Sunday, September 30, 2012

Happy birthday, Mr. Gandhi

October 2nd is the anniversary of M.K. "Mahatma" Gandhi's birth.

The older I get, the more I appreciate and understand his contributions, and am simply blown away thinking that such a man was for real. He was not a figment of an author's imagination. It is so bloody incredible!

Every once in a while, I watch clips from the classic movie of his life that Richard Attenborough made, and Ben Kingsley brought to life ... and the scene that gets to my emotions is not Gandhi's assassination, which is how the movie begins too, but this one:

What a powerful conviction Gandhi had that he would be able to lead the people to freedom by standing up to the violent rule without throwing even a single stone.  And even more, he was able to convince millions that it was possible. 

I am not sure how many people in the contemporary world have at least a vague idea of who Gandhi was, leave alone an understanding of his message.  Even in India!  Sometimes it is hard to imagine that he was a mere mortal with his own failings ... Albert Einstein summed it up well that "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

Could his message of non-violence work against the overwhelming background noise created by the likes of al Qaeda and the War on Terror?

Robert Wright presented a convincing argument on how such a strategy of non-violence could be successful even in the Palestinian issue:
If Palestinians want to strike fear into the hearts of Israelis they should (a) give up on violence as a tool of persuasion; (b) give up on the current round of negotiations; and (c) start holding demonstrations in which they ask for only one thing: the right to vote. Their argument would be simple: They live under Israeli rule, and Israel is a democracy, so why aren’t they part of it?
A truly peaceful movement with such elemental aspirations — think of Martin Luther King or Gandhi — would gain immediate international support.
It could. But, nobody will ever lay their guns down, it seems like.

It is awful that religion and other differences continue to be used by the opportunists in order to win political gains for themselves.  It becomes even more awful when, for instance, the violent actions of a few radical fundamentalists becomes the "Muslim Rage" in the media.  The best way to demonstrate that a few terrorists being Muslims does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists is by playing two bhajans that were among Gandhi's favorites.  What is so special about the videos here?  These are being played, and sung, by Muslim musicians. Yes, musicians, and legends at that.  Muslims. Peace and music loving like anybody else.

Thanks for everything, Mr. Gandhi. And, yes, happy birthday

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Are we growing up faster and faster? What is a youth?

As a kid growing up in rather insular industrial town, I was always impressed with my cousins and their friends whenever we went to Madras--even those who were younger than me seemed to be a lot more informed about the ways of the world than I was.  A completely different story, though, when we went to our grandmothers' places--even those a couple of years older than me seemed to be blissfully unaware of the world with which I was familiar.

As I got older, I felt that I was forever trying to catch up with those from the cities.  That same contrast of small and big town experiences carried over when I came to the US.  There I was as a graduate student and even high school students were immensely worldly wiser than me.

It was so tempting to conclude that kids were not being kids and were growing up too fast.  That in so many different ways they were losing their innocence before they could understand the ramifications of their actions.  The first, and only, cigarette that I ever smoked was when I was eighteen, and news reports were that quite a few kids here typically test out a smoke in their middle school years.  Alcohol, sex, porn, whatever ... everything apparently happened way early.

A few months ago, there was this report about girl kids:
[Most] researchers seem to agree on one thing: Breast budding in girls is starting earlier. The debate has shifted to what this means. Puberty, in girls, involves three events: the growth of breasts, the growth of pubic hair and a first period. Typically the changes unfold in that order, and the proc­ess takes about two years. But the data show a confounding pattern. While studies have shown that the average age of breast budding has fallen significantly since the 1970s, the average age of first period, or menarche, has remained fairly constant, dropping to only 12.5 from 12.8 years. Why would puberty be starting earlier yet ending more or less at the same time? 
It will be one heck of a tough time being a parent under such drastically changing conditions.  Even more complicating is this:
Adding to the anxiety is the fact that we know so little about how early puberty works. A few researchers, including Robert Lustig, of Benioff Children’s Hospital, are beginning to wonder if many of those girls with early breast growth are in puberty at all. Lustig is a man prone to big, inflammatory ideas. (He believes that sugar is a poison, as he has argued in this magazine.) To make the case that some girls with early breast growth may not be in puberty, he starts with basic science. True puberty starts in the brain, he explains, with the production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH. “There is no puberty without GnRH,” Lustig told me. GnRH is like the ball that rolls down the ramp that knocks over the book that flips the stereo switch. Specifically, GnRH trips the pituitary, which signals the ovaries. The ovaries then produce estrogen, and the estrogen causes the breasts to grow. But as Lustig points out, the estrogen that is causing that growth in young girls may have a different origin. It may come from the girls’ fat tissue (postmenopausal women produce estrogen in their fat tissue) or from an environmental source. “And if that estrogen didn’t start with GnRH, it’s not puberty, end of story,” Lustig says. “Breast development doesn’t automatically mean early puberty. It might, but it doesn’t have to.” Don’t even get him started on the relationship between pubic-hair growth and puberty. “Any paper linking pubic hair with early puberty is garbage. Gar-bage. Pubic hair just means androgens, or male hormones. The first sign of puberty in girls is estrogen. Androgen is not even on the menu.” 
All I can think is that I am incredibly thankful for not having any six year old at this time!

I suppose because of the biological aspects on multiple levels, the changes in girls are more dramatic than in boys.  But, boys, too, are apparently reaching puberty earlier than before!
Examining clinicians found that between their ninth and 10th birthdays, 4.3 percent of white boys, 21 percent of black boys and 3.3 percent of Mexican-American boys showed pubic hair development, she said. Like genital growth, pubic hair development results from the natural, genetically programmed boost in production of male hormones, but environmental factors may play a role.
The analysis suggests U.S. boys overall may be beginning puberty up to a half year earlier than previous research indicated, Herman-Giddens said. The estimate is based on the onset of pubic hair growth, assessment of which is less subjective than that of testicular growth. The difference could be greater if the genital findings are accurate.
Here is the bizarre contrast though: After all that rush to grow up, there is now an emergent adulthood.  That is, while childhood quickly gives away to adolescence, it is one heck of a lengthy adolescence prior to real adulthood.  So, if adulthood is getting delayed, then why the rush out of childhood, right?
In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence—tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you'd need as an adult. But you'd do all that under expert adult supervision and in the protected world of childhood, where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted. When the motivational juice of puberty arrived, you'd be ready to go after the real rewards, in the world outside, with new intensity and exuberance, but you'd also have the skill and control to do it effectively and reasonably safely.
In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.
At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they'll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don't do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.
The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.
 Again, I am relived and happy not to have a teenager in the house!  Will be way stressful to find out that the ten year old has been watching porn, and lots of it!

At the end, one thing strikes me: this is not the kind of a post I had planned on writing when I began.  It was going to be a reflective, autoethnographic post on the growing up aspects of life.  But then, the post (re)wrote itself :)

Friday, September 28, 2012

What the f&#@ did we accomplish in Afghanistan?

The war at Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001.  In less than ten days from now, we will have completed eleven years there!

Two years ago, the following cartoon summed it up pretty well.

Of course, in the two years after that cartoon was published, Osama bin Laden was killed.

