Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Another atheist advantage: no worries about "rest in peace"

As my cohort gets over the proverbial age hill and begins the descent on the other side, our parents are beginning to rapidly vanish past the horizon.  A couple of days ago, it was the news of the death of a classmate's mother.  She was also a teacher in our school, which makes the death that much more of a real person that we all knew.

Responses on the Google Group soon came in from classmates from wherever we are on this planet, and typically included a note on "may her soul rest in peace."

My response did not include that.

I had other things to write to the friend, but not about his mother's soul.

How could I when I don't believe there is a soul, and for it to find a resting place after the death of a person!

All I know is that we die. Left to itself, the body will start decaying after death. Even from a practical and hygienic perspective, humans had to somehow take care of the dead.  We developed different narratives in order to make sense of life and death and what do with the person who has now been reduced to being referred to as "the body."

When my grandmother died, which was when I was still in high school, I found it bizarre that one moment she was paatti (grandmother) when she breathed her last in the car in which we were taking, and a few minutes after the breath ended, she became "the body" who was being transported to the morgue.  The name, the person, the identity was gone and reduced to "the body" all because she had stopped breathing.  How bizarre is that!

Maybe we reduce the dead person to that kind of a designation because of the emotions that we otherwise have to deal with, when it comes to the post-death procedures?  We are not comfortable with saying "paatti will be  cremated at about 3 pm tomorrow" whereas it is less difficult to deal with "the body will be cremated at 3 pm tomorrow"?  Or in a different culture that buries the dead, to visualize grandma being buried six feet under is more traumatic than if merely "the body" is buried?

Cultures have their own narratives of dealing not only with death but also with the dead.  "Rest in peace" is a part of that narrative.  The imagination here is of a soul that is different from the body, and the worry is about that soul.  If it is Hitler's soul, an overwhelming majority wants that soul to suffer. The narratives about that suffering then paint us pictures of hell and purgatory.  We don't want grandma souls to be anywhere near these horrible place and want those souls to rest in peace.  Nor do we want them to wander around as half-dead, zombies, who might wake up on Halloween and devour our brains.  (Sidebar question: will the souls of vegetarians also stay vegetarians and, thus, not eat human brains?)

Even if I leave my atheist framework aside and work with this "rest in peace," given that the classmate's mother was a Hindu, then is it really appropriate to note "may her soul rest in peace?"

No theologian I am, but that usage sounds a lot more like the purgatory-related narratives of Christianity.  In the Hindu faith, if one sinned a lot, then the "soul" is sent to hell, and is reborn after whatever time it will be in that hell.  Where is the place that the soul is going to rest?  Rebirth is then another chance for the soul to do good and access that other route that takes the soul to heaven.  Of course, Thrishanku is an exception here!

So, how does "rest in peace" really fit into the context of a Hindu's death?

Has "rest in peace" become a phrase that we utter as a reflex response anymore?  Like when people sneeze and we say gesundheit, even if we have no idea that means?  Is "rest in peace" no more than a part of the social behavior, like saying "have a nice day"?  But, when death is so different from everyday happenings, shouldn't our response be a lot more profound than a mere utterance of "may the soul rest in peace?"

Do people, including my classmates, think about all these when they say "rest in peace"?  Should they not think about these, especially when they claim to believe in whatever the narrative is of their choice on what happens after death?

I have profound respect for death; my posts in plenty are evidence of that.  It is one of those rare binary things.  One is either alive or dead.  When things are that definitive, there is something truly awesome.  I suspect that quite a few atheists are like me--we are simply amazed at the power of death.  We live every single day with that thought that death could happen any second.

The wonderful thing is that I don't have to worry about whether or not I will rest in peace.

Atheists or religious, the question is this: are we (our souls) at peace within when alive?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

You say falafel. I say பருப்பு வடை

A couple of days ago, I felt the urge to eat பருப்பு வடை (paruppu vadai.)

All I knew was this: it is a lot of work to make that.

While I am not as lazy as the friend from Bangalore who shall not be named (!) I rarely ever get excited to work from step one of the process.

I knew that the primary ingredient is nothing but the good ol' chickpeas. Lots of aliases this legume has, thanks to its global usage.

Falafel is also made from chickpeas.  During the two days in San Jose, Costa Rica, I spotted a Lebanese eatery and, as is typically my Pavlovian response, it was falafel that I had.

How I wish I had taken a photo of that!  At least I took a photo, though not a good one, of the பகோடா (pakoda) that I had at an Indian restaurant a previous night.

So, back to பருப்பு வடை.

If this vadai is made from chickpeas and is deep-fried, and if falafel is made from chickpeas and deep-fried, then, aha, maybe the shortcut that I am looking for in order to satisfy the urge.

Sure, nothing like the real thing.  Nothing like the original. But, hey, our lives are all not about originals, are they?  Are all our thoughts original?  Nope. Are our actions any original?  Nope.

I like to think that life is like jazz--we learn the notes, listen to a few tunes, and then come up with our own variations of those tunes.  We improvise.  The ones who create original music are rare amongst us.  The majority that we are, we improvise, hoping that at least we would enjoy our own music even if nobody else does.  Which is why there is so much of bathroom singing and whistling--we enjoy it enough, but know it is not a good idea to publicize.

But, I publicize. My blog is like my bathroom singing. In the public.  (Phew, I had to make sure that I didn't omit the "l" from "public"--that would have been a bathroom humor of its own!)

So, back to பருப்பு வடை.

If I am going to improvise, then why not make it a masaal vadai at that?  It was going to be the flatter masaala paruppu vadai instead of the roundish falafel.

Which is what I did.

I assembled the ingredients: the falafel mix packet from the store, onions, cilantro, turmeric powder, red chili powder, and salt.

Less than thirty minutes later, I had the wonderful aroma of vadai.

A new philosophical issue arises: if it smells like vadai, tastes like vadai, kind of sort of looks like vadai, it is really vadai?

I suppose the same question can be asked about me too: given that I look like an Indian, talk like an Indian, am I an Indian?

Those were some of the existential questions I pondered over, while I had my version of masaala பருப்பு வடை with freshly brewed coffee.

You, too, would have enjoyed it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Air, water, and land. All three polluted in China. Is manufacturing worth it?

In the years before Rupert Murdoch bought out the Wall Street Journal, and changed the tone of the paper, I was a regular reader of that paper. Even a subscriber at one point.  (I am sure that will gladden the hearts of my socialist colleagues!)

The WSJ was unique in one way--it was almost as if the editorial page was a newspaper of its own and ideologically driven with Robert Bartley in the driver seat, separate from the rest of the paper that was not that far from a middle-of the-road routine journalism.  The paper even had Alexander Cockburn as a regular columnist giving his interpretations from the far left side of the political spectrum.  

