Thursday, February 28, 2013

USA expands to mean "a whole lot of small talk?"

When my high school class had our reunion after thirty years, like many, I too looked very different from how I was when we completed high school.  The appearance with a beard and a balding/greying head was a big difference.  I speak with a strange mix of accents, yes.

But what surprised most was simply that I talked. I conversed. I joked.  Because, they remember me only as a quiet guy, who rarely spoke.

They are not wrong.  I was a quiet guy through the schooling years.

They are not wrong in noticing that I talked, chatted up, and joked.

But, if they had, therefore, assumed that I had become a talkative person, they are wrong.  I am still the same quiet guy, introvert, that I have always been.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Getting the state out of the marriage business

When my parents got married--way back, and in India--there was no concept of marriage license, or registering the relationship with the state.  It was a family and a community affair.  The publicly celebrated event, conducted literally in the middle of the street, as was the practice in villages and small towns across India, made sure that everybody in the community knew who was getting married and to whom.  That was it.  It did not involve the state.

The state really has no business whatsoever in being an authority to bless a marriage.  How did the state ever end up in such a powerful position?  I suppose it is all because of taxes.  For whatever reason, when it comes to income taxes, married people are treated differently from unmarried ones.  Children also become "tax write-offs" so to speak.  Which means that the tax collector has to certify these relationships and, presto, the state becomes the marriage license broker.  From taxes, it slowly spread to all other benefits that married people get from the state or employers.

But, the role of the state is to merely ensure that contracts are implemented and not violated. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I contacted my Senator regarding the drones. You should too.

For all my blogging and op-ed writing, I have stayed away from contacting my Congress-members regarding any issue. I figured that after electing them, I can go about my work while they do theirs.  After all, if unhappy with them, I can always vote for somebody else later on.

But, I broke that trend.

On the issue of drones.

The following is the message:

To all that controversy about horse meat: Bah, horse shit!

So, traces of horse meat were detected in IKEA's consumer favorite meatballs.  And this adds to other horse meat news.

This is not scandalous by any means.  Go home and rest easy.

I agree with the New York Times' food writer, Mark Bittman, that in our age of industrial food, when we don't have a clue what is in a burger nor in the hummus, hey, are you sure you know what exactly you are eating unless you are cooking it yourself?

Now, people might complain that they should be informed first, and then they can decide for themselves if they want to buy meatballs with or without horse meat.  Well, maybe.  I suspect it became a big issue only because of the initial story of horse meat:
The scandal first erupted last month after Irish authorities tested suspiciously cheap frozen beef patties and discovered they contained horse DNA.
That's right: suspicion because the patties were cheap.  If they had sold it at a higher price, it might have never triggered any suspicions?

But, money fraud or not, people are more upset, I would think, because it is horse meat.

Think about it for an additional second: this is not a vegetarian complaining.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Thoughts on a rainy morning: On the unfairness that life is.

Now that we are past mid-winter, the mornings are less dark and ominous than they typically are from late in November.  A rainy morning against a partially lit sky is immensely a pleasure compared to the trepidation with which I had to navigate the roads a few weeks ago.

I was lost in thoughts and driving practically in an auto-pilot mode when suddenly out of nowhere a Porsche appeared.  "Quite some speed on these curves when rainy" I thought to myself.  And, when it seemed safe enough, I slowed down and eased up to the right to let the driver pass me.  He sure did. In a nanosecond.  Vrooooom!

Thanks to all the bends, I never spotted the Porsche again.  Until the traffic light.  The vrooooom had been silenced by the red light!

Soon, we went our different ways.  The sky alternated between dark clouds and clear blue openings.  Heavy downpour for a couple of minutes followed by a calm and clear blue sky with sunlight.  It seemed to be as moody as a young woman with acute PMS :)

But, even that young woman can be charming, right?  And that is what happens when there is rain and sunlight--a wonderful rainbow.  It was a partial rainbow that didn't last long.  But, a glorious one to welcome the day.

It seemed that I had exhausted the day's quota of having the road all to myself--I found myself at the tail end of a procession, with a farm-equipment-hauling-truck all the way in front, followed by two vehicles, and then another truck, then another two vehicles and then me.

And then came a pick-up.

Like the Porsche driver earlier, this fellow too was not happy being at some other vehicle's rear.  It amused me that he didn't seem to understand that he couldn't get very far when in a convoy of these many vehicles and on a road without a passing lane. And when raining, with all the spray from the traffic.

But, stupid is as stupid does.  He passed me only to jump in before me.  I decided to give more space between him and me, reminded of the lessons from the defensive driving class that I once took.

A couple miles later, the pick-up passed two more vehicles, and was now kissing the truck's butt.  We were about seven miles from my university, and I wondered if eventually he too, like the Porsche driver, will notice me pulling up even with him at the traffic light.

When a chance opened up, he passed the truck and one vehicle.  The lead vehicle was the same--the farm-equipment hauling truck. Behind that was one pick-up, and then our character.

No more chances for that driver to pass.  We neared the traffic light in town and I headed to the left-turn lane.  Yes, we pulled even.  I so wanted to look at him and grin. But, I didn't.

When it comes to driving, traffic lights stop us, irrespective of the speeds our vehicles are capable of, and irrespective of our own desires to speed.  Unless one is willing to jump the red light, of course, and very, very few rational people ever attempt that.

Traffic lights are the great equalizers of society--we understand that we are all in it together whether we drive a beaten up old car, or a truck, or a Porsche.

If only all aspects of life were the same way. If only.

People are differently-abled to begin with.  Some are born with Porsches in their garages, while some live in garages.  Most of us follow the laws because we want to, and some obey the laws because they don't know how to escape them.  And then there are others who are rich and powerful to write their own laws and find loopholes in the laws that most of us dutifully follow.  But, there is no traffic light to stop them at all.  Armed with money, influence, and lawyers, they jump the red with ease.

But then who said life is far, eh!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What is your question?

When I pick up the New Yorker, I first scan through starting at the back, because I am most interested in the cartoons.  With the rest, like the latest issue of the Scientific American, it is like any normal person's method--a progression from the front cover.

I am barely through a couple of pages, when I feel like I have already realized that issue's worth.  The "Forum" piece was all about critical thinking, and opens with the line that I always tell students in all my classes:
A democracy relies on an electorate of critical thinkers.
In every class that I teach, especially the introductory general education class, I often point out that I have a selfish interest, which has nothing to do with my paycheck. "I want my fellow-citizens to be able to think through" and, therefore, I am one insanely serious professional underneath the facade of a jovial personality, I tell them.  Democracy depends on critical thinkers is exactly what I, too, tell them.

But, what is the point in having such an essay in the Scientific American, right?  We need this in People magazine, on Facebook status updates, and in between television shows.  In the Scientific American, it is the proverbial preaching to the choir!