The two years since the cartoon were also the years of the "surge."  That phase ended, and US troop strength in Afghanistan is back to pre-surge levels.  What is the verdict?
The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan ended last week. Conditions in Afghanistan are mostly worse than before it began.
That conclusion doesn’t come from anti-war advocates. It relies on data recently released by the NATO command in Afghanistan, known as ISAF, and acquired by Danger Room. According to most of the yardsticks chosen by the military — but not all — the surge in Afghanistan fell short of its stated goal: stopping the Taliban’s momentum.
Of course, that’s not ISAF’s spin. The command notes that enemy attacks from January to August 2012 are slightly lower, by 5 percent, from that period last year; and that the past two Augusts show a reduction in attacks of 30 percent. But the more relevant comparison is to 2009, when Afghanistan looked like such a mess that President Obama substantially increased troop levels. And compared to 2009, Afghanistan does not look improved.

This term, I have quite a few students in my classes who are veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.  If not for the asymmetric relationship forced upon us in the classroom, I would so much like to ask them for their honest assessment of whether it was worth it. 

A new academic year begins. Time for ... a cartoon :)

But, even funnier is James Thurber's University Days

Thursday, September 27, 2012

To hell with them both!

After all the reading, listening to the politicians, and blogging, it will soon be time to make my preferences known on the ballot, which will soon arrive home, thanks to the voting-by-mail here in Oregon.

This will be yet another election where my vote will not be for either of the two major party candidates.  Not for tweedledum, and not for tweedledee either.

A review of my blog posts and tweets will easily reveal that I have been an equal opportunity critic.  I realize that there never will be a perfect candidate, and that all governments lie.  Even within this imperfection that is the reality, I find way too many negatives for me vote for either of them.

It does not mean that I won't vote; I will.  But, this time too, it will be a protest vote at the top of the ticket, across the presidential candidates.  Though, sometimes I am so tempted to make real P.J. O'Rourke's tongue-in-cheek advice: "don't vote: it just encourages the bastards"

I will leave it up to Conor Friedersdorf to sum my feelings too:
To hell with them both.

Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as "the lesser of two evils" is unacceptable. If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in.

If not?

So long as voters let the bipartisan consensus on these questions stand, we keep going farther down this road, America having been successfully provoked by Osama bin Laden into abandoning our values.

We tortured.

We started spying without warrants on our own citizens.

We detain indefinitely without trial or public presentation of evidence.

We continue drone strikes knowing they'll kill innocents, and without knowing that they'll make us safer.

Is anyone looking beyond 2012?

The future I hope for, where these actions are deal-breakers in at least one party (I don't care which), requires some beginning, some small number of voters to say, "These things I cannot support." 

Are these issues important enough to justify a stand like that?

I think so.
 Or, as this piece in Slate puts it:
One sees the benefits of being a Democrat given to expand upon the wartime practices of your Republican predecessor. In a race against another Republican, the only critique of your foreign policy will be that you haven’t been belligerent enough.
 Yep, to hell with them both :(

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The best responses to Obama's UN speech

This excerpt:
Mr Obama quoted Mahatma Gandhi: "Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit." The correct move here was to couch the American defence of the right to blasphemy in the words of a hero of the non-aligned movement whom even the Egyptians might have to applaud, lest they piss off the Indians. Nobody can be against Gandhi! So it's a safe applause line, for anybody except a funky postmodern anti-anti-colonialist like Dinesh D'Souza
Re-read that.  Does anybody come across as the good and principled guy?  Well, other than Gandhi; because, "nobody can be against Gandhi."

The Economist, which is where that excerpt is from, used to serve beauties like this, but it is becoming rare these days.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

It is "Iran" and not "eye-ran," dammit!

With the president of Iran, AhmadiNutJob, in New York for his deranged rants at the United Nations, (on Yom Kippur, of all days!) all these talking heads, who are already charged about the nuclear ambitions, are just awfully referring to "Eye-ran" instead of "Iran" and are pissing me off.

I am, therefore, reminded of my opinion piece that The Register Guard published more than four years ago, back on June 16, 2008:
When I moved to Oregon almost six years ago, I was initially puzzled to see the “Orygun” bumper stickers. Since then, I have travelled east of the Mississippi as a naturalized Oregonian, and I now understand the need for such a sticker to highlight the correct way to pronounce the name of our state.

I was recently in Boston for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. It turned out that the Boston Marathon was to be held the Monday after the meeting ended, and the geographers’ venue was right by the finish line.

No wonder that on three occasions, strangers at cafes asked me whether I was in the city to compete in the marathon. Their question was absolutely flattering, particularly because the last time I ran for more than a block was many years ago — after I got mugged as I was heading out of the Amtrak station in downtown Los Angeles!

Their follow-up question was to ask where I was visiting from. When I told them “Oregon,” it was not at all flattering when they repeated the same word as “Oregone.”

I wished I had a few of those “Orygun” bumper stickers to slap on to their foreheads right then and there. It was more awful when even academics at the conference said “Western Oregone University.”

I guess we feel slighted when people mispronounce Oregon. We then feel a deep emotion to intentionally mess up their names in return, or worse.

My students think so, too, when I bring this to their attention — which is when I make it a point to remind them that Iraq is not pronounced as “eye-rack” and Iran is not “eye-ran.” I do not mean to suggest that correctly pronouncing the names of these or other countries is all that matters. But correctly pronouncing their names will be a significant first step toward understanding them— particularly when we are the people determining the fate of Iraq, and when we are far from being a beloved country in the Middle East.

Correctly pronouncing Iraq or Iran, or any other country for that matter, is important also because of contrasting effort we put into pronouncing European names. I can’t remember the last time a newscaster pronounced the French city of Lyons as if it were “lions.”

In fact, just to drive home this point, last term I wrote “Lyons” on the board and asked my class to pronounce it. Immediately came the correct response — ironically, from the same student who earlier had said “eye-rack.”

Of course, with a name that is not quite the typical Western name, I have heard it (mis)pronounced in a number of strange ways. The most memorable of them all was when I worked as a transportation planner in Bakersfield, Calif.

A colleague at another agency, with whom I worked on several projects, always called me “Sirhan.” Initially I tried correcting her, and then even joked with her that I am not related to Sirhan Sirhan — Robert Kennedy’s assassin. Despite my best efforts, I was only Sirhan to her.

In times such as this, I am reminded of a Tamil saying that translates: You cannot straighten a dog’s curved tail, because it will revert to the same old position.

Another colleague jokingly suggested that I change my name to Sam Murphy, to get around such problems. Well, there is a good chance I might have become Sam Murphy if I had immigrated in the 1800s, when many names were changed at Ellis Island, often against the wishes of the immigrants themselves.

We had better start getting used to correctly pronouncing names that may not look or sound familiar, even if only out of our own self-interest. One reason is, of course, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our standing in the world.

Another reason: In a rapidly globalizing environment, it is China, India, and many non-Western countries where we anticipate lots of changes — economically, culturally, militarily — and these are countries where the names of people and places are often vastly different from what we are used to.

So, here is lesson one: pronounce “Guangzhou”!

How American cheese is made out of ... politics!

Unfortunately, this was in the funny pages of the newspaper, instead of the editorial pages where it truly belongs:

You assist a hardworking poor family with government policies and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan pounce on you.  You pay gazillions to subsidize and promote cheese, well, ...

Opining about the tripling of per capita cheese consumption in the US, Charles Lane wrote in the WaPo:
If people want more cheese, that’s between them and the free market, right?
Well, no. The summation of individual choices can have big costs for everyone. Obese people cost health insurers $1,429 more per year than the non-obese do, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Also, the Golden Age of Cheese was not purely the result of individual choices. It reflects decades of pro-cheese U.S. agriculture policy. I am not making this up. The nation’s cheese binge is a case study in the broader dysfunctionality of federal farm legislation, the latest iteration of which is being debated in Congress.
Yes, there are real social trends at work, too. An aging population consumes less milk as fluid and more in solid form; a wealthier population can afford a richer diet, including cheesy dishes eaten at restaurants.
But the country’s appetite for cheese also reflects U.S. policy.
 But, of course, we shall not discuss anything about real policies, but shall instead focus all our attention only on theatrical fluff.  Oh well, the fatty price we pay for "democracy" :(

Monday, September 24, 2012

Women flying high in the US and India. But, grounded in Iran!

