Saturday, August 31, 2013

The answer is "I don't know." Question: Why is there something instead of nothing?

Over the years, a family story has stayed fairly consistent, with a few minor deviations that are always allowable in any retelling.  And that is about how my grandmother, who at the time of the incident had been dead for two years, spoke through my cousin.

I usually sit quiet when the folks recall that incident, with an occasional additional spice to the story.  But, there was one occasion a few years ago when I mildly countered that the dead do not come back and that it is entirely possible that the cousin was merely acting out some emotion, angst, buried deep within.  It is not grandma's spirit who was calling for attention and that it was the cousin instead.

That was the only occasion I suggested that they could, and should, look at it differently.  As it happens in the classroom, or the faculty meetings that I used to attend, nobody cared for my explanation!

Well, not really.  It turned out that it had registered in mother's radar.  Later she asked me in her mild way how I could be confident that it was not grandmother.  I suggested to her that science does not claim that there are answers to every question.  However, when more realistic reasons are possible--like perhaps the cousin needing some kind of  a professional psychological analysis, and when there is no evidence for dead people coming back, well, ...

I gave her another example of how in the old days, the illiterate, and even the religious, interpreted an eclipse as a war between the good and evil forces.  Scientific thinking--even in the old India--explained that there were no gods and demons involved here, and that one could even predict when eclipses would occur.  As with explaining the eclipse, slowly, in many aspects of life, we have been able to drive out the old incorrect explanations, and offer rational ones that withstand scrutiny.

We have a long way to go, but it does not mean that we will have to fill the gaps with "faith."  It is entirely acceptable to be scientific and admit that we have not figured out quite a few things yet.  Like with that possibly the oldest questions ever--how did this universe come about.  What was there before the Big Bang?  How could all these have come about from nothing?
why is there something rather than nothing? There just is. The is-ness of the universe is one of its interesting features. Sorry if that isn’t satisfactory. It is because it is. Let’s move on.
Obviously there remain huge cosmological questions, like the fate of the universe. And we’d all like to know what happened before the Big Bang, but I’m fairly persuaded by the Hawking notion that time itself begins at the Big Bang and there’s no “before.” There’s no boundary. 
Perhaps in the future somebody like an Einstein will come along and write a simple equation with merely three letters of the alphabet and one digit and explain it all.  But, for now, the questions we are after are too darn complicated for simple narratives.  It is not your grandfather's science anymore--heck, not even Ernest Rutherford's!

As we muddle through and explore this universe towards understanding how we happen to be here, we have to deal with a great deal of unknowns.  We sort out, as Carl Sagan pointed out, speculation from fact.  Michael Shermer articulates the argument that I have offered in my own less sophisticated ways for a number of years:
in answer to the question Why is there something instead of nothing?, it is okay to say “I don’t know” and keep searching. There is no need to turn to supernatural answers just to fulfill an emotional need for certainty and comfort. Science’s uncertainty is its greatest strength. We should embrace it.

From 12 to 40 to 55 to 60 to 65 to 70? Not aging, but the Indian rupee losing ground!

Until a few months ago, the Financial Times allowed unlimited access--all I had to do was provide an email address. Ah, those were the days before many leading news and analysis outlets, one after another, started erecting huge paywalls, which makes the lives of cheapos like me miserable!

Having experienced all the free access to ideas, I know what I am missing. For instance, the opinion pieces at FT.  Three years ago, Martin Wolf's analysis there made a great deal of sense to me, which I blogged about:
To put it crudely, the US wants to inflate the rest of the world, while the latter is trying to deflate the US. The US must win, since it has infinite ammunition: there is no limit to the dollars the Federal Reserve can create. What needs to be discussed is the terms of the world’s surrender: the needed changes in nominal exchange rates and domestic policies around the world.
I would love to find out what Martin Wolf has been writing about recently; but, those damn paywalls!  (a note to readers: you can always send me gift subscriptions; haha!)  I bet he has had some insightful comments, especially about how all these fit into the Indian rupee story.

