Friday, November 30, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am here; deal with it :)

Life's lessons on a dreary Oregon morning

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

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

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

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

It was a short-lived excitement, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Student loan delinquency. O.M.G.!

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

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

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

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

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

Good grief!  Let us have more football :(

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

The term, too, is ending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bearded bandits: Grover Norquist and Mohamed Morsi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The meaning of life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

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

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

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

The paper happens to be passports.

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

Well, at least not a concern for now!

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

Liberalizing immigration will not lead to the Camp of the Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, memories!

How faculty screw up students by (not) grading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I better get back to the grading now!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The idea of travel has me drooling because ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Wish me well, dear reader :)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"After the storm." Did Pasternak write about Oregon?

The weather was ugly yesterday.

Gusts of wind seemed to blow from every possible direction. Rain, which came down hard, therefore didn't merely come down from the skies but from all sides. Driving, which usually is relaxing and fun, was anything but. Streets were flooded.

This is the kind of rain that will make any non-native pack up the bags and head to the dry deserts of Nevada.  I, well, am practically a native. An Indian of a different kind living as an American among a few other natives and other Americans!

This evening, it is mostly calm. A gentle breeze, an occasional drizzle. A tad cooler perhaps. But, all in all, it is clear that the weather storm has passed, even as other storms in life continue.

Which is why I thought it is worth it to re-post that wonderful poem by Boris Pasternak:
After the Storm

The air is full of after-thunder freshness,
And everything rejoices and revives.
With the whole outburst of its purple clusters
The lilac drinks the air of paradise.

The gutters overflow; the change of weather
Makes all you see appear alive and new.
Meanwhile the shades of sky are growing lighter,
Beyond the blackest cloud the height is blue.

An artist's hand, with mastery still greater
Wipes dirt and dust off objects in his path.
Reality and life, the past and present,
Emerge transformed out of his colour-bath.

The memory of over half a lifetime
Like swiftly passing thunder dies away.
The century is no more under wardship:
High time to let the future have its say.

It is not revolutions and upheavals
That clear the road to new and better days,
But revelations, lavishness and torments
Of someone's soul, inspired and ablaze.

                 Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater (source)
Pasternak is, of course, known to most of us as the creator of Dr. Zhivago.  Play that the lovely music from the movie version in the video below, and read the poem all over again. Chances are quite good that you will feel the storms clearing ...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bal Thackeray's spirit refuses to die. A spectre of fear haunts Mumbai!

The pile of papers to grade gets higher and higher; if only I resorted to the easy, no stress, bubbling-in scantron tests, right?

Sorry, I had to rush to the bathroom to puke and get that thought out of my system :)

Anyway, all those papers to grade, and even more pressing is the need for catharsis by blogging about the atrociousness of Bal Thuggeray's goons.

As when he was alive, Thuggerary brought the city to a standtill even when dead.  It was a bandh that closed everything down.

Most Mumbaikars know that how much ever they are pissed off at Thuggeray, well, they ought to keep those thoughts to themselves.

Which is not what two young women knew, perhaps.

"21-year old Shaheen Dhada" posted on Facebook:
With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on.
On Facebook. How dare she disrespect Thuggeray!  20-year old Renu Srinivasan made another mistake--she "liked" it.

Dhada had added:
Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect. 

The Gestapo knocked on their doors and hauled them off to jail.  Yes, for posting and "liking" on Facebook.

What were they charged for?
“promoting enmity between classes” and “sending offensive messages through [a] communication service”

A former judge of India's Supreme Court, among others, rallied support for these two young women.  One of the comments to his open letter is bloody eerie:


India Today reports that the families were also threatened by Thuggerary's Sainiks, which is also echoed in this report:
"The Sainiks came with a lawyer, who was armed with printouts of the Facebook message and the address of the girls. I think everyone will agree that the situation was sensitive in the light of Balasaheb Thackeray's demise," said Ramdas Shinde, subdivisional police officer in Palghar.
A mob also vandalized a medical clinic run by her uncle.


