Sunday, March 31, 2013

The awful tax we are imposing on the younger generations

So, a couple of days ago I blogged this in which I commented:
here is the real problem: it is not only difficult to draw people's attention to these issues, but even more difficult to make them understand that there are tradeoffs involved in every decision--public and private.  If we want to put every drug user in prison for a few years, well, we will have only pennies to spend on higher education.  If we want Medicare to pay for the 82-year old grandpa's Viagra pills, we will have pennies to spend on the youth.  Spending three trillion dollars on wars mean that we won't have money for a lot of domestic needs.
As my graduate school professor once commented (perhaps in jest, but that is how we often present truth anyway!) it is not what you say but who you are whenever you say anything.  In my case, I am a lonely nutcase in a small town working at a small university.  So, hey, most of the time even you readers don't care about what I have to say, and I don't blame you either ;)

How about if I bring in the big guns?  (See how much the "gun culture" is a part of our vocabulary?)  Simon Jonhson, a MIT professor who was also a chief economist for the IMF, writes:
America can easily afford to do better, of course. Its large budget deficits reflect the impact of tax breaks that favor the wealthy and upper middle class; an unfunded expansion of Medicare coverage to include prescription medicines; two foreign wars; and, most important, a banking system that was allowed to get out of control, inflicting massive disruption on the real economy (and thus on tax revenue).
Today’s children did not play a role in any of these policy mistakes. The preschoolers who are about to lose access to Head Start weren’t even born when they were made.
Imposing austerity on poor children is not just unfair; it is also bad economics
Economic policymaking is not brain surgery.  It is about common sense and critical thinking.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to find either one in the brains of most elected officials.  Nor are we educating the young about the importance of these two, especially critical thinking.

I am surprised that college students are not up in arms and protesting widely, even violently, about how they are being robbed in broad daylight.  Have they become so brainwashed through their K-12 years that they have become what a former colleague in California feared we are producing in education: automatons?  Are teachers not being subversive enough?

Mezels, France (2011)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Academic research. Irrelevant. But, end not near!

When I was in graduate school, there were, at least, three tenured faculty who didn't have doctorates.  Yep, professors without PhDs.  As one professor put it, it was a different world when he first applied to become a university lecturer.

Nearly three decades later, I, too, am ready to echo those words that the world was very different then from what it is now, and it seems like it is changing even more rapidly.  But, not only has a PhD become firmly institutionalized as a requirement to become an academic, it has become a ponzi scheme as much as many other aspects of higher education are.
[There] seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
Though I am not convinced as Ronald Bailey is about Singularity University as model for the future, I do agree with this:
The production of new knowledge is accelerating exponentially, Nail notes, which means that graduate students dawdling along for years on a Ph.D. will become “fatally irrelevant.” 
In this ponzi scheme, we also require from academics more pointless research than ever before.  This, too, like many aspects of higher education, cannot go on forever.  In a fortnight, I will be at the annual meeting of the professional body in my field, and will attend many sessions.  Many sessions of talks and discussions that will simply be inane and it will be a struggle to even stay awake.

But, research and inquiry does not have to be that way, especially in the humanities and in the social sciences.  With the rapid scientific and technological progress, there is more need now than in the past to understand what it is to be human and how humanity fits into the larger scheme of things.  The larger population outside the academic walls is also keen on insights into such questions.  Yet, research, and PhD theses seem to be about making sure there will be no new insight whatsoever!

A couple of years ago, Joseph Nye, who is a Harvard professor, and former dean of the Kennedy School there, expressed similar sentiments when writing about the academic field of international relations::
Scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one's career. Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers.
It is not only policymakers who are eager for scholarly interpretations, the public also is. Instead, we academics continue on with an approach that a graduate school friend of mine always ridiculed as "intellectual masturbation."

Nye adds:
The solutions must come via a reappraisal within the academy itself. Departments should give greater weight to real-world relevance and impact in hiring and promoting young scholars. Journals could place greater weight on relevance in evaluating submissions. Studies of specific regions deserve more attention. Universities could facilitate interest in the world by giving junior faculty members greater incentives to participate in it. That should include greater toleration of unpopular policy positions. One could multiply such useful suggestions, but young people should not hold their breath waiting for them to be implemented. If anything, the trends in academic life seem to be headed in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, even in the nearly three decades that I have been associated with academia, I have not seen anything that even remotely suggests that changes might be coming.  Instead, academia digs even deeper trenches and, as much as those young soldiers in World War I found themselves trapped in the foxholes for weeks not knowing what was going on, young students are used as the metaphorical cannon fodder.  How unfortunate!

Yes, I have strong opinions on academic research. It is a minority opinion, no doubt, and that does not serve me well. Despite the negative feedback from my peers, I am convinced that I am on the correct path, however Quixotic the tilting at the academic windmills might be.

A much younger me, at one of the academic conferences that I attended as a grad student

Friday, March 29, 2013

This could be your last day on earth!

Unlike yesterday, there were a lot more people on the bike-path.  Of all ages.  Kids too. Many as couples and groups.  Thus, throughout the walk, it seemed like I was constantly changing the radio stations and listening to bits and pieces as I walked past people.

Some of those made me think more, while the rest were, well, not worth blogging about!

I passed a young mother, with a packet of Camel Lights in her left hand and a cell phone in her right, walking a step behind her blond-haired four-yearish son.

"When we reach home, you want a cheese sandwich, dear?"

I was tempted to say, "no thanks!"  But, what if she got upset instead of laughing?  I kept quiet as I outpaced them.

"No. Not today" said the tyke.

Back in my younger days, I doubt that my mother would have given my such choices.  I would have eaten whatever she gave me, and wouldn't have dared to say no to her either.  At least, that is how I imagine my four-year old self to have behaved.

"Then, what should I make you?" the mother asked.  I was out of earshot soon and have no idea what the kid said.

It was a wonderful coincidence that almost right away I passed an older gentleman walking and talking on his cellphone, and I heard him say--no, yell--this: "You are fat because you eat a lot of food."

OMG!  Don't people have any sense of what not to say in the public?

There was a pause--I suppose he was getting an earful.

"But, the stomach is not a hole to fill up" he replied to whoever it was at the other end.  OMG is an understatement!

For a while, I was not bothered by humans.  I heard a woodpecker somewhere knocking his beak against the wood.  The geese were extra loud.  It was as if the animals too decided to be as loud and obnoxious as that old man was!

A family of three were leaning against their bikes and looking into the distance.  It was a bald eagle up on a tree.  I kept walking, however.  One needed binoculars to get details on that bird, and there was no fun without.