Typically, every issue had an interesting rather off-beat story that began in the front page and worked its way into the inside pages.  I can even faintly recall the image of Daniel Pearl's portrait on the front in that characteristic WSJ-style.

Even now, every once in a while, the WSJ breaks free of its ideological framework (I guess it is possible now with Murdoch being distracted with many professional and personal issues!) and presents lengthy pieces, like this one on China's pollution in the rural areas, affecting the agricultural lands too.

Pollution in China is not anything new in this blog.  For instance, this past January alone, I had three entries (here, here, and here)on the topic, with the bottom-line question of all is all that cheap manufacturing for the rest of the world really worth all the pollution?

In its latest piece on China's rural pollution, the WSJ notes:
For years, public attention has focused on the choking air and contaminated water that plague China's ever-expanding cities. But a series of recent cases have highlighted the spread of pollution outside of urban areas, now encompassing vast swaths of countryside, including the agricultural heartland.
Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China's arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the "red line" of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country's 1.35 billion people.
To begin with, though it is vast in land area, most of the land is not suited for agriculture.  And then to have between 8% and 20% of the arable land messed up?

Caption at the WSJ story:
In Dapu, a chemical factory sits next to a farm. 'Nothing comes from these plants,' says a local farmer.
I suppose the air pollution is visible in Shanghai or Beijing--which is why, finally, after years of dodging the issue, China is committing $277 billion to clean up the air pollution over the next five years. Water pollution is also equally visible--when dead pigs float down the river, or rivers run in some psychedelic colors.  Compared to air and water pollution, contamination of soil is pretty much out of sight, and happens far away from the big cities.
[Factories] are moving to the countryside to take advantage of cheaper land, often made available with the help of local officials who want to boost growth, environmental researchers say. In other cases, urban leaders want factories to move out of crowded cities. The ensuing problems of rural pollution are exacerbated by the fact that many small-town governments have less capacity to properly regulate complex industrial activities than their counterparts in big cities, experts say.
Even in a dysfunctional politics like the one in India, such happenings get reported by the media, and activists head to the courts--like Rahul Choudhary, about whom I had written in the Register Guard.  But, it is a different story in China, where negative reports rarely see daylight.
China's Ministry of Environmental Protection refused to release the results of a multiyear nationwide soil-pollution survey, calling the data a "state secret."
It gets complex:
Removing heavy metals from farmland is a complicated process that can take years—time lost for farming. That is a chilling prospect for a government tasked with supporting 20% of the world's population on less than 10% of the world's arable land. Any major reduction in food security would hurt the Communist Party, which has staked its reputation in part on its ability to keep the country's granaries full with minimal imports.
The government's refusal to release its soil survey, meanwhile, has only added to fears that officials know more than they are willing to say. Launched to great fanfare in the state media in 2006, the survey was originally scheduled to be completed in 2010. In June last year, an environment ministry official told the Xinhua news service that more than 20% of soil samples in a trial program for monitoring pollution, involving 364 rural villages, had failed to meet national standards and that the results of the survey would be published "at the proper time."
We consumers have a responsibility, too.  As I often remind students, "the invisible hand" watches out for whether we are willing to put our money where our mouth is.  If we are willing to pay up, then the market responds.  But, as long as we do not care about the pollution in China, or labor dying in accidents in Bangladesh, and all we care about is getting the most inexpensive product, even if it means that we toss it away after a few months, well, we will have to witness the pollution too.

China’s Andy Rooney Has Some Funny Opinions About How Great The Chinese Government Is

One child. Two parents. Four grandparents. Problems.

A few days ago, I blogged here about the time that remains in our lives to visit with the parents.  Triggered by a site called, I wondered, without explicitly saying so, on how much spending time with parents is worked into the bucket list that has become a part of the conversational lingo.

Life has changed, and changed a lot.  Multi-generational families under the same roof is rare anymore.  Even in countries like India.

More so in China where the one-child policy has had quite some intervention in the demographics, which has triggered a whole lot of economic and sociological issues.  It is not uncommon anymore for all the attention of four grandparents and the two parents to be focused on the one kid.  When they live in different towns, then to visit the folks becomes that much more of a logistical issue.

So, of course, leave it to the Chinese government to think of another law to address the growing issue of children not visiting with the parents. Especially the older ones:
A new national statute took effect July 1 mandating that family members attend to the spiritual needs of the elderly and visit them "often" if they live apart.
The "visit your parents" measure is just one component of a multipronged effort by the government and other organizations to remind people to take an active role in their parents' lives.
That is one strange country, and one strange government over there!
Some younger people believe the government's campaign is not all altruistic but instead reflects concern about the demands that a swelling population of seniors and a shrinking group of workers will put on state finances. Authorities, they say, want individuals to bear a significant share of the cost of elder care.
Of course, yes. For a couple of years now, I have had students in my classes think through the looming demographic problem in China, of a rapidly growing older population that has to be supported by a rapidly shrinking percentage of working-age population.  This dependency ratio could make the problems of Western European countries look tame.
Nearly 15% of the country's population — more than 200 million people — is now 60 or older, according to the China Research Center on Aging. Because of increasing life spans and the nation's one-child policy, China is graying rapidly. By 2053, seniors will make up about 35%, or 487 million people, demographers project.
Doesn't it boggle your mind that in forty years, China, as one single country, will have nearly half a billion people 60 years or older?  A population 487 million of 60+ that will exceed the projected 2050 US population of about 440 million!

If the world now thinks that we don't know how to address the public policy pressures related to the senior population, we simply ain't seen nothin' yet!

So, the Chinese government passes a law mandating that children visit with their parents.  As one senior in the news item notes:
"How often is 'often'? Every five days? Every 10 days?" he asked. "What if the boss won't let you take time to go? It's not right to use the law to dictate emotional relations between parents and children, or husbands and wives."
The Chinese government seems to think that it can legislate and change people's behaviors.  At huge costs.  At tremendous human costs.  The Chinese and Russian histories have quite some tragic stories of sociological nightmares created by their governments' attempts to change human behaviors.

When you don't legislate, will conditions be any better?  

As often is the case, it is always tempting to compare China and India.  A while ago, there were news reports of elder abuse in India; I tracked down a report on it:
31% of older persons reported facing abuse. 
More than half of those abused were facing it for more than 4 years and all these were facing multiple
forms of abuse. 
24% older people faced abuse almost daily. 

75% of those who faced abuse lived with family and 69% were owners of the house in which they were
The primary abuser was the son in 56% cases, followed by the daughter-­in-­law with 23% cases
Getting older is looking less and less attractive, right?  Yet again, I am reminded of the animal doctor who took care of my dog--Roberta said, "getting old is not for sissies."  In a few months, the AARP will start hounding me with brochures; what a scary thought!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

It's a miracle! It's a miracle!

My father is not unusual among the faithful, whatever their religion might be, with a selective bias in tagging some fortunate developments as miracles while referring to the unfortunate ones--from deaths of children to natural disasters--as simply a variation of "god's will hath no why."

