Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Monday, December 09, 2013

How long should we continue to pretend that college pays?

[Whatever] the causes, the political consequences of a continuing decline in the real average wages of young college-educated workers will be momentous.
If you are nodding in agreement with that statement, then we have very little to disagree about.

I have now made it a routine of sorts to remark in the introductory class, in the appropriate contexts, that the rest of their lives will be exciting, but challenging when it comes to jobs and economic futures.

It is not merely their jobs and incomes that worries me.  That too.  What worries me more is this--we are not designed to sit around and do nothing, even if somebody takes care of our basic needs.  It is not for nothing that we have that old saying that an idle mind being a devil's workshop.  It does not mean that one becomes destructive--not doing anything constructive can be a challenge for most of us.

The animals in us might look for rewards via food and sex for what we do.  But then we are more than mere biological creatures.  We think. Some more than the others.  The rewards for thinking are way more than food and sex.  Some of those rewards are intangibles--like love and family.  However, these intangibles don't just happen, and meaningful work that pays is the route to many of those intangibles too.

Which means, well, we have a problem when the youth have no jobs waiting for them.  Jobs that pay well.  A big problem.  Not a new one, of course--even I have been blogging about this (like here,) and writing op-eds on this, for a few years now.

Even when people talk about these issues, they tend to overplay the income inequality issue.  Yes, it is awful how the top one percent, and the top 0.1 percent are getting richer by the second.  But, that takes the focus away from the larger issues behind these conditions:
college-educated workers in the United States are now subject to a combination of global market forces and public policies that are reducing their economic prospects.
We will have to re-work that old Bill Clinton campaign slogan to "It's the global economy, stupid!"

I am reminded of this succinct statement of the problem:
The paradox is this. A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.
The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing.
I suppose I am having an additional layer of problem with this because of the conflict within me that I blog like this while working in the higher education business which promises students that if they work hard and get that diploma, well, the American Dream is all theirs.  A bizarre version of an Orwellian Doublethink!

I am sure the folks at the university have noted that for a long time I have not participated in any student recruitment events--it will be one more blot on my permanent personnel record!  Strangely enough, nobody has directly asked me for my reasons--at least if they did, I can present my arguments that we are massively overselling higher education and find out how they justify the hype that then imposes a tremendous cost on students.

Maybe this is nothing but the end of the term blues. Or because I am under house-arrest thanks to the snow and ice.  Maybe it will be a wonderful new year.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

When heaven freezes over!

We know about the expression "when hell freezes over."  But, heaven?

Yes, it can happen.

It did.

The snowfall began even before the sun came up on Friday.  Initially, the snow was fun. Everything looked pretty.

But, thanks to meteorologists--the real one, and not the fakes on TV--we knew what the weekend would be like.

Damn, the forecasts were correct!

By evening, the flakes fell no more.  After the sun went down, I stepped out to view the neighborhood.

"You are braver than me" yelled a voice.  It was my neighbor, with a camera in her hand.  I suppose I was the ambulatory version of "fools rush in."  The neighborhood looked gorgeous with the streetlight illuminating the sparkles on the ground, and the holiday lights on homes adding color to the white background.

But, it was cold.  Colder than all the pretty women who have turned their backs on me! ;)

Saturday mid-morning.

The sun was bright. The sky was clear.

I decided that I had to find out how my friends, the Willamette River and the bike path, looked after the seven-plus inches that fell from the sky.

The landscape was surreal.

An older gent was scanning the scenery.  "I suppose no bikes today" he joked.  We men love to joke in any context.  I wonder if even at funerals our minds are only thinking of funny lines.  We are strange creatures, indeed.  But, was Christopher Hitchens on to something when he opined that the average women simply aren't funny?

Saturday overnight, the temperature went down.  All the way down to 10 below zero. On the Fahrenheit scale, which means it is negative 23 in Celsisus.  Yes, -23 C, Ramesh!

When talking with my parents, my father complained that it was cold for him because the daytime high wasn't even at 27. In Celsius!  I described to him the weather conditions here.

"I hope you are warm" he said.

I live in a land of luxury, where we take for granted the warmth during the cold weather.  Climate-controlled homes.  Hot water at the twist of the faucet.  Refrigerator and freezer stocked with food, and kitchen shelves with more food.  My biggest, and only, problem was that I had only three days of coffee supply in the canister.  What a lucky and decadent life!

Having lived this long, I know that I have nothing to complain about.  And that revelation is no snow-job!

Can the common man be corrupted?

His biggest fear was that his party will squander the "historic opportunity. If we made some mistakes, then I think we will not be able to forgive ourselves, and history will not be able to forgive us. And that thought is constantly chasing me."
Said Arvind Kejriwal of the new political party, Aam Aadmi (Common Man) in this profile of him in the New Yorker in the September 2nd issue (sub. reqd.).

Kejriwal can rest easy, it appears:
[The] Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stole the show in its debut by scooping up 28 seats. ... AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal proved to be a giant killer by defeating three-time Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit in the New Delhi constituency by a margin of more than 25,000 votes.
As the New Yorker noted:
Since 2010, Kejriwal's essential message has not faltered; to overcome endemic political corruption, momentous change is required. ... [Few] officials are ever indicted of corruption. As Kejriwal put it, "You can just get away with murder in this country.
Of course, this is merely one small change.  How much of a consequence it will have is, well, the cliched "remains to be seen."  It is one thing to campaign against corruption and corrupt politicians, but another to get to some of the systemic problems that then create opportunities for rent-seeking, as economists refer to it.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, of the Center for Policy Research, said that he gets "no readings, from Kejriwal, on his thoughts on markets and economics, which are central to corruption." ... Kejriwal insists that he is attacking a problem that transcends macroeconomic policy. ... "Liberalization, globalization--these things will never work until you improve the governance of the country."
India's corruption and bureaucracy are notorious.  Of course, here in the US, too, we have corrupt officials.  But, at least our every day existence is free of hassles.  Renewing a driver license or registering the purchase of a used car does not require bribing the DMV clerk.  In India, even such mundane transactions almost always require bribes.  Recently, when my sister chose not to offer bribes in order to get the official papers related to the death of her husband, they made sure to string her along for a few days and for quite a few meetings!

Let us see if the election results will have any impact on the corruption index, which refuses to budge:
Despite a vocal anti-corruption movement and even a new party aimed at fighting graft, the level of corruption in India has not fallen in the last year, according to the latest survey by corruption watchdog Transparency International.
The Berlin-based organization released its latest Corruption Perception Index report Tuesday. The index grades countries on how corrupt their political parties, police, justice systems and other organizations are perceived to be.
Transparency International’s rankings start with the countries that are least corrupt. India’s ranking of 94 out of 177 was unchanged from a year ago.
Maybe India should try bribing the researchers at Transparency International in order to get a favorable ranking? ;)


Interestingly, that cartoon is not about India!

Corruption is perhaps even a part of the culture?  I was reminded of a story that I read as a kid. It was one of those witty stories involving Birbal.  I tracked down a version of it on the web, should you--the curious reader--feel intrigued.  It is a wonderful bottom-line: "A corrupt man will find ways to take bribe whatever the job he is in."

Try corrupting me with an offer of a few million dollars, will you please?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Being an activist without hurling bombs. Without yelling. It is easy!

Even before I got to college, I had a mental image of college as a hotbed of political activism.  I had a good reason to imagine that way--a cousin of my father's had even gone "underground" during his college years as a Naxalite.  It was all part of the family discussions when growing up. Thus, politics being a keen interest of mine meant that I was all pumped up for it.