The piece hits even more of the same ideas I share with students.  The second line:
Yet formal education, which is driven by test taking, is increasingly failing to require students to ask the kind of questions that lead to informed decisions.
Oh boy, am in heaven, as opposed to the misery that often drives me to seek company!

I mean, only recently, I wrote in my note to the online class:
Education is not at all about the tests that the faculty gives, or about the grades you end up with, but is all about what you have gained in terms of knowing something about the world--whether it is the Subcontinent or genetics or Hegelian philosophy.  All these then help us create an orderly understanding, as much as possible, of the chaotic world outside.
Unfortunately, education--from the first grade and well into higher education--is so test-driven, so much so that a typical student's question is "will this be on the test?"

If that weren't enough, the "Forum" essay highlights the importance of informal opportunities to develop critical thinking.  Amen!  A few years ago, I wrote, in the context of Honors Programs, that learning happens all the time.  "A way of life" is what I called it.  Learning even at the dinner table:
[Discussions] related to a movie such as “Bend it Like Beckham” will evoke from honors students not only images, story lines, and details about actors but also ideas that might range from the physics behind the trajectories of the footballs kicked by Beckham to the transformation of Britain by globalization or the role of religion. A movie no longer is only a movie, and honors becomes a way of life.
All because of critical thinking.  The Scientific American piece concludes with the same points that I emphasize in my classes:
[People] must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions, about their own medical treatment, say, or what we must do about global energy needs and demands. For that, we have a robust informal learning system that eschews grades, takes all comers, and is available even on holidays and weekends.
As I tell them, education is not merely what happens in a class.  In fact, what happens outside the class is a lot more important.

Maybe I should hand every student in my intro class a copy of this Forum piece. Even if it means that as they leave the class they might toss the paper into the trash can.  As long as it is the recycle bin!

And I still have plenty of pages to read in the Scientific American.  Good for me!

A year of transition ahead in South Asia. Will peace prevail?

Combining ideas from a few past posts, this is a "meta-post" on the year ahead in the Indian Subcontinent:

Beginning with this spring, it will be quite an eventful year in South Asia, to say the least. General elections in Pakistan are scheduled to be held in March. In Afghanistan, before this year ends, US troops will be drawn down to slightly more than 30,000, and presidential elections are set for April 2014.  Sometime by May of 2014, at the latest, India has to complete its general elections, given that its parliament’s term expires by then.

Will all these transitions be peaceful?

Many a pundit—this word itself having its origin in India—have had eggs on their faces when trying to predict the future. Thus, one can’t definitively answer that question and can only think through some of the major issues that could work against peace in that part of the world.

Bombs have been routinely bursting in Pakistan. As of writing this, more than eighty were killed in the last major incident in the southwestern part of the country, in the city of Quetta. In these nearly two months of 2013, more than 400 have been killed by bombs. A particularly worrisome aspect of these bombings is that they indicate worsening sectarian conflict, with militant Sunni outfits intent on cleansing the areas of the Shia. As if this internal violence weren't enough, bombs have been regularly raining from the US operated drones, above the frontier areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The militaries of India and Pakistan have had some tense situations at their borders, over the past couple of months. In January, three Pakistani soldiers were killed by the Indian forces, and two Indian soldiers also died. One of the dead Indian soldiers was found beheaded and the other had been mutilated. Earlier this month, another Pakistani soldier was shot dead by the Indian forces. These are symptoms of the tense, hands‐on‐the‐trigger, situation that exist at the Indo‐Pak border and in Kashmir.

All is not well within India’s borders south of Kashmir too. On February 21st, two blasts rocked the Indian city of Hyderabad, which has been rapidly growing as another information‐technology (IT) center, along with Bangalore and Chennai. Three college students were among the 17 killed, with more than a hundred others injured. It is suspected that the Indian Mujahideen carried out these blasts in response to the hanging of a terrorist convicted in the attack on India’s parliament in 2001.

Meanwhile, politicians are amping up their campaigns to project themselves in front of others to become the next prime minister of India. One leading candidate is Narendra Modi, who brings along with him a huge baggage of anti‐Islam and pro‐Hindu activities. There is enough worry that the Indian electorate, tired of corruption and weak governance, could elect Modi, despite the dark shadows of his rhetoric that invokes memories of the old national socialists and fascists of Europe.

Because of Modi’s role in the riots in the state of Gujarat, in 2002, the US has over the years refused to extend a visa for him to visit this country. Recently, the US assistant secretary, Robert Blake, stated that the US policy on Modi remains unchanged. "There is no question of changing or revising or softening.  We may revise depending on the Indian justice system completing cases against him," he said. I am glad that the US continues to maintain this position even though the European Union has softened its stance against Modi sensing his ascent.

Across the Khyber Pass, in Afghanistan, nothing seems settled. If everything goes on schedule, then presidential elections will be held in April 2014. The last elections, in 2009, were a big farce, thanks to the extensive fraud committed by President Hamid Karzai and his allies. How “clean” the elections will be this time around is anybody’s guess.

It is quite possible that all these geopolitical issues could sort out by themselves and a year from now South Asia could be calmer and more peaceful than it has been in recent years. On the other hand, it is clear that it will merely take a proverbial match to strike a huge fire, given the explosive elements in place.

With our preoccupation over Israel and Iran, and to some extent over North Korea, we don’t seem to be paying enough attention to the Afghanistan‐Pakistan‐India issues. Perhaps we are keen on bringing the troops back home with the hope that later we don’t even have to open an atlas to locate those parts of the world. But, bringing the troops home, which we should have done a long time ago, doesn’t mean that we can afford to overlook the region. We will hope and wish for a peaceful year in South Asia, with our eyes and ears wide open.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Options for BA degrees: filing clerk or bagging grocery?

It has been a long time since I completely outsourced the materials for a blog post.  That is what I will do this time, because together they write a story themselves!  A story that I have, unfortunately, blogged about over and over :(

From the NY Times:
The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.
And, why so?
Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites.
This up-credentialing is pushing the less educated even further down the food chain, and it helps explain why the unemployment rate for workers with no more than a high school diploma is more than twice that for workers with a bachelor’s degree: 8.1 percent versus 3.7 percent.
So, what purpose does a degree serve then?
When you get 800 résumés for every job ad, you need to weed them out somehow
Ok, how about a real, first-person, narrative?
I have a graduate degree, and I work two part-time jobs. One is teaching writing at a university; the other working at a supermarket. People don't believe me when I tell them I make more money per hour bagging groceries than I do lecturing on literary techniques.
In this tight job market, we cannot afford to ignore the reality that a college degree is becoming a luxury: one that no longer translates directly to success. It is time we shed our stigmas towards "menial" workers. The irony is that their salaries – and accompanying lifestyles – are anything but.
If all these are true, can we at least feel good that students are doing something of value when in college?
If you have ever thought or told your students that you are teaching them "critical thinking," for example, you are banking on the prospect that students will abstract some general cognitive skill from your course and apply it to future courses or even life situations.
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.
So, then why are we doing what we are doing?