I can only hope that the arrest of the two young women will be the proverbial straw to break the back of the unscrupulous politicians who have screwed up India every which they can.

Of course, it is easy for me to blog about it from the safety of my home here in the US.  Well, as long as I am not on the President's kill list!

It is a mad, mad, mad, mad world :(

Is Obama in Burma or in Myanmar?

First the news:
Officially, President Obama visited "Burma" on Monday -- but at one point he also cited the name used by the nation's military junta, "Myanmar."
Talk about covering both the bases!

When talking with the military government, the President went with "Myanmar" and when talking with the leader of the opposition, who was under house-arrest for years, Aung San Suu Kyi, Obama referred to "Burma."

What is the big deal?  It is, in the words of the Vice President, a "big fucking deal" :)

I wrote about this in an opinion column back in September 2007, and I noted there:
By referring to the country as Myanmar, are they then loading the story in favor of the junta?  If we are sympathetic to democracy and Suu Kyi, then should we insist on Burma as the correct usage?
Looks like the professor-in-chief split the Solomonic baby!

In the same column, I wrote, quoting Shakespeare's “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” 
Perhaps the bad actors in Burma and other places will soon have their exits, and the good ones will quickly step in and put a halt to the geopolitical tragedies that are hidden behind names.  And, maybe before long Rangoon will, once again, become a favorite destination for Indians, and the rest of the world.
Back in 2007, I would not have placed any money on the bets that Aung San Suu Kyi would be allowed to travel, or that the American President would visit Burma.  We can only hope that the mad military men would soon exit the Burmese stage.

Until then, it will be only Burma to me, even if the President toggles between the two names.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I way prefer the Sea Cliff to the fiscal cliff!

I am already way too tired of all the empty rhetoric and posturing on the looming fiscal cliff.

Perhaps the news has taken over my subconsciousness, which is the only reason I can come up with for a strange dream that I hazily recall, in which the discussions about the fiscal cliff were happening at this location in Tanzania that I visited three years ago:

It is the Sea Cliff Hotel, and the photo easily conveys the explanation for the name of the facility.

The Indian expat couple, who picked me up from the airport and hosted me for two days, took me to this restaurant.  It was a wonderfully scenic location, yes.  But, it felt so stiflingly colonial in that almost all the patrons were non-natives, and the staff, including the waiters, were all locals.  I felt so much out of place.

Perhaps the Sea Cliff hotel does have a parallel with the fiscal cliff, in that if the Democrats and Republicans cannot constructively agree on the restructuring of revenue and spending, then life for those politicians or the affluent won't be affected one bit--it is the average John and Jane Doe whose lives will be immediately messed up.  The politicians are like the expats at Sea Cliff, sometimes even talking pejoratively about the lower and middle classes even as they are being served by the very people.

Anyway, back in Tanzania, the day after this visit, I walked around, as I always do when I travel to a new place.
It is a good thing to back away from the cliff and get back to the firm and level ground of reality.

If only we can get the politicians, who we elected to serve us, to come down from that cliff!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

This term, too, is a success. Thanks!

Yes, I have had that odd student complaint or two. When it happens, I am often reminded of a graduate school professor.  A bunch of us graduate students were in Venezuela on a project work.  A couple of my fellow-students complained about something that was not up to their expectations in Venezuela, and his reply was simple: "it goes with the territory."  The odd student complaint I get every term goes with the territory.

It is not any complaint that signifies success this term.  I am not that cynical; I have quite some ways to go :)  Furthermore, I pay attention to complaints--they are important pieces in the feedback process, thanks to which I am way less an awful teacher than the version that I was when I entered this profession.

A student email that I received today is all I need to close the books on this term with a big "success" written all over it.  "E" wanted to get the link to the YouTube video on sweatshops that I had shared with the class.

