Thursday, January 31, 2013

If it is Thursday, it must be science for lunch?

My science craving was a bit too uncontrollable today.  I had no choice but to feed that damn thing.  And, my, what awesome science food I had today!

A regular feature at the Scientific American, of answering science questions, had three awesome questions with wonderful explanations.  It was difficult for me to pick one from the three; if I am really, really, forced to, I would choose this question:
Let's say I'm an alien on a ship 65 million or more light-years away. Using a telescope, I look at Earth and I see dinosaurs living their daily lives. If my ship started travelling towards earth near the speed of light. Would I see the dinosaurs moving faster--fast-forwarded?
Of course, such a question wouldn't matter to those crazy creationists in any religion, who believe that there is nothing called 65 million years ago.  But, for the rest of us, this is one fascinating question.  Yes, an old one--a variation of the old one that Einstein talked about and the one that we were introduced to in high school.  But, I never get tired with any of the variations.  I am always, always, impressed that old man Einstein was so awesome!

So, what is the answer?  Don't be lazy; check it out :)

And then there was another.

It was not a topic I would have guessed would be at the Scientific American.

It was about the great financial collapse. About those complex derivatives and subprime loans and other mumbo-jumbos.

With a catchy title: The Real, and Simple, Equation That Killed Wall Street

What the ... what?  A simple equation that contributed to the Great Recession?
Really?  This equation?
The equation, though simple, reveals one dangerous truth that investors love to exploit.
Really? How?

It is the equation for a leveraged return, L:
Y is the return of the asset, R is the cost to borrow money, and N is the “haircut,” or the percentage of money the investor must put down to secure the loan (the down payment).
A simple example. An investor wants to buy a bond returning 7% using borrowed money. The bank requires them to pay 20% in cash with the remaining 80% lent at a rate of 5%. What is the leveraged return?
So after borrowing, a 7% return is turned into 15%.  Kaboom!
Kaboom, indeed!

Of course, there is a lot more to it; read it and weep!

Science matters, folks. Science!

The college mania: the road to hell is paved with good intentions

I have sent the following piece to the Oregonian ... will update this post if and when it is published
...Update: the quick reply from the editor reads: "Thanks for writing. I'll use this in the next week or two."

The 40‐40‐20 plan has set a goal that by 2025, 40 percent of adult Oregonians will have earned bachelor’s degrees or higher; another 40 percent would have earned associate degrees; while the rest would have high school diplomas. This goal is not in the best interests of the children whose futures we are planning for.

In the first place, why 40‐40‐20? Why not 35‐35‐30 or any other numerical combination, in contrast to the roughly 30‐20‐40 split that we have today? A standard requirement in public policymaking is that we evaluate such targets by doing cost‐benefit analysis, which will give us an understanding of how the investment across the alternatives might be returned by a future date. It does not appear that the 40‐40‐20 went through such an analysis.

Thus, the 40‐40‐20 idea essentially means that we are betting that this is the best way to prepare today’s kids for the world of 2025. This assumes that we are also certain about the economic reality of the future. But, by doing so, we forget a profound Yogi Berra insight: it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. Here is an example: back in the year 2000, how many amongst us would have correctly predicted the American and global economy of today? Very few would have even correctly guessed, for instance, that Facebook and smartphones would transform our lives in ways that we could not have imagined.

If there is one thing we can state quite confidently, it is that not only can we expect changes, we can also expect those changes to occur at much faster rates than it was the case in the past. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” is perhaps a better way to approach the future. In that case, how do we know that it will be a 40‐40‐20 mix that will be in the best interests of the children of today?

Further, pursuing a 40‐40‐20 goal loads up the dice, so to say, in favor of college. If that is what we as a society truly want in our children, then, to use another favorite American expression, we ought to put our money where our mouth is. But, there is simply no way we will be able to pay for all those associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, which means that the costs will be borne by students, who might not be able to reap any dividend at all from that expensive investment.

Finally, if a sole focus on economic productivity is the trigger behind the 40‐40‐20 target, we ought to then keep in mind that even now it is not uncommon to run into baristas and bartenders with bachelor’s degrees—there is an over‐production of college graduates in an economic structure that needs only specific types of collegiate education. The plan will only worsen the economic futures of those betting on college, especially with costly student loans.

An idea often expressed in urban planning is equally applicable in this public policy context: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We need a serious rethink on this rush to college, before it gets too late.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

So what if cuts in defense spending shrink the economy?

It is one of those news items that might seem like bad news, but is not:
The U.S. economy unexpectedly shrank from October through December, the first quarterly drop since 2009 and a reminder of the economy’s vulnerability as automatic cuts in government spending loom.
I do not mean to suggest that a contraction in the economy is good, when unemployment, especially among the educated youth, is at levels that are way higher than a "normal" rate of unemployment.

It is a good news because of the underlying reasons for the contraction:
The decline in federal spending last quarter was the largest drop since 1973. Spending at all levels of government fell 6.6% in the period.
That drop was the primary culprit for the economy contracting, said Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers.
"Several private-sector components of GDP continued to make positive contributions," Mr. Krueger said. "A likely explanation for the sharp decline in Federal defense spending is uncertainty concerning the automatic spending cuts that were scheduled to take effect in January," and are now set for March 1.
I am cheering not because I a rabid libertarian who believes that all government is evil.  But because at least for a short while we have had a drop in military expenditure.  A slight, very slight, tempering of our war infrastructure is something that ought to relieve us.  If only we can continue to go after the military budget, which, if not for the "fiscal cliff," is always treated as a sacred cow that had to be fed more and more. (too many metaphors?)

If we don't spend money on guns, then we will have more money for butter.  The more we can decrease spending on guns, the better off we will be.  Do not allow yourself to be scared into thinking that this drop in defense spending is bad news.
Economists stressed that the key factors that dragged on GDP in the fourth quarter could prove short-lived, even though the economy faces other threats in 2013.
“Frankly, this is the best-looking contraction in U.S. GDP you’ll ever see,” Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a research note. “The drag from defense spending and inventories is a one-off. The rest of the report is all encouraging.”
For all of 2012, the economy expanded 2.2 percent, better than 2011’s growth of 1.8 percent.
We might already be witnessing the "more butter" aspects:
consumer spending accelerated and business investment rebounded, suggesting some fundamental strength that should help to support the recovery even as Washington tightens its belt.
"We are not concerned that the economy is slipping back into recession," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.
A second report showed private employers stepped up hiring in January, suggesting an improvement in the labor market. 
Yep, we don't need a gazillion more bombs and fighter planes and submarines and drones.  Think about the many ways we could constructively spend all that money! (the chart compares the top five military budgets in 2012.)

Is China's pollution its Chernobyl?

It was not even three weeks ago that I blogged about the unheard of, off-the-charts, pollution levels in China.      Looks like it has not eased up much to make life better:
Dangerously high pollution levels have shrouded Beijing in smog for the second time in about two weeks, forcing airlines to cancel flights because of poor visibility and prompting the city government to warn residents to stay indoors.
The outlines of buildings in the Chinese capital receded into a white mist as pedestrians donned face masks to guard against the thick, caustic air.