More than a year ago, in May 2012, I noted this:
Indians better start getting used to the fifties.  In fact, buying a dollar for 55 rupees might even sound like a good deal because chances are high that it could get worse
Shit happened for India and the rupee. A whole lot over the year since then
The rupee plunged 8.1 percent this month to 65.7050 per dollar in Mumbai, according to prices from local banks compiled by Bloomberg. This is the biggest drop since March 1992 and the steepest among 78 global currencies tracked by Bloomberg. 
And to think that the exchange rate when I left India for good back in 1987--of course, a rate that was fixed by the government and not by the market--was about 12 rupees to the dollar!

Of course, we need to keep in mind that the falling rupee by itself is not the problem as much as it is a symptom of much deeper problems:
 The accumulating signs of economic distress — slower growth, a widening current-account deficit, higher oil prices and rising inflation in general — suggest that the monthlong fall of the Indian rupee in currency markets may be a symptom of fundamental troubles in the Indian economy and not just part of the broader difficulties experienced by Asian emerging market currencies in recent weeks.
Hints that the Federal Reserve in the United States may soon shift to a tighter monetary policy have prompted global investors to shift billions of dollars out of financial markets from São Paulo to Jakarta to Mumbai, eroding the value of local currencies in developing economies. But the Indian rupee has fallen the fastest of any emerging market currency in the last month, down 8.1 percent. Broader investor disenchantment with emerging markets has been compounded here by worries about India’s economy
India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who was the architect behind the economic liberalization policies twenty years ago, and who is caricatured in plenty for his silence and not saying anything, spoke on this issue:
Singh blamed global unrest and a huge current account deficit for the fall of the Indian rupee, which has depreciated sharply against the dollar since the last week of May and fallen by around 20 percent since the beginning of the year. The 80-year-old economist restated his government’s commitment to reforms.
Singh placed the fall of the rupee on global unrest and the fear that U.S. Federal Reserve is on the verge of ending its easy money policy. This turbulence has not only pulled down the value of the rupee but also other global currencies like the Brazilian Real and the Turkish Lira.
It is crazy to realize that this development is no surprise at all.  The surprise is that nothing was done over the year, which speaks a lot about India's dysfunctional politics, I suppose.  Back in May 2012, I noted what the Financial Times had to say:
The symbol of India’s fall from grace is the rupee. It has sunk more than 17 per cent against the dollar this year to its lowest level on record. That ought at least to have helped exports. In fact they have shrunk, along with industrial output, which fell 3.5 per cent in March....
If foreign investors take fright, India’s balance of payments situation could quickly deteriorate. Standard & Poor’s has warned it may downgrade the rating on India’s sovereign debt unless Delhi can get the fiscal deficit under control. India also needs faster growth to help bring hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty. 
It is just bizarre, and depressing, that the tea leaves were interpreted pretty much the same way by experts, and yet nothing was done over the nearly two years.

As always, it is not the rich or the upper-middle-class that will suffer, but it will be the millions of poor.  The inflation that Martin Wolf warned about three years ago means that the prices of everyday items, especially food, have increased considerably.

If only India had made use of the opportunity when easy money flowed in from the rest of the world!  Instead, the country made a big pitch to the world to recognize the rupee as an international currency and celebrated the creation of a symbol for the currency!

As I often comment, it is always one heck of a horse race between India and Argentina on wasting opportunities and doing the worst possible things at the worst possible moments.  Let us see if Argentina can match this, or even raise the stakes!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Topless by the river is fifty shades of sexy brown!

"The second summer is beginning here" father said when I called up my parents.

They live towards the southern tip of peninsular India and they are beginning to feel the extra scorch from the sun, which is nearing the equator in its southern movement.

"Did summer really end? I asked him.  "Isn't it always merely three seasons in Chennai--hot, hotter, and hottest?"