Students are mostly surprised when I show them that particular video on sweatshops.  It is a surprise to them because, I think, from high school on, and then in various college courses, and even in conversations, they have been used to descriptions of labor conditions in many poorer countries of the world as "sweatshops."

And then they get to watch the video that I show them.

The video is a report by an Oregonian, who is one heck of a world traveler: Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times.  Again, if students were to hypothesize, they might think that this will be yet another leftist criticism from a left-leaning publication. But, and in four minutes, Kristof makes a compelling argument in favor of sweatshops: the sweatshops are a better alternative than anything else.

What makes the feedback from E all the more special is this: she wanted her co-worker to watch it.  She writes in the email that this entire term has been one of conversations with her co-worker on materials and topics from this class.

Isn't that what ultimately education is for?  We get to learn, and then pass that along to somebody else.  We want to infect as many as possible with what we know.  Without preaching. Without bullying.  With humility.  Make the other person also think about some of the ideas we have picked up.

I emailed her the link and added:
I hope you will also remind her, as we did in the class, that this video by itself does not mean that all sweatshops are good, and that there is a lot to understand and debate about.
I wanted to make sure that it would be education and not anything one-sided.

But, I need not have worried about that at all; the reply was heartwarming:
That was the main debate this morning regarding this video. Good -v- Evil We were also talking about the labor reforms in our own early history and how the sweatshops did or did not help with the reforms. I sent her the info on Apple and the nets also.
I am blown away. If this interaction alone doesn't qualify as success, well, the following will make your cold, cold, heart melt away:
Lots of time for us to talk while I'm standing over a donut fryer for 2 to 2 1/2 hours every morning while she ices and processes the donuts
All this while they are frying and icing donuts for a couple of hours at work!

I am amazed and humbled by how much some students have to juggle their commitments in life, while taking education so seriously at the same time. If they can slave over the donut fryer and burger grills, hey, I am more than willing to do my job for quite a few more terms.

In time for Thanksgiving, too!

Bal Thackeray, Hitler's admirer in India and SS chief, dies.

Even as a teenager, I never liked Bal Thackeray.

Over the more than three decades that I have known of Thackeray, I have only wondered how much life will be better without thugs like him!

Thackeray personified most of the vile of politics and politicians at that time.  He was against the non-Marathi population migrating to Maharashtra, especially to Bombay.  He favored bullying, brought commerce to a stop whenever he felt the need to do so, made Muslims feel unwanted and unsafe, and ... well, there is a lot one can add to this list.  A pompous, arrogant, SOB Thackeray was:
[His] “Maharashtra First” agenda often translated into extreme pro-Hindu, anti-migrant policies that saw Shiv Sena over the years mount numerous campaigns against Muslims and those flocking to Mumbai from other parts of India in search of jobs and a better life.
Shiv Sena’s repeated threats to shut down Bollywood productions if they didn’t hire more locals were often seen by his many critics as little more than a shakedown.
Analysts said his attacks on "outsiders" and minorities had a certain resonance among urban middle-class Mumbai voters even as he imprinted a negative legacy on one of the world’s great cities. “He was a bundle of extreme, even brazen contradictions,” said Dileep Padgaonkar, a consulting editor with the Times of India newspaper. “He destroyed the cosmopolitan ethos of Mumbai.”
While I don't have any evidence to cite--at least, not now--I don't think it was a mere coincidence that Thackeray's outfit was called Shiv Sena, which was often shortened to SS.