It was a shock to then discover for myself that there was a lot of political activity on college campuses, but they had no intellectual basis to speak of.  It was simply dirty, rotten, politics where it seemed like students were fashioning themselves after the dirty, rotten, scoundrels we had as politicians.

So, no activism for me.  Well, except for one tiny bit about which I will write some day.

Coming to the US was wonderful for this aspect as well.  Practically every single day it seemed like there was some student group or the other championing some issue and seeking volunteers or passing around petitions at the USC campus.  As an "alien" I could not sign on to petitions that sought political intervention.  But, I joined in--always the curious fellow I was!

One of the movies that was screened on campus was Cry Freedom.  I went to watch it with my apartment-mate, who was also from India.  While I was aware of the apartheid regime in South Africa, I had not known anything about the black activist, Steve Biko.  Some of my graduate school mates seemed to know more about him, and they were critical of how the movie was about the white journalist than about the black activist.  Finally, I had a place where I could engage in the intellectual aspects of the causes that students were active about.  This was heaven!

Students did not want USC to have any investment portfolio ties to South Africa.  Divestment was the chant.  And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Bush wanted to kick Saddam back to Iraq, I distinctly remember joining the students, and faculty too, protesting against the war preparations.  I was still worried that perhaps as an alien I ought to keep a low profile and not get into anything that can get me deported. (Much later in life, after I became a citizen, in responding to an op-ed of mine, a reader suggested that I self-deport!)

These days, I often wonder why students do not seem to be intrinsically motivated enough to protest.  There are, after all, plenty of things to protest about.  I worry that the youth are becoming either too obedient to authority, or are way engrossed in the different ways technology now provides instant gratification.  Student activism is, for all purposes, now dead in the US.

I, of course, continue to be an activist.  Rarely explicitly, however, which is why the supposedly "activist" faculty, who even led the charge to excommunicate me, falsely conclude that I am one of those establishment guys.  Little do they know me as one ardently subversive activist!  As Azhar Nafisi noted,
SOME ASSUME that the only way academics can engage the politics of the day is by coming out of their ivory tower and protesting in front of the White House. But in conveying knowledge, the academy has a far more important and subversive way of dealing with political issues. Knowledge provides us with a way to perceive the world. Imaginative  knowledge provides us with a way to see ourselves in the world, to relate to the world, and thereby, to act in the world. The way we perceive ourselves is reflected in the way we interact, the way we take our positions, and the way we interpret politics.
Curiosity, the desire to know what one does not know, is essential to genuine knowledge. Especially in terms of literature, it is a sensual longing to know through experiencing others—not only the others in the world, but also the others within oneself. That is why, in almost every talk I give, I repeat what Vladimir Nabokov used to tell his students: curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. If we manage to teach our students to be curious—not to take up our political positions, but just to be curious—we will have managed to do a great deal.
The other day, I told a student that it felt like I had made a couple of students think.  "That's what you want, right?" he replied with a smile.

Indeed!  And I want more of them.

On sex and violence

A while ago, I was, yet again, the eldest in a group of five adults.  I am getting old.  I mean, OLD!

It was down to a serious question for the evening--which movie to watch.  As with the times, it was a decision not about going to the movies but to bring the movies home.  And, as with the times, not to bring the movie home by first going to video rental place but to stream the movie via Netflix.

When I can easily recall the old days in such mundane situations, well, I am OLD!

In her list was the movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno.  "My friend watched it and said she really liked it" the young woman said.

"Oh, it is an enjoyable movie, and at times hilarious too" I replied.  I told them how I ended up watching it a second time with my daughter and son-in-law.  Plus, I like Seth Rogen and, of course, Elizabeth Banks who is so wonderfully gorgeous with an awesome easy style.

I could sense the hesitation because of the "porno" in the title.  And with me as the old man in an otherwise youthful gathering of four that evening.  Talk about being the fifth wheel!

I wanted to engage them in a discussion of nudity and sex.  And compare those with violence.  This young crowd routinely watches violence in movies, and plays violent video games. People are tortured. Heads are blown off.  Blood oozes out.  I wanted us to talk about how and why they were ok with all that violence, and even enjoyed them, but they were hemming and hawing about Zack and Miri because of the word porno in it.

But, I didn't get into those discussions.  I am OLD and an academic, which means it is best to shut up in the company of youth!

I was never a fan of violence to begin with.  And with every passing year, I am even less interested in watching violence on the screen than ever before.  Getting OLD means such transformations too?

A couple of days ago, I was watching this C-Span interview with Dr. Hassan Tetteh, which made me think more about violence.  In the comfort of our homes, we are so disconnected from violence and war.  Thankfully, yes.  But, in my mind, the violence in movies always end up reminding me of the real violence. When Tetteh described the kinds of trauma situations, I felt my stomach in knots--and this was without viewing any visuals of the violence.  

I suspect that I would literally throw up were I to witness something like a car-bomb blast with people losing limbs.  Tetteh replies with a yes to Brian Lamb's question on whether even medical professionals really do sometimes throw up when the trauma victims come in--despite all the training they go through in which they would have seen plenty of blood and gore.

Zack and Miri has nudity, yes. Breasts jiggle and the penis dangles.  And, yes, the simulation of sex.  They all fit into the storytelling, which is about the emotions that Zack and Miri feel for each other.  It is a love story, perhaps told in a tad arty manner.

Yet, the make-believe sex scenes, where there is no real sex act, threatens our morals immensely more than the make-believe violence and death, where no real blood is drawn and nobody really gets killed?

In the news feed, I read about a movie having to go through edits in order to avoid the NC-17 rating and go with a market-friendly "R" rating.  Evan Rachel Wood, the lead female actor in that movie, had this to say in protest:
After seeing the new cut of Charlie Countryman, I would like to share my disappointment with the MPAA, who thought it was necessary to censor a woman's sexuality once again. The scene where the two main characters make "love" was altered because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people "uncomfortable," but the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off remained intact and unaltered.
I am no flower-power pacifist who chants that old slogan of "make love, not war."  But, ...

Thursday, December 05, 2013

I am a rich man. A super rich man. Is that my problem?

"It has been a long time since I came to your counter" I told her with a smile.  "With you being all possessive, I didn't want you to get upset with me" I added.

She laughed and tapped on my hand.  "Yes, I get jealous sometimes" she chuckled.

The previous customer, a woman who had more than a decade on me, was collecting her bags.  She paused and said "I know I cannot go by any other counter if I come here with my grandkids."

"So, how are things?" I asked her while she scanned the groceries.

"They have me down to four days a week" she replied.

Now that I am older and wiser, I know enough not to assume that anything that people say is good or bad, and that it is better to ask for clarification.  I suppose I have been reading one too many old parables!

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"Oh, very bad thing."  She paused.  "I can't live on 300 dollars a week."

I had no idea how to respond to that.  Fortunately for me, she continued.  And, as always, she used humor as a cover.

"I guess I will have to stand at street corners and ask for money" and she laughed.

That was a couple of hours ago.  I am trying to make my peace with her situation.

With her situation alone, and then about the many, many others who are in her state.

In the US, what I earn will place me in the upper middle class income.  If I compare myself to the world, I know I am one of the top one percent of the world.  When she tells me about living on 300 dollars a week, I am easily sent on the guilt trip that I have been traveling right from my young age.