The sun's path towards the south is, of course, a lot more to experience in my part of the world.  The sun rise is getting later by the day, and it sets earlier with every passing day.  The mornings are a lot cooler now compared to the July days.

Blueberries and blackberries belong to the past anymore, and we will have to wait for the sun to come back up north again for us to feast on them off the plant.

The sun's movement means that I don't really have to wear a hat anymore either.

That, my dear reader, is what I meant I meant by topless by the river.  Perhaps you thought I spotted a redhead who was topless, eh!

My neighbor, who is a self-designated "porch person" during these sunny and dry months, noticed that I was topless.  "Hey, no hat today?"

A few days ago, he noticed that I didn't have either of my straw hats on, but had a different one that I use only when traveling.  "Why this hat today?" he asked me.  I explained the logic: "there are rain clouds up there.  This all-weather one will work in case it rains.  I don't want to mess up the other ones, which are not easily replaceable."

Of those other two, one is a hat that I picked up in Ecuador.  As much as I enjoyed that country and its people, I have no plans to re-visit Ecuador, given the number of other places on the planet that I want to visit, and, thus, I need to take extra care of this hat.

My neighbor's observation of me with no hat is all because, well, it has been months since I was out walking without a hat.

"Because it is not hot today, and the sun is not that glaringly bright either" I replied as I continued on.

Over the past few months, with my daily exposure to the sun, I have tanned a lot.  Yes, even we brown-skinned people tan.

There are fifty shades of brown, and perhaps you can see all those shades on me.  Nah, you would not want to--for that, I will have to be in the nude and that ain't a pretty picture!

So, instead, here is a family-friendly photo of the tan lines on me, as evidence that it has been quite a summer on the bike path by the beautiful Willamette River.  The feet, protected from the sun's rays by the shoes, have a light brown that is quite a contrast to the tanned brown on top, right?  (Contributions for a pedicure treatment welcome!)

The Labor Day weekend is pretty much a collective regret that the summer is over.   That is all ok because, for now, it is my brother's turn way down under in Australia to welcome the sun.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Perils of (Pauline) Pakistan

Decades ago, when I was young, one of the first "English films"--movies in the English language that is, American or British--I watched was "Perils of Pauline."

No, I am not that old!

It just so happened that I lived in a small town in India, and the English language movies we watched were often ten or fifteen years old, sometimes even older!

Watching movies was, of course, not the real reason why I went to the outdoor "Park Club"--it was, after all, the teenage years and I had a huge girl problem!

Anyway, where was I?  Yes, The Perils of Pauline.

The perils of Pakistan began right from birth, with independence in 1947. War with India. Military takeover. War with India. More military. War with India. Even more military. Hanging of a former prime minister. Almost war with India. Post 9/11 and the Taliban.  Gruesome assassination of a former prime minister, who was the daughter of the former prime minister who was hanged.

In between, thrown in earthquakes, rains, floods.

In case Pakistanis thought that they could turn to their beloved game of cricket to escape from everything, well, the situation is so awful there that no country wants to sends its team to play matches in Pakistan.

Any good news at all from Paulinistan?

How did things go so wrong? :(

Is what I do (and don't do) worth all that?

I suppose it will be fair if I thought that my life has been far from a linear trajectory, mostly because of the decisions I have made, and continue to make, to chart my own path.

There are many downsides to this, yes, and one of them is this: how would I know that I am doing ok?  Is the trajectory the correct one, or am I being hurled into hell on earth?

The greatest folly that I can make in this assessment is if I use the conventional metric of "success" when my decisions have rarely ever been to follow conventions.  I can, and should, use only measures that are appropriate to the life I have fashioned for myself.