But, more than once in my younger years, father has commented about how even everyday happenings can be miracles.  Like when a friendly face swings by when we feel down. A neighbor knocking on the door only to share some sweets. A good Samaritan's act.

Father's logic was that if a god--imagine Kali, for instance--were to appear in front of people, well, most would run in fear and that, therefore, god sends these human messengers instead.

As an agnostic, and then as an atheist who came out of the religious closet, I never cared for the godly explanations.  But, I do agree with him that miracles happen every single day.

They happen all the time.

As she started her medical schooling, my daughter remarked more than once that given how delicate and complex the human anatomy and biochemistry are, it is a miracle that more of us are not dying all the time.

When I saw those bright stars up in the sky on a dark Tanzanian night, those sparkling lights above seemed like miracles.

A pretty young woman smiling at me is always a miracle.  Heck, any woman smiling at me is a miracle!

The Willamette River and the blackberries are miracles.

In my interpretations, that is what Walt Whitman wrote about:
by Walt Whitman 
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of  the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night  with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer  forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.  
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with  the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves— the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?                                  source

The insanity in (of) higher education--Oregon edition!

I so wish I had not picked up early in my life the bad habit of reading the newspaper every morning.  Life would have been so much easier.

Even though my eyes got to the headlines even as I picked up the paper from the porch, I had all the more the reasons to keep it for the last.  You would have done the same too when the headline blared:
UO begins a new era of bargaining
A sea change arrives as a union forms and oversight shifts
After reading through the comics pages (which were a dud!); the local pages (lots of dog-bites-man stories!); sports (Dodgers on top in the division!); opinions (nothing by me, so who cares!) I finally got to the front section and the main story:
It’s a cash problem.
“In most states, the legislators — along with the federal government — have reduced (support) and the proportion of their budget that goes to higher education,” Boris said.
That’s true in Oregon.
The state has steadily decreased its support for its universities over the past two decades until Oregon student tuition pays the lion’s share of the cost — 70 percent — while the state pays 30 percent, according to Oregon University System figures.
Scrambling for money became a way of life at the University of Oregon.
 So far, so good, right?  Finally, a recognition of the bottom-line that "it's a cash problem."

So, what are they gonna do about it?

Fasten your seat-belts. In case you feel queasy, look away from your computer and keyboard.

Contributions from the university’s general fund to athletics has long been a bone of contention with UO faculty. The athletic department gets much of its revenue from sales of tickets and television broadcasting rights.
This past week, administrative bargainers handed the union documents confirming that the university — as opposed to the athletic department — pays about $2 million annually to provide special tutoring to student athletes exclusively at the John E. Jaqua Center for Student Athletes, the shimmering glass building at the campus entrance.
That amounts to roughly $4,000 per student athlete; the university spends a fraction of that for special tutoring of non-athlete students. In May, the university senate formally asked Gottfredson to require the athletic department to pay for the tutoring at the Jaqua Center.
At the bargaining table last week, the union’s professional negotiator, David Cecil, told the administration’s professional negotiator, Sharon Rudnick, he would evaluate the university spending on tutoring student athletes.
“We’ll let you know if we think it’s a wise investment,” he said.
Gleason said the union is entitled to an opinion, but the decision is management’s to make. 
You read that correctly.  Everybody recognizes that there is a cash problem. But, dammit, there is no way we are going to touch that expense item on athletics.  

Wait, there is more.  

That was the insanity from the management side that it was their decision to make, even if the investment in athletics is an unwise one.  Faculty can be insane too--after all, we faculty didn't pursue our doctorates for nothing, and typically the deans and presidents were once faculty!
 United Academics of the University of Oregon wants 16 percent increases in spending on faculty salaries over the two years for the 1,900 members in its bargaining unit. In the past week, the administration offered 10.5 percent. “That’s the one that’s the greatest challenge for all of us,” said Tim Gleason, dean of the School of Journalism and Communications and an administration bargaining team member.
The union’s proposal would cost the university $20 million more than the current two-year budget for faculty salaries. The administration’s proposal would be $14 million more — a $6 million difference, according to the administration’s figures.
16 percent. 10.5 percent. Oh well, we might as well give them a 20 percent raise. 

Oh, wait. Whatever happened to the bottom-line:
It’s a cash problem.
I suppose we can pay-it-forward!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How do you say hello in Tamil? மேக்க மழ உண்டா வேய்

Way back, when joking about the old village ways of the old country, we would ask ourselves at home in the typical Tirunelveli dialect, மேக்க மழ உண்டா வேய்  (any rains in the west?)  That question seemed like it was pretty much the standard greeting among the menfolk in Pattamadai.  For all the reasons: the place was in a rain-shadow region east of the mountains, and the monsoons over the Western Ghats were critical for the river flow.

All kidding aside, the visits to Pattamadai also were valuable lessons on how precious water is--something we would never have known otherwise.  In Neyveli, where we grew up, water--and tasty water at that--was in plenty.  And piped too!

Thus, even now, talking with my father about the rains in Pattamadai is not rare, especially now that it is the monsoon season.

"It has been abundant rainfall all over India" father said a few conversations ago.  He added that because of the substantial inflow into the rivers and dams in the west, those states have had no choice but to release water downstream into Tamil Nadu, particularly to Mettur Dam.

A few days ago, he reported that the water level at Mettur Dam, which had been at 15 feet a few months ago, had rapidly gone up to fifty. Then sixty. Then seventy.

"The intial rise will always be rapid" father said.  "As you know, as the water level increases, the area over which the water spreads also increases, which means it will require a lot more water inflow to get it up to seventy-five and eighty."

The retired civil engineer hasn't lost anything at 83.  Good for him!  I hoped that he would not test me with a math problem of "if so many cubic-feet/second is the inflow, and the dam's height is ..."  I was just short of  yanking my hair out of the scalp--whatever is left in my balding head--in trying to recall the formula for the area and volume of a cone.  Thankfully, father moved on to how Chennai's water will depend on the rains later in the year.

Two days ago, father was excited.  "Mettur level has gone up really well, which means that they will release the water for ஆடி பெருக்கு" (a pre-planting festival time in early August.)  The Hindu notes that the water level at the dam is just shy of 90 feet.  Later today, when I call up my parents, I bet he will be thrilled and will have more to say on this.

While water level there is something to celebrate, here in Oregon it has been a remarkably below-normal precipitation over the year thanks to which the Willamette River looks like a feeble trickle.  As I was eating blackberries off the vines by the riverbank, a neighbor asked me "have you ever seen those rocks in the middle of the river there?" as she simultaneously pointed them with her finger.

"Nope" I said.  "Throughout the walk it is that way.  I see boulders and stretches of pebbles that I didn't know existed in all these eleven years that I have lived here."