The new year--the year of the snake--is only ten days away, and there will be that tremendous volume of vacation traffic.  I shudder, even from the safety of my home, thinking about a traffic jam even half as bad as that horrendous one that lasted for days on.

People are talking about it.  Yes, the Chinese people are!
Public debate over the smog has increased in recent months, with state media taking an active part.
In an editorial on Tuesday, China Daily said that Beijing will not become a liveable city unless it "improves its living environment".
"Of all the things that need improving, cleaner air will be at the top of many people's wish list," it said in a piece that looked at challenges for incoming Mayor Wang Anshun.
A new set of leaders. A humongous problem about which people are not willing to keep quiet.  Could this possibly set the stage for some serious reforms in China?

I am thinking of a parallel of sorts, triggered by this article in Slate:
Fewer than six years elapsed between the meltdown at Chernobyl and the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union—six years marked by suspicion of government, dissatisfaction with public safety, and demands for greater transparency. Could Chernobyl have caused the first, most fundamental crack in the Soviet state and led to its collapse?
An interesting question linking Chernobyl and the Soviet Union.
According to Gorbachev, the Chernobyl explosion was a “turning point” that “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” Gorbachev introduced his policy of glasnost, or “openness” of ideas and expression, not long before the Chernobyl explosion. It was his remedy for widespread censorship and government secrecy. To Gorbachev, Chernobyl proved the wisdom and necessity of glasnost. The explosion and attendant tumult, he claims, “made absolutely clear how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost.”
Interesting, right?  What I liked even better in that article is the following observation:
Chernobyl, then, represented a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Soviet citizenry and the state. Before the explosion, most Soviets were not discontented dissidents; they believed in the Soviet system, forgave its flaws, and hoped for a better future within its confines. But after Chernobyl, the system seemed potentially unredeemable—and actively dangerous. In the early days of glasnost, stories of Stalin’s mass murders decades earlier slowly bubbled to the fore, but those generally receded, so far removed were they from everyday life. After Chernobyl, though, every citizen’s safety was at stake.
The uncontrolled and growing pollution--not only of the air, but water and the soil, too--could this become China's Chernobyl that will trigger a glasnost?

I turned to my favorite China-watcher: James Fallows. I hoped that he might have some comments there on the pollution crisis and how it might affect the legitimacy of the state.  He didn't have anything on the political dimension, but has a lot about the growing worries over the public health aspects.  Fallows writes:
I do know that the pollution level in China is terrible; that (even) the Chinese press is sounding the warning about the effects; and that in other parts of the world toxins have of course been shown to cause physical and mental defects and diseases. This is a very big problem in China, perhaps even bigger than people there yet know.
Fallows also has this photo there:
Here's a picture posted on Twitter just now from a friend in Beijing, showing the view from the 30th floor out toward our former neighborhood.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

If a cigar is not always a cigar, then a chocolate ...?

When our high school class met after thirty years, one classmate brought along with him delicious chocolates that were handmade by his daughter.  At that time, it was a serious hobby of hers, and my friend was a dutiful father helping her out.

A few months after that, the young woman decided to build up that hobby into a full-fledged job.  It was not the same old chocolate alone that she was making:
We have a diverse range from the traditional nuts to fruit-filled chocolates to more traditional flavours like Indian Indulgence and spicy chocolate. A whole range is in the trial phase and are yet to be introduced in the menu.
I think she is on to something--the idea that chocolate is not merely something we have as a KitKat or a Mars bar.  There is a lot more to chocolate, where we can enjoy a gazillion varieties, as we do with various foods we eat.  With a rapidly growing upper-middle class in India, this might be a good time as any to test out such a hobby as a profession.

If there can be coffee bars, then all the more the reason to have chocolate bars.  Chocolate, whose key ingredient is cocoa, ought to be way more of a delicacy, a prized one, than it currently is.  After all, cocoa cannot be grown anywhere, and is typically only in the land areas within twenty degrees away from the Equator--both north and south of it.  How this rare commodity is so valued and yet why those countries are not rich deserves a post of its own, and I shall resist that temptation here.

The point is that such a delicate plant's product deserves to be handled as a specialty, which is what the friend's daughter is attempting to do.

There are entrepreneurs of Indian origin attempting to do that on the other side of India--here in the US--as this WSJ report details:
Imagine eating a chocolate with mango or pistachio filling, or flavored with saffron. These are some of the offerings from Indian American entrepreneurs dabbling in chocolates, sweets and confections for Indian palates.
Co Co Sala is a self-proclaimed “chocolate lounge and boutique” that opened in Washington, D.C. in 2008. Its co-owner Nisha Sidhu says there was a need for “chocolate for grown-ups” and a place to go late at night for fine-dining desserts.
Chocolate with saffron?  My taste buds are salivating!

The WSJ has more:
Shefalee Patel, the owner of Sweet Silk in Queens, New York , is another chocolatier who uses Indian flavors – and French inspiration — in her confectionary.
“I noticed that even though Indian sweets are made of very rich ingredients, such as pistachios and cashews, they were either too sweet or fell short on presentation,” says Ms. Patel, who used to be a civil engineer.
“I was inspired to create sweets that elevated the beauty of Indian sweets with balance of spice, flavors, sweetness while highlighting the main rich ingredients… I wanted to create sweets that were not only pleasing to the palate but to the eye,” she adds.
I love that phrase there: "who used to be a civil engineer."  As I have often noted in this blog, life is a lot more exciting and fulfilling when our jobs are nothing but our hobbies; I "used to be an electrical engineer."

The WSJ report reminded me that I had read something similar not too long ago.  As always, Google helped me out by tracking down this NY Times report from last July:
New York stands out for having the largest concentration of high-end chocolate boutiques in the United States, and among them two Indian chocolate makers — Shaineal Shah and Aditi Malhotra — are fast becoming stars in the competitive and crowded world of chocolate.
Hey, my memory is not bad after all :)
When his confections were well received at trade shows, he was inspired to open his own store, which he did eight months ago. Xocolatti is a 110-square-foot sliver of a shop in Soho, and though Mr. Shah’s mother helped him with the packaging and flavors, he runs the show and makes each piece by hand, starting at 7 a.m. every day at a factory in Port Chester, New York.
“The philosophy behind my chocolate is that it should please all of your senses,” he said. “Each piece has a different color, smell and texture.” His 16 truffles come in traditional flavors like hazelnut but also more unusual ones such as sake and orange tangerine. Then there’s the distinct Indian influence in his work: a rose cardamom truffle and slates, or very thin bars, in a masala milk and saffron nut chikki flavors, and all his confections are eggless, in keeping with Jain traditions.
How fascinating that his concoctions will be "kosher" within the Jain traditions!

It is such a "sweet" coincidence that as I was nearing the end of this post, a colleague walked in with a bar of dark chocolate.

May you, the reader, have an extra sweet day!

Monday, January 28, 2013

If a BA is for bartending, a BS is for ...

Last week, I had a very difficult conversation with a student who wanted my thoughts on a certain academic major versus majoring in geography.  It was not difficult because the student wanted to ditch geography in favor of something else.  In fact, it was a move the student was thinking of making in the opposite direction, hoping for better employment prospects.