I have no idea how others make their own peace on these kinds of issues.  For me, it has been one heck of a struggle.

Yes, there are all those intellectual battles that I can engage in.  Even the Pope and the President have recently weighed in on these income issues, and I have been so tempted to blog about those.  But, there is a wide gulf between the intellect and the emotion.

As I noted in that essay from almost a decade ago, "perhaps academic life means a continuous attempt to redraw the line that separates what I teach from how I live."

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Were my grandmothers racists?

A friend emailed me this video clip, in which Aziz Ansari--the Indian-American comedian/actor--observes that racism is very much on the decline here in the US and that the old racists are, well, dead or are dying from old age.  As with any public policy or comedy line, Ansari then works on the old grandmother angle and even asks the audience to make noise if their racist grandmothers died recently.

I agree with him.  Race is not that much an issue anymore, nowhere near what it was even during the time of the Rodney King and OJ Simpson dramas two decades ago.  But, it is there.

Anyway, Ansari's comment got me thinking.  Were my grandmothers racists?

There was no doubt that the grandmothers were steeped in the traditions.  They observed a great number of orthodox practices.  The interesting aspect is that the orthodoxy discriminated against all kinds of humans, depending on the contexts.  In the mornings, we kids were not allowed to touch grandmothers if we had not had our showers by then.  Menstruating females were condemned to a corner of the ancestral home, and even the sight of those females meant that grandmother had to cleanse herself all over again!  And, yes, the treatment of the lower castes. ... the list is endless.  It seemed like equal-opportunity discrimination ;)

But, would I think of my grandmothers as having been racist?

When they were presented with a world that was different from the traditional one that was the only world they had ever known, well, their practices changed, and changed dramatically.

I can relate many examples in this context.  For instance, one grandma lived with us for the last seven years of her life.  Her life was no longer back in the village.  In the new setting, too, she could have continued on with many of the old practices.  Yet, she ditched some, and moderated quite a lot.

As I think back about those years, I can see how she appreciated and supported the very different ways in which we kids were behaving in an environment where traditions died.  At school, we mingled with students of all castes and religions.  It did not bother her at all.  In fact, we even used to joke about this!  She was always happy to meet and chat with my sister's classmates when they came over.  (I was not a social being even then!)

Grandmother had an enlarged heart condition that required hospitalization at one point.  The attending physician, an MD those days when it was rare, was from a low tier of the atrocious caste system.  He treated her well, and she was happy about him as the physician.  (While I struggle to recall his name, I do remember that a year or so after the hospital interactions, the physician was elected as our representative to the Parliament and we felt great that for once we actually knew our MP!)

So, were my grandmothers racists?  They gave up the bad old traditions when presented with better ways to think about the world.  They modified their behavior not out of compulsion.  Not out of fear that otherwise life will be miserable for them.

Racism is merely one of the many prejudices around.  We walk around with baggage of prejudices that we might have picked up from our childhood days, from religious leaders, from peers, ... whatever.  If people point out that what we carry in the bag is not healthy and even after that if we do not get rid of that baggage, then we are bigots.

My grandmothers offloaded plenty of baggage, and in a hurry.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Ok, you can hear me now. But, watch out!

A few months ago, I was loitering around in a different university campus, killing time before it was time for my guest lecture at a class.  A girl, well, young woman, rushed into the building while texting.  And she rushed into the elevator.

Nothing wrong, you say, eh.

She promptly jumped out of the elevator, and then looked around as if to get a bearing of where she was.  And then she entered the room that was adjacent to the elevator.

She was so keen on her texting while walking that she hurriedly entered the elevator thinking that was the classroom!

And once a guy nearly bumped into me because he was so fixated on the texting.  Last week, when driving near the campus parking lot where I park, I waited at the intersection for the longest time because I was not sure whether the woman with one foot off the sidewalk was indeed going to cross the road.  I figured it was safer to wait than to test my brakes as she jumped in front of a moving car.

Of course, I am not the only one who has been observing such smartphone behavior.  The Scientific American reports:
In 2004 an estimated 559 people had, in one scenario, whacked themselves hard enough on a telephone pole to need emergency room treatment. By 2010 the number of walkers who had to finish that last text in the ER had likely topped 1,500, according to the study, which appeared in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention.
During the same time period, the total numbers of pedestrians who wound up in emergency rooms actually decreased. Cell phone–related pedestrian injuries are thus doing yeoman's work in keeping our ER docs in business.
The smartphone zombies!

So, what can we expect here?
Experts expect the injury toll related to phones to keep rising. “If current trends continue, I wouldn't be surprised if the number of injuries to pedestrians caused by cell phones doubles again between 2010 and 2015,” said Ohio State University's Jack Nasar, a co-author of the study, in a press release. And he thinks that the official numbers are probably underestimates of the true injury rate because not everyone who gets hurt goes to the hospital and not everyone who goes admits the real reason that they walked into a fire hydrant.
So, the whole idea of walking on two feet was to eventually end up bumping against the fire hydrant because the other two "legs" were needed for texting.  Ah, evolution!

Monday, December 02, 2013

When even the Wall Street Journal is against the 1% ...

In one of my many favorites of George Carlin's routines, he makes fun, in his trademark manner, the arrogance that we humans have when interacting with nature.  Carlin mocks how we build homes next to volcanoes and wonder why there is lava in the living room.

But, even George Carlin couldn't force people to think and act sensibly.  What chance do I have then, right?

Of course, my Quixotic pursuits mean that I have yelled and written about that kind of madness too.

Back on March 3, 1997--yes, almost 17 years ago--the Bakersfield Californian published my op-ed in which I questioned the sanity behind "locating a home or a business in a flood plain in the first place."  To me, this is simply asking for trouble.  And when homes get flooded, we immediately demand that government bail out the homeowners.
Instead of asking such "real" questions, we insist on playing Russian Roulette with the chaotic forces of nature.  The result is that it has become quite common for every natural happening to be labeled a disaster. 
If we were rational, then we would not build homes in flood plains and by the coastlines.  We would keep a safe distance between those natural boundaries and our built environment.  But, irrational we are.  And worse than being irrational, we are irrationally arrogant!

Here is the irony: in poor countries--think Bangladesh, for instance--it is the poor folk who live in those dangerous lowlands.  Because they cannot afford any better.  Here in a mighty rich society, it is the other way around--the richer one is, the closer they want to have their buildings near the pounding waves and the flowing waters.

So, ask yourself this: when we bail out these rich folks, does it not mean that poor in inner cities or rural hinterlands are being shortchanged?

But, who ever listens to me!

Which is why I nearly fell off the chair when I read a Wall Street Journal editorial that came out swinging with this opening sentence:
Federal flood insurance is a classic example of powerful government aiding the powerful, encouraging the affluent to build mansions near the shore
Say what?
Congress finally had the gumption to reform the program in 2012, but now the beachfront homeowner and housing lobbies are trying to reverse this progress.
Imagine that!  Thanks to a bipartisan reform signed into law by President Obama, "the federal insurer is slowly raising its rates to actuarially sound levels" and that is being opposed by lobbies, when the beneficiaries are the rich.  How insane is that?
When Republicans hear such good sense from the Obama Administration, they ought to embrace it. They should not endorse another taxpayer subsidy for those who want to live next to the ocean while sticking others with the costs of their lifestyle.
My failure to influence any action is easily understandable.  You, dear reader, are as powerless as I am.