A few minutes later, that family passed me.  The father in front and the mother a cycle-length behind.  Both their butts were overflowing out of those narrow seats.  I wondered whether the bikes would simply collapse under their weights.

As the son passed me, he yelled: "Daddyooo ... we have to stop"


"I have ladybugs on my glasses."

I passed them yet again.

I was over the bridge.  It was the final stretch home.  Two women were walking in the other direction and slowly their voices became louder and louder as they neared me.

".... that this could be your last day on earth."

"Yes, life is so fragile."

"Which is why ...."

I felt like turning back and walking behind them in order to find out how they were planning to spend this final day.  Which is when I heard, "do you see that bald eagle on top of that tree?"

It turned out that the guy on the bike with his feet firmly planted on the ground was talking to me.  With people on cell phones, and that too with all those fancy bluetooth devices, it is difficult anymore to figure out whether a stranger is on the phone or talking to me or is simply crazy!

"Yes, I did, when I was on the other side" I replied.

I paused because he seemed to want to engage me in a conversation.

"It flew over my head when I was on the other side" he said.

I noticed that he was missing quite a few teeth, but he wasn't that old either.  It was quite a shock.  Perhaps the lack of medical insurance?  Or, perhaps from bad habits?  Both?

"What a wonderful day" he continued.

"Yes, and will be like this for another four or five days, I hear."

And then the nerd took over.  "But, we have to pay a price for this.  We haven't had such a dry winter in over 120 years."

"I can imagine that.  I grew up about forty miles north.  When I was a kid, we had lots more rain and snow.  Not anymore.  Things are changing."

"Yes they are.  But, we will enjoy the good day" I said as I started walking.

I have no hassles if it turns out that this was my last day on this planet.  It was a good last day!

What you see is not what you get?

It was a gorgeous spring day in the valley. For now, I will conveniently ignore that precipitation this year has been significantly below average--well on our way to break the record since the systematic collection of data that began in 1892!  I will simply be Polyannaish and enjoy the phenomenal weather that nature is offering.

Stop to smell the roses, they say.  Despite the allergy risk, that is what I did when I came upon this tree blossoms:

The circle of life that spring time reminds us.  Regeneration. There is hope, even though only two months ago it was a grey landscape.  The burst of colors and the green shoots on trees and plants have only begun.

The bottom-line for humans that there is no second act in life doesn't seem to apply to nature, I thought to myself.  Trees and plants that looked so dead only a few weeks ago are so much alive now.  Perhaps that is what this bird was also contemplating about:

I wondered where all the kids were--it is spring break for them too, and they were not out on the bike path on such a day?  Were they watching TV and playing video games and missing out on all these?  Why were only the oldies, and me, walking about?

Sometimes, I wish that I didn't think about anything at all.  Why bother about such things, I ask myself.  Who cares if the kids are growing up messed up, or if there hasn't been enough rains, or whatever.  The fate of humans and this cosmos doesn't depend even one nano bit on what I think.  I might as well give up.

But, I don't listen to these inner voices.  I continue to think.  My neighbor might conclude that I am wasting my time.  Thinking is so internal. Watching paint dry might be more exciting than watching a person think.  Unless, that thinking is captioned with cartoonish pop-up bubbles.  Ah, but then Monty Python already explored the unsexiness of thinking in their soccer championship!

I spotted a couple seated on a bench and engrossed in a conversation.  They looked young. The woman seemed like she had a hijab on.  A colorful one.  Perhaps a scarf?  But, it wasn't worn like a scarf.  It was a hijab.

But, wait, is that smoke coming from her face?  A woman wearing a hijab and smoking a cigarette?  That is quite a sight. I decide to take a detour and check the couple out at closer quarters to verify that it was a hijab and she was smoking.

Indeed!  They were talking in some strange language and in low tones.

The man didn't look even moderately  handsome.  She was no beauty either.

But then very few among us are awesome looking.  Most of us are bland. Boring. Even ugly.  The cosmos couldn't care for how we look.

In our teens, most of us are worried most only about our looks. The pimple on my nose that wouldn't go away haunted me during my high school years. I worried that no girl would ever give me a second look. Especially that girl.

Now, I care very little about how I look. The advantage that age offers. Who cares a shit anymore!

What? I am already home?  Thinking makes five miles go by so easily!

Later in the evening, on my way back from the grocery store, the western horizon looked fantastic with the colors. As risky as it was, I snapped a photo even as I continued to drive. YOLO!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The increasing student loan debt is a huge generational tax

It always amazes me when fired-up youth passionately argue in the classroom that welfare moms are the reason why we are in trouble.  I suspect that they arrived at that conclusion based on the phrase "welfare state" that is often talked about even on talk radio, and how households in poverty receive "welfare checks." So, in their haste, they think of the word "welfare" in both and equate them. End of story.

Correcting a misinformed opinion is awfully difficult.  How much ever I try, I know that the evidence and clarification rarely penetrates through.  Those are the occasions when I think that Sisyphus had an easier time.

Readers of this blog know better. A growth in demand for those welfare expenditures, particularly with Medicare and Social Security, thanks to the high life expectancy and the high costs of supporting life into the eighties and nineties of people's lives, means the state has less to allocate for other line items, assuming there will not be a huge increase in revenue.

Meanwhile, at the state level, we have also vastly decreased our tolerance on crimes, even if they are only for drug possession, which leaves less for other expenditures.

Does it really take a brain surgeon then to figure out that the math simply won't add up?

Here in Oregon, this report from 2009 said it all in a wonderful graphic:

You simply can't have it all, and higher education lost as states started spending more and more on criminal justice.

It doesn't surprise me at all, therefore, that Oregon is the third from the top with a 43.6 percent reduction in state spending per student in the last five years, from where the previous chart left off:
The cost of higher education, via tuition and fees that students pay, has been on the rise not only because of decrease in state support at public institutions, but also because of the explosive growth in "student life bureaucracy" and spending on athletics.

Which means, we would naturally expect students to pay much higher shares of the cost of higher education, than ever before.  How would they do that?  By taking on debt, of course:

Notice on the chart on the right that there is one delinquency that has sharply risen, even while others have dropped--some more than others?
Moreover, the delinquency rate is expected to rise in the near future as more student loans move beyond their forbearance period, when no repayment is expected, to the time when borrowers must pay.  Many of those who borrowed no doubt envisioned that a college education would yield a better financial future for themselves.
Student loans are becoming difficult to pay back.  Why?  Because college grads are finding out way too late in the game that the jobs they do get, if they do manage to get them, do not pay well enough.  In most cases, the jobs don't even require a college credential.
But, here is the real problem: it is not only difficult to draw people's attention to these issues, but even more difficult to make them understand that there are tradeoffs involved in every decision--public and private.  If we want to put every drug user in prison for a few years, well, we will have only pennies to spend on higher education.  If we want Medicare to pay for the 82-year old grandpa's Viagra pills, we will have pennies to spend on the youth.  Spending three trillion dollars on wars mean that we won't have money for a lot of domestic needs.