Yes, for those of us who shudder at the horrors that the Nazi SS carried out, we will cringe even more at how much Thackeray was a fan of the mustached monster that Adolf Hitler was. In noting his demise, this news report underscores Thackeray's fascination for the Nazi leader, and his preference for anti-democratic actions:
The murder of Krishna Desai, a Communist Party leader in Parel, sent a chill of terror through the city and the party succeeded in setting up Sena unions everywhere, often supported by employers who were only too glad to have someone on their side.
“In December 1967, the CPI headquarters of Mumbai at Dalvi Building in Parel, which is situated in the very midst of the textile area, was savagely attacked by SS hoodlums and almost destroyed. Organised attempts were made to break up Communist public meetings and several leaders and activists of both the CPI and the CPI(M) were physically assaulted. The climax was reached on June 6, 1970, when armed goondas of the SS murdered the sitting MLA of the CPI, Krishna Desai. Krishna Desai was a popular and militant mass leader in the textile belt and had been elected municipal corporator four times before he was elected to the state assembly in 1967. This was the first major political assassination in Mumbai since Independence, and it sent shock waves through the city and State. The leadership of the entire opposition along with thousands of incensed workers, marched in Krishna Desai’s funeral procession. Opposition leaders directly accused the Shiv Sena and the Congress State government in general, and Bal Thackeray and Vasantrao Naik in particular, of being hand in glove in the perpetration of this heinous crime.” 
But, Thackeray gained power and prestige, like mafia dons and third-rate politicians often do.  It is no surprise that the leaders of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, have nothing but the highest praise for the deceased destroyer of good:
It is rare that I have seen in these 65 years of independent India a political leader who has left such a deep and abiding imprint on the country’s events as Balasaheb Thackeray. Uncompromising in his patriotism, he possessed remarkable qualities of leadership and abundance of attributes of head and heart,” [Advani] said.
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi said “Balasaheb Thackeray was an epitome of courage and valour. He was full of life. He fought like a warrior. I’ve lost someone who always guided me.”
Yes, of course, a warrior who guided Modi, whose wish is to become India's prime minister.  If that happens, I hope the US government doesn't grant Modi visa to enter this country, and treats him like how we treat Ahmadinejad.

Oh well ... Thackeray, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "is an honorable man;. So are they all, all honorable men."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Hey students, ask questions.

I often tell students that education is not merely about answering the questions I or any other faculty ask them, but is a lot more about learning how to ask questions--intelligent questions.  As we develop and fine-tune the thinking skills, it becomes less of a conscious effort.  Like most things in life, whether it is bicycling (which I can do) or swimming (which I can't, despite all my attempts) how to ask questions is something that we need to work hard to learn--and get a few bruises along the way!

I suppose like many things I talk about, well, this too often gets neglected.  No wonder Rodney Dangerfield is one I relate to, a lot :)

In an undergraduate program, that exercise of asking questions is built into every course, if only students would do those exercises.  But then, faculty, too, do not seem to be keen on this important aspect of education..  Which is a shame, because, as this Boston Globe piece notes:
“The challenge is that, as adults, we lose our curiosity over time. We get into ruts, we become experts in our fields or endeavors,” McKinney said.
Ironically, the tendency to be blinded by our existing knowledge may be at its most extreme among a set of people specifically charged with asking questions: analysts and researchers. Duncan Watts, who studies networks and collective social dynamics at Microsoft Research and is the author of the book “Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer,” said he has noticed that many of the PhD candidates he comes into contact with are essentially taught to answer other people’s questions, and can be disconcertingly at sea when trying to ask their own.
“There are students who are incredibly good at answering questions but have no idea how to ask one,” Watts said, “and they’ve never thought about what it means.”
For Watts, a good question is one that is both “interesting” and “answerable.” “It’s relatively easy to come up with an answerable question that is not interesting,” he said, “and it’s relatively easy to come up with an interesting question that is unanswerable.” 
I remind students that if they figure out how to how to ask pointed questions and then, equally important, learn how to go about in search of answers for them, well, those are skills that will be of immense value to them throughout their lives.