You think the mighty Wall Street Journal and its allies will be able to fight those lobbies that are active on behalf of the one-percent?

I doubt it.  "We the people" will always get screwed over and over.

Maybe my problem is that I don't dream enough to be in the one percent ;)

Sunday, December 01, 2013

What if you knew how your t-shirt is made? By Sumangali Girls?

Another take on "there comes a point when you don't want to know."

I often tell students that one of the wonderful aspects of the market is that it will deliver as long as we are ready to pay up.  I remind them that in a liberal democracy, we not only get to exercise preferences in the political arena but also via the market transactions that we engage in.  It is the aggregation of such preferences that then feed into shaping not only how we humans live but also how we interact with the natural environment.

Most of us tend to think that we can be active only via the political process--by voting for a party or a candidate, or by organizing community action, or any of the possible political approaches.  But, we can equally, and perhaps more forcefully, cast our preferences via the market too.  Well, a variation of that old expression "put your money where your mouth is" can do wonders via the market, as opposed to the relatively no cost approach of signing on to petitions, for instance, to Free Tibet!

While I don't quite agree with the entire philosophy presented by Anna Lappe, the idea that I get across to students is no different from the succinct way she has put it:


When we spend money to buy the atrociously inexpensive widget that is made in China, well, we are also voting for the labor and environmental conditions there.  On the other hand, if we truly valued the labor and environmental conditions, then we could bypass those widgets, or offer to pay more for products that were manufactured while treating the labor and the natural environment a lot more responsibly to our liking.  Like how I pay more for the coffee that I buy--the premium goes towards better labor conditions and a more environmentally responsible coffee-growing.

The market will deliver if we exercised such preferences to create the kind of world that we want.  It is just that more often than not we don't put our money where our mouth is.  Talk is bloody cheap, right?

And, what if we dug deeper into how those widgets are made in some corner of the world?

Dana Liebelson writes in Mother Jones about trying to see where t-shirts are made.  Of course, the publication being Mother Jones is an immediate give-away on what to expect in the piece.  Yet, it is a must read.

Leibelson goes to my old country, India.  To my old part of the world there, Tamil Nadu.  And she goes to Coimbatore, which was another old stomping ground of mine.

The details that she writes about are troubling, indeed.  Will make most of us squirm in our seats and wish that we didn't know anything about all those.  Life is easier when we don't know.  Denial is a marvelous mechanism to have a blissful life.  But, attempting to understand the world means getting to know the atrocities all around that, ironically, seem to make our daily lives that much more comfortable.

So, how much at ease is Liebelson when she returns to the comforts of life in the US after finding out how the t-shirt is made?
A few months after I return from India, I go out to drinks with some friends, one of whom is wearing a rad pair of black tights with stripes up the sides. When I ask her where they came from, she proudly tells me that they cost just $20 at H&M. I don't push for details, because who am I to judge? I'm wearing a made-in-India Urban Outfitters shirt I bought before my trip. I looked at the label when I returned home, for the very first time. This is a thing I do now, even though it won't tell me what I want to know: Somewhere down the supply chain, did Aruna or Selvi make parts of my shirt?
Who am I to judge is a variation of "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone," right?

Liebelson concludes that essay recalling her meeting with, and interviewing, Lakshmi.  I wish Liebelson had pointed out the tragic irony of the name: Lakshmi is the name of the Hindu goddess of wealth, and here was a real life Lakshmi struggling for her very existence.
At 25, she was a year older than me, all of 4-foot-10, and wearing a beautiful orange dress covered with flowers that she had embroidered herself. Beginning at age 16, she worked at a spinning mill for five years, in conditions she called "torture." Supervisors offered her vacations in return for sex, and when she declined, she says they denied her lunch breaks. She was dyeing yarn with chemicals that burned her hands and gave her boils. Supervisors would only give girls gloves occasionally, deducting the cost from their pay. Her hands would go numb for days. After five years, she left with about $620—half of one month's rent on my studio apartment—and crippling ulcers. She has since spent her wages on doctors' bills, and there is nothing left for a dowry.
Caption at the New Yorker:
Lakshmi, 25, developed burns and boils on her hands from dyeing chemicals. "No man is going to marry me now," she says.
Lakshmi is trapped in circumstances that are beyond are her control.
I interviewed her in her room, which was filled with embroidered blankets. It was night, and the stars were as numerous as they are in the big sky of Montana, where I grew up. Through the open windows we could hear a chorus of insects. We took a photograph together, sitting on her cot, and she put her arm around me and grinned. A calico cat jumped from the dirt floor onto the bed. For that second, we were just two young women—unmarried, drinking tea, tired from a long day. But after we stood up, I knew that I would soon get on a plane to Washington, DC, where stores selling cheap leopard-print pumps and skinny jeans line the streets and no one expects me to give my entire salary to my parents for a dowry. And Lakshmi would still be here in this room, knowing—as she told me right after the photo was taken—that "no man is going to marry me now."
Perhaps another case of "there comes a point when you don't want to know."

Saturday, November 30, 2013

There comes a point when you don't want to know

There comes a point when you don't want to know.
After reading that final sentence of the short story, "Roadkill," in the latest issue of the New Yorker, it felt most appropriate for me to put that magazine down, turn the lights out, and go to sleep.  There was a lot for the mind to process.

In so many different contexts, I have wondered about that same sentiment that perhaps I didn't want to know anymore about whatever it was that I was interested in.  Every bit of knowing something seems to take away that much more from the otherwise possible blissful state.

The short story experience was after I had read this essay, in that same issue, about the growing discontent in China over pollution.  It was a narrative that was simple and direct.  An accidental environmentalist, Wang Jun, says:
G.D.P. ... doesn't mean anything if you don't have life.
You can see why I noted that my mind had a lot to process before drifting off to sleep.

The older I get, the more I am bothered by challenges like pollution and war and, the big picture of the human condition.  What is it exactly that we are trying to do?  As one of my graduate school professors often asked us, "what are you trying to maximize?"

I wish I could simply say I don't want to know.

For a few years now, I have always tried to make students in my classes think about whether it is worth all that to have China as the world's factory and, thus, have all the inexpensive stuff, when there is widespread pollution of unheard of proportions, which then ultimately is about the human condition there.

We are, by now, familiar with the level of pollution in Beijing or Shanghai.  And slowly we are also getting to learn about how much "environmental damage is much worse in smaller industrial cities."  Like at Handan, "which is two hundred and fifty miles to the southwest of Beijing."
Handan's average PM2.5 for the first half of this year was 130.5.  By comparison, Beijing's was 101.3 and Manhattan's was 8.3.  The W.H.O.'s guidelines say that any particulate matter is harmful, but it sets a PM2.5 target of 10.  In other words, the concentration in Handan was thirteen times worse than W.H.O.'s target.
There comes a point when you don't want to know.

I am, of course, not the only one to make jokes about whatever awful situation that I am in.  As much as I make fun of my hassles such as the solitary state, the people in Handan have their own ways of trying to laugh through this misery:
There's a joke that a Handan person went to Switzerland and the air was so good that he began to feel sick from all the oxygen ... So they quickly hooked up a tube to a car's exhaust pipe and he sucked on that for a while until he felt better.
Can't laugh though, can you?

As I tell students, as if I have to do full disclosures even though I am not required to, I am not even an environmental nutcase and even I am deeply troubled by all these.  It is not any drive within me to retain everything in its pristine condition and I understand that there will have to be tradeoffs.  But, we certainly seem to be giving up way too much in order to make sure that we can have the cheapest possible iPhone.