Maybe the end of men is coming sooner than expected!

First, in India:
A first-hand account on the conception of a satellite, its transition into a working reality, and finally its launch into space marked the inauguration of Electronics and Communication Engineering (ECE) Association of National Institute of Technology-Tiruchi (NIT-T). N.Valarmathi, India’s first woman project director to head a Remote Sensing Satellite Project, encapsulated her 28-years tryst with space technology in an attempt to motivate youngsters to tackle the multilevel engineering challenges involved in building satellites. 
There was one even before her:
 Ms. Valarmathi is the second woman to be the satellite project director at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) after T. K. Anuradha, who headed the communication satellite GSAT-12 programme, but she is the first woman to head a remote sensing satellite project.
India's women are reaching new heights in a country that has had quite a few women as chief ministers in a number of states and, of course, as a prime minister too!

Here in the US, the senior-most position of the President's cabinet has been held by women for twelve of the last sixteen years: Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice, and Hillary Clinton.  So much so that Foreign Policy notes, in somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek fashion, "Is America ready for a male secretary of state?"
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited more than 100 nations during her tenure, flown 897,951 miles, and spent 376 days abroad. By making it to 110 countries in just one term, Clinton broke the previous record for most countries visited by a secretary: 98, held by Madeleine Albright. And although Condoleezza Rice visited fewer countries, she did log more than a million miles in the air. 
 A chuckling advice to the GOP contender:
Maybe as Mitt Romney struggles to gain traction in the presidential race, he will be tempted to engage in some classic special-interest politics and promise to appoint a man as secretary of state. The move would certainly be welcomed by American men who often feel aggrieved and underappreciated in the workplace. And certainly men remain an important minority when it comes to presidential voting (they constituted 46 percent of voters in the 2008 elections).
We just hope a man would be up to the task.

What a contrast these stories from India and the US are to this latest one from Iran!
More than 30 universities have introduced new rules banning female students from almost 80 different degree courses.
These include a bewildering variety of subjects from engineering, nuclear physics and computer science, to English literature, archaeology and business.
No official reason has been given for the move, but campaigners, including Nobel Prize winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi, allege it is part of a deliberate policy by the authorities to exclude women from education.
"The Iranian government is using various initiatives… to restrict women's access to education, to stop them being active in society, and to return them to the home," she told the BBC. 
 It is not Iran's attempts to produce nuclear weapons that ought to worry us as much such prehistoric policies ought to.

As Slate notes:
Like in the United States, Iran’s universities have more female students than male students. Female Iranians are surpassing their male peers in traditionally male-dominated studies, like science and engineering. The trend is clear. Iran’s leaders must think that the only way to prevent the “end of men” in their country is to make it illegal for women to succeed.
Maybe it is a good thing that Iran's ayatollahs want to hold women back--if not, by now Iran would have produced quite a few nukes!.  In any case, whether or not the end of men is for real, the end of these "religious" men is coming. Soon. Real soon.

Stop saying "no problems" and "have a nice day"

Maybe the older I get, the more I am becoming like an Archie Bunker or a Andy Rooney complaining about a new and strange cultural habit.  But, hey, I have my own pet peeves, one of which is the usage "no problems."

That the American expression “no problem” has certainly caught on—even all the way to the other side of this planet—is simply yet another example of the remarkable influence that the American way of life has on the rest of the world. The old expression was “when in Rome, do as Romans do” during the years when the Roman Empire was its high point. Now, it seems like we might as well update it to, “wherever you are, do as Americans do.”  

It is a common phrase even at the website where I play bridge online—players from anywhere on the planet use “no problem” as a response. In fact, it is such a common usage that we merely type “np” so that we can speed through the game itself.

I suppose it is very American to be informal with the language. Remember Professor Higgins remarking quite caustically about this in “My Fair Lady”? “There even are places where English completely disappears; in America they haven't used it for years.”

As a kid—yes, back in India—we said “hi”, which we associated with an American usage, and to this day I can recall my father loudly disapproving what he thought was a disrespectful and casual usage. At school, our teachers were not fond of us adopting “yeah” over “yes” either.

Now, “yeah” and “hi” are so commonplace there that I don’t think my father even notices them anymore. He now does not even notice when the young men and women at the sales counters wish him “have a nice day” after the transactions are completed. Maybe he has given up fighting these trends!

When the German equivalent of “have a nice day” was introduced in some of the retail establishments in Germany a few years ago, there were loud protests because this was equated with Americanization of German culture. I wonder if since then the practice has been entirely discontinued.

To some extent, phrases like “have a nice day” or “no problems” are usages that don’t necessarily imply that the person completely and sincerely meant the words. Yet, I guess the writers of the letters watch out for them and express concern about misuse—even abuse—of the language because they value the words and the meanings. Maybe this is the verbal equivalent of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

There is one phrase I eagerly look forward to when I reach the immigration desk upon returning to the American soil. And that is “welcome home.” It is simply exciting to hear that every time, even though I am fully aware that immigration officers might mean it as much as when the person at the checkout counter says “have a nice day.”

I do get terribly disappointed when I do not get a “welcome home” from the immigration officers, which has happened the last three returns to the US.  I can only hypothesize that our preoccupation with security for the homeland has resulted in less friendly and more formal interactions at airport immigration areas. Or, maybe my bearded and Middle Eastern appearance does not allow the officers to warm up to this casual and informal American.

Interestingly, once, as I was exiting the customs area, the officer checked off my completed form and said “shukriya.” Shukriya means “thank you” in Hindi, but the word is an import—from “shukran” in Arabic.

Lest the reader think I was delighted with a “shukriya” from the customs officer, well, I was not. I was ready to clarify to him that I grew up in the southern part of India where Hindi is not a commonly used language, and that there is widespread opposition to making it an official language. But, I merely smiled at the officer and said, “have a nice day.”

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I prefer to be a fox. My goal is to be a fox!

Tomorrow will the first day of classes in a new academic year, which is all the more the reason why I have been thinking about the kind of a teacher and a scholar I am

One such chain of thought led me to recalling reading, while in graduate school, Isiah Berlin's wonderful essay on The Hedgehog and the Fox and how much I deeply resonated with his "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing".

This article takes up that same idea, and notes:
In an age of specialists, does it matter that generalists no longer thrive? The world is hardly short of knowledge. Countless books are written, canvases painted and songs recorded. A torrent of research is pouring out. A new orthodoxy, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, sees obsessive focus as the key that unlocks genius.

Just knowing about a lot of things has never been easier. Never before have dabblers been so free to paddle along the shore and dip into the first rock pool that catches the eye. If you have an urge to take off your shoes and test the water, countless specialists are ready to hold your hand.