Premature male dropout. As in sex, so in college?

Way back in high school, we read a HG Wells short story about a sighted fellow wandering into a valley of the blind.  Wells (I am pretty sure he was the author of that story) did a fantastic job of turning upside down the adage about the one-eyed man being the king of a country of the blind.

As one who for years has been reading, thinking, and writing about boys and men falling behind girls and women in higher education, I find it rather bizarre that by and large society itself pays very little attention to this phenomenon.  For now, I suppose I should simply be thankful that I have not been forced off a cliff, which was the case with the sighted person in the Wells story.

Thus, it is neat to have company with whom I can share this misery.  This book review of The Rise of Women notes:
Starting with the people born around 1950, the rate of men’s bachelor’s degree completion stopped growing, and it stayed stagnant for years. In 1970, 20 percent of men and 14 percent of women finished college. By 2010, women’s graduation rates had “skyrocketed” to 36 percent, DiPrete said, while the rate among men grew only seven points, to 27 percent.
Today, women outpace men in college enrollment by a ratio of 1.4 to 1.
Ok, you say "a ratio of 1.4 to 1" and I have always preferred expressing that as a 60/40 split.  Sometimes, I make it even powerful a point by saying that there are three female students in college for every two male students.

My suspicion is that this ratio will widen a tad more and then stabilize.  I suspect it will get closer to a two-to-one ratio.

I have always reasoned that this trend is is caused by equal opportunities opening up for girls, with boys simultaneously simply assuming that the world hand't changed a great deal and that they would be successful no matter what.  
Boys have historically been trained to think that they needn’t obey rules or work hard because men used to be able to drop out of high school and still earn wages comparable to better-educated women, thanks to jobs in fields like manufacturing, construction and travel. That’s not the case anymore.
Even today, DiPrete said, young men are “overly optimistic” about their ability to earn a livable salary, even though they’re less educated than women. That may cause them to “under-invest” in schoolwork, lowering their academic performance and probability of completing college.
Exactly!  It is not any skills gap as much as the getting things done.  Two days ago, I wrote in an email to a male student "your days are numbered, man :)" and added:
The new reality requires a different approach to understanding gender roles in society.  However, I am worried that gender studies in universities focus more [on the past] atrocious discrimination of anyone who was not a white male
But, as with anything else, it will be a while before academia catches up, thanks to its glacial speeds. 

The review ends with this:
Full-time working women in 2011 earned only 82 percent of what men earned. That’s up 20 percentage points from 30 years ago, thanks in part to women getting more education and access to high-paying managerial positions, but also an internal motivation to get a degree as “insurance” to be able to make a middle-class living.
Yes, female students are playing that long game that life is.  And that is what this Jezebel commentary notes:
[Women,] rather than men, who have the more realistic long-term view of the relationship between debt and earnings. As the study makes clear, it's not that women are more inherently comfortable with a heavy debt burden — it's that women are more likely to see borrowing for education as a worthwhile long-term investment. As Gender and Society editor Joya Misra puts it, "Women's recent advantage in college graduation rates is associated with their relative disadvantage in the job market. At the same time, men's seeming advantages in the short run can lure them away from a surer path — college completion — to longer term economic security."
Precisely because young men still benefit from an enduring wage gap, they are apparently more likely to deceive themselves into imagining that a college education may not be worth the price.
Another student seemed to be concerned that his wife will outearn him, and that could even force them to seriously consider him--the man--as the stay-at-home parent of their infant child.  I reassured him that he will not be the first, and will be joined in that "secondary" rank by many more males in the coming years.  Of course, I then sent him this piece to read as well.  A male architect writes about his life as a full-time homemaker:
All choices have a cost. My architectural skills have a shelf life, and it's likely that I am damaging my prospects for future employment. In general, architecture isn't something I can do halfway, and given the choice, I choose the quality of life we are afforded by me being a full-time homemaker. Our circumstances may change and I may be forced to re-evaluate, but for now, feeling that the benefits far outweigh the professional cost, I want to be a great homemaker supporting a fantastic spouse.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 33 percent of wives outearned their husbands (who may or may not have been employed) in 2006, one-third higher than the figure of 24 percent in 1987. As this number rises, more men will be faced with the decision of what to do when their work is no longer “necessary.” In the case of couples with children, I expect the decision is more sharply defined; for other couples with no plans for children (like us) how will things play out?
Me? The stay-at-home dude abides.
I will keep on blogging about this topic, even if one day the blind mob drives me off the campus!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hyderabad blasts: Measure the region’s stability by what’s cricket

As a result of the bomb blasts in Hyderabad, apparently the visiting Australian cricket team had second thoughts about playing a test match in that city.  And, after discussions, they have decided that the match will go on:
Australia plan to play the second Test against India in Hyderabad as scheduled next week despite deadly bomb attacks in the city on the eve of the Test series opener, reports said on Friday.
I am glad with the Aussie decision, not because of any affinity for cricket--that is now long gone.  But, because cricket is an indicator of normalcy in this part of the world.

I wrote about cricket as a measure of normalcy more than three years ago.  It was then in the context of Pakistan.  The argument is equally applicable here too.

The following is a re-post of that column from October 2009

With bombs bursting in air and suicide bombers exploding at ground level, Afghanistan continues to be a dangerous place. After eight years of military engagement, we are more than a little behind schedule on finalizing our plans to exit Afghanistan.

The unrest and violence in Afghanistan is intricately linked to Pakistan’s. So, is there any simple metric that we could employ in order to understand whether things are getting better or worse in Pakistan, such that it can then feed into the decision-making process regarding Afghanistan?

Yes, there is: All we need to do is keep track of the game of cricket in Pakistan. As simple as that!

Cricket is played worldwide, mostly in countries that once were Britain’s colonies. In terms of a global following for a sport, cricket is second only to soccer. In the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, cricket can, and does, trigger passion among its peoples that can make even the most boorish college football fan here seem very tame.

Pakistan has a rich history of outstanding players who were admired for their skilled art by fans and opponents alike. One phenomenal player — Imran Khan — successfully cashed in his popularity to become a significantly successful politician.

For a number of years, Pakistan and India — both with millions of cricket fanatics — did not play each other because of political tensions. I barely had stepped into my teenage years in 1978 when India and Pakistan resumed playing cricket after a gap of 18 years. Watching those games on television was a transformative moment when it dawned on me that the “enemy” team comprised players who looked and talked just like those playing for India.

It became difficult to understand why the people and cricketers from Pakistan were demonized. Thereafter, it was nothing but sheer pleasure for me to watch the talented ballplayers from the neighboring country.

Those were the relatively calmer days before terrorism became a household word. Yet even as conditions in Pakistan started spiraling down, India and other cricket-playing countries continued to send their teams there, but with increasing levels of security.