At the end of it all, who gets screwed?  Not the senior citizens. Not the police officers.  Not the higher education faculty. Not the military. Not the politicians. ... The youth are paying big time for all our irresponsible decisions. But, youth being youth, their focus might not be in the metaphorical screw but in the literal one, and it will be a while before they will realize how much we have messed them up!

I'm alive! I'm alive, despite all the attempts to kill me!!!

As a kid growing up in an industrial town in India, I was allergic to dust, smoke, and even cobwebs.  Once, after a vigorous sweep of the cobwebs and dust around the home, I was wheezing so much that I had to get an intravenous shot of whatever that medicine was so that I could return to normalcy.

I have always wondered why my system couldn't handle dust and smoke when not only the place where I grew up, but pretty much all of India, seemed to be always in dust and smoke.  It has to be that it was a result of the physiology that I was born with.

My body does react to unknown foreign agents entering my system, and that season has just begun in Oregon.

My first spring in this state, after the move from California, I started sniffling in response to all the pollen.  Interestingly, it was not from early spring, but only late in May.  I had joined the company of tens of thousands who are allergic to grass seed pollen.

The second spring was worse.  I suppose that my body had by then figured out that the grass seed pollen was one dangerous enemy and was all set to defend itself.  But, I hadn't received that memo.  So, there I was one May enjoying the river and the walk as I always did.

I sneezed. My nose was runny.  I took an anti-allergy pill.  Showered and ate.  I was off to bed.

Slowly, the heaviness in my chest increased.  It was as if somebody was systematically increasing the weight on my chest and squeezing it.

I sat up. It didn't work.

I sat in an incline. It didn't work.

I stood up and walked around. It didn't help.

Off to the emergency room in the middle of the night.

Even as I waited for a doctor to examine me, I noticed that my breathing was becoming less difficult.  Later, the doctor explained that the highly filtered air that circulated in the hospital made it easy for my lungs.  And then handed me an inhaler and showed me how to use it.

Over the years, I have become smarter and carefully scan reports of pollen levels.  When the levels are high, which often is also when the days are simply gorgeous, I have to restrain myself from going outside.  It becomes something like a self-imposed house arrest, which is better than the feeling of elephants walking on my chest. Such a systematic approach means that I rarely ever use the inhaler.

During the sabbatical stay in India, I realized that I didn't have the inhaler with me.  A moment of panic.  My security blanket was not with me.  What if I needed to use one to drive those elephants away? Especially when I was heading to one of the smoggiest places in India--Delhi.  My friend, a physician, handed me a brand new one--what an awesome gift that was!  I never did have a need to use it during the trip, however.

I suppose the body's response to allergens is different from how it reacts to living organisms that enter our bodies.  When a virus enters the system, the body fights it, yes, but at the same time learns how to protect itself from future attacks.  However, it appears that my system has not learnt how to deal with grass seed pollen; instead, it seems to be getting weaker with every new season.

If, on the other hand, the system learnt to become immune, it would be awesome.  Because, then I can even help it develop such defenses, by slowly introducing it to different pollen, like how my system learnt to protect me from various bacteria and viruses.

Growing up in India meant that I was always exposed to many kinds of illnesses, but it is amazing that I was healthy through them all.  Right from infancy, my system was adapting to the different microbes that entered it.  Perhaps something that infants and toddlers and children do not get to experience that much anymore, which then makes their bodies less capable of defending against illnesses:
A growing body of evidence suggests that all the antibacterial-wiping, germ-killing cleanliness of the developed world may actually be making us more prone to getting sick — and that a little more dirt might help us stay healthier in the long run...
Here’s what researchers do know: Our immune systems need bugs. They rely on early encounters with germs to learn how to protect our bodies.
“Bacteria, fungi, lots of these things we think of as bad — they’re all part of our environment, and we evolved to live with them,” says Michael Zasloff, an immunologist and physician at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Through exposure to these microbes early in life, your immune system learns what’s harmful and what isn’t, he says, and that readies the immune responses you’ll have for the rest of your life.
“The body has got to know friend from foe,” Zasloff says. If your body learns that a specific microbe or substance — any antigen, or visitor to the body — is a foe, it will send immune system cells to destroy it. If it recognizes the antigen as a friend, the immune system will leave it alone. “Exposure tells the immune system, ‘These are the things you’re going to run into all the time, so you don’t need to worry about them.’ ”
Every day of our life is another day of victory over all kinds of attempts to kill us.  It is a constant struggle to postpone that inevitable finality.

The story of humans on this planet has been one of systematically fending off various diseases that routinely terminated people's lives in the past.  Thanks to the accumulated wisdom over the centuries, we live long lives now,  Such long lives that many countries are struggling to figure out how to take care of the aged.  What a delightful problem to have, as opposed to a problem of infants, and children, and young adults dying by the thousands.

As much as I do not look forward to another allergy season, I am glad we live in a much better world now.  Further, as Nietzsche said, what doesn't kill me makes me stronger!

A view of the power station complex at Neyveli, 2002

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pakistan is a worse "money order economy" than Kerala

A while ago, I noted here about Kerala being a "money order economy"--if not for the remittances from abroad, especially from the Middle East, the state will be in a worse economic condition than it already is.

At least, Kerala's social indicators are healthy--from literacy to life expectancy to women's rights, etc.  Imagine a society without such high social indicators and worse economic conditions in which foreign remittances play even more a significant role.  Ok, you don't need to imagine it when we have the real case of Pakistan:
“This is our savior for keeping Pakistan out of the oxygen tent,” Farooq Sattar, former Minister for Overseas Pakistanis said in an interview in Karachi last month before his party quit the government alliance. “It has kept us from a complete economic collapse.”
Almost 10 million Pakistanis work overseas and the sum they’ve sent home has doubled in the four years through June, to a record $13 billion.
Remittances are about six percent of Pakistan's GDP.  How awful will conditions in Pakistan be if the billion-plus dollars don't keep coming in every month?  Pretty much bankruptcy!
 In 2008, Pakistan averted a balance of payments problem by securing an $11 billion IMF loan package, but the IMF suspended the programme in 2011 after economic and reform targets including widening the country's miniscule tax base were missed.
Some analysts have since warned about the prospect of a new balance of payments crisis.
Asked if Pakistan could avoid going back to the IMF, Liepach said: "I don't see that happening. It's a question of time. They need to do this before the end of this calendar year."
"It needs to be $6 billion to $9 billion."
Even the money that comes in is an underestimate because there are significant amounts that are transferred via off-the-books channels:
Pakistan was among the world’s top 10 recipients of recorded remittances in 2012, according to the World Bank. Sattar estimates billions of rupees from abroad are unreported, transferred with the help of illegal money operators known as hawala or hundi. Pakistan’s recorded remittances would double if the illegal channels were closed, he said.
Sometimes, looking at these issues from the outside, I do wonder why people simply cannot get their act together.  In Pakistan, a country where power shortages are so acute that they even had a floating power plant on loan, people would rather spend money to bomb the shit out of civilians because they happen to be of a different ethnicity or Islamic sect or whatever?  Maniacs would rather attempt to kill a young teenage girl than fixing up the mess the country is in?  It is a mad, mad, mad, mad world!