Earlier this morning, before beginning to blog about these, I read the interview with Romesh Gunasekara, the author of "Roadkill."  He notes there:
Art is forever trying to capture the fleeting moment, but this moment—post-war Sri Lanka—has an urgency that will not wait much longer. The past, the future, and even the present are unclear, but soon there will be a dominant narrative of these times, which will make it more difficult to remember those uncertainties.
In my classes, too, I try to help students make sense of the fleeting moment.  I suspect that most do not pay any attention to me, which is the norm anyway.  Perhaps they are already practicing the idea that there comes a point when you don't want to know?  Maybe they are wiser than me.

Caption at the New Yorker:
A newly built residential development in Handan on a typical morning, shrouded in thick smog

Friday, November 29, 2013

The truth is out there ...

There is no faith in science.

Because, one does not need faith in science.  The scientific method in the pursuit of explanations should convince anybody that the truth is out there, and that the truth cannot be hidden for long either.  There is no concept of only a few divinely chosen few having access to the truth.

Well, that is what a rational mind would think.  But then there are the nutcases, at the extreme right wing as well as the extreme left side, who think that they know better.

And they even go one step beyond that when they claim that scientists are cooking up some conspiracy together.  Here in the US of A--not in some caricatured traditional society!

A Distinguished Research Professor of Marine Chemistry at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego writes about the exchanges he has had with climate change deniers, and concludes there:
 In “The Inquisition of Climate Change” (2011), James Powell wrote, “I have come to believe that in the denial of global warming, we are witnessing the most vicious, and so far most successful, attack on science in history.”
I now have a firsthand appreciation of this entrenched hostility to science, especially that related to global climate change and future warming. What I do not understand is the reason for this hostility. 
It is one heck of a bizarre society in which I live, with all kinds of lunatics waging wars against reason, convinced about their faith in whatever narrative it is that suits them.

What the deniers don't understand is this: yes, scientists might get something wrong.  But, it is the same scientific method to pursue the explanations that also then uncovers the mistakes.  Like in this case, in which a study claimed that "rats fed Monsanto's GM corn had suffered tumours and multiple organ failure."
The publisher of a controversial and much-criticised study suggesting genetically modified corn caused tumours in rats has withdrawn the paper after a year-long investigation found it did not meet scientific standards.
Tada!  The truth is out there!

A friend sent me a link to this note from the American Meteorological Society, in the context of the misleading ways in which a climate change denying group had gone about a survey:
Rather than take someone else’s interpretation of the survey results, read the paper yourself and draw your own conclusions.  It is freely available here as an Early Online Release.
A difference between the AMS and some organizations is the transparency and scientific integrity with which we operate.  This survey was conducted to satisfy scientific curiosity on an important topic and the results are published for all to see.  This is the way science is meant to work.
If only corporations and government, too, were as transparent in their processes as the scientific method is!  Oh, but should we wish for such transparency?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Should we start blaming ... Janet Yellen?

Sometime tomorrow, before the football games begin, at least some of the students in my classes will start thinking about the final papers and readings and assignments.  I hoped they thanked me for all that!  Hey, a man can wish for that, can't he? ;)

It also means that I have to prepare for the flood of assignments and papers and final exams.  Students never fail to point out that I can easily make lives easier for all of us, including me, if I didn't have all those readings and require all that work.  We ought to thank the stars for the humor that we have, which greases the otherwise ever present friction that threatens to stop us from moving forward.

But, of course, every once in a while even the best prepared will not turn in the work on time.  In the old, old days, the joke was that the dog ate the homework.  But, we live in a modern era.  So, the last few years, we blamed it all on ...

I wonder whether every morning the last few years Ben Bernanke woke up feeling awesome that he has the best job in the world.  If Bernanke didn't do his work, I wonder whom he blamed!

Soon, his turn will be over.  We will have to update ourselves and start blaming Janet Yellen for the homework that students don't complete.


As long as I am not blamed ... ;)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The world doesn't stop because it is Thanksgiving in the US

Our views of the world depends on where we view it from.  A couple of years ago, I asked students in one of my classes whether they had thought about how Native Americans might view Thanksgiving.  It didn't surprise me that they hadn't, and nor did I find them to be at fault.  In our daily lives, we usually look at the world only from where we are.

A celebration for one might not all that a great achievement for another.  It is simply impossible that all of us will be in a celebratory mood even on any given day.  That is life.

Here in the US, on a day like Thanksgiving, it is not that the grim reaper will take the day off in order to spend time with his family to say thanks.  Deaths will happen.  It also means then that to those families and friends, every Thanksgiving in the future will become a day to remember that death too.  Or, consider the families whose near and dear ones are waging their own medical battles in order to live or die.  For them, this Thanksgiving will not be all celebratory either.

And then there is that vast world outside the US.  Do I need to even expand on my point here?

So, why such a depressing post?

All because I read Dilbert's Scott Adam's note at his blog (ht.)  Adams writes about his father who was dying and about the painful death.
My father, age 86, is on the final approach to the long dirt nap (to use his own phrase). His mind is 98% gone, and all he has left is hours or possibly months of hideous unpleasantness in a hospital bed. I'll spare you the details, but it's as close to a living Hell as you can get.
If my dad were a cat, we would have put him to sleep long ago. And not once would we have looked back and thought too soon.

Because it's not too soon. It's far too late. His smallish estate pays about $8,000 per month to keep him in this state of perpetual suffering. Rarely has money been so poorly spent.

I'd like to proactively end his suffering and let him go out with some dignity. But my government says I can't make that decision. Neither can his doctors. So, for all practical purposes, the government is torturing my father until he dies.
As one who has never stopped thinking about this issue, and given that only a few days ago I filed a copy of my "advanced directives" at my doctor's office, well, of course, I am in agreement with what Adams writes there.

Adams expresses his raw emotions:
If you have acted, or plan to act, in a way that keeps doctor-assisted suicide illegal, I see you as an accomplice in torturing my father, and perhaps me as well someday. I want you to die a painful death, and soon. And I'd be happy to tell you the same thing to your face.
A tough issue, which will only get tougher as we live very long lives and as medical advancements prolong the agony of dying that would have otherwise ended without the advancements.  At least, I live in Oregon where I can legally preempt such situations in my own life.

Adams includes an update that his father died a few hours after he had posted that.  In deaths like that, I would think that the family and friends are always immensely thankful that the pain and suffering for that person has come to an end.  It is simply horrendous to watch a person suffer--perhaps even tougher for the friends and family who have to face life after that kind of a traumatic experience?

Here is to looking forward to less suffering as we continue to move forward.  And may we have more rational and humane debates on this important social issue.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Recycling for Thanksgiving

Recycling as in using materials from some of my older posts at the blog!

With Thanksgiving round the corner, I reviewed some of my posts, and came across the following two:

First, from 2009, in which I noted that my life is way less complicated compared with this::
This will be my first Thanksgiving as a vegetarian—excuse me—as a black vegetarian from the Southern United States. As in Texas. As in raised on meat as much as milk. My dad barbecued every weekend. Sunday dinners revolved around collards and green beans with turkey chunks in every forkful, salads and baked potatoes were always sprinkled with bacon. Thanksgiving always included fried turkeys
This year, I’ll be bringing the Tofurky. 
A wonderful short essay.  Read it here

The best line there is this one though:
Vegetarianism is the dietary equivalent of Republicanism in the black community
And, given the phenomenal overeating that happens, well, this one from the same year (the image is from the Economist):

Gobble, gobble, gobble ;)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

From this turn, walk by ...