And yet you will never get very deep. Depth is for monomaths—which is why experts so often seem to miss what really matters. Specialisation has made the study of English so sterile that students lose much of the joy in reading great literature for its own sake. A generation of mathematically inclined economists neglected many of  Keynes’s insights about the Depression because he put them into words. For decades economists sweated over fiendish mathematical equations, only to be brought down to earth by the credit crunch: Keynes’s well-turned phrases had come back to life. Part of my regret at the scarcity of polymaths is sentimental. Polymaths were the product of a particular time, when great learning was a mark of distinction and few people had money and leisure. Their moment has passed, like great houses or the horse-drawn carriage. The world may well be a better place for the specialisation that has come along instead. The pity is that progress has to come at a price. Civilisation has put up fences that people can no longer leap across; a certain type of mind is worth less. The choices modern life imposes are duller, more cramped.
A monomath I am not, and was never keen on becoming one for the very reason articulated in that essay--I felt cramped, imprisoned, and cutoff from everything else whenever I was on that track.  I didn't want that.  It simply wasn't me.  I knew well that I have naturally been inclined to know a little bit of as much as I can.  I am excited I am not a hedgehog and, more importantly, I do not pretend to be one.
I know all too well that I am no polymath either--am way, way short of those intellectual abilities.  Am glad though that I am where I am, knowing I yam what I yam ;)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

If only college faculty were public intellectuals in the classroom!

Thinking about what I do, in the classroom and outside, I was reminded of this by Tim Clydesdale:
Back when students held us in awe, sat willingly for lectures, and assigned us the work of deciding what knowledge was worth knowing, we organized our classes around our disciplines. We chose what knowledge needed to be conveyed to students in what order. Now that our students assign us no more authority than anyone else, show no patience for lectures, and decide what's worth knowing themselves, we need to reorganize our classes. We need to teach as if our students were colleagues from another department. That means determining what our colleagues may already know, building from that shared knowledge, adapting pre-existing analytic skills, then connecting those fledgling skills and knowledge to a deeper understanding of the discipline we love. In other words, we need to approach our classrooms as public intellectuals eager to share our insights graciously with a wide audience of fellow citizens.

Likewise, the work of public intellectualism must go on outside the classroom as well. Others have made that case eloquently in these pages, so I shall simply underscore their appeals with a few suggestions.

First, I applaud the efforts of leaders of scholarly associations to promote and reward the work of public scholarship, despite membership pressure to preserve the status quo, and I encourage those associations to continue that work. Second, I respect the efforts of many agencies that support academe to promote general dissemination of research results and encourage other sources of financial support to do the same. To be sure, there is a place for highly specialized research programs; I simply ask program officers to ensure that each call for proposals includes a question about how results will reach a general audience and that responses to that question be considered in the proposal's evaluation.

Third, some of us need an attitude adjustment. It is not just residential-college students who live in a bubble — many faculty members do as well. We take for granted our privileged status, become consumed by petty controversies, talk only to ourselves, and ignore the wider public that makes our work possible. It is tempting, I know, to want to curse the culture and withdraw into like-minded enclaves. But neither catharsis nor retreat will satisfy those who demand accountability, raise financial support for public higher education, or generate more students who cherish college as an opportunity to learn and think.

Even though our interests often diverge from those of the general public, we remain beholden to it. With a few adjustments at our end, we can begin to rebuild trust among a critical mass of fellow citizens ...
I could not have said this any better.

Friday, September 21, 2012

From Africa's savanna we have become fatsos with feedbags :(

We have come a long way since those early years on the open savanna, and I have my own story to tell.  A familiar topic, yes, and yet I was so taken by the following sentences in this piece in Scientific American (sub. reqd.)
Like our bodies, our brains and behaviors, sculpted in our distant hunter-gatherer past, must also accommodate a very different present.  We can live thousands of miles away from where we were born.  We can kill someone without ever seeing his face.  We encounter more people standing on line for Space Mountain at Disneyland than out ancestors encountered in a lifetime. My god, we can even look at a picture of someone and feel lust despite not knowing what that person smells like--how weird is that for a mammal?
We are one heck of a different species.

Some super-mammal brain we have managed to create over the tens of thousands of years.

We humans will be so much unrecognizable to those savanna inhabitants, but we carry within ourselves many of those traits from a long time ago.
[The] selective demands of food scarcities sculpted our distant forebearers into having a bod that was extremely thrifty and good at storing calories.  Now, having inherited that same metabolism, we hunt and gather Big Macs as diabetes becomes a worldwide scourge.
Back in India, when I was a kid, they used to refer to diabetes as a rich person's disease.  I wonder how much of that was conventional wisdom merely correlating affluence with rich food and diabetes, and how much of that was because of diffusion of scientific knowledge.

This mismatch between our biological drive to get as much calories as possible and the contemporary availability of inexpensive processed simple carbohydrates is becoming a disaster of epic proportions.  Yes, epic proportions here in the US:
The number of obese adults, along with related disease rates and health care costs, are on course to increase dramatically in every state in the country over the next 20 years, according to F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2012, a report released by Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
For the first time, the annual report includes an analysis that forecasts 2030 adult obesity rates in each state

(click on the map for the interactive version)
The report projects that by 2030--merely eighteen years from now--almost 60 percent of adult Texans will be obese, unless we change our behaviors.

Wall-E made it easy for us to imagine where we are headed; remember this?
I suppose we watched those scenes while gorging on nachos and super-sized drinks!

Maybe the Onion was onto something a few years ago:
Seriously, this kind of consumption in every possible way is what we want to do after all these years of evolution and migration?  What a disgrace, eh!

Governor Rick Perry's version of the satanic verses!

On "All Things Considered," Professor Noah Feldman remarked in the context of the rioting and violence against the video that has now morphed into anti-American rage:
We've tended to be extremely permissive, and that does make us very different from other countries. It's actually a problem when people elsewhere actually think, including reasonable people, that the United States government must be complicit in something like the anti-Muslim film because we haven't prohibited it.
I wish he and many others would repeat that as often as they can.  The distinction is huge: in the US, the free rights we have are not because the US government has not prohibited them, but because the Constitution has made sure we will have those rights.  These rights are not granted to us by the government for it to take them away, but these are our inalienable rights.  We voluntarily empower the government.

Such an understanding of rights might be, understandably, incomprehensible in societies where a dictator, or an authoritarian government, might decide what is permissible and what is not.  Similar to the old joke about the USSR: whatever was not banned was prohibited!  (Though, of course, the recent Pussy Riot controversy makes it clear that rights are severely constrained in Putin's Russia.)

Thus, with every act of free speech, especially the (ir)religious ones, that offend somebody somewhere else, the suspicion that the US government is in on it deepens.  That this offensive speech is somehow state-certified.

Making things worse are the maniacal arguments that this country was founded as a Christian nation and that the ills are because we have moved away from religion in government.  It is not difficult to imagine that already enraged people in Pakistan or Libya would get even more pissed off when they come to know that Governor Rick Perry said this even as the anti-American violence was escalating in many countries:
“Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you and one of the untruths out there that is driven is that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena,” Perry said during the call on Tuesday, organized by the Rev. Rick Scarborough.
Perry said the separation of religious and civic institutions in the U.S. began with a “narrative” that first took root in the 1960s.
“Somehow or another there’s this, ya know, steel wall, this iron curtain or whatever you want to call it between the church and people of faith and this separation of church and state is just false on its face,” the governor said. “We have a biblical responsibility to be involved in the public arena proclaiming God’s truth.”
Satan causing the separation of church and state? God's truth in the public space?  The only good thing here is that Perry is not the GOP's presidential candidate!