No more. Now, no country is willing to visit Pakistan to test its cricket mettle because of the immense security risks.

Pakistan was to have hosted a prestigious international tournament — the Champions Trophy — in September 2008. But one country after another withdrew because of worries about safety for players and fans. It was then rescheduled for 2009, but in a different venue altogether — in South Africa.

Sri Lanka was the only brave country that ventured out to Pakistan to play a series of matches there, perhaps having been conditioned by the 25 years of civil war in the island. This visit in March 2009 broke a dry spell since October 2007, which was the last time Pakistan hosted a cricket team from another country.

In a way, that decision by Sri Lanka immediately provided enough tangible evidence regarding the terrorists’ stronghold on the country. The Sri Lankan team’s bus was ambushed in the city of Lahore, resulting in the deaths of six policemen and injuries to players.

Naturally, the Sri Lankan team returned home right away.

As a result, there is now no team that will dare to visit Pakistan, which is a huge loss for the game itself, and for the cricket-crazy fans there. Imagine how Brazilians would feel if they could not host soccer tournaments and if their carnival were canceled. Double that sense of utter disappointment and frustration, and I think we might get close to understanding the loss of international cricket play in Pakistan.

This yardstick of cricket suggests that normalcy might not return to Pakistan for a while. In that case, it might not be realistic to expect that the chaotic situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas will settle down any time soon.

Therefore, I am all the more worried that we might be stuck in Afghanistan for many more years to come. And that is not cricket!

For The Register-Guard
Appeared in print: TuesdayOct 13, 2009

Hyderabad: "the bombs bursting in air" is not comforting

The news headline that I read after coming back from class was far from encouraging on an overcast winter day here:
13 killed, 83 injured as twin blasts rock Hyderabad
What the hell is wrong with people! Not one, but two explosions, with at least another one that didn't:
The blasts that hit the city in Andhra Pradesh were 10 minutes apart, police said. Television images showed casualties being rushed to hospital.
India's home minister said bombs had been planted on bicycles 150m (500ft) apart near a crowded fruit market.
How terrible!

Thanks to the sabbatical, when I could have an extended stay in India and understand a little bit more about the country where I was born and raised but where I feel I am a stranger now,  I visited Hyderabad for the first time in my life.  I do not know anything about the city's layout to know whether I was at any part of the city even close to where these blasts occurred.  But, as is always the case with me, I begin to relate a lot more to a country or a city after I have been there and, thus, this news is more than yet another piece of news for the day.

As a tourist, of course, I had to go visit the famed Charminar.  In fact, even the train I took from Chennai to Hyderabad was the Charminar Express.  To the local population, it was a pleasant day, but I found the heat a tad unbearable, which is why many of the photos that I took then were when I was in the shade--in the photo below, you see the leaves of a tree that provided some wonderful relief from the sun.
Nearby is a big mosque.  The security guys stopped me at the gate because I couldn't take the backpack with me, and there was no way I was going to separate myself from my backpack.
Walking around a little bit was physically exhausting because of the heat, but there was so much of energy there from the merchants selling all kinds of goods, including the famous Hyderabad bangles and other jewelry.  The glittering in the dazzling sun comes through even in the photo below:
Of the different photos I took of the razzle-dazzle, I like this one the best because of the images of women also.  To the academic in me, the mix of people was fascinating.  Especially the sight of so many women in various kinds of outer garments.

Even though it was a very brief interaction with the city and its people, I am able to relate a lot more to them when I read the news.  I hope there will not be anymore news reports of bomb bursts.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What grades will porn actresses earn in my classes?

A neighbor once joked that his grades in the spring semesters of his college years were worse than his grades in the fall semesters because of one critical reason: as a young man, studying became difficult for him when the temperature warmed up and females in his college started showing more of their legs.  Thus, instead of spending time and energy on preparations for final exams and papers, well, you know.

I do not know how I might have reacted if I had been an undergraduate student in the US.  Would the hormonal biochemistry have triggered a similar response from me?

The problem, once we think about, is not about hemlines and male responses, but the overall view of women. Period.  If typically we do not think twice about male students in trousers versus shorts, then shouldn't that be the same framework when it comes to female students?  As Amanda Marcotte writes:
you're reducing a woman to her sexuality instead of considering her as a whole person.
So, if the teenage Sriram had always only noticed the changing hemlines of his female classmates, then that Sriram was one heck of a moron, wasn't he, in viewing them only through a sex prism?  Marcotte adds:
to quote Maya Dusenbery of Feministing, "looking at a woman and instead of seeing a full, complex, and multifaceted human being, all you see is ALL TEH SEXXX."
It is not merely this hypothetical teenage Sriram in a US university than I am thinking about.  It easily leads me to the extreme situation of covering up a woman from head to toe, with a tiny slit for her to view the world.

Yes, the teenage Sriram did think about these issues.  After all, he went to a coeducational school throughout his life!  And, as with most things he thought about, well, he was totally confused, which he blamed on his teenage angst!

Once, during a train ride between my college and home, a foreigner woman--a middle-aged White woman--was my seatmate.  As an older and experienced person, she knew how to engage the awkward me in a conversation, during which she remarked that as a kid she would never have been allowed to wear anything like a sari because of how much of the neck and waist areas were exposed.  She was sure her parents would have freaked out if she had dressed that sexily.

A sari was too sexy? I was quite amused to think that a sari might have been disallowed, but t-shirts and jeans would have been ok.  You see, growing up in a traditional household meant that my sister couldn't get my parents' approval to wear a pair of jeans, even though her school uniform was a skirt that was not a full-length one!

Which means, the question is not really what the clothes are, but what our construct of women is.  If we look at a woman and all we see is the sex, then the problem is not with the clothes she wears but in us.  Nope, I didn't reach this profound understanding during that train journey; wisdom arrived much later in life, after I was past all the angst of teenage and youth!

I like how Marcotte phrases it:
telling women to cover it up is just as surely a form of sexual objectification as telling women to take it off.
Exactly!  When a mullah commands women to cover up, he is equally guilty of promoting sexual objectification of women.

Now, as an older, and--I can confidently assert this--a wiser me cares not what the female students wear to class, or even what the male students wear to class.  What matters to me is whether or not they know anything about the content I have identified in the syllabus.  It matters to me whether they sleep through, or stay engaged in, the class.

With my online classes, of course, there are no problems whatsoever--nobody knows how the other is clothed.  The New Yorker summarized it the best during the early years of the Web:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

During my graduate school days, I worked as an intern at a transportation planning agency in Los Angeles.  One day, during a conversation on some planning issue, my supervisor, Debra, commented that I seemed to enjoy being a contrarian.  I tried explaining to her that I wasn't contradicting her for the sake of arguing, but that those were serious issues we had to think about.