To illustrate the idea, allow me to present this--a typical day in the life of the highly ranked tennis star, Novak Djokovic:
A typical day:
7:30 Wake-up. Tepid glass of water. Stretching. A bowl of muesli with a handful of mixed nuts, some sunflower seeds, sliced fruit, and a small scoop of coconut oil. Chew very slowly.8:30 Meet with coach and physiotherapist. Hit with training partner. Drink two bottles of energy drink, adding a hydration drink with electrolytes if it’s humid.10:00 Stretching. Check color of urine.11:00 Sports massage.12:00 Lunch. Gluten-free pasta with vegetables.1:30 Work out. Drink organic protein shake made from water mixed with pea protein.2:30 Stretching.3:00 Hitting practice.4:30 Stretching.5:00 Business meetings.7:30 Dinner. No Alcohol. No Dessert. Protein. Vegetables, but not beets, potatoes, parsnips, squash or pumpkin, which are too high in carbs.
As I read that, my immediate thought was that the author has described it remarkably well:
The life style of an élite athlete rivals that of an inmate for abstemiousness and monotony. (Tennis players seem to spend half their lives in the shower.) If many of his competitors reside in a county jail of their own making, Djokovic inhabits a supermax prison. 
Indeed, it is almost as if Djokovic is being held in a maximum security prison, with a highly regimented daily life from which he cannot stray.

There is no way that I would want to trade places with him.  Check color of urine?  I don't even bother to look at what comes out when I peeing!

But, that is the life that Djokovic chose for himself. Thus, his measure of success and a good life is also different from mine.

I, for instance, eat whatever suits my fancy that particular moment, and even within my restricted food intake I seem to have an endless array of possibilities compared to what Djokovic allows himself.  I find immense pleasure in creating my own meals, and having coffee whenever it pleases me.  No dessert? No beets? Drink protein shake?

Boiled peanut salad
with red and yellow bell peppers, onion, cilantro, and semi-ripe mango

But, yes, being conventional, I think, will be far easier than to find my own interpretation of life.  It is difficult to even define what life ought to be, and then even more difficult to keep after it.  Bill Watterson--yes, that Calvin and Hobbes guy--put it well in his oft-cited commencement address two decades ago:
having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.
To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.
It is not easy by any means.  But, yes, it is worth all the trouble.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rare is a government school alum among the Indians in America?

The school that my father and his brother attended in the small village of Pattamadai was established by a family and was a private school.  Even back in those days, they had to pay fees, which was not affordable for many.  Not that grandmother was rich.  To make things worse, she was barely 18 when she was widowed with a two year old and a two-month old, and had to be ultra-careful with how she spent the assets.  (Thus, my father did not even have footwear until he was in high school!)

Literacy was expensive, and was a privilege that only the middle and upper classes could afford.

An independent India understood the importance of education and literacy and established government schools.

In the town where I grew up, we siblings went to a private school. Whenever we kids teased grandmother about her not knowing anything in English, her humorous comeback was (in Tamil, of course) "I didn't pay fees and study in an English-medium school."  Her schooling until the fourth grade was in Tamil.

Thanks to the British, English had become the language of commerce and government in the Subcontinent and, therefore, there was a recognition early on that schooling with English as the medium of instruction might payoff.  At the school that I attended, English was the instructional language.  Some teachers were maniacal enough about English that they faulted us kids if they overheard us chatting in a language other than English.

Horsing around by the playground during the high school reunion, 2011

However, government schools often tended to instruct students in the local vernacular, of which there are plenty in India. Thus, in Tamil Nadu, Tamil was often the medium of instruction in government schools, with a few rare ones offering an English-medium option.

Over the decades, English has gained even more ground as the global language of commerce and science, and the poor in India, too, are acutely aware of it.  They then face roughly two options: send their kids to government schools or to private schools.  The former almost always in the local language and also at atrocious quality, whereas the private schools promise better quality and, more importantly, with English as the instructional language.