"And it has been so hot" she complained.  "Looks like the California I ditched is catching up with me" she added with a laugh.

Even though we joked about the Pattamadai men talking about rains all the time, it is only thanks to them that I was made aware of the importance of rain and water.  The water that makes life possible in Pattamadai and anywhere on this Pale Blue Dot.  Maybe my life here by the Willamette is nothing but the continuation of the life my people had by the Tamrabarani.

May the farmers in Pattamadai, and everywhere else on the planet too, and the rest of us also, always have plenty of water, and may we never, ever, forget its importance.

Lessons from a rural hospital in Uttar Pradesh for Higher Education and MOOC in the US

MOOC is the latest of many four letter words.  Ok, it is not a word.  But, it has all the potential to become a cherished curse word.

As much as I am into using technology as much as I can--in my professional and personal worlds--and as much as I am disgusted with the pathetic outcomes delivered by the current higher education structure, I am far from supporting MOOC.

MOOC--“massive open online course"--delivers courses online to a gazillion students. Well, thousands of students.  Any rational person's first question would be this: "how can one instructor teach thousands of students at the same time?"  The answer is simple: there is no "teaching" involved.

Step back for a second.  Think about a C-Span book discussion program. Or a PBS Nova piece on string theory.  I can watch them at home. I can learn from them.  And I do. This C-Span or Nova program simultaneously goes out to hundreds of thousands of viewers.   (Ok, that is an exaggeration. Maybe ten other people watch the C-Span discussions with me!)  Both these programs have immense learning materials, and provide phenomenal education.  Right?

So, does it mean that we can use these as formal higher-educational materials?  Yes, we certainly can.  But, will that work for the typical undergraduate student?  Now, that is a different question, wouldn't you think so?

The PBS Nova or C-Span examples work as educational materials for me because by now I have learnt how to learn.  It has taken me years of formal schooling to figure out how to listen to a lecture, or watch a program, and think through it.  Learning how to learn might be intuitive for some, but I think that "some" is a minuscule number.  The rest of us need a structured way to learn how to learn.

MOOC is not about that deeper sense of learning. Not even close.  What a typical MOOC class is nothing but:
What you can do over the Internet this way is deliver information, but that's not education. Education, as any real teacher will tell you, involves more than just transmitting facts. It means teaching students what to do with those facts, as well as the skills they need to go out and learn new information themselves.
How do they know whether or not MOOC helps students learn?  How are students assessed?
the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. 
The reason why MOOC appeals to people, in addition to the obvious labor-saving cost advantages, is that most faculty's classes even now are nothing but the same MOOC in the real world.  I.e., students go to classes, listen to the faculty lecture on and on, and then they take multiple-choice tests.  If that is how it is in the real world even now, then why not get rid of that and replace it with MOOC, right?

The problem lies with what faculty do in the classrooms.  It is not a place to lecture and put students to sleep.  It is not a place to conduct multiple-choice tests.  Classrooms ought to be the places where students come to learn. More importantly, classrooms are places where students come to learn not merely about the contents of courses but also to learn how to learn.

However, over the years, faculty have, by and large, abandoned the task of helping students learn in that larger sense, and have merely focused on simplistic measurements via multiple-choice tests. Faculty have abandoned the Socratic questioning and discussing, and have favored the sage-on-the-stage lecturing.  And lecturing from the same notes. Using texts written by somebody else.  One can, therefore, easily see why people want to throw this out and replace with MOOC that would save a whole lot of money.

MOOC will do a typical undergrad worse service than even the horrible system we now have in place.   A C-Span or PBS program is not what a typical undergrad student watches.  A MOOC would do no better for this demographic.

In the New Yorker,  Atul Gawande discusses how some ideas seem to catch on really fast, while others are not adopted.  His article, which is about medical practices, especially in the primary health centers in rural India, has some important lessons for this MOOC discussion too.
Sister Seema Yadav, a twenty-four-year-old, round-faced nurse three years out of school, was one of the trainers. (Nurses are called “sisters” in India, a carryover from the British usage.) Her first assignment was to follow a thirty-year-old nurse with vastly more experience than she had. Watching the nurse take a woman through labor and delivery, she saw how little of the training had been absorbed. The room had not been disinfected; blood from a previous birth remained in a bucket. When the woman came in—moaning, contractions speeding up—the nurse didn’t check her vital signs. She didn’t wash her hands. She prepared no emergency supplies. After delivery, she checked the newborn’s temperature with her hand, not a thermometer. Instead of warming the baby against the mother’s skin, she handed the newborn to the relatives.
When Sister Seema pointed out the discrepancy between the teaching and the practice, the nurse was put out. She gave many reasons that steps were missed—there was no time, they were swamped with deliveries, there was seldom a thermometer at hand, the cleaners never did their job. Sister Seema—a cheerful, bubbly, fast talker—took her to the cleaner on duty and together they explained why cleaning the rooms between deliveries was so important. They went to the medical officer in charge and asked for a thermometer to be supplied. At her second and third visits, disinfection seemed more consistent. A thermometer had been found in a storage closet. But the nurse still hadn’t changed much of her own routine.
You see how difficult it is to make sure that learning happens?  And that the lessons learnt will be practiced?  Despite the hand-holding teaching by a qualified teacher?  All those practices--from washing hands to noting the temperature to everything else--can be instructed via a video, right?  Make those rural hospital staff watch the videos and problem solved?  It does not happen that way.
In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.
But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.
Learning is a complex process that requires us to change our thinking and behavior in so many different ways.  Whether it is learning about the diverse cultural practices in Papua New Guinea or the Big Bang Theory or about hand-washing and germs, learning requires us to shed what might have previously been our gut-instincts and routines.  We humans are, naturally, resistant to changes.  Learning forces us to change.  Very rarely does that not require change agents.  MOOC is no active change agent.

We are approaching the challenge in education from a messed-up perspective.  The challenge is to figure out how to make the faculty change their practices in the classroom, similar to how the thirty-year old nurse in the rural hospital was taught to change her practices.  Otherwise, whether it is the current system or MOOC, the patients--students--will not benefit.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Even PBS and a hippie say GMO food is ok. Get going then!

When I was young--I don't mean younger, but young--I once watched with immense excitement my father arguing against a cousin of his, who was two decades his junior.  It was about introducing automation and computerization in India's banking industry, which was (and is?) dominated by public and not private banks.  It was a classic argument of apprehensions against new technology.  Except for one deviation from any stereotype: the old guard was eagerly supporting it, while the Young Turk was vehemently opposed to computerization.  Argumentative Indians shaped my life, it seems!

Skepticism and caution when new ideas are introduced are nothing new.  Happens all the time.  In her own way, my mother has always resisted changes to the way she does things in the kitchen.  Now that I live by myself, I am merely one shotgun away from chasing people off if they dare to tell me how to lead my life.  We are humans.