So, why was it difficult when all I had to do was to further encourage the student?  Because, I had to give my honest spiel that within the traditional liberal arts, any one major might not make students more or less employable compared to another--unless it is a professional, or a pre-professional, major.

I spent a few minutes describing the idea, that wonderful ideal, of liberal education.  We talked for almost an hour.  While I felt awful that nobody had ever told the student this reality of higher education, the student was thankful, and said, "nobody has ever taken the time to explain all these to me.  Not eve the counselors."

That was last week.

Earlier today, I read this news report on the tremendous underemployment of college graduates:
Students who graduated into the Great Recession have struggled to find work that fits their learning. But according to research released on Monday, millions of college graduates over all—not just recent ones—suffer a mismatch between education and employment, holding jobs that don't require a costly college degree.
The study, from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says that nearly half of all American college graduates in 2010—some three years after the recession began—were underemployed, holding relatively low-paying and low-skilled jobs.
This is not news by any means.  After all, even I have been commenting about this forever, it seems like.  (like here, and here)  It has been one long trend, since the burst of the dotcom bubble, with a brief rise that came crashing even more.  Anyway, the latest report adds
Mr. Robe, a research fellow at the center, said that the "bartender with a bachelor's degree" is a classic example of the lack of jobs that require a college education. Many college graduates who take jobs as bartenders or taxicab drivers have better options, he said. But vacancies in those occupations tend to be filled by other college graduates, a trend that slowly crowds out high-school graduates and dropouts.
How terrible!

Meanwhile, there is a different kind of a report from the WSJ--about graduates with specialized skills:
Mirroring trends in the broader economy showing that engineering and computer skills are highly sought, eight of the ten highest-earning majors come from these departments. Companies need workers with specialized technical skills to keep up with rapid technological change and the explosion of data, but too few American college students are choosing the relevant majors to meet that demand.
“Over the years the number of graduates in those areas has decreased, so that creates greater demand,” said NACE’s Andrea Koncz, who oversees the survey.
The way I understand all these, it is quite simple a narrative: the economic structure has rapidly changed over the last decade.  In the new economy, high school graduation alone does not guarantee that "American dream" that was once possible.  That has led to an incorrect perception that getting a liberal arts degree would guarantee one a prosperous middle class life.  But, again, this is a completely different global economic structure where such a qualification doesn't make one readily employable.  Further, the liberal arts were never intended as an employment-ready credentialing system.

Ultimately, it is the college student who is paying a huge price.
Outstanding student loan debt now stands at $956 billion, an increase of $42 billion since last 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 updated on credit reports this quarter.1 As a result, the percent of student loan balances 90+ days delinquent increased to 11 percent this quarter
How terrible!

I loved the pickles from India--not spicy at all ...

People who know me might be surprised from the title of this post that, in the first place, I even had pickles from India.  And, perhaps shocked that I didn't find them spicy, given how "bland" my tastes have become over the years that I have been living outside the old country.

True, it has been years since I had Indian pickles.  This past December, when my mother made mango pickles at home, and despite her making it the least spicy that she could possibly make, my nose picked up the pungent chili smells and advised me to stay away.

So, what gives?  How come I had pickles from India and didn't find them spicy?

The clue lies in the phrasing: I didn't write "Indian pickles" but "pickles from India."

For lunch, I made myself one of my favorite sandwiches--grilled ciabatta bread, with pepperjack cheeese, thinly sliced red onions, capers, kalamata olives, and greens.  Served it on a plate, along with chips and pickles.  Pickles as in the tiny, baby, cucumber pickles.

While eating, which is rarely with any company anymore, I read.  Or watch TV.  Today, I had nothing to read.  And, I didn't feel like watching TV either.  So, I read whatever was in front of me.

The pickles bottle was in front of me.  I read the label, nutrition information, and ingredients.

And that is when I found the small print there: "Product of India"
Holy crap!

Who woulda thunk it!

All these years in Oregon, I have often bought this very brand of pickles--because I like the garlic that gives it a kick.  The only other bit of information I knew about this brand was its self-promotion as "A Northwest Favorite," which, according to the website:
NALLEY® Pickles has captured the taste of the Northwest since 1918... literally! Growing from our first crunchy pickles made near Tacoma, Washington, to our current wide selection of more than 40 pickle and relish products, we take great pride in creating flavorful spicing recipes specifically for tastes of our Northwest community – a claim only NALLEY® Pickles can make! Why? Because NALLEY® Pickles is sold only in the Northwest.
Northwest?  Now, after reading that fine print, I think they mean that it is sold in the Pacific Northwest, while the product is from India's northwest!

To further contradict their claims about being a regional specialty, the label on the bottle notes that it is distributed by a company that has its office in Illinois.  Hmmm, so, when did Illinois stop being in the Midwest and become a part of the Northwest?

I suppose this is yet another example of life in these modern times when very little of what we see is "real."  Whether pickles or politicians, it is all about false claims and marketing.  At least, these "northwest" pickles from India are tasty enough for me to keep buying them.

But, hey, that chili in the "very mild" pickles that mother made was all real.  Too real for my life :)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fictional Faculty? Real? You make the call ;)

The following is the college experience described by the main character in Tim Gautreaux's short story, "Welding with Children."
I think sometimes about how I even went to college once. I went a whole semester to LSU. Worked overtime at a sawmill for a year to afford the tuition and showed up in my work boots to be taught English 101 by a black guy from Pakistan who couldn't understand one word we said, much less us him. He didn't teach me a damn thing and would sit on the desk with his legs crossed and tell us to write nonstop in what he called our portfolios, which he never read. For all I know, he sent our papers back to Pakistan for his relatives to use as stove fuel.

The algebra teacher talked to us with his eyes rolled up like his lecture was printed out on the ceiling. Most of the time he didn't even know we were in the room, and for a month I thought the poor bastard was stone blind. I never once solved for X.

The chemistry professor was a fat drunk who heated Campbell's soup on one of those little burners and ate it out of the can while he talked. There was about a thousand of us in that classroom, and I couldn't figure out what he wanted us to do with the numbers and names. I sat way in the back, next to some fraternity boys who called me Uncle Jed. Time or two, when I could see the blackboard off on the horizon, I almost got the hang of something, and I was glad of that.

I kind of liked the history professor, and learned to write down a lot of what he said, but he dropped dead one hot afternoon in the middle of the pyramids and was replaced by a little porch lizard that looked down his nose at me where I sat in the front row. He bit on me pretty good, I guess because I didn't look like nobody else in that class, with my short red hair and blue jeans that were blue. I flunked out that semester, but I got my money's worth learning about people that don't have hearts no bigger than bird shot.
Hilarious, yes, but doesn't feel fictionalized at all :(

I have always favored short stories over full-length fiction, though I have done my fair share of reading the longer ones too.  I read this Gautreaux story in a collection--The Best American Short Stories 1998.  I picked it up from the nearby Goodwill for a mere 99 cents.  If only I got such a value out of every dollar I shell out.

I wonder how much of the dollar students get back as value when they are in my classes.  A penny for a dollar?  Is that an overestimate?