Quite a few years ago, Bernard Lewis wrote that the fundamentalist Islam didn't worry much about the godless USSR but, in fact, gladly embraced the Soviet Union as a check against the US. Quite a contradiction it seems like at the surface, but there is a deep reason: the fundamentalists were confident that their people won't get swayed by the godless commies.  The US is viewed as threat because from its founding, it continues to be a symbol and a real driver of  the two profound changes that have characterized recent history:
Ultimately, the struggle of the fundamentalists is against two enemies, secularism and modernism. The war against secularism is conscious and explicit, and there is by now a whole literature denouncing secularism as an evil neo-pagan force in the modern world and attributing it variously to the Jews, the West, and the United States. The war against modernity is for the most part neither conscious nor explicit, and is directed against the whole process of change that has taken place in the Islamic world in the past century or more and has transformed the political, economic, social, and even cultural structures of Muslim countries. Islamic fundamentalism has given an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses at the forces that have devalued their traditional values and loyalties and, in the final analysis, robbed them of their beliefs, their aspirations, their dignity, and to an increasing extent even their livelihood.
There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equalled in other civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government of an ancient and civilized country—even the spokesman of a great spiritual and ethical religion—to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions.
If not convinced yet that it this struggle that fuels that rage against the US, Lewis explained:
The instinct of the masses is not false in locating the ultimate source of these cataclysmic changes in the West and in attributing the disruption of their old way of life to the impact of Western domination, Western influence, or Western precept and example. And since the United States is the legitimate heir of European civilization and the recognized and unchallenged leader of the West, the United States has inherited the resulting grievances and become the focus for the pent-up hate and anger.
Governor Perry, and all those folks who think that the separation of church and state is satanic are then clearly attempting to make this struggle in the Islamic world a modern day version of the crusades!  If only somebody could force them to read the following concluding points from Lewis:
To this end we must strive to achieve a better appreciation of other religious and political cultures, through the study of their history, their literature, and their achievements. At the same time, we may hope that they will try to achieve a better understanding of ours, and especially that they will understand and respect, even if they do not choose to adopt for themselves, our Western perception of the proper relationship between religion and politics. To describe this perception I shall end as I began, with a quotation from an American President, this time not the justly celebrated Thomas Jefferson but the somewhat unjustly neglected John Tyler, who, in a letter dated July 10, 1843, gave eloquent and indeed prophetic expression to the principle of religious freedom:
The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent—that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgement. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgement of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mahommedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions.... The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid.... and the Aegis of the Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it.

The body may be oppressed and manacled and yet survive; but if the mind of man be fettered, its energies and faculties perish, and what remains is of the earth, earthly. Mind should be free as the light or as the air.
 It is a shame that from the likes of Jefferson and Tyler we have come down to the likes of Perry!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Leonard Bernstein's Yom Kippur wishes

Yom Kippur is round the corner.  Israel's Netanyahu is rushing around like a war maniac, and is trying his best to get Mitt Romney elected because of the conviction that Obama and the Democrats are not as pro-Israel and anti-Iran as he would like.

I wish that Netanyahu and all the political campaigners would take at least a few minutes out on Saturday in order to read this concluding part of a talk that Leonard Bernstein gave at Harvard years ago (thanks to the American Scholar, emphasis mine):
I have come here tonight to share with you something I learned on this fantastic three-week journey abroad: first, that I have never loved my country so profoundly and caringly as I do now; second, that because of that love I feel more than ever the compulsion and responsibility to re-examine our automatic enemy-concept; and last, that this is a great time to do it, during these 10 days of prayer and reflection.

There is a charming legend about this penitential period: It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day, the golden Book of Life up there in the sky is inscribed with the name of every single human being, along with his or her destiny for the year: who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who will prosper and who will not. But there are 10 days within which one can change that inscription for the better—by prayer and the practice of good deeds. Charity and faith can avert the evil decree (you see, it’s all just another version of Corinthians, chapter 13). In other words, it’s now or never, because on the 10th day, Yom Kippur, the big book is closed and sealed for the year. Sorry folks, that’s it.So here we are on the eighth night, and I want to make my own public confession of faith, hope, and charity. You see, a couple of years ago I had a bit of a falling-out with my esteemed and well-loved friend Derek Bok. I won’t bore you with the story, but the rumpus was basically about a book written and published at Harvard and blessed with a sizable preface by President Bok. I read and hated this book and became quite exercised about the preface, which didn’t exactly endorse the book, but the presence of which, up front and center, by so distinguished a thinker, gave the book a certain cachet I didn’t think it deserved. Dare I mention its name? Living with Nuclear Weapons—the title alone was discouraging enough. Well, I got real mad and, in a self-righteous huff, stopped further contributions to the Harvard scholarship fund I had established years before. I was wrong to do so; and even though Derek and I have never debated the matter publicly or privately—never even had that lunch we promised each other—nevertheless I have sinned, I re-examine, I re-evaluate, and I hereby return the withheld funds.

There is no enemy; there is the American principle of free debate; fighting against an invented enemy is wasteful; fighting for ourselves and one another is constructive, is sharing—otherwise known as love.Let me leave you with the thought that we all have until Monday night to meditate, rectify, re-assess, and get that celestial inscription changed. Try it, it’s worth it. And, as we say, shana tovah, a good year, and hatimah tovah, a good inscription. Bless you.
So, yes, "shana tovah."

In Bernstein's memory, and given his love for this country, it is most appropriate to embed a YouTube clip of "America" from West Side Story--for which he was the composer:

The "New Jews" of Academia

Towards the end of the doctoral study, I applied for the World Bank's Young Professional Program.  (That was a a couple of decades ago; am not sure if the Bank has it even now.)  After four rounds of filtering of the applications from all over the world, it was down to eighty candidates for interviews at Washington, DC.  From this eighty, a half would be offered entry into a career with the Bank.

I was excited to be in this group of eighty. More than anything, it was an affirmation, an external validation of sorts.  My dissertation adviser, Harry Richardson, who was a veteran consultant to the Bank, was equally happy for me.  For one, he had cautioned me early in the process that I would not even get to the final round. Not because he doubted my abilities--at least openly with me--but because there was one negative in me: I was from India.

"The Bank already has too many people from India" Harry said.  He added that quite a few applicants too would be with Indian roots, which meant that I had to be exceptionally good to become one of the final forty hires.  "It will be easier if you were from, say, even neighboring Nepal."

Well, I am no Nepali.  And it turned out that exceptionally good I was not!

To have an accidental birth characteristic held against me was not entirely new to me, however.  India had made that clear to me even before I got to high school.  My sister's dreams of joining medical school were shattered, despite her academic achievements, because of quotas that limited the intake of Brahmin students in the state's colleges.  I suppose it was one of the many early lessons on how the world isn't fair.

Being an Indian applicant at the World Bank was perhaps like being a global Brahmin, and there were quotas restricting their numbers.

Expand that to one more level and now it is "Asian."

The notion of overachieving Asians apparently triggers similar restrictive quotas.  The only difference is in the nomenclature: instead of "Brahmins" it is "Jews":
The parallels between the Jewish and Asian experiences are striking. As with the Jews who applied to the nation’s top colleges with fake names, Asian-American students applying to many colleges are encouraged to stress “non-Asian” attributes like student government, not playing the violin. Those that are half-Asian, half-white are encouraged by college counselors to list themselves as white, while the Princeton Review Student Advantage Guide warns Asian-American not to check that race box at all or send a photo. “After 10 years of [college counseling] and 4 years in Dartmouth admissions, I don’t think it’s intentional, but I think there is discrimination,” admits former admissions officer Michele Hernandez.
Why this strange discrimination?  Because, you simply cannot have too many Asian students at the prestigious colleges, can you at ?
In every state where racial preferences in college admissions have been eliminated—California, Texas, Florida—Asian-American enrollment has increased. Caltech, which refuses to consider race, is one-third Asian, while the University of California-Berkeley, barred by law from considering race, is more than 40 percent Asian. There’s little doubt (and much worry) that if the informal quotas were dropped at the nation’s top private universities and colleges, Asian-American enrollment would swell there, too.
Back in India, the argument was that the Brahmins had to, in a way, pay for the centuries of caste system that kept pushing the lowest castes and the untouchables lower and lower into the utter darkness.  There is simply no denying that the caste system was atrocious (and it is depressing that it continues to be practiced even now.)  But, through reverse discrimination, do two wrongs make a right?