But, we humans are also pretty darn good at adapting to the positive changes.  The Young Turk continued on with his banking service and moved on to the managerial ranks.  Now, he even does Facebook.  My mother watches cooking shows on television and customizes new ideas--into the seventh decade of her life!

Small adaptations and innovations from the personal level to huge organizations and countries are how we humans became so healthy, so rich, and so smart over the centuries.  Yet, we do resist some changes more than others.  The virulent opposition to GMO crops is one of those, as I blogged even recently.

Thus, the subheading at this Slate piece drew me to reading the entire essay:
I’m a vegetarian yoga instructor, and even I can tell the case against genetically modified food is overblown
I am already sold.  A hippie defending GMO.  Bring it on!

She explains important points that I wish the GMO opponents would read about:
Genetic manipulation is nothing new. Humans have been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. Many of our staple crops (wheat, corn, soy), would not exist without human intervention. The same goes for domesticated farm species.
Whether we’re using genetic modification or selective breeding, we're playing God either way. But some people seem to think that selective breeding is "safer"—that it allows less opportunity for damaging mutations than genetic engineering does. This couldn't be more wrong.
Yep. Agree.  Let us get to her second point about splicing genes, especially from an animal:
Genes are basically bits of computer code that are interchangeable from species to species. When you isolate a tiny bit of gene, it doesn't retain the essence of whichever species it came from.
Yes.  This is no chimera project.

So, yes, we need a better understanding of the issues, and not a knee-jerk opposition to GMO:
I'll be the first to admit that we need more research into the long-term effects of GM products. But I'm going to bet that the answer turns out to be something like this: Some GMOs are safe, and others are not. Lumping all GMOs into the same category is like lumping all fertilizers or all pesticides into the same category. Genetic changes are only as dangerous as the proteins they encode for—just as in any plant. Consider how many "natural" plants have genes that produce poisons and toxins.
If that doesn't convince the limousine liberals who lead the charge against GMO, well, here is their favorite television channel, PBS, and their favorite science program, Nova, making the case for GMO: (ht)
By 2050, farmers must produce 40% more food to feed an estimated 9 billion people on the planet. Either current yields will have to increase or farmland will expand farther into forests and jungles. In some cases, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) would offer an alternative way to boost yields without sacrificing more land or using more pesticides
But, hey, we we would like to have real examples of how such an approach worked, right?  Here is one:
In the late 1990s, the agriculture corporation Monsanto began to sell corn engineered to include a protein from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, better known as Bt. The bacteria wasn’t new to agriculture—organic farmers spray it on their crops to kill certain insects. Today more than 60% of the corn grown within the United States is Bt corn. Farmers have adopted it in droves because it saves them money that they would otherwise spend on insecticide and the fuel and labor needed to apply it. They also earn more money for an acre of Bt corn compared with a conventional variety because fewer kernels are damaged. Between 1996 and 2011, Bt corn reduced insecticide use in corn production by 45% worldwide
But, opposition has increased over the years.  Opposition when there is no scientific basis for opposing it!
dozens of long-term animal feeding studies concluded that various GM crops were as safe as traditional varieties. And statements from science policy bodies, such as those issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the European Commission, uphold that conclusion. Secondly, techniques to tweak genomes have become remarkably precise. Specific genes can be switched off without lodging foreign material into a plant’s genome.
Of course, it is fashionable for the elites in poor countries too to mimic the limousine liberals of the West:
In parts of India, farmers spray more than 60 insecticides on their eggplant—known to locals as brinjal—during the growing season, mainly to protect the purple fruit from burrowing bugs, says Ponnuswami Balasubramanian, a plant molecular biologist at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, India. To reduce the insecticide load without losing the harvest, Balasubramanian, together with public sector researchers and a private Indian seed company, developed Bt versions of four varieties of eggplant that are popular in southern states. Monsanto was not involved, but still public outcry from GMO opponents blocked the eggplants from federal approval.
We certainly do not want an all-powerful Monsanto.  Instead, we want to throw open the GMO business so that we can have something like the Silicon Valley revolution happening in the GMO world.  But, unfortunately, as the GMO opposition continues, small players find it increasingly difficult to work with the enormous national and international regulatory regimes that have emerged, which then means that only a powerful corporation like Monsanto has resources to navigate through the regulatory labyrinth.  What an irony that opposition to Monsanto has made Monsanto way more powerful than it would otherwise be!  Thank your GMO opposing limousine liberal for that!

It is dementia and Alzheimer's everywhere I look :(

It surely cannot be a case of we only see what we want to see.  It is not that I am scanning the vast ocean of words only to pick out articles on dementia and Alzheimer's.  Heck, even when I am quietly sitting by the river, a stranger ends up talking with me about the death of her mother who spent her final few months at an Alzheimer's care facility!

Last night, my bedtime reading was the latest issue of the New Yorker.  I had already flipped through the cartoons earlier in the day.  Even that was a bummer--such blah cartoons!

Like a moth attracted to a light, I went after Patricia Marx's essay (sub. reqd.) on this topic, where she notes:
by the advanced age of twenty there is a very good chance that our prefrontal cortex (the brains of the brain, responsible for problem-solving, decision-making, and complex thought) has already begun to shrink. We humans, by the way, are the only animals whose brains are known to atrophy as we grow older, and—yay, us again—we are also sui generis in suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As distinctions go, this may not be as auspicious as, say, the opposable thumb.
I tell ya, it was such a relief (!) to read late at night that I have been on a downward trend ever since I came to the US.  This is making real my joke that by coming to the US, I simultaneously lowered the IQ in both the countries!

A few days ago, I told a friend that I intentionally go to a new grocery store every once in a while, even if it is only to get the usual stuff.  To create new pathways in the brain.  When driving around town, or to work, I venture off course partly for the same reason--to keep my brain active.  New recipes. New music. New stuff within my liking.  All to make sure that I can at least delay the onset of that disease I dread so much.  Apparently, I am not a lonely worrywart:
A 2011 survey found that baby boomers were more afraid of losing their memory than of death.
Well, technically I am not in the boomer generation!  But, the worry is for real!

We do all these because as of now, we are clueless otherwise.  We have progressed one step though--we have reached an understanding that "Alzheimer's and other dementias" are diseases, "rather than as a consequence of normal aging."  Which is why not every single who gets old has dementia.  All we know is that something happens with the cranial biochemistry.
People with more concerns about memory and organizing ability were more likely to have amyloid, a key Alzheimer's-related protein in their brains.
That is the only good news.  The bad news is that we don't have a clue on what to do about it. Not yet, anyway.

Maybe the New Yorker should go easy on this topic.  I mean, feature such topics not this often, every month!  And that too in the summer, when we expect lfe to be fun, fun, and more fun!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Religious nationalism in the old British Raj :(

The cyberspace in which we discuss ideas has plenty of downsides.  For one, we apparently engage in a lot more skimming through the readings than we have ever done before.  Hey, hey, don't go away. Listen to me.

