reminds me of a Chinese saying that I recently came across: “If we don’t change the direction in which we are headed, we will end up where we are going.”

Twelve years ago, when I taught at California State University, Bakersfield, I assigned a class of about 35 students the task of figuring out, through rough calculations, whether Bakersfield could compete against Bangalore, India, when it came to call centers that the local leaders were pursuing as a growth strategy.

At that time, outsourcing hadn’t entered the everyday political and cultural vocabulary, and Bangalore was unknown to most in the United States — after all, Thomas Friedman had yet to publicize these through his best-seller, “The World is Flat.”

Working in teams, the students independently arrived at the same conclusion: Bangalore will beat Bakersfield any day! My hope was that most of the class would have understood through this exercise how their economic futures could become increasingly dependent on developments in other parts of the world.

Well, we have now almost ended up where we were going — economic activities that might have generated many middle income jobs in the past have migrated to other countries that are equally, or more, interested in their development. Therefore, unemployment rates in the United States do not seem to be coming down despite all our attempts. And, yes, “outsourcing” is now a part of our lexicon and for which politicians have suddenly developed a fondness.

Yet we are not talking about outsourcing in a constructive manner. Outsourcing is being used to portray China or India as bad actors, when, in reality, they are far from any real competition to us. The average Indian earns barely 5 percent of the per capita income here in the United States. The average Chinese is in a much better position than the average Indian, but the per capita income there is only a tenth of that in the United States.

India and China are not our competitors, but they are much poorer countries where people are eager to improve their economic conditions.

Outsourcing economic activities to India or China, or any number of other countries, has made possible goods and services at remarkably low prices. From T-shirts to smart phones to customer support, we would have to pay a lot more than we currently do if there were no outsourcing at all.

It is not China’s or India’s problem that we failed to change our own direction over the years when we enjoyed the abundance of goods and services at affordable prices. Obsessed by the Internet bubble, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars that followed, and then the housing bubble, we continued to keep going without even attempting to alter our course, seemingly oblivious to how the economic structures all around the world were rapidly changing.

Should we then be surprised that it has become extremely difficult to generate gainful employment that will keep alive the American Dream for the middle class?

Outsourcing enters our public discourse only when it conveniently fits into political calculations. Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards angled for votes by referring to outsourcing and offshoring when they were on the Democratic ticket for the White House in 2004. Now, both President Obama and Mitt Romney are talking about it, but for all the wrong reasons that don’t seem to reflect in any way the Harvard credentials they both have.

Obama beats up on outsourcing in order to imply that the Chinese and Indians are taking away “our” jobs, which is a highly screwed-up interpretation. And Romney doesn’t seem to recognize that outsourcing and the globalization of the economy have not translated to real economic betterment for the middle class.

Since the Great Recession, I have increased the intensity with which I try to make students understand that any job that can be sent to a different country will be sent, and that any job that can be automated will be automated. Unfortunately, a captive audience does not always mean an attentive audience.

I suppose we seem to be bent on making sure we will end up where we are going