BTW, how are things in Kerala?  It is complicated. Kerala's labor force understands that almost always they can earn more if they moved out of state or the country.  Meanwhile, the state's below-replacement-level fertility rates mean that the state is rapidly aging, which then draws in labor from other states in India that have even worse economic conditions.  One heck of a migratory world in which we live.  
a study conducted by Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT) points out that these young migrant workers are breathing life into the state’s gasping farm sector, propelling its burgeoning construction industry, toiling at small industrial units, hotels and similar places. In short, they do all the menial works in the state. Without them the wheel of Kerala economy would not move.

The last count shows that about 25 lakh migrant labourers are working in Kerala having a population of 3.33 crore. And their numbers are growing at an incredible pace of 10 per cent annually.

In contrast, nearly 22.8 lakh Keralites are working abroad and nearly 10 lakh are in other states, says the study quoting a State Planning Board’s statistical reports for 2011. It shows that Kerala labour market needs at least 5 lakh workers more to maintain the balance between demand and supply.

This will further skew the native-migrant ratio in favour of the latter. Naturally, the state pays a heavy price for maintaining such a huge workforce from outside.  They drain out Rs 17,000 crore annually from the state by way of wages alone which incidentally is equivalent to the plan size of the state for the next fiscal. 
No state or country can't live off money orders alone.  At least, Kerala is a part of the Indian union.  Pakistan has to fend for itself.  Let us see how the elections mess up Pakistan even more!
Kerala, 2006

Oregon's Ron Wyden explains his Brennan vote

Remember a post from a couple of weeks ago when I noted that for the first time I contacted my Congress-member expressing my concerns?  It was about President Obama and his administration operating with their own twisted interpretations of the Constitution and war powers, and over the extensive use of drones--even to kill American citizens abroad.

I was delighted that Ron Wyden spoke up about these issues while joining Rand Paul's filibuster over the CIA Director nominee.

Well, today I got an email from Senator Wyden.  I assume it is a form letter/statement to people like me who had contacted him on these issues.  Though his vote to confirm the nominee doesn't please me, I suppose politics is always winning some and losing some.  Plus, our state's other senator--Jeff Merkley--voted against the nominee :)

Here's the text of Wyden's email:
Dear Dr. Khe:
Thank you for contacting me about the nomination of John O. Brennan to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  I appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.
As you know, in January 2013 President Obama nominated Mr. Brennan to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  The Senate confirmed Mr. Brennan in March by a vote of 63 to 34.  My decision to ultimately vote to confirm him came after a hard-fought battle to shine more light on actions that the executive branch has taken in the course of national security operations.
Soon after the president nominated Mr. Brennan to be Director of the CIA, I sent him a letter asking that he provide Congress with the secret legal opinions outlining the government’s ability to deliberately kill Americans when conducting counterterrorism operations.  Despite many previous requests, the Administration had not been adequately forthcoming to Congress about the legal justifications for targeting and potentially killing U.S. citizens believed to be involved in terrorism.  I sent this letter because it is critically important for Congress and the American people to have full knowledge of how the executive branch understands the limits and boundaries of this authority. I also spoke on the Senate floor during Senator Paul’s filibuster of Mr. Brennan’s nomination because I believed it was important for the Administration to clarify that these authorities cannot be used inside the United States.  
In my view, if American citizens choose to join al-Qa’ida and take up arms against the United States, there are absolutely some circumstances in which the President has the authority to use lethal force against those Americans, just as President Lincoln had the authority to take military action against Confederate forces during the Civil War. It’s important for the president to have the authority to deal with this threat. However, it’s also important for the American people to be able to understand the limits of the president’s authority. And it’s especially important for the American people to know when the president can kill an American citizen and when he can’t.
After seven separate requests over the last two years, I was finally able to obtain access to these secret memos in the course of the Brennan confirmation process.  I am closely reading through these memos and I will be working to get a significant portion declassified.  And I am pleased that the Attorney General has now acknowledged that these authorities cannot be used inside the United States.  It is vitally important for every American to know when their government believes it is allowed to kill them.  Congress has a responsibility to conduct oversight, especially on issues of life and death.  That’s the job that you and other constituents hired me to do.  Please know that I will continue to fight for transparency so long as I have the honor to serve as your Senator.
Thank you for keeping me apprised on the issues of importance to you.  If I may be of assistance to you in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.

                        Ron Wyden
                        United States Senator

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Tiger's Quest includes a course I teach?

Back in January, when winter term began, a student, "Z," requested that he be included in my class on the Indian Subcontinent though he wouldn't take it for credit.  I had no problems with that.  I am all for helping students learn in every possible way and, if this structured approach helps, why not, right?

The term ended and we are now in "Spring Break."  I don't know what other faculty do, but, I am busy reading and preparing for the next term that will begin in a week.  I suppose the break I get is that I don't have to drive to campus this entire week!

"Z" emailed me:
I am home for spring break, and my sister showed me a book she is reading in which the main character attends Western Oregon University. I was expecting to see the courses to be made up, but one of the featured classes is Geog 315, Indian Subcontinent!
Holy crap!

He had included a photo of the page from that very book, Tiger's Quest:

Holy crap!!!

In my reply, I wrote:
I am panicking on whether the freshman in the story gave the GEOG 315 faculty a horrible rating!!!  I don't care for the story; let me know if there is any evaluation of the faculty in that book ;)
Curiosity being the middle name that my parents did not give me, I Googled for the book and then tweeted the author about this.  I am delighted that the author replied:
With the recent Life of Pi and then this Tiger's Quest, which is the second in a series, I wonder whether there will be an increased interest among the young to know more about the Indian Subcontinent.  I hope so.