During a class discussion a few years ago, a student remarked something that quickly led to a tangential response from another student.  One of the charms of teaching a class in the real world and not in cyberspace.  Anyway, that tangential remark was about how she suffered from the "middle child syndrome."

Naturally, it got my curiosity--I, too, am a middle child, with an elder sister and a younger brother.

The student's point was that her parents were excited about their first child, the third one was the pet, but she, like the typical middle child, always got lost in the shuffle.

I told the class that might very well explain my favorite Rodney Dangerfield complaint, which is the story of my life: I don't get no respect.  We chuckled.

Back when we were kids, my sister used to listen to Hindi film songs--which is how I got hooked on to the old songs, and then I kept going back in time in my tastes!  Ameen Sayani's "Binaca Geetmala" was a favorite of hers.

Once, during the high school years, she and her friend, "M," decided to practice singing a song together, for the fun of it.  Years later--almost forty years later--she does not remember what song it was.  And, even worse, she has no memory whatsoever of this insane singing session that she and her friend had at home.

A couple of years ago, I asked my brother about it.  He recalled his contribution--to stop, or rewind, or fast forward the tape that was the "lesson" that the girls were practicing.  He immediately hummed a tune, which, according to him, was the one we were tortured with.  Old as I am, I promptly forgot which song it was.  But, I am tempted to put my money on this one as the culprit:

So, why the title of this post?

In addition to that being a statement on life--that there are bends and turns along the path of life, well, it is also from an old Hindi song:

Life is full of twists and turns.  But, hey, it turns out that having been a middle child was not a bad deal, after all--I wouldn't have these stories if I hadn't had a sibling ahead of me and another always chasing my heels ;)

Within you. Without you.

After what seemed like a long, long time, I visited with my friend.  The Willamette River, that is.

It is not that the weather was particularly awful for me to have shunned my friend.  There were quite a few walk-friendly days.  But I didn't go.

Not that the river yelled and screamed at me for me to be pissed off at the waters.  The cosmos doesn't care.  It is. That's it.

Good days and bad days are less a function of the weather and more dependent on the state of one's mind.  I am willing to bet that there are people who are depressed in Tahiti and there are quite a few happy campers in Moldova too.

So, well, a man's got to do what a man has got to do.  I, pretending to be a man, went for a walk for by the river.

It didn't take me long to figure out that there was a world outside my mind's world.  A world in which the sun shines, the river flows with a noise over the boulders, the grass is green, and trees are proudly nude.  A world made for you and me, it seems.

Very few were out on the path.  There was a good reason--the local football team was playing, which was being telecast, and the maniacal couch potatoes couldn't be bothered, I suppose.  If only they had known how awful the game would turn out for their Ducks, well, they, too, would have enjoyed the walk by the river under a bright sun on a cool fall afternoon.  The loss was theirs, a double one at that!

A man with a backpack was carrying a pink scooter on one hand.  And then I saw a kid walking ahead of him with her helmet in her hand.  With her were two other kids--one on a bike and another on a scooter.  No wonder the man, perhaps the father of all the three, was walking with a backpack full of whatever supplies the kids need--and the pink scooter, of course.

Fathers and mothers do the strangest tasks, all to make their children's lives happy.  The girl had no worries about the scooter--after all, there was dad to carry it.  If she felt tired, I bet she knew that her father would carry her too.

I am not sure whether they will grow up to appreciate the father for the small and big things he does.  Mos of us do not.  When we were kids, we took our parents for granted.  Perhaps we even found fault with them for not doing something, rather than thank them for doing everything they did.

The father was walking at the kids' pace and I soon passed him and drew even with the kids.  The boy was wearing a pair of shorts.  Young blood is much warmer, I thought to myself.

He apparently read my mind.  "I am gettin' cold" he remarked to the two girls.

"My fingers went numb a few minutes ago" responded the girl on the scooter.

Could she have meant the "minutes"?  Wasn't she way too young to know about hours and minutes?  Is it true that kids these days are smarter than the kids of the past--just like how my grandmothers used to comment about us kids?

I was soon way ahead of them, and was lost in my own thoughts.  I remembered reading somewhere that normally we are able to have a conversation within ourselves and we know it is all in our head.  But, for some, the struggle among the neurons is a chaos, which is why they can't seem to figure out that the internal thoughts are not some spooks telling them stuff.  I thanked the cosmos for whatever sanity I think I have.

I saw a large group of friends and families heading to the river, and it was quite a sight.  Well, not humans, but:

Naturally, I gave them the space and time and then followed them.

It looked like a bulletin had gone out and all the birds were meeting that the place!

To think that I might have missed all these if I hadn't stepped out to visit with my old friend!

Tomorrow's another day!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I will speak what you like ... if you say nice things about Afghanistan

It all began when I listened to this beautiful song from the old country.  Even with my rudimentary Hindi, I could piece together the meaning of the lyrics, but scanned the web for a translation just to make sure.  "I will speak what you like" in the title for this blog post is the opening line and theme of that song expressing love.

No, this post is not about those emotions of the heart.  Even better!

About Afghanistan.

Yes, about Afghanistan.

How does one go from that old Bollywood song to Afghanistan?  Simple.  Thanks to the actor who lip-syncs through that melody--Feroz Khan.

Feroz Khan was born to a Pashtun (Pathan) from Ghazni--well, the father had immigrated to India with the British departing, and his mother was of Persian descent.  He was born in Bangalore.  What a story of globalization, eh!

Time and again, I am impressed with how the old country has always been a melting pot, way before that phrase was attached to the new country.  People came from all over.  Conquerors came. They brought along ideas. Art, music, food, science, you name it.  When they left, whether they were fully aware of it or not, a great deal of India went with them to wherever they went.

If I often comment about India as being in the international crossroads, well, so was Afghanistan, with with all the stories of invaders from Central Asia coming through there and the Khyber Pass.  Of course, Alexander, too from the other side of the world.

That is pretty much the same sentiment expressed in the context of food by Raghavan Iyer, an Indian-American who is now the president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals:
What Indians are masterful at is with every foreign invasion, with every influence from colleagues that came and settled in India, whether it be traders or rulers, they all brought with them a certain technique.
They all brought with them ingredients. We took that and we embraced it and we made it part of our own. So it has constantly emerged.
With that kind of a long history of globalization, well, we thus had Feroz Khan the Pathan (Pashtun) in India. In Hindi movies. A star in his heyday.

Yes, he even made a movie set in Afghanistan.  Yes, he did.  How fascinating!  A movie was apparently shot in Afghanistan.  Imagine that!

Of course, the movie was shot before the civil war--though not necessarily termed that way--which then brought the Soviets in a couple of years later.  The young me, a geopolitical junkie even then, read the news reports in the Hindu every single day, but could never understand why Afghanistan had to be such a battleground.  Nor do I understand it even as a middle-aged guy counting down his existence.

It does immensely sadden me when I hear talking heads make comments, and read the pundits' opinions, that do not recognize Afghanistan's glorious past.  I am not even from that country!