Speaking of faculty and their strange ways of teaching, check this syllabus ... ahem, yes, it is a fake syllabus, but the points he brings up are not far from the truth!

Science, superstars, and sex. The price for fame!

All the way through high school, I was one heck of a science nerd.  So much of a nerd that once when my physics teacher couldn't answer a question to my satisfaction, I wrote a letter to a physics professor at the famed Indian Institute of Technology in Madras--I had heard about a Dr. Shastri and that was the only piece of information I had.  It was one exciting return home from school one day when my mother said there was a letter for me from IIT!  Dr. Shastri had provided the explanation, and more.

But, the older I got, the more I became intellectually and personally curious about the problems of poverty and related issues all around me in India, and in the rest of the world.  Since then, my intellectual journey has been far, far away from physics.

The fact that I am no longer a formal student in physics doesn't mean that I have sidelined physics or the sciences.  Au contraire!  I am concerned at what I perceive as a lack of serious interest in science.  The US is, of course notoriously even anti-science, not only in politics but right from the elementary school level.   A while ago, a student, "T," who is a science major himself, had tweeted a picture that is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the fame that science and scientists have:
I am sure there is no exaggeration about sex tapes!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The anti-science, nearly Luddite, liberals

There are enough and more instances in this blog as evidence for why the left-leaning folks easily mistake me for a Republican, though I think I am one committed liberal.  The hassle arises from the fact that I am not ideologically predisposed in favor of the left when thinking through, and opining about, many public policy issues.

Take climate change, for instance.  I routinely post about how by forcing the developing countries to abandon nuclear energy, we end up forcing them to use more fossil fuels--after all, their energy needs have to be met somehow, right?  The liberals in democratic developing countries like India sing the same ideological tunes and make it difficult to pursue reasonable energy policies.

In my classes, whenever I discuss issues related to food and agriculture, students let loose arguments, almost as a knee-jerk response, critiquing Monsanto--the ideas they have picked up from other classes or readings they did on their own.  I then have a tough time engaging them about these important issues.

Michael Shermer has a thoughtful column on this in the Scientific American:
Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left's sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food.
 Exactly!  I am so glad to know that I am not all alone in this.
Surveys show that moderate liberals and conservatives embrace science roughly equally (varying across domains), which is why scientists like E. O. Wilson and organizations like the National Center for Science Education are reaching out to moderates in both parties to rein in the extremists on evolution and climate change. Pace Barry Goldwater, extremism in the defense of liberty may not be a vice, but it is in defense of science, where facts matter more than faith—whether it comes in a religious or secular form—and where moderation in the pursuit of truth is a virtue.
Good luck to us in our attempts to engage with people on all the urgent issues of the day.

India's love-hate attitude towards FDI

I had barely entered my teenage years when I had to make sense of the news that Coca Cola was exiting India because of some government policies.  Rumors were even that the Indian government had forced Coca Cola to divulge the drink's secret formula, but, of course, those rumors were rumors and were not true. It was much later that I understood that the policy was one of the many that resulted from a deep suspicion of multinational corporations.  Coca Cola and IBM were two of the biggest names who wrapped up their India operations at that time.

Instead of sipping Coca Cola, I then had a choice of a very, very sappy "77 Cola" that the government introduced to mark the political earthquake of 1977 when Indira Gandhi and her Congress party were booted out of office. The alternative was Thums-Up, which was only marginally better and the one I drank if ever my parents gave me money for it--those were the days when drinking one of those was a luxurious gift!

That was decades ago and there has been a lot of proverbial water under the bridge since.  I now live in the land of Coca Cola, but very, very rarely do I drink any carbonated drink anymore.  India is now flooded with all kinds of sodas, and Coke and Pepsi are duking out there.  Foreign direct investment is now welcomed in India, though with reservations like the one that Ramesh noted regarding IKEA's plans.

So complete is the reversal of fortunes that IBM, which exited India in the 1970s, is now the second largest private employer--in terms of people employed in a single company--there and its employee count there exceeds the number of employees here in the US:
The last time that IBM made a public statement about its U.S. workforce was in congressional testimony in the fall of 2009, when it put its U.S. workforce at 105,000. It was at 121,000 at the end of 2007, and more in previous years.
At the time that IBM stopped reporting its U.S. headcount, it was beginning to appear that India was on trajectory to surpass its U.S. workforce. Crossing such a threshold is a symbolic shift more than anything else -- a globalization footnote. With a global workforce of 430,000, less than a fourth of IBM's employees are in the U.S.
According to an internal document obtained by Computerworld, IBM has 112,000 workers in India, up from 6,000 in 2002. IBM won't comment on this document or authenticate it, so this information has an asterisk next to it.
 IBM is not the only foreign company finding India to be quite profitable.  Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is a significant aspect of the Indian economy:
The stock of FDI in India is now quite big—some $220 billion, or 12% of GDP, according to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the central bank. This includes everything from research centres in Bangalore to cement plants
I would not have guessed twelve percent.  But then, it makes sense if I think about my own brief professional life in India.

Of the jobs that I had in India after graduating with an engineering degree, my longest stint of nearly six months was with Indian Oxygen, whose parent company was British Oxygen.  My shortest was with Adyar Park Hotel, which was a part of the ITC group, which itself is partly owned by British American Tobacco--one of the "well-established businesses with deep roots in India and high profitability."
But, India can't seem to make up its mind on how much it should welcome FDI.  As the Economist notes:
[When] India is desperate to attract capital to fund its big balance-of-payments gap, the red carpet it rolls out is a little dusty.
Ah, that's India for you!

Friday, January 25, 2013

China: not a competitor, but a wheezing emphysema patient

What my post couldn't convey, Jon Stewart explains.

Oh, with the help of Neil deGrasse Tyson too!

The degree you get in graduate school: MD (More Debt)

In my classes, I often tell students, who are awake, that they should not assume there is a direct relationship between their undergraduate majors and their careers after graduation.  In fact, I go one step more and caution them from assuming that there is even any kind of a relationship anymore between college degrees and employment.

If after all that they come to talk to me about going to graduate school, especially for a master's degree, I make sure they understand the huge risk they take, and I am usually ready to even use that "P" word--ponzi! A Google search for this wonderful description of graduate school will bring up a post from my blog in the top results.  I have no idea how the Google algorithm works, but sometimes visitors to my blog land up here because they seem to be worried about graduate school.

They ought to be worried about graduate school.

All of us ought to be panicking about graduate school.

Because, we have simultaneously inflated the credentialing requirements and watered down the quality of undergraduate programs that now graduate schooling is the new two-year BA degree!  In the process of suffering through more years of education, students do not end up amassing knowledge but more debt.

As I noted in a post a long time ago, it now is a requirement to have a graduate degree to teach fifth-graders!  At this rate, we will have post-docs teaching in high school!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pregnancy and fetus: religious dogma meets law and medicine

It was only a couple of months ago, a pregnant woman, who was less than halfway through the gestation period, suffered a miscarriage.  Even though it was clear that the fetus would not develop into a full-grown child, and even though the mother and the father explicitly preferred an abortion, the hospital staff refused to carry it out.  Over the next few days, the mother developed multiple problems that led to several organs failing, which, in turn, killed her.