As for the evaluation of the faculty or the course, well, after reading an email from a student who was in that very class that recently concluded, I really have nothing to panic about.  The student, "M," writes in that email:
I truthfully took this class because I needed one more class so I would be full time and I thought it would be an easy A. Every other online class I have taken was an easy A. This class wasn't so much. I worked hard for every paper we wrote and scrap of research I read. I had to go above anything I have ever put into an online class before. That being said…I loved this class. The biggest thing I loved (outside of the gaining of knowledge) about this class was the challenge. I had to have structure or I wouldn't remember everything I needed to get in or read for the week. The second thing I loved was this class didn't just educate me it educated my husband and young daughter. I would read to my daughter and make my husband read the articles then we would have great discussions. Then I would post the links on facebook lol. I also posted my weekly discussions with it and my papers
There are very few things that excite me as much as when students tell me--on their own, and with no prompts from me--about how they ended up discussing the course materials with friends or family.  I am hoping that the young, and old, readers of Tiger's Quest would take courses on the Subcontinent and share with their families and friends their understanding of a very important part of the world.

Looking forward to the spring term, already!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Siddis are yet another link in India's connections with Africa

Doesn't it seem like the photo below could be of a person/place in India?
Or, wait, is it from Africa?

Do you feel that I am setting you up with trick questions?

Yes, I am.  Because, I want you to get as flummoxed as I am in learning that there is in India a community of African diaspora.

I am not referring to the overall story of human migration out of Africa.  The photograph is from a collection about a group of Africans who migrated to India: the Siddis.

Every single day it is something new about India.  If understanding India is so difficult for me, who was born and raised in India, with what I consider to be an above-average intelligence and curiosity, then it shouldn't be any surprise at all when even people in India, leave alone those outside the country, walk around with misconceptions about India!

It all started with this tweet in my Twitter feed (yes, Ramesh, we put Twitter to good use!):
That WSJ site had this opening paragraph:
Ketaki Sheth first encountered the Siddi in 2005 on a family holiday to the Gir forest in Gujarat. This community of African origin would become her photographic obsession.
A community of African origin?

An hour later, I was still Googling and reading about this community that I had no clue about until earlier this morning.

Life sometimes seems to be about discovering how clueless and uninformed we are, and yet we act as if we know it all!  Education is not about knowing as much as about finding out what we do not know.  Education is one heck of a humbling experience.

The first of the Siddis may have arrived in India more than a thousand years ago as a result of India importing slaves from Africa.  Seriously, India imported slaves from Africa?

I thought the caste system and the concept of untouchables were bizarre enough.  Slaves? From Africa? Much before the trans-Atlantic slave trade?
[Medieval] Indian history abounds with references to Ethiopian or Abyssinian slaves serving at royal courts or in the armies of imperial/local rulers. But African presences in India testify not only to past systems of feudal power and warfare, but also to the subcontinent's place in a larger Indian Ocean world. This world was ruled by maritime and trading connections extending to East Africa as much as to Arabia, the Persian Gulf and South-East Asia. African seamen, well known for their maritime skills, served not only on the ships of traders from India, the Swahili coast and Arabia, but also on those of Portuguese, British and other European colonial trading companies.
Today, we encounter small communities of people of African origin along the western coast of India, whose predecessors may have been brought to the country as slaves, or may have been sailors who voluntarily settled in India after one of the long stays on land enforced by the monsoon. While diverse historical circumstances ranging from slavery to maritime labour displaced their forefathers from the lands of their birth, today's Sidis, as the descendants of Africans are called in India, no longer sail the ocean. In Gujarat, where one of the larger Sidi communities, numbering around 20,000, is found, they have merged with the masses of the poor, living in urban working class quarters or, though rarely, in villages.
But, of course, this being India, nothing ever is a simple story; the import of slaves into India was very different from the American experience:
In India at least, slaves were not meant for plantation work but served mainly as servants, bodyguards or soldiers and, rarely though, as agricultural labourers. Many women were personal attendants of aristocratic women. In 19th century Gujarat, for example, Sidis served in numerous small princely states. Although they arrived as slaves, once they became part of the court personnel of a ruler, they were treated as other royal servants in a patrimonial system of power. But they were still treated as part of the property of a king. To give an illustration: Sidi maids could be given as part of the dowry of a Rajput bride and had to move with her to her husband's house. In towns, Sidis were given a piece of land for housing and had rights to receive food and clothing from their patrons. There are also numerous shrines dedicated to saintly Sidi ancestors, many of which originated in a gift given by a royal patron.
Not difficult to imagine, eh, why I spent more than an hour reading up about the Siddis!

the Siddis in this village [Jambur] 470 kilometres (290 miles) southwest of Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of the western state Gujarat, say they know nothing of their origins as descendants of African slaves.
"I was born here. I got married here. My father and grandfather are also from this village. I've no idea where their ancestors came from," said Aishubehn Makwana Basurim, a 40-year-old woman who is the village head.
"I've never heard of Africa," she said, adding that the more important issues were the lack of access to good education and generally being left behind by India's economic boom.
She has never heard of Africa and I had never heard of her people in India.

Researchers have traced the origins of the Siddis--the later ones brought over by the Portuguese--to sub-Saharan African Bantus:
During the course of the Bantu expansion, African farmers settled in East Africa. Later, during the 15th to 17th centuries, this region was predominantly ruled by the Portuguese. They brought some Africans to India as slaves and sold them to local Nawabs and Sultans, whose descendents, admixed with neighboring populations, comprise the present-day Siddi population of India
This map they include says it all:

Way too much of information on a Sunday morning.  Need coffee--that wonderful elixir that originated in the African highlands of Ethiopia!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Harnessing that profit motive. Creative and Conscious Capitalism?

As I noted a fortnight ago, the profit motive is so darn wonderful and a curse at the same time.  Since the end of WWII, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, it has been a worldwide experiment on how to handle this profit motive.  We do have variations on this, from the US model to the Scandinavian approach to the Chinese one to ... In all these, there is no hands-off approach to the profit motive and, instead, these different approaches reflect the different ways in which societies attempt to rein in that profit motive.