Of course, all these are not new ideas:
यः सततं परिपृच्छति शृणोति संधारयत्यनिशं ।
तस्य दिवाकरकिरणैर्नलिनीव विवर्धते बुद्धिः ॥
- पञ्चतंत्र, अपरीक्षितकारक

He will become a wise man who will keep asking questions, listens to answers and contemplates on each of them.
His knowledge will bloom like a lotus when sun rays fall on it.
- Panchatantra, Aparikshitakaraka
All these remind me about a great-uncle--dad's uncle--who always told us youngsters to ask questions.  Well, his exact phrasing was to "put questions."  This uncle's intellectual ability to ask questions was unrelated to economic success, or lack thereof; this great-uncle was one of those highly qualified people whose careers never got a start because of the Great Depression.  He earned a masters degree, when it was extremely rare those days, but there was nothing available for him when the entire world economy was contracting, and India was being sucked dry by Britain.

He did ask a lot of questions.

I am the merely the latest in the long line of questioning and argumentative Indians :)

Obama says Susan Lucci is pregnant with Petraeus' love child?

Colbert lets one zinger after another.

America's Finest News Source reports on how such (s)exciting scandals are merely the preview of how President Obama plans to make his second term a lot more appealing to Americans:
It is a tragedy that Petraeus making love under his office desk is such a media event, while the wars that he conducted went unscrutinized, and continue to be neglected. The press, while happily playing the role of the government's propaganda machine, couldn't care to ask the tough questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or about waterboarding, or about Guantanamo, or about the massive surveillance state we have built up, or about the extensive use of drones to kill people, including American citizens, or even about the sacredness of the military budget itself against the backdrop of the fiscal cliff. 

It is sex that sells. 

Bloody porn-addicted media and population we have become!

We may as well convert our news channels to porn channels; I suppose, in that case, Faux News will deliver nothing but hardcore porn?

I bet more Americans will now be able to name Petraeus' lover than the number that will be able to identify Afghanistan on a world map.  Imagine what we could have achieved if we had instead educated Americans about Afghanistan and Iraq: Paula Broadwell would have been an unknown Jane Doe in this vast American landscape as much as a Sriram is a John Doe.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Error 404: Economy Not Found. Call Neo now!

A few weeks ago, Ramesh had blogged about the crazy aspects of stock trading, called "high frequency trading," and questioned whether it serves any useful function, other than to screw up the system!

Colbert adds to that, in this interview with the author of Automate This. The subtitle of the book is more exciting: "How algorithms came to rule our world."

Yes, getting closer and closer to the world depicted in the Matrix.   

The blue pill, please; I don't want to know how deep the rabbit hole is :)

Newsflash: Not every undergrad is working towards a PhD!

I have never understood why in the many, many, public undergraduate universities like mine faculty teach courses as if every student in their classes is on track to do a PhD in the discipline.  Even the introductory courses are taught as if they are prep courses for that eventual doctorate.  The focus is on the jargon of the discipline, and not on the ideas.  Students are tested for how well they can recall from memory that jargon, instead of providing opportunities to students to demonstrate their thinking skills and understanding of the ideas.

If I were an undergrad in such a system, I would be puking day in and day out at the mere thought of going to such classes!

Do most faculty ever pause to think that very few students might ever make careers out of the academic jargon?  That very, very few would ever go to graduate school in that very field, even if the jargon did interest them?

To most students in the vast numbers of colleges and universities like mine, the BA/BS is the end of the formal education.  And then life teaches them a lot more.

Consistent with this understanding of mine, a few years ago, I started teaching my courses different from how they might be "conventionally" offered.

And a lot more differently after I was sure I was tenured :)

I started putting together my own list of readings.  During discussions, I ask students related questions that might pertain to other disciplines.  Examples?  When discussing the geographic patterns in resources, which is a standard topic in economic geography, I might ask them to describe natural gas as a chemical.  What is the main gas there?  What is its chemical formula?  Or, when we talk about alternative energy sources, I might ask them for the difference between nuclear fission and fusion.  More than once, I have had students work on term papers by analyzing the concepts explored in short stories.  I bring in movie clips to highlight issues. 