It was a multinational story as well: the mother, Savita Halappanavar--a dentist herself--and her husband, were legal residents in Ireland, after immigrating from India.  The Irish law prevented the medical personnel from carrying out the abortion.  The law itself being a reflection of the strong Catholic traditions.  As Katha Pollitt wrote in the Nation:
This was not a case of choosing between the fetus and the woman—the seventeen-week fetus was doomed, and nothing could have saved it. But it still had a heartbeat, and abortion is banned in Ireland.
Pollitt quoted the husband's report:
“The doctor told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.” The doctor, he says, said it should be over in a few hours. There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.
“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything.’
“Again on Tuesday morning, the ward rounds and the same discussion. The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.”
Now, here in the US, a Catholic hospital is claiming that a fetus is not a person.  Yep, a Catholic hospital, where one might expect an argument that a fetus is a person whose life is valuable--as they have when it came to various medical insurance controversies.

So, why would a Catholic hospital deny that personhood to a fetus?  "because there is money at stake."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

NPR beats up Jordan on gerrymandering, when the US invented it!

Robert Siegel is normally better than how he was earlier this evening when he interviewed Jordan's foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, about the elections there.  But, today, he was awful. Siegel seemed to think that he had figured out the hole in the Jordanian "elections" and asked the minister about complaints that districts have been drawn that work against the voters of Palestinian origins.

I loved it when the minister replied using the word gerrymandering--he denied that they practiced gerrymandering.  Without explicitly doing so, he seemed to remind Siegel and the audience that it is a process invented by us Americans!

Despite that response, Siegel rephrased his question all over again.  I hoped that the Jordanian minister would bluntly remind Siegel about our practices.  But, he is their chief diplomat, after all, and he chose a tactful route.

If there is one thing about US politics that worries me, it is this atrocious practice of redistricting, which works out to be anti-democratic.  The polarization doesn't worry me, though I think the illogical statements and claims by politicians reflect their incompetence and, thereby, our own incompetence in electing such lunatics to offices.  But, redistricting is a completely different story--it means that once the lunatics take over, well, we sane ones are in trouble.

Tom DeLay went about systematically redistricting Texas, to make sure that it would be completely red within a couple of elections.  His success later was also the cause of his downfall, yes.  But, he showed how to rig the process and rig it well.  Pretty soon, many other states followed suit.  The net result?
[How] did Republicans keep their House majority despite more Americans voting for the other party—something that has only happened three times in the last hundred years, according to political analyst Richard Winger? Because they drew the lines.
After Republicans swept into power in state legislatures in 2010, the GOP gerrymandered key states, redrawing House district boundaries to favor Republicans. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates received half of the votes in House contests, but Republicans will claim about three-quarters of the congressional seats. The same is true in North Carolina. More than half the voters in that state voted for Democratic representation, yet Republicans will fill about 70 percent of the seats. Democrats drew more votes in Michigan than Republicans, but they'll take only 5 out of the state's 14 congressional seats.
Haha, the joke is on us!  The next census isn't until 2020, only after which will the lines be redrawn again.  That means we are kind of locked into the split for a while:
If there is any testament to the amount of progress Republicans made in redistricting, it is this. GOP-controlled states drew about four times as many districts as Democrats did, and Republicans reaped significant benefits from that on Election Day. ...
And going forward, it suggests Democrats will need to have a strong wind at their backs (bigger than Tuesday’s) to take back the chamber.
If this is the story in a country that has been democratic for more than two hundred years, what was Siegel trying to prove with his question on redistricting in Jordan?  Other than to show that we don't practice what we preach?

By the way, it doesn't mean that the GOP is the only sinner; the Democrats too will do that if they had the chance--but, I doubt if they will be ever as brazen as the likes of DeLay.

"Sanitas Per Escam" means kitchen is for passionate sex?

I am not a food-maniac who eats a great variety of foods.  Nor am I a food snob.  It just happens that, within the limited range, I love tasty food.  Tasty and healthy food.

No, make that tasty and healthy home-cooked food.

Cooking at home seems to be getting to be an endangered activity as humanity joins the ranks of the middle and upper economic levels.  So endangered that:
Alas, the kitchen still might be the most expensive, yet least used, room in any house or flat. Lest we forget, the kitchen is the tiled room – the one with a stove, without a commode.
Indeed!  As Sally comically noted in When Harry Met Sally, there is the notion that young, hot, couples, have passionate sex rolling around on the kitchen floor.  But, apparently, neither sex nor cooking happens in many kitchens!

The author notes that:
The original Greek symposium was a meal at home where the host would provide food, conversation, and the occasional pole dancer. Romans had similar traditions. Even in the Dark Ages, communal societies such as monasteries took their meals together. Monks and nuns might take vows of silence, poverty, and chastity; but, at mealtime they clustered to eat. Silence, sexual tension, and a good multi-grain may be the secrets to introspection and celibacy.
It is not easy to imagine a scene where Socrates is holding a symposium at home (no, hemlock was not the drink of choice!) with a pole dancer moving rhythmically a few feet away.  Hmmm .... maybe that is what is missing in my classes!

I suppose I put my kitchen to a fair degree of use.  The range has gotten dirty over the years, despite my attempts to keep it clean.  Whether or not what I cook is tasty (yes, it is, dammit!) I am sure of one thing: I know I am in control of my own food and how (un)healthy it is.  If nutrition is 80 percent of good health, then it is a good feeling that I am in absolute control over that 80 percent.

Though, occasionally, I do venture into, ahem, unhealthy foods.  Like the banana bread/cake that I made, with marzipan.  I then wonder why my waistline has increased by an inch over the year!

But, that came after a lot healthier meal:

Happy cooking, folks!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Opening in Bangalore. No, not a call center. Krispy Kreme!

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. has come to India, opening its first outlet Saturday to a queue of people in Bangalore’s restaurant-lined Church Street. ...
Krispy Kreme has entered India through a franchise agreement with Citymax Hotels India Pvt. Ltd., the hospitality division of Dubai-based retailer Landmark group. Citymax has obtained franchising rights to develop 80 Krispy Kreme stores across south and west India over the next five years. 
Reports the Wall Street Journal.

I do not think that my friend, Ramesh, who lives in Bangalore, was one of those waiting in line; wait a sec, is that the reason why he has been offline for a few days now? :)

Why Bangalore?
Bangalore was the first Indian city to have a Kentucky Fried Chicken, way back in the mid-1990s, and also saw the first Indian Taco Bell open its doors in 2010. Both are owned by Yum! Brands Inc.
Great, the American dream can now happen right in India.  

The dream, that is, to eat junk food, whose caloric math befuddles even the best scientists because somehow a few ounces of these foods translate to a few pounds of fat around the consumer's belly!

I have lived that American dream. Yes, ma'am.

From Wikipedia
Oh, I have had some sweet loving affairs with Krispy Kreme doughnut donuts.  Those are strictly affairs--every once in a while, when I am traveling in a city far away, I sneak into a Krispy Kreme and caress in my mouth a warm and soft glazed donut that is a fresh virgin off the production belt.  The pleasure is prematurely intense.  Almost always, and despite my age, I am immediately ready for another.  And I do.  I then exit the store with my American-ness re-confirmed.