At least, there was that caste-abuse explanation in India.  Here, it is not even that Asian-Americans abused their power and privilege in order to gain at the expense of others.  Nor did the Jews back then.

Oh well.  Whoever said the world is far, eh!

Personally, I am thankful that I didn't get into the World Bank--I am sure I would have had a tough time marching to my own drumbeat that is almost always at rhythms very, very different from the Bank's.  Maybe it was a good thing I was from India, and not Nepal!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The lost age of innocence. Hey, we grow up!

When I started graduate school, one thing was absolutely clear: compared to my American classmates, I had no freaking clue about the ways of the world.  From driving to conversations at parties to, well, almost every damn thing that we engage in the life outside of the classroom setting.  It was all the more a stark realization because most of them were within a year or two of my age.  I felt like a younger, much younger, sibling of theirs, always amazed at what they could do.

It was one of the many such lessons on how different life in the US was (and is) from the one I had lived back in India.  In India, more than a few people appreciated my adult-like behavior and perspectives on life and, yet, here I was a kid all over again.

But then, of course, I quickly caught up with them.  Except for the driving license, which took some time.  At least, that is what I thought.

One "difference" came up at an unexpected moment.  It was the summer after my first year, and a group of us were down in Venezuela for three weeks on a project work.  As we settled down into a work schedule after the first couple of days, evenings were about hanging out, sometimes at the rented house where we were staying.

One evening, a bunch of us were at a bar.  I had a soft drink as I always did.  Across from me at the table were John and Charles, and the rest were at other tables.  These two were both Peace Corps guys and had been around, in every sense of that phrase.

As bar talk amongst guys often becomes, well, this one, too, got to the subject of girls.  John, who was about ten years older than me, started teasing me about how the local young women were eager to chat up with me whenever we were at the university library or the stores. 

That is when he asked me, "have you been with a woman, Sriram?"

I didn't even have to respond; John laughed and exclaimed, "oh my god, you are blushing!"

Until then I hadn't known that even darker-complexioned people like me can have enough color change to blush in a semi-lit bar!

I suppose the older we get, the less innocent we become and, therefore, no blushes!  No wonder there is an industry to fake the blush :)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers

My high school teachers perhaps made my life more prosaic--literally, as in they did not do enough to help me understand and appreciate poetry.

The English teacher certainly didn't help the cause by stinging my cheeks with his slaps!

Which is why every once in a while I now have to take it upon myself to read a poem and figure things out for myself at, what I hope is, the middle phase of my life.

Or, I pop in, every once in a while, at a poetry reading to listen to poems.  Poems are, I have come to realize, meant to be listened to as somebody with wonderful diction read/recited.  In fact, I am even ready to proclaim that merely reading a poem does it great disservice--a poem is for the ear and not for the eye.  Perhaps that is why it was also possible for many brilliant blind poets across the cultures.  Or how the poetry of the vedas made it possible for an unwritten transmission over the years.

But, then poetry these days is so much of free verse that I end up getting rather annoyed.  I am merely continuing on with my neo-traditionalism even in poetry appreciation, eh!

There is something a lot more magical in the old-style poems.  Like in Tennyson's line, "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers," which is the title of this post as well.  Ah, only those wonderful poets know how to condense profound ideas into a couple of words!

As much as I relished reading it, "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers" definitely seems like a poem that will be fantastic if a poet or a thespian were to recite it. 

The knowledge couplets from the poem are simply a treasure:
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the shore,
And the individual withers, and the world is more and more.

Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and he bears a laden breast,
Full of sad experience, moving toward the stillness of his rest.
Intellectuals and the pseudo-guys like me profess to pursuing knowledge, ultimately it is wisdom that rocks!  It is a world of a difference between knowledge and wisdom, more than the difference that exists between information and knowledge.

The best anti-intellectual argument that I have ever come across (even though I didn't agree with it entirely) was  this scathing essay by Robert Nozick, which I first read it more than a decade ago.  Since then, I have encountered way too many arrogant pseudo-intellectuals more than wise ones and, hence, appreciate Nozick even more :)

Maybe it is the mere "knowing" and an attitude of know-it-all, sans any wisdom, that irks people?  The anti-intellectual emotions do not mean anti-wisdom? And, hence, even anti-intellectual poems and verses like this one by Auden?
To the man-in-the-street, who, I'm sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word 'Intellectual' suggests right away
A man who's untrue to his wife
Nothing like beating up on intellectuals, eh, and that too the pretentious ones!

But, wait, is knowledge even a necessary condition for wisdom?

The Satanic Verses became Salman's Rush(to)Die.

Sometime in the spring of 1989, I swung by Tridib Banerjee's office to chalk out my plans for the summer.  I was going to India, and was hoping to get a little bit of research done under his guidance.

As is always the case with such visits, the conversations were less about the scheduled agenda and more about everything else.  That particular meeting was all about Salman Rushdie and his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses.  Stroking his beard, as he often did, Tridib asked me whether I wanted to take with me a copy to India--he had one to spare because both he and his wife had purchased a copy.  "It is banned in India, you know."

I didn't take up Tridib's offer.  In fact, to this day, I haven't read The Satanic Verses.  Not because of any religious faith, and not because I am worried that a fanatic will kill me for having read it.  I just wasn't interested in it. Plain and simple.  After all, there are many, many things all around me in which I have no interest whatsoever, and this happens to be one.

During my undergraduate days, I read Rushdie's Midnight's Children and thoroughly enjoyed it.  A couple of years ago, Rushdie was on BookTV's "In Depth" program and I recall watching it practically from the beginning till the end.  The guy is brilliant.  Quite a few questions there were also about the Islamic fundamentalist response to his book.

It is quite an irony of a coincidence that his memoir about all those fatwa years is being released at the same time that radical fundamentalists have been creating quite some news with their violent response to a reportedly moronic and sophomoric video on Islam and its prophet.  Rushdie sure knows how to get himself into the middle of the action!

In the excerpts published in the New Yorker, Rushdie writes about the confluence of various events that led to his writing this controversial fiction, including this event:
In 1982, the actor Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest star of the Bombay cinema, had suffered a near-fatal injury to his spleen while doing his own movie stunts in Bangalore. In the months that followed, his hospitalization was daily front-page news. As he lay close to death, the nation held its breath; when he rose again, the effect was almost Christlike. There were actors in southern India who had attained almost godlike status by portraying the gods in movies called mythologicals. Bachchan had become semi-divine even without such a career. But what if a god-actor, afflicted with a terrible injury, had called out to his god in his hour of need and heard no reply? What if, as a result of that appalling divine silence, such a man were to begin to question, or even to lose, the faith that had sustained him? Might he, in such a crisis of the soul, begin to lose his mind as well? And might he in his dementia flee halfway around the world, forgetting that when you run away you can’t leave yourself behind? What would such a falling star be called? The name came to him at once, as if it had been waiting for him to capture it. Gibreel. The Angel Gabriel, Gibreel Farishta. Gibreel and Chamcha: two lost souls in the roofless continuum of the unhoused. They would be his protagonists.
Most of us followed the news about Amitabh and went on with our lives. Rushdie finds an inspiration for a novel!