Is it any surprise that even the poor choose to send their kids to privately run English-medium schools?
In rural India, 24 to 40 percent of children are enrolled in private schools. In poor urban areas, the figure is at least 65 percent. These low-cost private schools provide even the poorest parents value for their investment. (To give just one example, they are much likelier than government schools to provide instruction in English, a skill that can raise hourly wages by 34 percent.)
This news is not new, really; studies have often reported similar decisions that even the poor in India make:
Researchers tracked 3,000 children who were randomly selected from different social and economic backgrounds in Andhra Pradesh.
They found that in 2002 about one quarter (24 per cent) of seven and eight year olds attended private schools, but by 2009 the rate had almost doubled to 44 per cent.
The study suggests that the trend is fuelled by the availability of low fee-paying private schools, and the perception among parents that children will make better educational progress in private schools.
Parents said they valued English-medium teaching offered by private schools, whereas government schools mostly teach in the regional language, Telugu, the statement added.
The poor--even when illiterate--know the value of a good education for their kids, as I noted in this post from more than three years ago:
many of the schools Tooley visited were tucked away in poorly lit, dilapidated, smelly buildings without toilets, and teachers there did lack government training certificates, and were paid less than in the public system. But Tooley found that in low-cost private schools, across the board, classroom sizes were smaller, and teachers were much more likely to be found teaching during an unannounced visit. They are also achieving better results: the students in private schools outperformed their public school peers in nearly every subject they were tested in.
When there are such consistently strong trends, then one might wonder why the market hasn't jumped on this opportunity.  Schumpeter's column, a couple of months ago, in the Economist was about this very issue:
That poor parents will pay for something the state provides free speaks volumes. India’s state schools pay their teachers far more than private ones, yet they are often worse. Surveys suggest that a quarter or more of government teachers are absent at any given time. Unions prevent the authorities from disciplining slackers or rewarding good teachers.
The willingness of poor parents to pay is also a sign of something more positive: ordinary Indians’ passion for education. Slums like Brahmpuri are full of garish advertisements for makeshift computer-training colleges and English schools. (Workers who are fluent in English earn 34% more than those who are not.) 
Politics and teachers unions make for a nasty combination anywhere on the planet, I suppose.  As Schumpeter notes there, the healthcare industry in India, on the other hand, innovates to serve the domestic and foreign demand.

India's polity recognized this and, as with everything else, they came up with a quota system!
Many of the world's top private schools offer scholarships to smart poor kids. But India's plan is more sweeping: It reserves a quarter of admissions for underprivileged kids. Rules prohibit admission-testing of students, rich or poor, although private schools can set some parameters, such as nearness to the school or gender.
But, a mere quota system does nothing to level the playing field:
One recent morning, teachers Sujata Gupta and Shilki Sawhney asked their class of 4-year-olds to name examples of purple things. The rich kids shouted out "blackberries," "blackcurrant ice cream" and "potassium permanganate," a chemical used to clean fruits and vegetables.
None of the seven low-income kids raised their hands. Unlike the wealthier children, they hadn't learned their colors at home, spoke no English, and were further confused by examples of things they had never heard of.
The teachers, repeating everything in Hindi for the poor kids, then asked anyone wearing a purple T-shirt to stand. Nitin Raj, saucer-eyed and wearing green, rose.
"He's not understanding at all," Ms. Gupta said.
Not to forget that India being the India, class and caste matter a lot even after all these years!:
 Resistance has also come from some private school parents. School officials in New Delhi who asked not to be named told of parents requesting that their children not be seated next to poorer classmates or telling their children not to befriend poorer students.
Sunil and Elizabeth Mehta, who run Muktangan, a nonprofit group that provides English-language education to 1,800 poor children in public schools in Mumbai, said that if parents were made aware of the importance of expanding access to quality education, prejudices would eventually melt away.
“People are socially sensitive if something is explained to them,” Mr. Mehta said. “But you can’t expect them to change right away.”
Nope. Change does not happen overnight. It is a slow incremental process.  But, the good thing is that change is happening.         

It is such complications in India that Americans fail to notice.  But, I don't blame my fellow citizens and our leaders.  After all, they only get to see the successful Indians--here in the US or back in India--and very, very rarely is any of the success stories a product of a government run school in India.  If only politicians here in the US would understand that people like me do not represent the average person in India.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Some seek eternal youth. I am eternally old?