A few years ago, as Bill Gates started thinking, talking, and doing philanthropy, he talked about ideas on "creative capitalism."  That was five years ago, and it is awful that as I go back to posts that long ago, hyperlinks rarely work anymore.  I wonder how archivists and librarians deal with this nightmare; not my problem, at least for now!  For now, I did a Google search, which led me to this site, in which Gates notes:
Why do people benefit in inverse proportion to their need? Well, market incentives make that happen.
In a system of capitalism, as people's wealth rises, the financial incentive to serve them rises. As their wealth falls, the financial incentive to serve them falls, until it becomes zero. We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve wealthier people serve poorer people as well.
The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to make self-interest serve the wider interest. The potential of a big financial return for innovation unleashes a broad set of talented people in pursuit of many different discoveries. This system, driven by self-interest, is responsible for the incredible innovations that have improved so many lives.
But to harness this power so it benefits everyone, we need to refine the system.
See, the gazillionaire Bill Gates, as he started to think of the world beyond Microsoft, also was seduced by that tricky question of how to refine the system that is driven by the profit motive.  In such a refined system, the poor and the underserved can also be quickly brought up to levels where the market forces might then take care of them too.

It is one heck of a challenging question.  And Gates' vision?
The challenge here is to design a system where market incentives, including profits and recognition, drive those principles to do more for the poor.
I like to call this idea creative capitalism, an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world's inequities.
Hey, we cannot complain that Bill Gates simply talked about this and forgot all about it after exiting Davos--the guy has been walking that talk ever since.  But, of course, this is not a challenge that he can take up on his own and solve it.  

Now, another entrepreneur is talking a different variation.  This time, it is the founder of Whole Foods, which is also popularly joked about as "whole paycheck," but that is a different story.  
"I think the critics of capitalism have got it in this very small box - that it's all about money," explains John Mackey, co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods. "And yet, I haven't found it be that way. I've known hundreds of entrepreneurs and with very few exceptions most of them did not start their businesses primarily to make money."
The popular, or populist, image of a capitalist is of bloated fellow smoking his cigar in utmost comfort while plotting how to screw the hoi polloi.  But, that ain't so.  There is no doubt that there are several rogues out there, but, seriously, isn't Whole Foods that liberals love so much a capitalist enterprise by itself?  My neighbors own a small business and they aren't out to rob people.  Anyway, let me stay focused here on creating a refined system, call it "creative capitalism" or "conscious capitalism" or whatever.  
In Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Mackey and his co-author, Raj Sisodia, make a case that businesses are at their best when reaching for a higher purpose that ranges far beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest.
I came across one other example of how the profit motive is doing good--in the case of providing potable water, the lack of which was something I recently wrote about.
WaterHealth International, a social business that has set up drinking water centers in western and southern India, now purifies about 1.4 million liters of water a day, and serves around five million people.
As I recently commented to a student, if I am not an "Argumentative Indian" then I am a "Doubting Thomas." So, of course, I checked out the company's website; it is not clear whether the communities in which this system has been installed fully paid for it, or whether corporations and/or foundations subsidized it.  Even if the latter, then it is nothing but the model that Bill Gates outlined where businesses, NGOs, and governments team up in order to provide for goods and services to the poor whom, otherwise, the profit-motivated businesses completely bypass.

It isn't a perfect world; but, to read about such developments is encouraging enough.

Women carrying water from the common hand-pump, in Pommern (Tanzania)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Higher education should be about outcomes. Not about doing time!

I sometimes semi-seriously joke with students that an 18 year old has to choose one from the following institutions as the option for at least four years:
The military institution,or
The penal institution, or
The mental institution, or
A higher education institution.
"You made the call to come here in order to avoid the other three" I joke, punctuating it with my muahaha.

We require them all to clock in and clock out somewhere, until they can be of legal drinking age (ok, drinking-age plus one!)

In higher education, we do not question why it has to be a four-year degree.  We do not question why every student has to go through the same process, even when we are fully aware that students differ in their abilities.

It is a mass production factory system--yes, that, too, is sometimes what I tell students.  How much ever things have changed in "the real world," we dare not question some of the fundamental units of higher education.

Like, why an academic year is only thirty weeks.  A century ago, the logic was that students were much needed as labor in the farms during the precious summer months of up in the latitudes here.  The old folks talk about picking one fruit variety after another throughout the months.  It is a different world now, and even the summer farm labor demand is now met by legal and illegal immigrants.  So, what do students then do in the summer months?  That is increasingly becoming a difficult blank to fill.

We require all the students to spend the same amount of time in order to develop and demonstrate competency in whatever that we require.  Even though in any class it is clear that some students can develop the competence in the subject in a few weeks less than a term, while others might need more than a term.

Could it be that we continue to engage in such practices because:
Institutions will try to preserve the problems to which they are a solution.
I came across that marvelous statement, cynical as it is, in this essay on literature and the publishing industry.  I suppose that quote, from the social thinker Clay Shirky who apparently has that as a rule named after him, can be applied in many, many contexts; such is the world in which we live!

The military institution tries to preserve the problems to which it is a solution.
The penal institution tries to preserve the problems to which it is a solution.
The mental institution tries to preserve the problems to which it is a solution.
Why should we expect higher educational institutions be any different, eh!

Happy birthday, Twitter. My first tweet was ... this?

Twitter is now seven years old.  Eons, in the internet calendar.  It is now an old man!

I thought I had been using Twitter almost since it was launched.  But, the archives tell me otherwise--it was almost a year after Twitter's birth that I joined that .... with this lame tweet!
Not that my tweets are any smarter these days, eh!

I wonder what awaits us in this digital progression. Should be a fascinating journey ahead.  May we live in interesting times, indeed!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

India becomes even more complicated to understand!

A few months ago, at an event, we ended up talking movies.  One asked me whether I had watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  I nodded a yes.

He too had.  He then confidently declared, though he has never been to India, that there was no way foreigners can simply walk around like that outside their hotel.

I told him that was entirely possible.  India is not like the South American countries where cities are far from safe havens for locals and tourists alike, I told him.

Since then, I have wondered if I jinxed the situation with that kind of a remark. Not a day passes without yet another news report on rape or physical assault in India, and on foreign tourists also.  The latest was this one:
Just days after a Swiss woman told police she was gang-raped while camping with her husband in central India, Indian officials say there’s been another unpleasant episode involving a foreign woman traveler.
A British woman says she jumped from the balcony of her hotel room in the northern city of Agra on Tuesday morning to escape sexual harassment, according to local police.
What is going on in that country?

Did such things always happen even in the past, but simply went unreported?  Was I living in my own fool's paradise?

The description in the New Yorker that I really, really, liked, now takes on such an ominous interpretation:
India, with its dazzling light, crowds, noise, and dust, is inevitably a test for the old. Withdrawing from the lure and demand of the place is the same as withdrawing from life. Face it straight on, and you defy mortality.
When I read that a while ago in the New Yorker's review (sub reqd) of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  I though it was such a brilliantly constructed set of words that so easily conveyed the strange attraction that India has.  Face India straight on and you defy mortality was such a beautiful way to capture the experience of India.  And, yes, if one were to withdraw from what it is, well, one might as well withdraw from life.
Though the reviewer was also referring to that wonderfully phenomenal experience of traveling in India and immersing in everything there, the recent string of bizarre and negative reports make the whole idea of mortality very, very literal.