The work that students turn in indicate that I have not sacrificed anything when it comes to the formal academic rigor and what they need to know by taking the courses.  And, I get a lot more: they begin to see that knowledge is all interconnected, which is how the world functions too.  Once, in class when we talked about the energy that goes into transporting food, and the energy derived from that food when we consume it (an important controversy in the locavore movement), it was fascinating to watch students duke it out on whether or not energy is energy, or whether energy in transportation is different from the energy in food.

Which is why I liked the following paragraphs in this blog post where a liberal arts college professor writes about how his syllabi often have materials from disciplines other than his own:
Foundations aren’t whole buildings, though, and creating the entire foundation that you’d need for a skyscraper when all you’re going to build in the site is a modest ranch home is a wasteful and stupid thing to do.
Faculty need to work for students who are really certain that they’re going to need the deepest foundation. But it’s more important to offer the smaller footprints for the larger group of students, or maybe even just to provide some building materials from your discipline that are an accompaniment to work in a completely different field or profession or to a well-lived life. So that’s why I often do teach materials from other specializations and other disciplines and from outside academia, with relatively careless regard for the deep foundations that generated some of that material.

But, there is a downside: "mashed potatoes" :)

And then we wonder why the dominant approach to education invites criticisms like this!
I’m reminded of a point made by Andrew Rosen of Kaplan, the for-profit education company, that colleges today know more about how many kids attend basketball games and which alumni give money than how many students showed up for economics class during the week, or which alumni are having a hard time meeting their career goals because of shortcomings in their education.
That needs to change.
I certainly don't need education of the sort that is often provided anymore.  Thankfully, I am not 19, or even worse: 13!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Instruction ends in the classroom, and education happens outside

Every once in a while I swing by the local Goodwill Store and scan through the used books there.  Rarely do I buy anything though!

If I see anything that is a potential serious read, then I check for handwritten notes because they often tell quite some stories.

Once, I spotted a huge atlas.  Actually more than an atlas, even though it was called one; it had a whole lot of almanac kind of data too.  It was from 1964--the year I was born, which made it a neat coincidence. 

The inside front cover had two different handwriting, both expressing birthday greetings for the recipient who was turning 19.  Imagine that--such a tome as a birthday gift for a 19 year old.  Perhaps the 19-year old was off to college, and the gift was from the parents or godparents, which then explains the two different writing styles also?

One had added: "instruction ends in the classroom, and education happens outside."

What a profound idea, right?

I try to convey to students that very idea in so many different ways.  I wonder if that 19-year old recipient of the gift paid attention to the message, or simply blew that off like any typical 19-year old would?  I am confident that when I was 19 years old, I would not have even understood the difference between education and instruction!

Here is one more along those lines of education and wisdom that I had collected a while ago:
उदीरितोऽर्थः पशूनापि गृह्यते
    हयश्च नागाश्च वहन्ति देशिताः ।
अनुक्तमप्यूहति पण्डीतो जनः
    परेंगितज्ञानफला हि बुद्धयः ॥
- हितोपदेश, सुहृद्भेद
Any animal can understand instructions if they are explained elaborately.
Elephants and horses can follow instructions very well.
But only a wise man can understand what is not said.
Perhaps, understanding other's mind is what is called as 'wisdom'
- Hitopadesha, Suhrudbheda
Here is to hoping that wisdom will knock on my doors some time soon!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Bond Girl in Spyfall is pretty hot!

With a fascinating name too, in the old traditions of Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp, and Honey Ryder.

Of course, I am referring to Paula Broadwell, the author of All In :)

Take it away, Jon "the worst journalist" Stewart :)
It never ceases to amaze me how there is a constant fodder for comedians.  With the election over, I wondered what might fill the void.  Who would have ever imagined that Petraeus would fill it, in more ways than one!

Yet another interesting interpretation of war and sex; remember George Carlin's routine?

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