It was time to get myself to the barbershop. Balding, it turns out, also means that hair growth is remarkably uneven.  Strange how all these aspects of aging are not what I imagined even ten years ago, leave alone my imaginations when I was a kid!

"How do you want your haircut?"

The question coming from him was rather funny because, you see, he was way ahead of me in the balding process.  I bet he has to spend very little on hair care, even less than the tiny amount I have to shell out.

As he started working on my hair, it was, of course, time for small talk.

"Do you work, or are you retired?" he asked.

This is increasingly the story of my life.

At a recent neighborhood party, I introduced myself to the daughter of the neighbors who were the hosts, and she, too, asked me whether I was retired or working.

A while ago, a store clerk apologized for not having given me my senior-citizen discount.

I am no George Clooney, but, really?  Come on, really?  Do I look that old enough to look like I am of retirement age?

The practically all-grey hair on my head and my face leads people to wonder whether I am old enough to be retired.

But, I am not even fifty yet!

I suppose with people coloring their hair--even men--it is mostly only the old and retired, who have nothing to lose or gain, who walk around grey?

On top of the appearance, perhaps I come across as an old fuddy-duddy too.  At least I I don't drool and nod off mid-sentence. Not yet!

No wonder a cousin told me, not too long ago, "live a little, Sriram."

Or, like the other time a few years ago when a much older colleague, who is now well into her retirement, told me that she didn't think I was that young because I was so wise!  I didn't know if that was a compliment or an insult!

"Hey, don't be misled by my grey hair" I told the barber with a chuckle.  "I got my first grey hair when I was 13 or 14."

Other teenagers got pimples and acne as their "welcome to the teens" gift from nature.  I got them, especially right on my nose, and grey hair too.  I was actually quite proud of my grey hair.  After all, how many teenagers get them, right?

"My mother was grey when I was young. So was my grandmother. An uncle. It is genetic" I added.

Driving back home, I wondered why I never felt the urge in all these years to dye my hair, and maintain a clean-shaven face, and present myself as a much younger Sriram. I guess, as Popeye always said, "I am what I am."

Deal with it, world--it is your problem, not mine ;)

Self-interest and collective outcomes. Morals from old Indian stories.

Most of the stories that I read back when I was a kid had what was referred to then as "the moral of the story."  In the elementary schooling years, we even had to write specifically about "the moral of the story."  Thus, the story of the milkmaid who daydreams away only to trip and fall and spill the milk might have a bottom-line guidance of stay focused on the task and quit the wishful thinking.  Aesop's Fables that we read, of course, had moral guidelines as well.

We also read a number of "Indian" stories.  Often they featured benevolent kings who tried to shape good behavior among the subjects.  In one story, a king (was it Vikramaditya?) gets pissed off (ok, that was not the language used in the story) that people are lazy and selfish, especially when doing something for the common good.

So, the king devises an experiment in order to teach them a lesson.  In the dead of the night, he has a hole dug in the main thoroughfare, buries precious jewels, and covers that with a huge boulder.  The obstacle in the middle of the road would be a nuisance but one person alone would not be able to move that boulder.  A few people would have to get together and remove that.  If they did, on their own out of the goodness of their hearts in order to help others, then, of course, they would then see the jewels buried there, which would become their reward as well.

It turns out that the king's view was confirmed.  His people went around the boulder, all the while complaining about it.  Selfish as his subjects were, they did not want to pool their strength and get rid of the rock that was inconveniencing everybody, including themselves.

So, yes, the moral of the story was all about how unity is strength and that cooperation is better than selfishness.

Decades after studying that in the elementary school curriculum, and after formal explorations into understanding self-interest and collective outcomes, I now wonder if that story says a lot more about India than I would have otherwise thought.