Can one imagine something like The Satanic Verses being published in the contemporary world?  Even Rushdie thinks not:
The writer said the banning of his book in many countries and the subsequent threats on his life had created a "long-term chilling effect".
"A book which was critical of Islam would be difficult to be published now," he told the BBC's Will Gompertz.
He said the only way to solve the issue was for publishers to "be braver".
"The only way of living in a free society is to feel that you have the right to say and do stuff," he said.

One of the powerful ayatollahs in Iran is confident that the film that sparked the current violence would never have been made if only Rushdie had been killed back then!
Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, head of a powerful state foundation providing relief to the poor, said the film would never have been made if the order to execute Rushdie, issued by the late Iranian spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had been carried out.
Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa sentencing the author to death in 1989 after declaring his novel, The Satanic Verses, "blasphemous", but Iranian officials later indicated it would not be implemented.
"It [the film] won't be the last insulting act as long as Imam Khomeini's historic order on executing the blasphemous Salman Rushdie is not carried out," he said in a statement.
"If the imam's order was carried out, the further insults in the form of caricatures, articles and films would not have taken place. The impertinence of the grudge-filled enemies of Islam, which is occurring under the flag of the Great Satan, America and the racist Zionists, can only be blocked by the absolute administration of this Islamic order."
 The same news item also reports on a renewed bounty for Rushdie's life.  The guy's misfortunes continue. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

The world is one big melting curry pot!

When I was a graduate student, a professor, Hugh Evans, invited a few students--all of us foreigners--to his home for a meal. Hugh was an immigrant himself--from Wales.

(Once I made a big time error, when during some casual chat during a break as the class was getting coffee and snacks, I told a fellow graduate student that Hugh was English.  He pretended to get mad that I erred about English versus Welsh!)

Anyway, his wife was also an immigrant--from Japan. The time we were invited to their place, she had, for whatever reason, taken a break from academe and other than a little bit of consulting here and there, she was mostly home.

We got to talking and it didn't take much for her to know that I was from India.  She excitedly pointed out a dish there--beef curry.  A curry made not because of any international theme, but because, she clarified, making a good curry dish in Japan means that the person knows how to cook.  Making the curry dish from scratch was apparently a mark of expertise.

Now, if they had asked me to guess, I would have ventured that it was Hugh who cooked the curry dish, given the British connections.  It was quite a learning experience that day.

Soon after that, coincidentally, I discovered that a Japanese fast food joint in the LA area--I have forgotten that name--had on its menu a beef curry with white rice. I would never have guessed, way back in India, that curry would have such a vaulted status in Japan.

It was much later in life that I read in a short piece in the NY Times magazine that:
katsu curry dates to the Meiji era of the late 19th century, soon after the opening of Japan’s borders. Japanese trade with the West led to a national fascination with foreign flavors and textures — a kind of reverse-twist culinary version of the Japonisme that gripped Europe around the same time. (There was until recently a curry museum located in Yokohama, one of Japan’s most prominent ports.)
The world has become one big common kitchen.  A few years ago, the chicken tikka masala became the national dish of sorts in the UK, displacing the traditional fish-n-chips as the most ordered item.  Sushi is big time here in America.  There aren't many cities around the world without pizza places.

What a contrast to my grandmother's life!  She ate nothing but the traditional Tamil brahmin food her entire life, and her biggest excitement was with the "English vegetables," and cauliflower in particular.  Now, her grandchildren have an overflowing number of food choices from so many different cultures. 

As one who likes tasty food, and enjoys cooking my own variations, I cannot imagine the dull life that it would have been a couple of centuries ago.  But then, what we don't know doesn't hurt us, eh!

Maybe it is the sheer number of choices that we now have in our everyday life that is making us all stressed out and less happy.  Maybe if porridge is all one knew and had, then that porridge everyday would be something we would have excitedly looked forward to?

Nah!  :)

Is 2012 is a game-changer in history, as were 1979 and 2001?

I was in graduate school--often sleeping in a corner of USC's philosophy library or Doheny library--as the the Soviet Bloc started coming apart.

It was surreal to watch the entire system come down.  Those were the prime years of CNN and its anchor, Bernard Shaw.  

As one who grew up reading Russian literature, which convinced my parents that I was a commie who would never go to the US, I was all the more fascinated with the events and Gorbachev became my hero for carefully walking down the path of perestroika and glasnost.

All of a sudden there they were: Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania.  Soon after all that there was Yeltsin holding on to a new Russian beginning.

The crazy thing for me as a student was that none of my faculty even remotely talked about such a possibility, say, in 1987 or even in 1988. 

As Yogi Berra remarked, "Prediction is very hard, especially about the future"

Years later, as the summer season of the university's calendar was winding down, it was early in the morning as I was drinking coffee with NPR in the background when I thought I heard something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in NY.  For two days after turning the television on at that moment, I sat transfixed and absolutely depressed by the even more surreal sights--I even skipped out on the back-to-school events on campus where, I later learnt, the university president had apparently highlighted, among other accomplishments, a research work that I had just completed.

I am amazed that I have already lived through such major game changers in world history!

In recent years the dramatic game changers in global history have been quite regular, about a decade apart:
1968: the Tet Offensive
1979: annus horribilis
1989: The Berlin Wall tumbles down
2001: 9/11
It is then tempting to worry that the next event is round the corner.  It is equally tempting to think that the Arab Spring was not a game-changer, but that the recent wave of protests is the beginning of a historic turning point.

But, I have learnt enough to humbly admit to this: I don't know when and where that will happen.

I don't think even Bruce Bueno de Mesquita knows

Sunday, September 16, 2012

James Bond turns 50. The movie series, that is.

The Guardian reports:
Some of the biggest stars from the James Bond films are to take part in a golden anniversary celebration of the series.
Former Bond Sir Roger Moore, Richard "Jaws" Kiel and Britt Eckland, who played Mary Goodnight in The Man with the Golden Gun, will carry a gold case containing the first box set of all 22 Bond films on Blu-ray as it travels the length of Britain in 007's Aston Martin DBS.
 Wow; fifty years of "Bond. James Bond."

It all started with Dr. No.

Especially the thing about the Bond girls :)

If that sequence feels familiar, well, the Bond girl in that similar outfit was re-done:

I was a tad late to the James Bond party, because in the small town where I grew up I don't recall any Bond movie being screened at the only movie theatre.  Thus, it was as a college student that I watched my first Bond movie, and the first Bond girl.  I then quickly caught up with the past, and then was in step with the new ones.  A couple of years, I recall that Thanksgiving evenings were at the multiplex to watch the latest installment in the series.

When I was new to the country, as I was rapidly becoming familiar with all things Americana, I watched re-runs of several television shows, including "Remington Steele."  And often wondered why that dashing, smug, British guy couldn't be James Bond.

I was, therefore, excited like a five-year old at a candy store when Pierce Brosnan did show up as Bond.

It was a wonderful update to have a female boss in "M."  And Judi Dench at that.  One of my favorite scenes from the movie is not to be found on YouTube--Minnie Driver as a Russian singing "Stand by your man" :)

A few years ago, a Father's Day gift was a partial collection of James Bond movies--clear evidence of my fascination for Bond.

I am not sure if I have transitioned into the Daniel Craig as Bond era.  There is no special adrenaline rush knowing that the next Bond movie is only weeks away. 

Even worse?  I don't even care to find out who the Bond girl will be in that movie.