I knew what she meant though.  In a planning agency, one is expected to follow a certain bottom-line set of ideas.  I, with my free-thinking, either didn't always go along with them or sometimes even explicitly questioned them.  Such a trait has been a constant in my life, perhaps working against my professional advancements, but the free-thinking has been one immensely rewarding intellectual life.  And enriching in my personal life too.

Thus, even now, when I opine in favor of nuclear energy or genetically modified rice, or criticize higher education, but at the same time champion a whole lot of left-of-center values, I am more easily tagged a contrarian than otherwise. Even worse is the contrarian label if I happened to change my mind on issues after years of reflecting on them, even though revising our thesis based on compelling evidence is what the scientific method is all about!

The "contrarian" streak is very much alive when it comes to food and diet.  When academics praise organic foods and advocate for them, I point out that almost always the poorest of poor in the villages of Asia and Africa eat nothing but organic food.  And that organic food hasn't gotten them very far.  Not that I want strange chemicals in my food, but I want to be realistic about "organic."

When people talk about going on diets, I keep quiet mostly because as a thinly built fellow my contrarian comments can be misconstrued in many ways.  But, I would always want to tell them that a diet by itself is not the problem or the solution. Especially when they fondly talk about the food and diet of the old days; because, I then have the urge to remind them that in the old days not only was there not enough food, but even the available food was not good enough.  Under-nourishment was more the norm than otherwise.  I would never want to go back in time. Ever. Because, going back in time means that I have to re-live all those problems our ancestors had to deal with.

In a wonderfully informative and an engaging essay on our "Misguided Nostalgia for Our Paleo Past," Professor Marlene Zuk writes:
It's common for people to talk about how we were "meant" to be, in areas ranging from diet to exercise to sex and family. Yet these notions are often flawed, making us unnecessarily wary of new foods and, in the long run, new ideas.
Yes, it makes us wary of new ideas.  And that is one awful downside.  As I often remark in my classes, what I teach is merely an example of how much humans have progressed from the African Savannah thanks to new ideas.  If we had had nothing but nostalgia for those good old days, then, hello, I wouldn't be blogging this and you wouldn't be reading it either.
Some of our nostalgia for a simpler past is just the same old amnesia that every generation has about the good old days. The ancient Romans fretted about the young and their callous disregard for the hard-won wisdom of their elders. Several 16th- and 17th-century writers and philosophers famously idealized the Noble Savage, a being who lived in harmony with nature and did not destroy his surroundings. Now we worry about our kids as "digital natives," who grow up surrounded by electronics and can't settle their brains sufficiently to concentrate on walking the dog without simultaneously texting and listening to their iPods. ...
Given this whiplash-inducing rate of recent change, it's reasonable to conclude that we aren't suited to our modern lives, and that our health, our family lives, and perhaps our sanity would all be improved if we could live the way early humans did. Our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, the reasoning goes, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.
In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the renowned Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, called "paleofantasies."
 Damn, these people write so well!  I love that phrase "paleofantasies" :)
[In] a larger sense, we all sometimes feel like fish out of water, out of sync with the environment we were meant to live in. If gnawing on that rib or jogging barefoot through the mud is therapeutic, enjoy. But know that should you wish to join us, the scientific evidence will gladly welcome you to the 21st century, in all its inevitable anxious uncertainty.
Perhaps this nostalgia, the paleofantasies, are their defensive approaches to deal with the uncertainties that envelop life.  But, hey, life has never, ever, been for certain.  More importantly, the good old days were not all good old days.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Do yourself a favor: feel sorry for yourself!

A colleague stopped me in the hallway last week.

"I forgot to tell you" she said.

"About what?"

"I wanted to tell you about a performance in Seattle.  It was not the Mahabharata, but the other one."

"You mean the Ramayana?"

"Yes, that one.  But, now it is too late--it is over."

"They are both amazingly complex stories with plots that crisscross, and with characters that are so well developed" I replied.

I loved those epics.  Phenomenal works of literature from centuries ago.  What I read were mere re-telling; I can easily imagine that the works in the original will be quite a treat for those well-versed in Sanskrit.  The Mahabharata, which I prefer a tad over the Ramayana, was Rajaji's version that I read and it was one gripping page turner when I read that as a kid.

Of course, those are more than stories to the true believers.  For the atheist me, as much as I draw lessons on life from a Hemingway or a Tolstoy, there are many wonderful lessons I could draw from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

One of the words of wisdom that appealed to me, especially when I have to resolve issues within, is this advice from the Ramayana:
आत्मानमनुशोच त्वं किमन्यमनुशोचसि ।
आयुस्ते क्षीयते यस्य स्थितस्य च गतस्य च ॥
- रामायण, अयोध्या

You should think (and feel sad) for yourself. Why do you grieve for others?
Your life gets eroded everyday irrespective of who stays with you or leaves you.
- Ramayana, Ayodhya
It is not crass selfishness that is being referred to here.  But, a deeper understanding that life is finite, and that the passing of every second, every day, is also one second, one day less from whatever that finite number is.  And, therefore, it is up to each and every one of us to contemplate on what exactly it is that we want to do with our lives.

But, mere mortals we are, and we worry about the small stuff and about others.  But, hey that is also what makes us human!

"The Pleasure of Finding Things Out"

In the high school biology class, during one of the lab sessions, we transferred our blood drops to a glass slide, and viewed that with a microscope.  Even though the textbook and the biology teacher (was Gladstone his name?) had prepped me for it, I was blown away that the liquid blood was not some simple solution but there was all kinds of things happening there.  There is more than meets the eye, indeed!

I was reminded of that experience when I read this essay on how discovering the microscopic world led humans into yet another frontier to which humans had never gone before.  Explorations of the micro-biology kind.

When it came to studying the human reproductive system, after reading the textbook with a sense of being a science explorer combined with all the teenage angst and desires, there were certainly plenty of moments when I wondered if the sperm really looked anything at all like the tadpoles in the pond.  I suppose it would have been one crazy biology lab if any classmate had attempted to check that out; thankfully, nobody did, and we believed the textbook instead.

It is that kind of curiosity to constantly peek behind the curtains which has led us to where we are now.
In previous ages, natural philosophers had attributed the causes of processes to invisible, occult forces and emanations — vague and insensible agencies. The new mechanistic philosophers of the 17th century argued that nature worked like a machine, filled with levers, hooks, mills, pins and other familiar devices too small to be seen. As Hooke put it: ‘Those effects of Bodies, which have been commonly attributed to Qualities, and those confess’d to be occult, are perform’d by the small Machines of Nature.’
He never quite found them — what the microscope revealed was more often unintelligible in these terms. But there was no shortage of other marvels.
Yes, marvels. A never ending stream of marvels.

A typical complaint is that the more we systematically analyze the world around us, the less everything is charming.  That we reduce the wonders of nature to their material components, and then we decipher the components of those components.

It simply isn't so.