I think the last affair I had was this past summer, during the road trip down to Southern California.  The sinful act will resume this April :)  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Are students learning? Should we care?

As always, James Lang has something interesting for me in his latest column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he inquires into why students do not seem to apply what they learnt:
In their excellent book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors describe the cognitive activity of applying learned material from one course to another and beyond as "far transfer." They note correctly that it might be the most fundamental expectation we have for our students.
"Far transfer is, arguably," they point out, "the central goal of education: We want our students to be able to apply what they learn beyond the classroom."
Yes, of course, the central goal is not about tests, but about students learning to apply their knowledge.  To apply them in the class they are in; to apply them in other courses; and, more importantly, to apply them outside the formal classroom environment.

Lang adds:
But in practice, as How Learning Works makes clear, "far transfer" turns out to be a much more complicated process than many of us might expect, or that I might imply in my blithely hopeful syllabus talk.
"Most research has found," the authors explain, "that (a) transfer occurs neither often nor automatically, and (b) the more dissimilar the learning and transfer contexts, the less likely successful transfer will occur. In other words, much as we would like them to, students often do not successfully apply relevant skills or knowledge in novel contexts."
In short, the further we move students away from the very specific context in which they have learned some information or skill, the less transfer we should expect to see.
It is terrible that we--students and teachers--spend quite some time and money, and then we find that education and knowledge takes on a variation of the old Vegas line: what happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom!

My hypothesis is that such a situation exists because

"College for all" confirms an old truth: there is no free lunch!

The old Soviet Union operated outside of the idea of supply and demand; instead of the marketplace deciding the appropriate levels of supply, bureaucrats and the party apparatchik decided on the quantity, whether it was about tractors or bread.  Such matters are impossible for even the most intelligent human to divine, and it is no surprise that there were long lines for practically everything, prompting various jokes like this one:
After a long wait in the queue, it is now Ivan's turn at the window to buy the television set that he was set on.
"There is a waiting list" he was told.  "Come back in three months."
Ivan is unhappy.  "Three months?" he asks
Then, slowly gathering himself, Ivan says,  "so, can I make an appointment?"
"Of course, comrade" the woman at the window replies with sarcasm in her tone.. "How about exactly three months from now?"
Ivan nods. He asks "morning or afternoon?"
"Afternoon. Why do you need to know?"
"The plumber is coming in the morning." 
Ah, it was fun in graduate school to talk and read about the USSR.  It is a good thing I did because I can relate them all even to contemporary life, here in the US!

Here in Oregon, our elected officials have divined that forty percent of the adults should have four-year college degrees; another forty percent should have two-year college degrees; and the rest will be high school graduates.

Now, why 40-40-20?  Why not 35-35-30?  Or 30-60-10?  Aha, you are beginning to see the craziness!

When we--as the government--decide as that we ought to have a certain number of college graduates, then we are also compelled to follow-up on that by allocating public resources.  Higher education is merely one of the line items in the government's budget.  A forty percent versus thirty percent requires many more millions of dollars, which have to be re-allocated from some other line item.  After all, the  constitution requires us to balance the budget.

Thus far, the drive towards producing college graduates has been accompanied by diminishing allocations from the state, which have then triggered dramatic increases in tuition and fees that students have to pay out of their pockets. Well, most do not have deep pockets, which is why we have an alarming trend of ever increasing student debt, even before they graduate.

Against, such a background of scarce tax dollars, pushing for a 40-40-20 means the budget numbers will not add up.  One option might be to weaken the degree requirements and somehow graduate more students faster and more efficiently.  After all, how hard can it be to transform a university into some kind of a Fordist conveyor belt system, right?

In case you, the enlightened reader, think that I am exaggerating, rest assured that public universities have been asked to develop a degree called the "Applied Baccalaureate" that will provide an easier path for a four-year degree compared to the existing BA and BS.  I shall avoid this "inside baseball" discussion.

But, of course, even the AB won't be enough to help us reach that 40-40-20 goal.  Finances are tight.  Therefore, it is no surprise that the system is now engaged in discussions.  But, as in the case of those old Soviet apparatchik, these meetings are held in secret:
Oregon’s top higher education officials are engaged in a hypothetical analysis of financial pressures that the state’s public universities, including the University of Oregon, face over the next few years.
But they want to keep the projections secret.
Ah, yes, revealing them might harm the country's national security and al-Qaeda might infiltrate the college campuses and make biological weapons that will then be used against the American people.  Surely it is such worries triggering the secrecy, right?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mali: How do you say "African Afghanistan" in French?

We have now been in Afghanistan for ever and ever, it seems like.  If it feels that way, there is at least one good reason: it has been the longest war. Ever. (ht)
Don't hold your breath for hope and change, and for all our troops to return soon.  You can count on warmongers to offer arguments that will be variations of this:

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The son rises in India. May the worst bachelor win?

The Congress Party has elevated Rahul Gandhi to the second highest position, right below his Italian-born mother, Sonia Gandhi.
Mr. Gandhi’s appointment, which has clearly brought joy to the youth brigade in the party — which represents more than half the delegates at the chintan shivir — will in the days to come trigger two areas of speculation: will he be the party’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014? And what will this elevation mean for Ms. Gandhi’s position? 
If India's politics keep heading in the same direction without any major disruption, then it does seem highly probable that the battle to become the next prime minister will be a reality show involving two bachelor contestants: the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi, whose only claim is that he happened to be born in the highly privileged Nehru-Gandhi family.

A modern day swayamvara, of two bachelors vying for the prized maiden that the office is.  Who will India choose?

At least, with Modi one might have an idea of the economic and social policies he might advocate for.  He has also learnt to at least say the politically correct things about non-Hindus, especially about Muslims.

But, how about the younger bachelor?

A photo evidence of my great-grandmother's ghost?

Into his adulthood, grandfather had three siblings--two sisters and a brother.

One sister got married to a local attorney in Sengottai.  Not too long after that, she was diagnosed with one of the most dreaded diseases of those days: tuberculosis.  This was way back early in the 1940s and true to its other name of "consumption" the disease killed her.

The brother, who was in his early twenties himself, also fell ill.  Yes, the same dreaded tuberculois.  Soon, he was also gone.

Grandfather was now left with one sister.

Great-grandmother was heartbroken from experiencing two consecutive deaths of her adult children.

She lost interest in living, and asked her husband to take her to Kashi, while making it clear to the family that she was not coming back.  It was goodbye forever.

The year was 1945.  It was days of travel by train from Sengottai to Kashi.  They did reach the holy city and rented a small place for themselves.  Great-grandfather was an orthodox brahmin schooled in the traditional texts and easily adapted to the vedic activities there.

And then one day in 1946, grandfather received a telegram from Kashi.  His mother was sick, and rapidly deteriorating.  Meanwhile, the northern parts of India were tense with the specter of partition of British India.   Somehow grandfather managed to reach Kashi.

Within a few days, great-grandmother died.

It occurred to grandfather that the couple of hours before cremation were all he had to take a photograph of his mother for future generations to know about her.  So, father and son draped a sari around her as best as they could, and hired a photographer before rigor set in.