Perhaps it is all a sign that I am getting older? 

Déjà Vu. It is about 1979, all over again.

The anti-American protests and the violent killing of the US ambassador to Libya has prompted quite a few commentaries on 1979--from the chest-thumping Newt Gingrich, to this more nuanced piece in the New York Review of Books, which is titled "Islamist Déjà Vu: The Lessons of 1979."

Well, all this is déjà vu all over again for me--because, I wrote a column on how 1979 was a pivotal year, and that we are continuing to deal with those issues because we never really resolved them. (I should have added in that commentary that 1979 was also the first year in Congress for Gingrich--yet another unresolved problem since then!)

Anyway, the following is what I wrote, which was published in the Register Guard back, way back, in January 2008:
With the presidential primaries heating up, commentators are tempted to compare the 2008 election with 1960 - when a young and charismatic John F. Kennedy edged out Richard Nixon - and a few others point out to 1968, when the Democratic Convention in Chicago was the scene of chaos and protests. And, of course, we hear the comparisons to the Vietnam War.

Well, we are focusing on the wrong years and the wrong decade. I can't wait for all the brouhaha to die out so that the candidates, the media, and all of us can focus on the national and international issues, almost all of which were caused by events in one single year: 1979.

If ever there was a competition for which year since World War II will qualify for the title of Annus Horribilis, 1979 could be a leading candidate. First, a list of some of the events from that year:
  • Jan. 16: The shah of Iran flees the country, and goes into exile.
  • Feb. 1: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns to Iran, and is warmly welcomed by millions of Iranians.
  • April 4: Former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is hanged in Pakistan.
  • July 3: President Jimmy Carter signs a directive to support the opponents of the pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan.
  • July 16: Saddam Hussein becomes the president of Iraq.
  • Nov. 4: Americans in the U.S. embassy in Tehran are taken hostage.
  • Dec. 25: The Soviet Union begins to deploy troops in Afghanistan.
After ousting Bhutto in a military coup in 1977, Gen. Zia ul-Haq initiated a number of policies that made the country's politics and governance explicitly Islamic. The death of Bhutto in April of 1979 formalized Zia's power over the country and stoked the growth of fundamentalism that was characterized by violence and an inflexible anti-Western dogma.

The rise of a theocratic Iran provided Islamic fundamentalists with a real example that they wanted to emulate everywhere - even if they were Sunni or Wahhabi Muslims, who may not exactly be fond of the Shiites of Iran. One such individual was Osama bin Laden, who led many foreign fighters to take up jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden and Khomeini belonged to different sects of Islam, but shared a common belief that the Saudi Arabian kingdom had become corrupt and was engaging in un-Islamic agreements with the infidels. Protests became increasingly violent in the kingdom, and erupted into a finale at Islam's holiest place - the Grand Mosque in Mecca. On Nov. 20, more than 500 armed dissidents and their families stunned the ruling family by seizing the Grand Mosque.

Even though most of the dissidents died in the armed struggle, the act resulted in religious orthodoxy gaining more influence in society and politics. Further, violence mixed with religion has since then become a frighteningly common occurrence, as we found out on the fateful morning on Sept. 11, 2001.

Here we are in 2008, still reeling from these events that happened in 1979. Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan sum up our current predicament with that part of the world.

Yet after listening to presidential contenders of all political stripes, I am not convinced that our understanding of any of these countries and the underlying dynamics has improved even a tad in the 29 years since Khomeini made a triumphant return to Iran. We continue to make simplistic statements about these countries, their peoples, and their beliefs. It is no wonder then that the United States has not engaged in consistent, systematic and productive long-range actions and has, instead, jumped around from one hot issue to another.

I hope we will all soon drop our collective preoccupation with the elections of 1960 and 1968, and instead challenge the candidates with tough questions about 1979 and its aftershocks. The '60s are so over! 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

In sports and politics, winning at all costs is ruining us!

It is the political campaign season, and the beginning of another academic sports year.  Thus, an appropriate time to re-run the following commentary of mine, which was originally published in the Register Guard on May 27, 2008:

Flicking through the television channels the other day, I paused at a basketball playoff game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz, which was such a close one that it eventually was settled in overtime.

The commentator made interesting remarks that are quite the norm in such contexts, analyzing who was in foul trouble and how many fouls each team had “left to give.”

Fouls left to give? There is no more talk of sports promoting sportsmanship, camaraderie and cooperation. Instead, it is about “fouls left to give” until players are ejected.

Increasingly, fouls and penalties are no longer results of players’ accidents or mistakes. Coaches and players systematically exploit this as a loophole with the sole intention of restricting the opponent’s performance.

It is not uncommon to see a basketball player intentionally grabbing an opposing team’s player if that will prevent a sure two points.

It is so often used against Shaquille O’Neal that we now have the sports jargon, “hack-a-Shaq.” A football cornerback might commit pass interference if it appears that without that penalty the wide receiver might coast into the end zone for a touchdown.

The manner in which fans respond to these fouls indicates that they, too, see it as legitimate maneuvering.

I wonder, then, if involvement in athletics might end up doing more harm than good. What will children learn if their coach teaches them to grab the player in order to prevent an opponent from scoring? Is the lesson to focus on winning at any cost, fully understanding that they have “fouls to give”?

It is bizarre that we have zero-tolerance policies in educational settings, even as we could instruct the same children that they have “fouls to give” on the playground.

It is no stretch to argue that this notion of “fouls to give” is becoming common in society.

The havoc that Enron brought upon its employees, shareholders and the rest of the world was nothing but a reflection of its decision-makers’ thinking that their transgressions were within their “fouls to give.” Professionals advise corporations on how to exploit loopholes in the law — a variation of fouls to give.

Political campaigning is along the same lines: Candidates or their surrogates intentionally commit fouls, then pay appropriate penalties and carry on, because, hey, that is how the game is played.

As an academic concerned about more than mere curricular issues, I am always perturbed when students and colleagues commit fouls. You can, therefore, imagine my sheer delight with the recent softball incident in a game between Central Washington University and Western Oregon University, where I teach.

In case you missed that news item: A lot was at stake because the winner of that game qualified for the regionals. With two on base, at the plate was a diminutive graduating Western senior who had never homered in her life. She hit her first home run ever, then badly injured her knee at first base while making her way around the bases.

Two fielders from Central carried her around the bases, which counted as a home run for Western. The gregarious Central team went on to the lose the game, while Western moved on to the regionals, and won the first round there, too.

It was a remarkable story of sportsmanship and offered an absolute contrast to the “fouls to give” calculations that are otherwise the norm.

In the spirit of using athletics to forge a greater sense of humanity, imagine the following scenario, which might sound as if it is coming from another planet. Well, given that I am from India, it might well be an alien thought!

The next academic year, when the Oregon Ducks play hosts to Pac-10 football teams at the loud and boisterous Autzen Stadium, it will almost always be a midday or late afternoon game. That means that there will be ample time for the Ducks to play a different type of host again: to sit down with the visiting team and have dinner after the game. The bands from the host and visiting teams can play a few numbers as entertainment for the evening.

An outrageous idea, I realize. But what a powerful message it can convey, particularly to the youth! The university even can make a fundraiser out of this, splitting the proceeds with the visiting teams.

It would be a huge step in the right direction. The focus, after all, is on the common cause of developing one’s skills and learning and playing the game to one’s fullest. I can easily imagine that such an attitude will quickly lead to players and spectators alike relearning the forgotten idea that there is no place for “fouls to give.”

In my book, nice guys never finish last, but are winners all the time.

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