The fact that such inquiries enabled humans to walk around on the moon has not made the sight of a full moon any less poetic--it has only increased our desire to go check out the moon for ourselves, as much as we pricked our fingers and examined that blood under the microscope.  Critically analyzing a play or a musical performance makes us appreciate the nuances and adds to our enjoyment.

But then, I am not saying anything new.  The phenomenal polymath physicist, Richard Feynman, articulated it for all of us while talking about the beauty of a flower:
I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
Yes, the marvels we discover adds considerably to appreciating and enjoying this world.  If only people would invest a lot more time and energy to understanding science than we currently do.

As Feynman noted in this context of a lack of interest in scientific knowledge:
we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is.
Ah, "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" ...

From the BBC Interview for Horizon 'The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.
Animated by Fraser Davidson (

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why do beauty contestants wish for world peace?

As a kid, who had no idea about what wars meant, I remember being confused when we were told that we might have to turn out the lights and go dark during the 1971 war with Pakistan.  Yes, even though we lived in a town that was far, far away from Pakistan!

The following summer, or was it a year after that, when we were in Pattamadai to spend our school vacation time with the grandmothers, we kids were thrilled to listen to stories from the battlefront, narrated under the stars--the narrator was practically a family member, who was an army "javaan."

Of course, it was only later in life did I come to know that he was not anywhere near the front itself!  The older we get, the more we learn about the un-truths; turns out we live in a world of truthiness!

But, other than during those childhood years, I have never been a fan of war and violence.  I was a graduate student at USC when Bush, Sr., decided to liberate Kuwait from Saddam's invasion, and I joined the anti-war rallies at the campus square by Tommy Trojan.  War was not the answer, as far as I was concerned.

Into my adulthood, I have become more and more of a pacifist, and even people yelling and screaming is a huge turnoff anymore.  There are certainly plenty of ways in which we can express disagreements without resorting to violence in words and, definitely, in action.

Reading Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and re-reading Catch-22 further convinced me that war is hell. War supporters are almost always, in Joseph Heller's words, the scum of the earth.

But, for all those who are pressed for minutes and seconds in these modern times, there is no one better to succinctly explain the idiocy of war than Calvin himself.

No, not John Calvin, but the one who walks around with Hobbes.  No, not that Hobbes either :)
If only Watterson hadn't retired!  Oh well ....
So, why war all the time?
Yep, stupid!  Hellishly stupid!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What you see is not always what you get?

It was time for me to go get my haircut.  Not many more years remain for this ritual, with my hair rapidly thinning out.  I can even feel that there is not much on top because it doesn't seem like it is raindrops falling on my head, but more like pebbles being thrown at me from above by some impish angels!

Being short on dollars these days, I sometimes think that maybe I should try cutting my own hair, like how Gandhi experimented in his early attempts to understand self-reliance.  Anyway, the inexpensive place that I go to was crowded; of course! There is no question of making appointments there--you go and wait your turn.  Not that I have anything pressing to do, but waiting for a haircut is something that I can't seem to tolerate a lot.

So, off to the more expensive place.

I was tempted to ask the girl at the front desk about the charge for a shave versus for a haircut.  You know, that old joke: a guy asks the barber what the rates are.  The barber says, "five dollars for a shave and fifteen for a haircut."  The guy then says, "ok, shave my head off."

But, I resisted that urge to joke.  Successfully.  Especially because there is no shave at this place and the lame joke would have fallen even flatter.

The early-thirtyish woman who led me to her corner of the business wore one of the highest heels I have ever seen, other than in movies or photos.  And hot-pink shoes at that.

"I am all slippin' and slidin' while walkin'" she exclaimed to her colleagues, and I decided to give more gap between us as we walked.

As the process got underway, I knew what was coming.  Questions about what I do, about my family, the weather, the dogs, ... that is one reason why I postpone getting a haircut as much as possible.  The service providers want to engage in chit-chat, while I feel trapped in the chair.  They might as well serve me my final meal and flip the switch on!

Polite as I am, I reply, but clearly indicating that I am not interested in a whole lot of talking.  Meanwhile, she is having a couple of parallel conversations with other colleagues who are working on their own clients' heads.  I am always amazed at this--I have enough trouble keeping track of one conversation, and these women have simultaneous conversations with a gazillion others!

"I like your shoes" one says, to which my hairdresser replies, "thanks; I want to make sure I am comfortable in this before I take it with me to Cambodia."

Now my ears get more attentive. Cambodia?  Not often does one hear about Cambodia.  The odds are pretty good that she is going there for some volunteer work, I thought to myself.  Perhaps through her church, too.  When my neighbor went to Mali a few years ago, it was through his church.  Otherwise, come on, how many people do we run into in our lives who declare they are headed to Mali for a vacation?

"I will be taking my flats too" she continued.

When it seemed like a break in that conversation, I chipped in. "So, when are you leaving for Cambodia?"

"In two weeks."

"Cool!  What's taking you to Cambodia?"

She is going there because she is committed to helping out victims of sex-trafficking.  And, yes, through her church.  She will go there to teach those girls and young women hairdressing as a vocational skill.  And also help them transition away from illegal drugs.

All that is hard work.  Emotionally tough work.  It is incredibly easy for me to write analytically about any of the global problems, and express my outrage.  Righteous indignation!  Armchair philosophizing is all I do. People like her, on the other hand, take it as their responsibility to actually do something.  Sure, there is an evangelical aspect to that work; but, if she doesn't go, it is not as if I am all set to go work there with the victims of sex-trafficking, right?

I am back home blogging about it; I do have to ask myself what good does this act of mine accomplish!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Those Winter Sundays and the never retiring parents

I rarely ever did not attend school.  It was always fun to go to school, learn something new, spend time with classmates.  (Of course, there were a chunk of teenage years when I had one huge additional reason to look forward to school!)

But, there were those days when I had to skip school because of health issues.  If not the fever, then it was stomach pain.  It was only as a graduate student in the US did I learn that the stomach pain that had bothered me throughout was nothing but acidity, which was also a major reason for my drifting towards a less-spicy/bland food.

Anyway, it was one of those occasions when I had no choice but to stay back home.  I must have been about nine or so years old.

As the day progressed and I felt better, I remember asking my mother, as she was putting away the clean clothes, if she thought it was unfair that we children and father had weekend schedules that were different from our weekday routines, but to her everyday was all the same.

The strangest thing is that mother didn't think there was anything odd in this.  She felt that she was doing what she had to do, and she had no complaints about it.  Even now I think it is rather bizarre that mother didn't think it was unfair!

Thus, all my life the image of my mother has been of one who takes care of business in her quiet and un-complaining way.  But, as she and father are getting older, there are days when either by herself, or under father's strong suggestions, mother takes breaks and gets food from outside for the two of them.  While my logical brain thinks that is exactly what they ought to do, and it is also something I have been urging them to do a lot more, the mind struggles sometimes to reconcile the old image with the new reality.