That is how the family home in Sengottai always had this rather eerie photo of great-grandmother Parvathy, which always scared the heck out of us kids whenever we visited Sengottai.

Notice her mouth?  Her hands look strange as well, right?

And a halo effect behind her?

Apparently, grandfather was behind the chair, holding his mother--after all, she wasn't alive to sit up.  So, after the photo was taken, the print was airbrushed in order to hide the person behind!

After the cremation and other rites, grandfather returned home with his father.  Together they updated grandfather's grandmother--yes, Meenakshi, my great-grandmother's mother, was alive.

Family stories are that she cried every single day lamenting the loss of her only daughter, and the grandson and the granddaughter who died from TB.  Every single day for eight years until her very end.  If great-great-grandmother Meenakshi had lived for two additional years, she would have witnessed the regeneration of life in the form of her great-granddaughter's (my mother's) wedding in 1957.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The death of outsourcing?

One typical concern that faculty have about online education is over establishing that the work being submitted by the student in the class is indeed the work done by that very student.  After all, it is not like when they come to the physical classroom in order to take the test, right?

Students, too, could ask a similar question.  How can they be sure that the instructor is who they think it is?  An old joke of mine, in online classes, is that I hire another Sriram, who lives in India, who gets my work done for a third of what I get paid and that I retain that remaining two-thirds for doing no work at all.

In my regular classes, too, I tell them we are only a few years away from me hiring a Sriram, who lives in India, and whose lectures I will be able to project as a hologram in the classroom.

My silly humor, yes, when we discuss outsourcing, which is a classic contemporary example of an economic geography topic.  As one who loves humor, even if my own jokes are absolutely lame, I have shown them this Onion video, which is one heck of a satire on outsourcing and American life.

But, as with many, many, Onion videos and text-based satire, real world developments make the satire seem like a documentary, like in this case of "Bob":
a software developer working for a large U.S. critical infrastructure company hired a Chinese firm to do his job so he could spend time surfing Reddit and watching cat videos.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

When trolls come visiting to this blog, well, I blog about that too!

After a long time, I checked the Feedburner statistics for my blog:
Perhaps soon the subscriber count of 99 will roll over to triple digits, eh.

There are ten others, Feedburner reports, who have subscribed to receive my posts via email.

And finally the visitors to the blog itself.

Of course, I have no idea how many of these subscribers and other visitors are real people versus some automated programs phishing for information.

No serious hate mail other than this one

And occasional nutcases like what I experienced earlier today!  

Obama blames us--the people--for our dysfunctional government!

I admit that I have never been a big fan of Barack Obama, the politician.  But then I am not any much a fan of most politicians either; whatever their political stripes, they all tend to trigger my olfactory senses the same way that a skunk does!

As President, it appears that Obama wants to intentionally cast himself as the campaigner-in-chief, and not as the chief executive.  Because, as a campaigner, Obama can engage in rhetoric, war of words, and do a masterful job of us-versus-them.  Which is very different from the job of the CEO, who is expected to deliver the results.

So, what does President Obama do when he understands very well that the "other side" is not to be a faithful puppy?
This will not happen unless the American people demand it.  If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, if hunters and sportsmen, if responsible gun owners, if Americans of every background stand up and say, enough; we’ve suffered too much pain and care too much about our children to allow this to continue -- then change will come.  That's what it's going to take.
Um, hello, it was just about two months ago that the American people, including "parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, if hunters and sportsmen, if responsible gun owners, if Americans of every background" expressed our preferences at the ballot box.  After that, it is up to the elected officials to figure out how to to act on those preferences.  Two years from now, we the people will once again let you folks know what we demand.

But, instead, the President seems to suggest that if his plan doesn't come to pass, it will be because we failed to stand up and demand action?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The world needs Bert from Mary Poppins to ease up global warming

A bloody cold and foggy day it was today.  One of those days when the sun didn't even bother showing up to work--the sun called in sick because of the fog. When I returned home yesterday, it was close to seven in the evening and it was about 39 degrees.  Today, I returned home a good two hours before that--it was a couple of minutes past five--and it was only 33!

Global warming is a hoax, it seems like!

Scientists have apparently found something new about global warming.  And, no, it is not because of the fog here.  Turns out that good ol' soot is more a factor than was previously thought.  First it was a brief blurb at Slate:
New research shows that soot, AKA black carbon, is one of the top two contributors to climate change, greater than methane and second only to carbon dioxide. 
Bloody soot!

So, I had to read up more to get some details.

Universities spend more on athletics than academics? Shocked, shocked :)

May I first have a chart, please?

We certainly know how to spend the precious dollars in order to educate the youth.  USA! USA! USA!

"I'm shocked, shocked" as Inspector Renault said :)

I hope even the smaller universities like mine will read such news items and correspondingly amp up their sports expenditures, and drastically scale down the emphasis on education.  What a tremendous waste it is to educate the young, especially at taxpayer expense, right, when coaches at these universities are vastly underpaid?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How stupid(er) am I offline, when I don't have Google?

As a graduate student, back when libraries had card catalogs, I would automatically commit to memory the names of authors of publications, and the years of publications too.  As this started getting complicated in my head, I tried setting up a rudimentary database of my own: for a few hours, over a week or so, I meticulously input into an Excel a Lotus file not only the names and titles and years, but also my own quick takes on them, with the idea that they could then help me with recalling the ideas.  The project became a pain, as one can easily imagine, and I abandoned it.

Meanwhile, information technology improved by leaps and bounds.  As access to information increased, I noticed that I was committing to memory less information than what had otherwise been my practice.  Over the years, I have changed my approach to make it easier for me to absorb a lot more ideas, without getting trapped into the mechanics of retaining the minute details. I worry mostly about retaining the big picture.

Here is an example, a non-academic one at that.  In this post, I referred to a saying that spoke about the glory days of Naples and that one should go to Naples before dying.  For a few years, I retained that piece of paper where the Italian fellow-passenger had written down the text for me: "Vedi Napoli, e poi muori."  I was afraid that I might not remember the phrase if I were to lose the paper.

But, Google changed all that.  I no longer had to waste my time and resources keeping track of such things. Thus, when I was blogging that post, all I had to do was to search for that expression with the appropriate keywords, and ... presto!  As a matter of fact, I don't even know what became of that paper!

Google, that way, has immensely simplified my life and enriched the total recall abilities of mine.  Now, if I had not ever known about that phrase, and the importance of Naples, then I wouldn't even know that I could have searched for it.  So, yes, there is that requirement of knowledge a priori.  That is, I am smart enough to have known about such a phrase, but not smart(er) enough to have recalled that from my memory.

Google has made me smarter, and not stupid, by any means.  (Here, too, I am able to immediately link to this not because I remembered the author's name, but only because I remembered having read an essay along those lines in the Atlantic.  One simple search and .... presto!)  It also means that when offline, I will be unable to quote from memory that expression about Naples, for instance.  Or my favorite John Updike poem--even though it is a favorite, I have not memorized that all!  I am definitely "smarter" online than when I am not, and I agree with Michael Jones, whose official title at Google is chief technology advocate:
Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps. They don't give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they're smarter, because they can rely on these tools.
20 IQ points or 45 IQ points, I don't care what the value is. But, yes, I am smarter thanks to Google.