Oh well ... I can't ever understand the country where I was born and raised!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Science is hard. Will get harder. Learn to deal with it!

Throughout my early years in school, math and the sciences came naturally to me and I found the subjects to be absolutely wonderful as well.  Decades later, a classmate, "S," recalled how I had helped him with calculus, and much to my disappointment I had/have no memories of that.  But, I can easily imagine having helped him because those were topics that I could have dealt with even in my sleep!

My heart and emotions were not in the math and sciences, however, and slowly I drifted away from that part of the intellectual world.

After I returned to academe as a faculty--this was in California--I once organized a term-long series on introducing freshman students to various intellectual pursuits.  One week, it was an English professor who came over to talk with the students.  Very fashionably did she sit on the table, as opposed to on the chair, and in her remarks emphasized to students how much she didn't get math when she was in high school and college, and didn't get it even as an older adult, and that it really didn't matter because, well, she was a professor.  Her message to the students was, well, don't sweat the math!

I was shocked that she would so actively encourage impressionable freshmen to stop worrying about math and sciences if they didn't get them or weren't interested in them.

Turned out that she was not the only faculty to talk to students that way.  Over the years, I have come to feel that most faculty outside the sciences have actively made sure that students feel legitimized about not wanting to do science or math.

And then there is the whole GPA issue.  Students know really, really, well that they can easily boost their GPAs if they took as minimal as possible courses in the sciences and math.
The pursuit of the perfect GPA is a distraction that leads too many students away from the challenges they should be facing in their undergraduate years. At a time when public understanding of science is critical, fewer and fewer non-majors are taking demanding science courses, due at least in part to their fear of getting penalized for their efforts with a less than stellar grade.
Thus, we end up graduating students with high GPAs, making sure that all students being above-average is not merely the case in a fictional Lake Wobegon!  Commencement ceremonies now routinely have magna- and summa-cum-laudes by the dozens--of course, very, very few of them from math and science, and nobody seems to even acknowledge that!  Once, when I participated in the university's deliberations on choosing the outstanding graduates, I made a mistake of commenting that it would not be fair to compare GPAs of students who were in different majors; I was surprised that there was no discussion on that point. Keep ignoring and eventually people like me will go away, I suppose!  It worked--it has been years since I participated in those discussions.

It is not merely a CP Snow kind of worry I have about the decreasing emphasis on science.  That is certainly a worry.  Of even more concern is the message we convey to students--find easy ways out, and don't struggle with things that are hard.

Such a message is the worst education we can ever provide.  Students don't even realize how much we are shortchanging their lives this way.  That message is the worst return on their investment.

Through education, which is more than a paper diploma, we would hope that students understand that life is a long haul, with quite a few complexities that they will have to deal with individually and as members of society.  The struggles in the classroom are more than merely about the subject content, and are metaphors for life.  Life is no cakewalk and is bloody hard in so many different ways.
If they can fight their way to the truth, the truth will make them free, just as it did for me that day in high school physics.
What is true for science is also true for the other great human endeavors.
To engage with the world in search of any kind of Truth is an expression of the search for excellence. That, by its very nature, is desperately difficult. There will always be a price to be paid in time, sweat and tears. We should never sugarcoat that reality.
Beyond all these, think about the implications for public policies.  A citizenry that is not educated in the sciences is a nightmare that we are already living through.  A classic example is the paranoia over GM crops.    That is also the example that is the point of departure in this essay, where the author is concerned about irrationality holding back good science:
What lies at the root of this panic, and others like it? One factor that is often ignored by champions of reason is that science is hard, and getting harder. In the mid-19th century, the ideas of British naturalists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace took hold in part because they were so simple and intuitive (and in part because Darwin was such a clear writer). In those days, it was just about possible for an educated layman to get a grip on the cutting edges of science, medicine and technology. The same feat would be laughably impossible today. 
The more science becomes difficult to understand, the easier it is to grab a hold of "alternative" explanations:
It is hard to become a molecular biologist, or a doctor, or an engineer. Yet it is relatively easy to grasp the ‘precautionary principle’ — the belief that, in the absence of scientific proof that something is harmless, we must assume that it is harmful.
Yes, because it is easier to play this game, we then have an increasing population of reactionaries.  Conservatives in an unscientific way.  Things have gone so bad that:
Scientists are distrusted in a way they were not 100 years ago. The whole scientific enterprise looks to many like some sort of sinister conspiracy, created by the industrial establishment to make money at the expense of our health and our planet. ‘Science’ (rather than greed, incompetence, laziness or simple expediency) gets blamed for the degradation of our environment, pollution and threats to species. 
As the essay points out, if the early humans had adopted such a reactionary approach, fire and the wheel would have been banned even before they were adopted!

Oh well ... I will keep ranting away, though nobody listens to me, ever ;)
At the (new) biology lab at my old school, during the class reunion after 30 years

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

No Chocolates. But, what an awesome gift!!!

A couple of days ago, I wrote
Doesn't matter anymore if nobody brings me chocolates; I am full already with those sweet words.
Tomorrow will be my last day on campus, after which I will be at home grading the final exams and preparing for the spring term.  But, I don't have any urge to look forward to any gift anymore.

For the rest of the academic year.

Because, I got the most awesome gift ever earlier this morning.

"T," a student from China, respectfully walked into my office and politely sat on the chair.

With her right hand half in her handbag, she said "I really like you as a professor."

I wondered if it was a preface to a gift. A chocolate bar in the handbag that she was reaching for, maybe?

"Will you be ok if I give you a gift?" she asked.

"I will be delighted" I replied.

And she took this out of her bag:
I was simply blown away.

It was no ordinary chocolate. The package looked way too grand.

"It is tea" she said.  "My mother told me to take two gifts. To give to professors if I like them."

So, this means I am one of the two professors who made a big impression on her?

I am not surprised, though, that she liked my teaching style--she already made such remarks in the classroom. She told the class that in China she had never had a class anywhere near how my class is.  Because, back there, it was all about students taking notes as the teacher lectured, and then memorizing those notes and repeating them in exams.  In my class, there is very little lecturing, and a whole lot of reading and writing and discussing that students have to do.

The strangest thing is this: given the language issues, "T" was forced to work double-overtime. Yet, she openly commented, with a smiling face, how much she liked my class.

But, I wasn't mentally prepared for a gift from her.