It is a land where, to a large extent, there hasn't been a long and sustained history of powerful individuals or institutions compelling people to behave in a certain manner.

Hinduism's gazillion gods mean that unlike with the Judeo-Christian traditions, there is no possibility of a hierarchical institution that shaped people's behaviors.  Even within different regions, there wasn't any continuous dynastic powerful monarchies that shaped human behavior. And, in the modern era, the democracy there permits a great deal of pursuit of narrow self-interest in many ways.

Thus, there has never been a fear of god, or fear of the king, or a fear of the state, employed as a tool to shape human behavior in order to attain targeted collective outcomes.  Therefore, even following the rule is not a part of the Indian psyche, leave alone coming together to do something good for all?

Nothing comparable to the phenomenally evil and powerful ways in which the Catholic church enforced rules. Nothing comparable to how Russia's rulers or the murderous Soviet system enforced rules. Nothing comparable to the centuries of Chinese social organization in which monarchs have simply been replaced by the Party.

In the absence of a compelling reason of a fear of a greater power, are we humans more likely than not to behave in ways that only furthers our own self-interests, perhaps even by flouting the rules, and even if that means that there will be inconveniences for all including our own selves?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Can GM food feed the planet? Yes, it can. Will it? Depends!

In response to a question at a recent guest-lecture, I commented that rising affluence is the cause of what we often refer to as "problems."  With affluence, we humans tend to increase consumption of different types, including food.  Affluence means that we are no longer limited to surviving on cassava and bananas.  We begin to want more nutrition and variety. Vegetarians want to increase protein and fat and sugar intake. Carnivores with money are tempted to eat more animal food..

Of course, the world is not full of affluent population--we cannot afford to be misled by the exceptional affluence here in the US that has made food so inexpensive:

Image source

Against such a background, we are also certain that the global population will increase by at least another two billion people, if not even more.  The higher numbers, along with the projected increase in affluence, means one undeniable aspect of life--we will need to produce more food.

Producing more food begins with increasing agricultural yields.  Not merely because of the growth of the vegetarian population--that will be a much slower growth compared to the demand for animal protein. All those animals have to be fed.

Hence my worries over the sustained opposition to GM food.  The Scientific American has a "food issue" in which there is this lengthy piece on GM crops:
[Despite] overwhelming evidence that GM crops are safe to eat, the debate over their use continues to rage, and in some parts of the world, it is growing ever louder. Skeptics would argue that this contentiousness is a good thing—that we cannot be too cautious when tinkering with the genetic basis of the world's food supply. To researchers such as Goldberg, however, the persistence of fears about GM foods is nothing short of exasperating. “In spite of hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth,” he says, “and people eating billions of meals without a problem, we've gone back to being ignorant.”
So who is right: advocates of GM or critics? When we look carefully at the evidence for both sides and weigh the risks and benefits, we find a surprisingly clear path out of this dilemma.
This is a battle that has been going on for decades now.  We might even find a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine issue before we sort out the GM crop disagreements.  So, where do we go from here?
There is a middle ground in this debate. Many moderate voices call for continuing the distribution of GM foods while maintaining or even stepping up safety testing on new GM crops. They advocate keeping a close eye on the health and environmental impact of existing ones. But they do not single out GM crops for special scrutiny, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Jaffe notes: all crops could use more testing. “We should be doing a better job with food oversight altogether,” he says.
I doubt we will reach any middle ground on this, given the deep trenches that have been dug.