So, not only do we skim through, it turns out fanatics go one step more and automatically forward the discussions even when it speaks against their own interests.  I don't think they forward it because they want their audience to get a balanced opinion, but it is sheer laziness.

Earlier this morning, I blogged about Narendra Modi.  Not to praise the saffron robed bachelor, but otherwise.  Not the first time I am critiquing Modi in my blog either.

Blogger automatically tweets the title of my posts, along with hashtags for the labels.  That tweet of my post got re-tweeted:
The re-tweets are by "Proud Hindu" and "Arya Hindu."  Their Twitter names make clear what their intentions are, right?

It is bizarre that the old British Raj is transforming into some kind nationalism based on religious fanaticism.
  • Pakistan: you need me to explain this, really?
  • Sri Lanka: still recovering
  • Burma: Buddhist monks are leading the battle to drive out the Muslims.  Yes, Buddhist monks!  Their leader's pet name?  The Buddhist bin Laden!
  • When it seemed like India had recovered from the Khalistan struggles, the BJP rose up just in time
How did India get here?  From the Mahatma to NaMo?

Twitter makes it easier for all the below-the-belt discussions. Well, no discussions really. It is all flame-throwing.  And jingoism.  Like the tweet below:

Seriously? Om Namo Narendra Modi?

Even their own gods cannot save these morons!

Can Oregon's "Pay it foward" tame the higher education cost monster?

While “Pay it forward” is an interesting and innovative thought experiment in the context of funding for higher education, I am afraid that it will not solve the problem of the ever increasing costs associated with earning college credentials.

To begin with, “Pay it forward” is something like the social security idea, but in reverse.  

With social security, we contribute into the system in order to pay the current beneficiaries, with the understanding that we, too, will be able to collect those same benefits upon gaining eligibility decades later.  

With “Pay it forward,” college-attending students will be able to collect the benefits first, and then contribute to the system for twenty years.

Such schemes require redistributing money by collecting from one group in order to pay another group.  Fairness, or unfairness, in any redistribution, depends on the beholders and their values.  

For example, in the current public higher education system, where taxpayers pay for a portion of the college expenses, those who choose not to attend college do not benefit from this redistribution.  Given that the income levels of families is a pretty good proxy to estimate the probability of whether or not students will attend college, and complete the degree requirements, the current system is quite regressive in how it ends up subsidizing middle and upper income families.

Similarly, the “Pay it forward” scheme will have its own set of unfairness.  The repayment, for all practical purposes, is a three-percent income tax on top of all the other income and payroll taxes.  This means that the cost of higher education will not be shared equally and will, in effect, mean that high income earners will end up subsidizing those who earn considerably less.  

Further, while female students outnumber males at colleges and universities--it is roughly a 60/40 split at Western oregon University, where I teach--a significant percentage of women opt to be homemakers after they complete their formal collegiate education, at both the low and high ends of the family incomes.  It is not clear how those who choose to be non-wage earners will pay it forward and, if they do not pay, then the cost of their education will have to picked up by those who are wage-earners?

Also, the “Pay it forward” system could potentially lead to the state government getting out of the funding process altogether.  

As competition for its budgetary resources increase, lawmakers will be tempted more and more to set aside money for the K-12 system, or the criminal justice system, while reducing the funding for higher education other than to stand as a guarantor to the “pay it forward” funds.

All these troubling questions aside, the “Pay it forward” idea does not get into the fundamental reason behind such out-of-the-box proposals-- for decades now, the cost of higher education has been increasing at rates that significantly exceed inflation.  

”Pay it forward” is merely a proposal to pay for the costs, without measures to restrain further increases.  It will mean that colleges and universities might not be compelled to innovate, and can, instead, continue to spend money on athletics, on student life bureaucracy, on fancy dormitories, or on esoteric topics that fit the faculty’s fancies, while worrying even less about the cost dimension, and with even less taxpayer oversight than before.

I hope that the pilot project will address these and more issues.  Else, similar to how we are now discussing the budgetary issues related to social security, future generations will be burdened with the obligations of “Pay it forward.”

Update: a slightly edited version of this was published as an op-ed in the Statesman Journal (September 1 2013)

A most suitable boy? Not Narendra Modi!

After a month of two, and sometimes even three, posts a day, yesterday I blogged only one.  Partly because I couldn't care. Partly because I know well that the cosmos couldn't care.

It is not as if the blog readers care either--there is no pile of emails inquiring whether I am alive.  Heck, not even one!

It is not that there was nothing to write about.

A couple of days ago, I composed an email to a friend.  It was related to Narendra Modi. (I am confident that by now the occasional truly American reader has moved away from my blog, and has been replaced by a bottom-feeding Modi troll!)  The last few days have had so much news about Modi that, to some extent, I am happy that I am not in India--else, I will be so consumed by the news!

The Kanchi Shankaracharya apparently supports Modi.  WTF!
Narendra Modi is a man of great qualities. Considering that everyone else in the system is bad and dirty, Modi is a suitable candidate, and he has my blessings. ...
Everything should be done in a dharmik manner. Trying to get Muslim and Christian votes in the name of secularism is wrong. Everyone should believe in their faith and work together to get God's blessings.
A man of great qualities?  Is this like when Bush remarked that he looked deep inside Putin's soul and found that Putin is a good man?  Is it like when Chamberlain returned to London assured that Hitler was for peace?  And when did the Shankaracharya become a political pundit?  Oh, I forgot--it is a long-standing tradition for the Kanchi religious leader to make political statements.  Give him a television channel and he can be India's Pat Robertson.

Even more disappointing it was to read that Jagdish Bhagwati supports Modi. You too, Bhagwati?  After writing so much that philosophically aligns you with libertarians, you are so keen on trading-off that philosophy in favor of a dirty politician because he is more pro-economic growth than the rest?  Growth and trade matter to you more than anything else?  Have you become senile, Professor Bhagwati?  Or, have you become so bitter that you haven't been awarded the Nobel that you have started tossing grenades in every direction?

I agree with Bhagwati's arguments that we need a better understanding of the "Kerala model" that has been lavishly praised in the economic development literature.  That state is a money-order economy, and not a self-sustaining one. Keralites flee the state and are to be found anywhere and everywhere on the planet because nothing has been going on there other than strikes and protests.  But, therefore, support Modi?  WTF!

The other Indian economist whom Bhagwati often targets, Sen--who immensely admires the "Kerala model"--has also wandered into this Modi issue.  In the first place, I was confused with Sen's comment that began with "as an Indian citizen ..."  Really?  Sen is an Indan citizen?  Even if so on paper, how much an Indian citizen is he after a life that has been spent outside India?  Maybe he is one of those "overseas citizens of India," who do not have any voting rights?