As we get older, we notice that our children too carry with them images of their parents and homes, and  are sometimes pleasantly surprised, or shocked, when parents and homes aren't like how they remembered or even preferred.  I suppose all children, at any age, go through this process of re-adjusting their images of parents as the parents get older.

A lovely poem, at my favorite site for poetry, refers to the "father," who could also be a metaphorical person representing the parents, grandparents, to whom it didn't matter whether it was a weekday or weekend and they got up as always and had things going before I even woke up.  As children, we tend to assume that is what "they" had to do, and rarely ever do we pause to appreciate what they did.

My much delayed thanks to all of them.
Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 
When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 

Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pakistanis hate the US and love their military

Elections are round the corner in Pakistan; thankfully, it won't be on the Ides of March!  But then, it seems like the country is in a perennial Ides of March, and an election on that day maybe the equivalent of two negatives making a positive!

So, how are things there? (ht)
With President Barack Obama's first term characterized by strained relations between Pakistan and the U.S., more than nine in 10 Pakistanis (92%) disapprove of U.S. leadership and 4% approve, the lowest approval rating Pakistanis have ever given.Trend: Approval of U.S. Leadership in Pakistan
Really?  There is still 4% that approves the US leadership? Damn; we aren't doing a good enough job with our drone strikes then.  Oh, wait, what drone strikes?

To begin with, it is one heck of a shaky democracy in Pakistan. To add fuel to that fire, which was not always merely metaphorical, we did everything from drone strikes to, well, remember that crazy shooting incident?  Of course, there is that wonderful line up of prime ministers and presidents accused of corruption.  Should we then be surprised at all with the following?
confidence in the interventionist military -- the organization that has ruled the nation for over half of its post-independence history -- climbed to 88% in October 2012. While support for the military in Pakistan has traditionally been very high, it has regularly met or eclipsed 80% since 2010.Trend: Pakistan: Confidence in Military and National Government The upcoming May elections in Pakistan will be of seismic importance for the future direction of the country and for U.S.-Pakistani relations. 
Oh my!  88% versus 23%.  No contest there!

If elections are held as scheduled in May, and if a civilian government follows, then it will be a historic event--two consecutive civilian governments.  A civil transfer of power.  But, of course, three months to go and a great deal can happen in between.

A few months ago, I wrote that "Pakistan seems to be rapidly fading from our radars":
On our part, here from the US, we ought to cheer these developments, and support them in every possible way we can. We definitely do not want to perpetuate a long‐held sentiment around the world, particularly in Pakistan, that the US quickly forgets as soon as its own selfish objectives have been met.
Oh well ... even more to worry about in that Gallup poll:
Pakistanis now more than at any other time in the past three years feel threatened by interaction with the West, according to a May 12-June 6, 2012, survey. A majority (55%) say interaction between Muslim and Western societies is "more of a threat," up significantly from 39% in 2011. 
Not good at all!

Let us hope that it will be a peaceful spring in Pakistan.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Obama opts for ideological blinders on domestic protectionism

I have never been a fan of President Obama's rhetoric on American corporations getting things done outside the US (like here, here, and here.)

These corporations do not go overseas out of any lack of patriotism, which is something only real people can feel. (Despite the law treating corporations as people, I like that old and tested question: when was the last time Texas, which executes real people by the dozens every year, executed a corporation?)  Corporations get things done in China or India or wherever because that works in the best interests of its customers and shareholders.  If a corporation didn't and, thereby, offered lower quality widgets or ran a loss, then customers or shareholders, or both, would flee those corporations and, unlike Texas, kill the business.

The crafty manipulator of words that Obama is, he didn't refer to the outsourcing per se in the State of the Union address, but couched it as a tax code abuse:
a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America. That’s what tax reform can deliver.
Could there be corporations finding opportunities in the tax code to their benefit?  Of course there will in plenty.  But, surely that tax code is not the reason why Apple gets the iProducts manufactured in China, or why IBM is the second largest private sector employer in India--even more than its payroll in the US--is it?

I am so tired of Obama's rhetoric on this, which is clearly not meant as a call for action as much as to satisfy his voting base.  The pragmatic and calculating politician that he is, well, there is no way Obama will go after the corporations that are political cash cows, and with which many of his trusted associates have long-running professional associations.  Further, as this WaPo blog notes:
No progress has been made on reforming the tax code. Obama has repeatedly proposed changing tax breaks to reward companies that stay in the United States and punish those that leave, but there has been little enthusiasm in Congress, even when Democrats controlled the House..  
It didn't go anywhere because it is, after all, a game that Democrats put on for their base to applaud.  They don't mean to act on it, and can also blame the GOP for not being able to get this done.  Further, as this rather sarcastic note at Forbes points out:
To hear this administration call for tax reform and simplification is akin to hearing your fat uncles chide you to lay off the Snickers. It’s sound advice, but they’ve got no business being the ones to deliver it.
Keep in mind; this is the same administration that recently did the impossible, and made a 70,000-page Internal Revenue Code infinitely more complicated.
We now have SEVEN ordinary income tax rates, with the top rate of 39.6% kicking in at taxable income of $450,000 for married couples ($400,000 for single).
Starting in 2013, long-term capital gains can conceivably be taxed at 0%, 15%, 18.8%, 20%, 23.8%, 25% and 28% rates depending on various characteristics of your tax return and the nature of your gain.
My head spins from merely reading that piece at Forbes!

Of course, Obama's words immediately echoed on the other side of the world, in India:
With President Barack Obama dropping another major hint that his second term in office will witness the emergence of a strong liberal economic agenda, policymakers in countries competing with the U.S. must be wondering what his State of the Union references to attracting jobs back on-shore implies.
My point is this: will we benefit from a simpler tax code? Yes.  No doubt about it. But, please do not try to fool us by linking the tax code to why US corporations conduct operations overseas.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I had no idea that I live in a nuclear free zone!

On my way back home, I meandered even more than how much I have recently been doing.  At this rate, if I don't watch out, soon my path home might be via New York City!

It was a pleasant late afternoon, with an occasional fine sprinkling from above.  The hills in the distance looked bluer than usual.  The greens of various hues were all brilliant.  There was no way I was not going to take in as much as I could.

I indicated left almost as a reflex.  And I was off on a narrow country road.

I wonder if I would have enjoyed the scenery as much if I had grown up here.  Do kids growing up here know what a paradise this is, or are they counting down the days to get the hell out of here, like kids often seem to do?  Even if they feel that way now, the older they get, will they feel the urge to come back here from wherever they are?