Consider, for instance, the Ghazni where Feroz Khan's people came from.  In history classes, and even in casual conversations, back in my childhood days, often there were references to Mahmud of Ghazni.  Not merely because of his conquests, but more importantly as an inspiration to never, ever, give up.  He was the figure that parents and teachers pointed out as example of one who tried and tried until he won.

We humans are messed up.  Instead of singing and dancing and eating and laughing, we manage to find reasons to screw up the lives of many others.

At least we have the gorgeous songs, like this one, made possible by Feroz Khan's movies.

Thanks, Feroz Khan. 

Thanks, Afghanistan; I hope things settle down, soon. Maybe, some day, I will even go to Ghazni, eh!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Poem for a cold November night. Cold day too!

Frosty has arrived on the rooftops and on the grass.  Two consecutive mornings of feeling blasted by the cold air when I ventured out to the front porch to get the newspaper.

The car's thermometer display said 27 degrees (not in Celsius!) when I left home yesterday for work.  This morning, it feels that the overnight temperature might have been down to 20 or even the high teens.  Way, way below the normal for this time of the year.  I suppose old man winter is poking his head early through the couple of leaves left on the trees.

It is this cold because it has not rained for a while.  The sky is clear--plenty of sunlight during the day, and moonlight streams in through the windows in the night.  Makes me fondly miss the grey, overcast, and rainy conditions because if we had those rains, the temperature would never dip this low.

Back in India, in high school physics, we learnt about how cloudy nights are warmer.  That was one of the many "theoretical" ideas that made me wonder why we didn't have more local, contextual examples to work with.  I recall another situation too, which was also about heat.  In that word problem, a guy orders coffee for himself and his friend, who is expected to join him in five minutes.  He adds cream to his cup of coffee, while the friend's coffee is black.  The question asked us to think about which cup would be the warmer of the two when the friend arrives after five minutes.

I had no problems working out the physics of cooling.  But, I could not understand why they made coffee that way--after all, I was only used to the traditional பில்ட்டர் காபி, which is something like the latte we drink here.  Perhaps it was me and my limited imagination, but back then I thought the whole coffee by itself was pretty darn stupid.  Even more confusing was the "cream" part; what the heck was that!

All because the book used examples from a cultural context that was alien to me.  Alien then.  Not strange anymore.  Now, I routinely drink black coffee, and buy cream or milk only if I have to take care of a visiting friend.

Back as a kid, "the weather outside is freezing" was also nothing but a theoretical understanding.  Now, I experience it, a lot more than I would like to.  It is almost as if I came here to this part of the world to do the practicals, as we referred to the lab work then, in order to understand the theory.

I scanned the web for poems that would tell the story of a cold night in November. I lucked out; here is one:
November Night
by Adelaide Crapsey
Listen. . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A lot to be thankful for

"How are you?" she asked with a big smile.

"Doing well. Thanks" I said.

After a long time, I was at her checkout counter.  "How is your grandson doing?"

"He is good.  Thanks for asking."

To me, there is small talk, and then there is small talk.  The small talk at a regular joint is something like a serialized short story, which has a "to be continued" at the end of the talk.  So, of course, I remembered to inquire about her grandson.

"Today he starts his physical therapy ... right now he has a gangster kind of dragging, limping walk" and she demonstrated it.

When we walk around, we have no idea how lucky we are to walk around.  How effortless that is.  How we take that for granted.  If we were to stub a toe against the furniture, we momentarily appreciate what we had thanks to the misfortune, but then very quickly life returns to normalcy.  A fracture that immobilizes us for a few days makes us frustrated about the hassles.  If only we realized that every knock--big or small--is nothing but an opportunity for us to be thankful for what we have.  We don't because, well, we are human.

"Do you guys--sorry, do you--do Thanksgiving?"

The more multicultural the interactions, the more we have to consciously, and conscientiously, inquire about customs and practices.  Over the years, I have come to realize that effortless interactions across cultures even requires an understanding of the cultures. I bet she also knows that, which is why she quickly changed the "guys" to "you" to avoid the potential implications: the "guys" could mean people like me from India; "guys" could potentially make it uncomfortable for a single person like me.

"Oh, I think Thanksgiving ought to be a universal thing" I told her.  I was tempted to tell her about the op-ed piece I wrote on this a few years ago.  But then who cares for my stories!

"But, if your question was about the whole turkey thing, well, no ... "

Small talk is no different from any conversation.  It was now my turn to ask her.  "So, you getting ready for the turkey day?  I suppose you folks will be very thankful with the grandson's health ..."

"Yes ... am doing the cooking.  As long as we can all maintain the peace for 24 hours ..." and she smiled.

As I walked back to the car, I knew that more than anything, I was thankful that the terrible, terrible, terrible headache that had been bugging me for more than a day was gone.  Small thing, yes, but what a difference a day makes!

To be continued ...

Synthetic life. Biochemistry. Genomics. And my ignorance of it all!

"Life's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get" said the philosopher Forrest Gump.  Well, I never know what I will get on the television.

I flicked to ABC.  It was the last quarter of the USC-Stanford game.  With the Cardinal's football ranking competing with the university's academic status, and the Trojans still reeling from the NCAA sanctions, it was a surprise that the game was tied at 17.  Every once in a while, a match is that way--it still has to be played out for the win, and the higher ranked player or team is not guaranteed a victory.  For a while, it appeared that neither team was able to breakthrough, until USC played for it all with a gamble on a fourth down. The rest, as they say, now belongs to the fabled Trojan history.

Oh, did I mention that I earned my graduate degrees at USC? ;)

After pottering around for a while, I returned to my favorite weekend channel: BookTV.  One of the best channels ever in the lineup.  The number of hours that I have logged in front of BookTV!

It was Craig Venter talking about his research work.  I watched it as if I was a registered student in a course that Venter was teaching.  I made mental notes to myself. I learnt a lot.  I thought about them.  And then went to the BookTV website and even extracted a 15-minute video clip and tweeted about it.  I was that pumped up!
It was only thanks to Venter's lecture that I understood how urea, and synthesizing it--back in 1828--was itself an important and revolutionary step.  In the slide that Venter put up was this sentence:
The Wohler synthesis is of historical significance because for the first time an organic compound was produced from inorganic reactants.  
I am confident that we never got to know this from high school chemistry, when we spent those couple of months on organic chemistry.  What is worse is this: we lived in a town where a fertilizer factory produced urea; how could they have missed out on conveying to us the significance of urea synthesis from such a perspective too!

Venter and his team of researchers, and other scientists all over the world, have now come a long, long way from that first step of organic chemistry.  His talk was mostly about the key steps over the years, which finally led to the publication of their research in Science, on "providing proof of principle for the production of cells from digitized sequence information," which was the cover story as well in July 2010:


When Venter got into talking about the applications, it felt like it was science fiction.  But, some are already underway.  Some are already happening--like creating vaccines from the digitized sequence information.  Essentially to cook up the vaccine based on a recipe.  No need to wait for months for the egg-based vaccine production process that we now have!

The futuristic scenarios were impressive, and a tad scary as well.

Similar to how in 3D printing we can send the details as electronic ones and zeros and then print the object wherever, Venter offers the possibility of vaccine production labs spread all across the world, which will produce the vaccine from the digital information that will be delivered to them.

Even better was his description of the possibility (though it might be highly regulated) of us sitting at home by our computers and medical dispensing machines--like how we have printers now--and prescriptions like insulin or vaccines will then be sent over to the machine, which will then create them for us at our homes.  (Check out this video clip from his talk)

Or how it might be possible for something like a Curiosity Rover to digitize a life form on Mars (should it find one there) send across the sequence to the ground-station here on Earth and we then assemble it--a biological teleportation!