Bhagwati and Sen are, to some extent, offering the academic arguments on the possible economic policies of a Modi government versus whoever-it-will-be. It is one of those long-running debates in economic development.  I am betting that Ramesh, with his preference for the China-model of development, will side with Bhagwati.  That academic discussion is one thing, but a support for Modi is completely different.  But, I suppose it is not unrealistic to match the academic arguments with the ideas espoused by politicians and, therefore, Bhagwati overlooks Modi's horrible communal track record.

Meanwhile, Modi's supporters have been busy lobbying the US government to reverse its stand and allow Modi to visit the US.  Yes, the same US government that has killed plenty of people all around the planet, however innocent they might have been, has ruled for a few years now that Modi is a worse killer.  All because the US is the richest and most powerful country on the planet, and Gujarat is not.  No wonder that Modi wants to rapidly grow the economy--you can make your own rules when you are rich.

The rest of us can merely blog about all these. And nobody cares about what this blogger has to say because he is neither rich nor powerful. As a friend often--annoyingly often--used to say back in Bakersfield, "money talks, and bullshit walks!"

That reminds me--time for me to go for my walk! Especially to walk off the wonderful eggplant dish that I made and over-ate last night ;)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The postman always rings twice? Not with wedding invites!

"Only one wedding invitation this year so far" my father complained.  "Usually, every year we get so many wedding invitations that I would get concerned about being forced to skip some.  And, only one this year.  Every day I look at the mailbox hoping there would be an invitation" he added.

I wasn't sure if it was one of those conversations in which I merely had to listen. After all, it is not always that people look for responses to everything they say.  Sometimes, they merely want to express a thought.  An emotion. Nothing more to it.

It took me a long time to figure that out. Well, it was the daughter who explained that concept a few years ago when she was an undergraduate student.  Whereas I thought that as the father I had to act on whatever she said, it turned out to be otherwise. Apparently, all I had to to was to listen. Life became easier after that!

Now, with father, hey, we are both men too. Men don't emote--we are doers. Or so, I thought.  The nerd in me kicked in.

"I know what you mean.  It is all the demographic changes. Over the years, our people in South India have been having fewer and fewer kids, and now it is showing up.  Further, the kids are delaying getting married, and sometimes choose not to get married.  Thus, unlike the old days, you no longer have a bunch of weddings every season. Invitations to weddings will be rare anymore."

And then for a good measure, I added, "the trend is that you can expect more second marriages anymore."  I was referring to the post-divorce second marriage, of course, which is a case of hope triumphing over experience!

That killed the topic and father moved on to something else.

I am guessing that I was merely supposed to listen and say "aha."

It is not that I was citing incorrect data.  When people--even those within India--think about population, they often work with images of the old India. The old India where men and women married when fertile and couples had anything between two and five children. But, those were old stories.  In a matter of two generations, the story has been completely re-written.

Among us three siblings, my brother is the big family man with two children!  One kid seems to be the new normal, and there are quite a few without kids. Without kids because they chose not to get married, or after marriage they don't have children for whatever reason.

Our minds haven't adjusted to this new reality and, thus, father hasn't revised his expectations for wedding invites.

The map below says it all--TFR is the average number of children that a woman has in her childbearing years.

Tamil Nadu, where my people hail from, has fertility rates that are lower than the rates here in the US.  Americans, who are long used to images of too many babies in India, might find it a shocking revelation that we in the US have, on an average, more children than women do In Tamil Nadu, or in Kerala, or in Karnataka, or in .... These are not states with small populations either.  As this Wikipedia entry helpfully points out, Kerala's population makes it a Canada-equivalent. Tamil Nadu is like Turkey. With its low fertility rate, Karnataka is really like Italy!

Thus, wedding invitations have become rare.

Weddings are, of course, not merely about weddings. They are occasions for reunions. Meeting with friends and families. I know that is what father is referring to. He misses those opportunities to say hello, and more, to people. He was expressing that emotion. I should have done what my daughter advised me a long time and merely said "aha."  Well, stupid is as stupid does!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Three women. Three dogs. Three experiences.

With the morning quickly warming up, there was no way I was going to delay my five-mile walk.

The air was pleasant, but not the refreshing cool that I prefer.  A few minutes into the walk, a woman who was jogging smiled at me, and seemed to slow down.  It did appear to be purposeful.  I smiled.

She kind of jogged in place and as we approached each other said "hi, you are the one who writes editorials in the newspaper, right?"

While I am no good in identifying accents, this one was not American. Perhaps British.

"Yes, thank you" I replied as I continued to walk as she also appeared to increase her pace.

"I recognized you from the paper" she said as she faded away.

As I passed the bridge and headed to the other side, it amused me that she recognized me.  Six years ago, after the paper had published a couple of my op-eds, the editor emailed me suggesting that I go over to their offices in order to be photographed.  I had become their regular columnist and, thus, my columns would thereafter include my photo too.

Six years ago, I had a lot more hair. My hair and my beard were way less grey. I am now very different from that, I think.  Further, I was wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Yet, this woman recognized me based on that six-year old photo.  Cool!

A few steps ahead of me, a young woman climbed up the bank with two dogs on leashes.  Her outfit was some kind of a summery/beachy attire that hung from her chest to quite a few inches above her knees.  My pace being a lot faster than hers, as I neared her before overtaking, I noticed that her back had a huge tattoo.

I was now nearly on par with her and got a clear view of that tattoo.  It was one that I had never seen before on a human. An outline of the world map.  About a eight-inch by five-inch panel it was. The tattoo was no different from the image below:

An 8x5 of this tattooed on one's back!  Wow!  Different strokes for different folks, indeed!

Before reaching home, I decided to get down to the river, not only to say hi to the waters but to also eat a few blackberries right off the vines.

A tad sour they were.  A few more days of warmth and they will taste sweet to my tongue as the jogger's compliments were to my ears.

I sat by the river.  I consciously reminded myself that I am fortunate to enjoy all these.

I heard approaching sounds.  A dog slowly walked up to the water and quenched its thirst.

A dog with a harness and a collar. "Surely the owner is not far behind," I thought to myself, as I clicked a photo.

"Hello" said a woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

"Lovely day" I replied.

She grabbed a stick and threw it into the river, and the dog waded in and fetched it.  He brought it back to the pebbly area, put the stick down and shook the water off his body.

"Not next to to him" the woman said.

"You have trained him well. Not to spray on you, but on others" I laughed.  "How old is the dog?"


"Oh, middle-aged like me."

"And me too" she said. "He was so helpful to ease my parents in their final days" she added.

"Oh, he was your parents' dog ...?"

"No.  Mine. But, we shared the dog.  He was there when my father died, after which we moved my mother to an Alzheimer's care home."

Damn this Alzheimer's. It is appearing way too often for my liking.

"She wasn't there for long. I think she wanted to go after her husband died."