Farmlands had been recently tilled, and there was that earthy smell in the air. The sky and the clouds looked gorgeous.  I had to pull over.
The country road wasn't straight for even a hundred feet, it felt like, and had a whole lot of twists and turns.  Some turns were ninety degrees and more.  All the more the reason for me to drive slowly and that is what I did.  As I passed a T-junction, I made eye contact with a much older man driving some farm equipment and waiting at the stop sign.  Waiting for me to pass.  He nodded his head to mean hello.  So typical of of what we would refer to as the salt of the earth.  I thought if I stopped and chatted with him, well, maybe he would even invite me over for supper.  I was tempted.  Life in this paradise is full of such temptations.

As I passed a sign board, it felt as if there was something odd about the board.  There was no traffic and I backed up the vehicle to that signpost.  Sure enough, there was something strange: a board that proclaimed that it was a nuclear free zone.
That is Oregon for you. No, that's so Eugene!

I resumed driving. At about 25 miles per hour.  It was my choice to drive at that speed on a road that is not often taken.  How much we miss out by taking the same well traversed paths!

Cows were idly standing under a rain roof.  Sheep grazing on velvety green grass.  I could have just parked there and watched them until the sky turned dark.  But, I didn't.

A couple miles later, the road ended at the highway.  It seemed like my mini vacation ended quite abruptly when I had to step on the gas pedal and drive at sixty in order to keep up with the flow.

As I neared home, I realized that this deviation from the usual route had taken up an entire hour.  I suppose there is an advantage to being divorced and single and without even a dog at home--I can take such a leisurely approach and forget all about the straight lines of life.

Darwin, Lincoln, and my grandmothers

From the industrial complex-based modern town where we lived, my siblings and I used to head every summer to spend time with our grandmothers, who lived in kind of "advanced villages" that were about 50 miles apart--Pattamadai and Sengottai.

Sengottai had a regular structure for a cinema, and Pattamadai had nothing but a tent, a bunch of benches, and a crude projector.  It was in one of these movie places--I think it was in Sengottai--that I was introduced to the idea of evolution, way back when I was a kid, and way before the academic idea popped up in the biology class.  Yes, thanks to a film, in a run down cinema hall, in a very small town.

It was some old black and white movie that had Sivaji Ganesan, I think.  Am guessing it was from the 1950s.  As practically all Indian movies do, this one too had songs, one of which starts with "kurangil irundhu pirandhavan manithan"--translates to "from monkeys humans were born".

It was news to me that humans descended from monkeys.  I mean, I was then a kid less than ten years old.  I was more than shocked to know that humans were born from monkeys.  The world has never been the same to me since then.

It was much later in high school when we learned about natural selection, evolution, and Charles Darwin.  Today is Darwin's 200th birthday.  (and, Honest Abe's too).

In Darwin's honor, and relating to my first ever intro to evolution, here is a link to the famous "The Monkey Trial"--State v. John Scopes.  

Am proud to have descended from apes.  And, yes, mighty glad to be in the country that Lincoln helped build.  My beard, however, is nothing compared to Darwin's and Lincoln's :)

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Valentine's Day note to amorous undergraduate females

Am re-posting here most of an entry from two years ago.  That was in the context of male students rapidly falling behind their female counterparts, and universities like the one where I teach having a 60/40 split with men in a shrinking minority.  I think it will work in the context of Valentine's Day too :)
The author ends with this postscript of a Note to the amorous undergraduate female reading this
When you scan the campus and realize what your choices are, I know it is tempting to open a vein and slide into a warm bath. But here’s the thing: you may be an average undergraduate female, but there are above-average undergraduate males out there who are nearly your equal. They are out there. It’s just that you outnumber them about 100 to 1. Still, that’s no reason to open a vein and slide into a warm bath.
It is funny, every single time I read it :)

I wonder how I came across to young girls/women when I was in high school/college.  No thanks to me, did a few young ones prefer to bash their heads against the wall than talk to me?  Or, was I so insignificant that I didn't even blip in their radars?

When I was relatively new in my Oregon stint, one bright female student, "K," came to talk with me about her law school plans.  I asked her if she was free enough--without any significant other--to go wherever she wanted to.  Her reply was funny then, and is funny now, but is also a reflection of these gender issues.  "K" replied that she hadn't met anybody even her equal, let alone being better than her, and so it was all the more the reason for her to go far away from this part of the world.  I wonder whether she did find her soul-mate in graduate school.

But then, if men are slacking off, it is the women's fault, especially for misusing their erotic capital!

Valentine's Day greetings in advance to y'all!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The fight against polio turns deadly. Literally. For the workers

Throughout my childhood years, running a fever was a constant event in my life.  One moment I would be playing like any other kid, and the next I would be down with a scalding temperature.

(My parents and I worried that I wouldn't be able to sit for the Class X exams, when I came down with one such fever.  For one exam, father escorted me to the hall and sat outside ready--in case he had to rush me to the hospital.)

One of the questions I was always asked was whether I experienced any pain in my legs.  And the worried look on my parents' faces if ever I said yes to that.

It was all because of a fear of polio.

I was fortunate, and so were millions of my cohort and later on.  In 2012, India registered its first year of no polio cases at all.  A Himalayan feat, indeed!

It is a phenomenal achievement that even within my life time, this dangerous disease is now close to being wiped out.  Very close, with only three countries remaining.

One of the final battles against this virus is being fought in Nigeria.  Two days ago, that medical battle turned lethal for nine polio vaccinators, not because of the virus but because of humans:
In the first attack in Kano the polio vaccinators were shot dead by gunmen who drove up on a motor tricycle.
Thirty minutes later gunmen targeted a clinic outside Kano city as the vaccinators prepared to start work.
How awful!  Simply insane.

Why did this happen?
On Thursday, a controversial Islamic cleric spoke out against the polio vaccination campaign, telling people that new cases of polio were caused by contaminated medicine.
Such opposition is a major reason why Nigeria is one of just three countries where polio is still endemic.
But this is believed to be the first time polio vaccinators have been attacked in the country.
Let us hope this will be the last instance too.

How and why do those vaccinators work in those areas of Nigeria?  Bill Gates, whose foundation--along with his wife Melinda, and Warren Buffett--has been working on this ever since he turned his attention to philanthropy, writes in his annual letter:
One huge problem the polio program found was that many small settlements in the region were missing from vaccinators' hand-drawn maps and lists documenting the location of villages and numbers of children. As a result, children weren't getting vaccinated. Often villages on the border between two maps weren't assigned to any team. To make matters worse, the estimated distance between villages was sometimes off by miles, making it impossible for some vaccinators to do the job they were assigned.
To fix this, the polio workers walked through all high-risk areas in the northern part of the country. Step by step, they explored these areas and spoke with people, adding 3,000 communities to the immunization campaigns. 
It was nine of such public health workers who were killed.  Those bastards responsible for the killings don't deserve anything but the harshest punishment.

Of course, polio is only one of the health challenges that humans, especially children, face.  If only we could spend more on global health issues, instead of wasting the money on the militaries of the world, particularly here in the US!

BTW, here is Bill Gates admitting to his geeky nature on the Colbert Report, in the context of his annual letter.

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