"It is so beautiful" I said as I opened the box:
Small, single-serve packages of tea, vaccuum-packed.
"This is my father's favorite tea" she remarked.

I thanked her again. And again.

What a glorious ending to the term!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Cyprus, Euro, and the Welfare State. A re-telling of Ant and the Grasshopper

A few weeks ago, while on my walk by the river, I had company that I had not planned on, when I slowed down to my neighbor's speed for most of the walk.  And we chatted.  While discussing our respective hobbies--I have none--he talked about this music interests.  "There must be a way for society to help out struggling musicians" he said.

I was not sure how seriously I needed to follow-up on that.  This was, after all, at a walk by the river.  But, I couldn't let that slide either.  I went for it.

"That is the kind of issues we are now struggling with.  Different kinds of work have varying levels of incomes associated with them.  So, if one chooses to follow a certain path that doesn't have the returns one expects, then should we really require those who opted for a different path to subsidize the former?  Or, should society worry only about those who, for physical or mental reasons, are unable to fend for themselves?"

I effectively killed that topic.  We continued on with other less controversial topics.

Before the birth of the modern welfare state, we might not even have had any need to engage in such discussions.  It was an unfair world where opportunities were highly unequal, based on the social class into which one was born--something beyond anybody's control.  Liberal democracies, especially in the post-WWII era, have been experimenting with policies that attempt to equalize those opportunities.  Some try to equalize the outcomes, which is what my neighbor seemed to want our society to do in the case of musicians.

The welfare state, with its heavy focus on equalizing outcomes, is a big factor in the ongoing Eurozone crisis. High levels of taxation on those with higher earnings helped pay for those who, like my neighbor's musician friend, either were in occupations that didn't pay much, or, even worse, opted to retire at 55 and spend the rest of their lives on pension from the state.

It really doesn't require that metaphorical PhD in rocket science to figure out that such a system is unsustainable.

Cyprus happens to be a collateral damage in this unsustainable setup, even though it was in a much better state than even its immediate neighbor, Greece.  In fact, it is that very neighbor that has messed up Cyprus:
Greece happened. Cypriot banks were heavily exposed to the Greek debt crisis, by virtue of having large bonds holdings of Greek debt, both public and private. The value of that debt took a nosedive, destroying the balance sheets of Cypriot banks. 
Here in the US, thanks to the myth of anybody making it, we are more interested in the equality of opportunities than in the equality of outcomes.  But, of course, we can't really make it an even playing field.  There is a limit to which government can intervene and make opportunities less unequal.  Truly equal it can/will never be.  Born into President Bush's family will result in opportunities that will be in plenty compared to being born to John and Jane Doe in Anytown, USA.

Where do we then draw the line on equalizing opportunities, or outcomes, or both?

Aesop dealt with something similar in the tale of the Ant and the Grasshopper.  The grasshopper has a good time feeding on the abundant food in the summer, singing and dancing away, while the ant toils away to save for the rainy days that were bound to follow the long summer days.  One can easily imagine what happens to the grasshopper when the rains and cold weather settle in over the winter.

Somerset Maugham authored a wonderful twist to this story, which is what perhaps the Greeks and everybody else hoped would happen to them also.

But, even Maugham couldn't have written the irony that is unfolding in the Euro area: the ants are being penalized and asked to pay for the grasshoppers who sang and danced away.

The longer I live, the more I realize that life is a fascinating series of retelling, and new interpretations, of old stories.  Fascinating only as long as I am not the grasshopper shivering and starving on a rainy, cold, winter night, of which we have in plenty here in Oregon.

Bond. From the old to Skyfall. Diamonds Are Forever

It came sooner than expected.  No, please check your sexual interpretations at the door.  I watched the second in my James Bond collection.

Diamonds Are Forever.

I had forgotten a lot about this movie.  I had a hazy recollection of the bad guy, and I recalled something about a lunar vehicle.  I wondered whether I was confusing the plot, however weak and contorted and unbelievable it might be as in any Bond movie, with Moonraker, which I knew had Roger Moore and not Sean Connery.  So, hey, not a bad idea, after all, to build some new synapses.  Maybe future research will show us that watching 007 in action is a good way to defer dementia!

The movie was way less cheesier than Goldfinger.  I suppose the franchise was maturing in every possible aspect.  Scenes did not flash and go but were lengthy for a slower narration.  The movie was much better than how I had remembered.

I had completely forgotten, though, that the movie pretty much unfolds in Las Vegas.  And, my, what a difference from the Vegas of today.

Back when I lived in California, a colleague, Peter, who was going through a career crisis of his own, decided to take the tests in order to prepare himself as a substitute high school teacher.  (He later ditched any plans to switch his career.)  After taking the test, he said that one part included writing an essay in response to a prompt on where a foreigner visiting the US for the first time ought to be taken to for a unique experience.  Peter wrote about Las Vegas.

I agreed with him. The city is one of a kind.  Thankfully, Vegas is one of a kind.  Too many of that will be the ruin of human civilization!

I, too, have done that.  Once, we took two visiting Swedish students to Vegas.  They couldn't put away their cameras and were clicking, clicking, and clicking.  This was back in the days before digital cameras, and when film rolls and developing and printing made that awfully expensive.  They couldn't care about the expense.

But, the Vegas that the Swedes observed and enjoyed was different--very different--from the city in Diamonds Are Forever.  Here is one example from the movie:
The Vegas metropolitan area is anything but such open space anymore.  And, a much more important one: The Dunes was gone a long time ago.  It has been replaced on that spot along the fabled strip by a brand new Bellagio.  A part of the constant remaking of the city, exemplifying the constant creative destruction that is a distinguishing trait in capitalism.

Of course, like any decent Bond movie, this too had a car chase scene. It was quite a good car chase, actually.  Not bad at all, especially when we place it in the context of more than forty years ago.

The streets of Vegas were such a contrast to the contemporary frontages of casinos and resorts; here is a frame from the movie:
Nope. Doesn't look anything like this. The last time I was there was, ironically, to attend a conference.  Crazily enough, the people at the Association of American Geographers had selected Vegas for the annual meeting.  It was bizarre to walk past slot machines and then go sit down for academic conversations.  It was interesting to note that the one-armed-bandits had been replaced by push buttons.  That was four years ago; I wonder how much things have changed since then.

The Bond Girl was so blah.  I mean blaaaah!  Such a downer.  How could they have messed up with that!  She was unimpressive, both in her looks and demeanor, and with whatever little she had to contribute to the story.  No Honey Rider was this Tiffany Case.

Seriously, Tiffany Case?  So, un-creative!  So, un-Bond-Girl like :(

Until the next one ...