However, this does not mean that anybody with access to Google can figure everything out.

I got paid today, too, for going to work!

It has been unusually cold.  It was 28 degrees (about minus two, for you metric people!) when I left home to begin my workday.

I debated within myself, all the way until the fork in the road, on whether I wanted to go via the more "efficient" interstate, or by the scenic and winding old road.  There is also a safety factor--when the weather is bad, the old road with less traffic could potentially be more hazardous than the busier and well-maintained interstate.

I reached the fork, and swung left.  My heart simply couldn't take efficiency over the poetry of the winding road by the fields.  The heart knows what the heart wants.

A few minutes in, I could see flashes of red and pink low in the horizon behind me and to my right.  As I rounded a long curve, I caught a good view of the changing colors.

I knew it was that time again--to flash the hazard lights and pull over to the side.  As I said, the heart knows what it wants.  I stopped when it was safe, and stepped out.  It was cold, but was refreshing.

The camera image grossly understates the beauty that I enjoyed for a couple of minutes.
This is all a part of the non-monetary compensation that I get for living and working in this part of the world.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The tyranny of the old and the rested

Douglas MacArthur famously said that old soldiers never die.  Now, it seems like old politicians and professors don't either.  They hang around forever and ever, and even make a return just as we ease into thinking that they are gone!

The US Senate looks like it is some kind of a geriatric ward, where the older folks keep mumbling to themselves.  Representatives? Not!
Congress is decidedly older than the populace it represents: Although Americans may serve in the House beginning at age 25, only 10 percent of House members have been under the age of 40 in recent years. By comparison, 22 percent of the general population and 30 percent of registered voters are between 25 and 39 years old. The average American is more than 20 years younger than the person who represents him or her in the House. 
Watching India's political scene, one might erroneously conclude that very few kids are ever born in that country.  The following chart from the Economist points to the wide gap between the median age of the population and the average age of the governing cabinet:

With the prime minister at 80 and the president at 76, and with such a senior-citizen cabinet, no wonder they can't relate to most pressing public issues of the day!

My bucket list is a blank!

Ever since the heavily panned movie, The Bucket List, came out, I notice people having adopted that usage into their lives and talking about the items in their "bucket list."  I haven't seen the movie, but from the reviews and commentaries, I recall that the list involved a whole lot of places and activities, which is what people also seem to list in real life--everything from, say, bungee jumping to going to Naples.  "Vedi Napoli, e poi muori" was what my seatmate on the train from Florence to Rome told me fifteen years ago.  And even wrote it down for me.

The Statesman Journal reports on a global art(y) project: The "Before I die" wall.  
The idea behind the global public art project was born in New Orleans when an artist named Candy Chang lost someone dear to her, according to the project website. In her grief, she struggled to maintain perspective. To provide herself with a daily reminder of what is truly important in life, she enlisted the help of friends and covered the side of an abandoned house with chalkboard paint. They stenciled the phrase, “Before I Die I want to ... ” over and over again in rows.
It was just an experiment, Chang says on the website, but the next day, the wall was entirely filled with tearful, heartfelt and funny responses. That original wall appeared in February 2011. Today, there are more than 70 walls across the world.
A noble idea, yes, to realize our own mortality and to, thus, gain a perspective on life and its priorities.

But, it seems that the responses to the blank following the prompt "Before I die I want to _______" seem to be like what are often found in people's bucket-lists: a whole lot of material goals.  "walk the Great Wall of China" on this "before I die" wall is perhaps no different from a bucket-list entry about wanting to travel to see firsthand the Grand Canyon.  

The paper does report a few non-material goals that people have expressed.  But, the entries suggest to me that most of the responses, if not all of them, didn't result from any serious reflection on what their highest priority in life might be.  Imagine this: there you are lying on your deathbed.  You think not having been to the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall will be your greatest regret ever?  That your life was incomplete because you didn't visit that one place?  Given that the final thoughts can be incoherent, like the Rosebud moment, let us advance that a tad to when we are not quite there, yet (though, there is always that probability of death striking us any second, like when I am blogging!)  The question still remains: life feeling incomplete because of not having been to the Taj Mahal?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"It's irrational to be religious" ... Saying "amen" to this is ok?

Practically everybody in the US loves to beat up on Scientology and their crazy believers, best personified by Tom "jump on the couch" Cruise.  Some of the latest reports are way more than hysterically funny, and should worry us that such bizarre beliefs and practices exist, and grow.

Scientology easily comes across as irrational.  But, then every religion has its set of strange beliefs and practices.  Jared Diamond writes:
[A] religion’s adherents firmly hold beliefs that conflict with and cannot be confirmed by our experience of the natural world, and that appear implausible to people other than the adherents of that particular religion. For example, Hindus believe there is a monkey god who travels thousands of kilometers at a single somersault. Catholics believe a woman who had not yet been fertilized by a man became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, whose body eventually after his death was carried up to a place called heaven, often represented as being located in the sky. The Jewish faith believes that a supernatural being gave a chunk of desert in the Middle East to the being’s favorite people, as their home forever.
No other feature of religion creates a bigger divide between religious believers and modern secular people, to whom it staggers the imagination that anyone could entertain such beliefs. No other feature creates a bigger divide between believers in two different religions, each of whom firmly believes its own beliefs but considers it absurd that the other religion’s believers believe those other beliefs. 
Yep, to believers in one religion, their own strangeness is not strange at all, but only the other religions' claims are bizarre!  (I wonder if Diamond did not choose to highlight Islam because of concerns over potential backlash, or if that was merely an accident.  Nonetheless, it is a notable exclusion in his examples.)

So, why the strange beliefs?

What if I don't have anything to write about in this blog?

Even as a kid, I got into a habit of the reading the newspaper, The Hindu, every single morning.  Back then--I don't know if things have changed now--the paper's staff had a day off during major holidays, which meant that there was no paper delivered the morning after. Those non-paper mornings were tough for me.  It was an awful feeling until the day after when the paper resumed.  Ah, those fascinating years before television and the internet!

It was one of those no-paper-mornings when my great-uncle was also visiting with us.  I complained to him about not having The Hindu to read.  He was known for his sarcastic, and often insulting, repartee, sparing nobody--it didn't matter to him whether it was an older woman or a kid like me.  "Why?  Do you have to issue any statement to the press?" was his response to my complaint.

I distinctly recall even now, after all these decades, that I didn't feel insulted at all.  His sarcasm there made me think.  It occurred to me that I did, indeed, want to talk about a lot of issues, but the reserved personality that I was--mistaken by classmates as "shy"--I kept those thoughts to myself.  The adults didn't seem to want to know what I thought about Indira Gandhi or the USSR or anything.  If only the internet and blogging had been invented even by then!

Thoughts I have always had in plenty.  I suspect that most people have plenty going on in their heads.  The question is whether we can say or write anything meaningful to an audience, however small or large that might be.  It is not that there is an audience waiting for me; but, yes, I have statements to issue on matters that I consider pressing.

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