"Oh, I'm sorry. How long ago did you mother die?"

"January 19th."

"Just six months ago!"

"Yes.  It was a peaceful death. She opened her eyes one last time and we hugged. My dog gave her a kiss."

"Thanks for sharing that with me" I said. She nodded her head and smiled.

It seemed like she continues to feel the loss of her parents, and in a healthy way.  As she prepared to leave, I wished her a good day.

I sat there for a few more minutes appreciating my good fortunes.


Remembering "Black July": When Serendip meant hell!

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Sri Lanka.  Not merely because it was a place that my grandfather almost got to, but did not. There were other family stories, too, of people from immediate and extended families having worked and lived in Ceylon.  A wonderful cousin, who is my brother's age, was even born in in that country and earned the nickname of "Ravanan."

BBC's newsfeed reminds me that it was exactly thirty years ago that the paradise became hell.  The island, which was referred to as "Serendip" by the Arab merchants for the enchanting beauty that it was, and which then gave the word "serendipity" to the English language, transformed into a hell on earth.
Thirty years ago, Tamil separatists stepping up militant attacks in northern Sri Lanka killed 13 soldiers who reported for duty only a day earlier. Over the next few days, mobs of the Sinhalese majority took revenge, killing between 400 and 3,000 Tamils around the country and triggering a civil war that lasted 26 years and sent hundreds of thousands of Tamils into exile. 
I was an undergraduate student in Coimbatore when newspapers carried reports and photos on the front pages.  Those were some chaotic undergraduate years, in my mind and in the world outside.  A year later, Indira Gandhi was shot dead, which then unleashed a killing frenzy in India too.  Conversations at tea-stalls near the college were all about Lanka.  India being a country of argumentative males with strong opinions, there were discussions in plenty over watery and sugary tea.

Within a matter of days, our college and most colleges throughout the state were closed down because of student protests.  The youth in Tamil Nadu wanted the Indian government to step in and help the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Black July was a recruiting agent for Tamil militants and catapulted the country into full-blown war, which would last 26 years and kill 100,000 or more people.
It had a drastic demographic effect as hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled abroad, said CV Wigneswaran, a retired Supreme Court judge who has just become a politician for the largest Tamil party.
"With that started the brain drain. A lot of intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers all went away from Sri Lanka. They thought there was no way out," he said.
"The diaspora today still cannot forget the death, damage, destruction that took place in 1983 because of which they had to leave Sri Lanka and go abroad."
I became familiar with this war-displaced Sri Lankan diaspora.  In 1987, when I came to Los Angeles for graduate schooling, my apartment-mates included two Sri Lankan Tamils.  Kugan was an emotional wreck, and even one criticism of the terror tactics that the LTTE employed would send him over the cliff and he would remind us of the horrors of that fateful July.  His sweetheart lived in Sri Lanka, and he could barely wait for her to join him in the US.  I think it was in 1989 that she finally was able to join him and their wedding was soon after at the temple in the canyons off Malibu.

Meanwhile, one of Kugan's close friends also came over for graduate school.  Ravi had more firsthand horror stories to narrate. One was absolutely cinematic.  It is one thing to watch a horror scene unfold on the screen.  But, when one realizes that this was no movie, it is bone-chilling and depressing, to say the least.  I remember his story of being chased by a Sinhalese mob, jumping over compound walls, hiding wherever he could, in order to save his life.  And, he exited the country when the opportunity came.

It was a tragic irony to study about Sri Lanka in the economic development literature in the graduate courses.  Sri Lanka and Costa Rica were some of the favorite textbook examples of how a society can have social indicators comparable to developed economies even without material prosperity.  Social indicators such as high literacy rates, long life expectancy, low infant mortality, relatively equal income distribution.  All these in an island with which Arab merchants fell in love on first sight.  Yet, it was a living hell. A hell from which a few escaped. A hell where sometimes men and women were burnt alive, or raped, or ...

An unfortunate reminder it is that not all that glitters is gold.  That an enchanting paradise is not always a paradise.  It is not the fault of the paradise though--it is all because we humans are no angels.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Does your bucket list include visiting with parents?

It wasn't my idea to blog anything about mortality at all; yet, am back to the morbid theme that Ramesh so enjoys!

I had a good night sleep after an enjoyable and eventful weekend. I woke up with a clear head, and had coffee and breakfast.  I read and blogged. I had a lovely walk by the river before it warmed up.  Lunch tasted awesome--the leftovers from the Saturday cooking.

And then I read this piece at Slate: It is "a calculator to to tell you how many times you'll see your parents before they die."

Of course I had to read it the moment that kind of a lead popped up.  After all, the annual trips to India over the last decade have been exactly for this reason, even though, this travel-dreaming blogger on a limited budget could easily divert that expense in order to go somewhere else.  And, boy do I have some travel plans in mind!

I spend money to go to India because, probabilistically speaking, while I have quite a few more years to live, my parents face a much more limited horizon. In fact, it is even probable that they are into overtime.

Death is guaranteed right at conception.  It is only a matter of when.  My first lesson on my own mortality was when I was way young.  It is not that I sit around waiting for my own death or anybody else's; it is merely a realization that one day it will happen.

As an atheist, I am not buying my ticket to heaven by visiting with parents, nor do I have to worry about spending eternity in hell if don't spend that time with them.  (Does having lived in Bakersfield for nearly a decade qualify as eternity in hell?!)

As a confirmed atheist, all I have to figure out is whether I am at peace with the decisions I make.  I know I won't be at peace if I didn't make that trip to India and, instead, if I spent those weeks in, say, Argentina that I have been drooling to go for years.  Further, it is not that visiting with the parents is a pain--it is always a pleasure. And I will get to meet with a few friends and relatives.

Hence, I go. And, yes, I am all set with the air tickets for the upcoming annual trip, later this year.

So, I did click on the link to the site that does the calculation.  A site whose address says it all:

As the Slate article pointed out, the site's simple interface was inviting. I punched in the data. The site had this to report:

Not a surprise to me--it matches my understanding of life expectancy at birth.

So, why create such a site?
We believe that increasing awareness of death can help us to make the most of our lives. The right kind of reminders can help us to focus on what matters, and perhaps make us better people.
Exactly!  This has always been my understanding of life, and death too.

When we realize there is only a limited amount of time, we are then able to easily rank some as important and others are not worth even a tiny second of our lives.

If the latter, we stop caring for sports in which people get paid gazillions to entertain us. We stop caring for movies that are formulaic.  We don't care for unprofessional colleagues. We end marriages and we divorce. Life is way too short for these.

I would rather spend time, and money, on what truly matters. I prefer humans who are genuinely happy to give me a minute or more of their lives. I travel to visit with my love. I visit with my parents. I read. I think. I help students think. I share ideas with people. I walk by the timeless river.

I blog about all these.

This is all that matters.

Before death happens.  I know it will.


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