Even more reasons for me to wonder what it means to be human.

Those were all over the weekend.  This morning, I read this in the news:
Frederick Sanger, the British biochemist who twice won the Nobel Prize, has died at the age of 95.
My first thought was this: there was a British scientist who was awarded the Nobel twice?  In the same field? How come he is not a highly celebrated figure?  Why isn't he a household name?  Ballplayers get venerated as gods, and this scientist was condemned to obscurity among the public?

Turns out that his work is intimately connected to the Venter research stories; what a coincidence!
The first came in 1958 for developing techniques to work out the precise chemical structure of proteins.
Proteins are made up of amino-acids. Dr Sanger was able to determine which amino-acids and in what order were used to build the hormone insulin.
He then turned to DNA and its building blocks, bases.
Dr Sanger's group produced the first whole genome sequence, made up of more than 5,000 pairs of bases, in a virus.
He was awarded his second Nobel Prize in 1980 for developing "Sanger sequencing" - a technique which is still used today. 
How fascinating!

But, even more impressive was this:
"He remains the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry - recognising his unique contribution to the modern world.
"Yet he was a disarmingly modest man, who once said: 'I was just a chap who messed about in his lab'.
What an old-fashioned virtue--modesty!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Will college students understand the humor here?


And solve the murder puzzle as well?

Need help?

Yet another reason why students should take science courses and, more importantly, retain that knowledge, right?  After all, would you really want to miss out on such thoughtful entertainment?  haha!

Maybe I should think about final exams for students that will be based on such humor. ...  Nah, I want to continue to earn a paycheck for a few more years ;)

BTW, can this murder mystery compete against the fabled shortest short story?

Monday, November 18, 2013

A sesquipedalian I am not. A dilettante?

A few years ago, when I was reviewing applications from students for the Honors Program, I had to pause and re-read a word in one of the applications.  Sesquipedalian.

Sesqui... what?

I had to refer to a dictionary and understand that word.  The story of my life, actually!

Even a few months ago, when a friend commented that I was a raconteur, I referred to a dictionary to find out what he meant.  Relieved I was after finding out it was a compliment!  I then emailed him about the dictionary experience and he thought I was playing him for the fool. And, I proudly wore that badge!  I tell ya, some day soon people will realize that I mean it when I say I don't know a damn thing and that is when I will be fired.  Until then, I will keep collecting my paycheck; thank you very much! ;)

Throughout my formative years, I was very happy with the rather limited vocabulary I had.  It didn't bother me one bit that I didn't have a wide range of fancy words to choose from.  Whenever my father quoted something from Shakespeare, well, there were times I wondered whether that was a foreign language he was speaking.

The five-cent words served my purpose well.  Perhaps that is also why I so much loved, and love, the works by Hemingway and Bradbury, for instance.  Simple story telling, while the stories themselves are far from simple and are profound.

But then came the GRE requirement to apply to graduate schools in the US.  Those GRE words are something else!  I had no choice but to add at least a few more to my database.

Which is when I came across a word that caught my attention: dilettante.

If curiosity killed the proverbial cat, well, curiosity is why I am stuck where I am!  Anyway, the curious me looked up that word in the primitive dictionary I had in those pre-internet days.

I was shocked with the meaning.  I felt it was directed at me.  I was a dilettante.  No, I am a dilettante.

I worried that, given my limited abilities, I will come across, at best, as a dilettante after an undergrad in engineering and graduate studies in a completely different field.  While I have no recollection of what I found from that primitive dictionary, here is Google's explanation of the word:
a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.
You see why I was worried then, and why I am concerned even now?

It is one thing to be a polymath, but very few of us can be that versatile.  Most of us struggle to do even one thing well.  A polymath wannabe like me then risks being nothing more than a dilettante?

Maybe it is best to not know anything anymore.  Ignorance can be blissful, as my life experiences tell me.

Wait, maybe I should search for a fancy GRE word for ignorance, eh!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Give a man free fish ... soon he will be bored and will choose to pay for them!

With the exception of people like my super-wealthy gazillionaire friend (haha!) or people like me who, according to my neighbor, never works for a living, most dread the weekdays and look forward to weekends and holidays.

We are a strange species.  We bring all the trouble of work on ourselves and then dream about not having to work.  We chain ourselves, put a lock on it and throw the key away, and then dream of being free at least every two days of the week.

Some of the most free people that I have met in my life were in the villages like Pattamadai and Sengottai.  Seemingly in sync with the hot temperature conditions, where even a brisk walk can tire a person, there was a whole lot of doing nothing.  We folks from urban and industrial areas, having been used to working in order to earn the privilege of sitting around twice a week, found that kind of a rustic life to be dull and boring and even labeled them as lazy for not doing anything.

The older I get, the less clear I am on who is really free.

We dream of a future, made possible by science and technology, when we won't have to work at all.  Robots that clean the homes. Ready-to-consume nutritious food in full and plenty (even if it will be in unrecognizable forms to us in the present.)  A future in which even firefighters won't have any work because nothing synthetic will ever crash or burn thanks to advancements in science and technology.   In that future, we will have all the free time in the world.  Or, at least, more weekends than weekdays.

When students complain about income inequality and unemployment--about which I have been worried for a long time, evidenced by the number of blog posts on those issues--sometimes I have thrown at them a different scenario to think about.  What if those profiting from automation and outsourcing agreed to guarantee every American an income that will be at higher-than-poverty level, and they can work and earn more if they chose to?  The possibility of a permanent vacation. Every day will be a weekend. A Sengottai/Pattamadai life of minimal work.

Almost always, students do not like that idea.  Sitting around, or even standing around in a museum, doing nothing can become a bore.  Fishing is fun when you do it once in a while, but not day in day out.  Or, given the Puritanical streak, some see the virtue in working as a means of not merely earning a livelihood but about feeling good about oneself and the path to god and heaven.

Of course, that guaranteed minimum income is only a thought experiment.  But, I am not the only one who has been thinking like that--I am merely an insignificant person to think about it ;)
A simple idea for eliminating poverty is garnering greater attention in recent weeks: automatically have the government give every adult a basic income.
The Atlantic's Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker brought up the idea a few weeks ago when they contemplated cutting poverty in half, and Annie Lowrey revisited it in today's issue of the New York Times Magazine.
See, there are quite a few of us loons out there!

Why are we even constructing such thought experiments?  Because it makes things simpler at one level:
a minimum income would also allow us to eliminate every government benefit as well. Get rid of SNAP, TANF, housing vouchers, the Earned Income tax credit and many others. Get rid of them all. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report found that the federal government spends approximately $750 billion each year on benefits for low-income Americans and that rises to a clean trillion when you factor in state programs. Eliminate all of those and the net figure comes out to $1.2 trillion needed to pay for a universal basic income, still a hefty sum.
Interesting, right?  I tell ya, this thinking business is a whole lot of entertainment that no amount of sports and movies can equal ;)

Of course, with a Congress that can't even figure out what color toilet paper to use, such radical approaches will forever remain only as thought experiments.  It does not mean that there are no attempts--they are not here in the US though!
Switzerland’s citizens will soon vote on a referendum to give each working-age adult in Switzerland a basic income of $2,800 (2,500 francs) per month.
We are living in some interesting times.

A couple of miles outside Sengottai