Meanwhile, the race is on to label foods, which this Scientific American editorial notes is "a bad idea":
We have been tinkering with our food's DNA since the dawn of agriculture. By selectively breeding plants and animals with the most desirable traits, our predecessors transformed organisms' genomes, turning a scraggly grass into plump-kerneled corn, for example. For the past 20 years Americans have been eating plants in which scientists have used modern tools to insert a gene here or tweak a gene there, helping the crops tolerate drought and resist herbicides. Around 70 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients.
Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people's health [see “The Truth about Genetically Modified Food”].
But, isn't sticking a label on the food better for consumer choice?  Consumers can then buy whatever they want to buy?  Not really:
 Many people argue for GMO labels in the name of increased consumer choice. On the contrary, such labels have limited people's options. In 1997, a time of growing opposition to GMOs in Europe, the E.U. began to require them. By 1999, to avoid labels that might drive customers away, most major European retailers had removed genetically modified ingredients from products bearing their brand. Major food producers such as Nestlé followed suit. Today it is virtually impossible to find GMOs in European supermarkets.
Americans who oppose genetically modified foods would celebrate a similar exclusion. Everyone else would pay a price. Because conventional crops often require more water and pesticides than GMOs do, the former are usually more expensive. Consequently, we would all have to pay a premium on non-GMO foods—and for a questionable return.
So, to recap: where will all the additional food crop production come from to feed the growing population that will also be more affluent?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Bond? James Bond? Really? Skyfall

Finally, it happened.


This means that starting this Monday, which it will be only minutes from now, I can forget all about this and get to some real work--no, not cooking, but preparing for classes and for the upcoming conference.

So, what happened?

I watched Skyfall.

"That's all?" you are thinking. Let me remind you that this has been a long time in the pipeline.  Since March. Nope, since last September.

Skyfall was a very different Bond. James Bond.  And I don't mean my hassles with getting used to a blond dude either

There wasn't any flashy Bond Girl.
No real fancy gadget--the gun was so lame.
No snarkily funny punny comments.
"M" dies.
The bad guys blow up Bond's Aston Martin.

What the heck!  Why even bother to call it a Bond movie?

Of course, the plot was as convoluted and bizarre as any Bond movie typically has.  As Bond himself notes, this movie was all about his specialty of resurrection!  He can compete with Phantom as the Ghost Who Walks!  Come to think of it, the movie Phantom had one heck of a girl!  No, make that two stunners ;)

Oh well ... at least one more thing off my list, though it has taken me only five months to put that check mark there.

But, hey, this movie's Bond song might just about be the best since Goldfinger.  Adele's was is awesome, which shall be my concluding thought on this.

Ok, I lied.  How about ending with Shirley Bassey's Goldfinger?

Ok, I lied, agaiin.  How about ending with this one?

Doing nothing versus ... doing Bullshit Jobs?

Sometimes, I joke in my classes that the worst invention ever was one that goes back nearly 12,000 years--settled agriculture.  Until then, we humans were no different from other mammals in that we hunted and gathered to feed ourselves, and over the rest of the hours of the day, we played, fought, mated, and scratched ourselves.  And we slept. A lot!

Some stupid humans proposed that we simply stay put, raise some animals, grow some crops, and our problems began.  From that moment on, we were destined to reach the point where we are now.  Growing crops and raising animals meant that we could no longer simply hunt and gather when we felt the hunger pangs, but now had to start planning towards the next meal.  We had to start worrying about the crop going bad, or the animals dying on us.  It was only a matter of time before we played less, mated even less, and slept a whole lot less!

I tell ya, the invention of settled agriculture was the original sin!

Of course, it is all tongue-in-cheek.  I am mighty happy that we have a far better understanding of who we are and where we are in this universe.  Ignorance is no bliss for me.

The process that began 12,000 years ago has led us to the world today in which we do not hunt and gather our food--well, with a few exceptions, that life is impossible for us anymore.  Instead, we work in order to get paid, which we then use to buy the food and more.  The question then is how much do we want to work.  Not much work is needed for mere survival, and a lot more is needed if we want to lead a materially prosperous life.

Quo vadis?

In answering that question, we begin to interpret the options very differently.

David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, writes that we are no way near the utopia of a "15-hour work week" because:
Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.
So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”
A progression from hunting/gathering to settled agriculture to "bullshit jobs."

While I like the way Graeber phrases it as "bullshit jobs," I don't really agree with his explanation that this is all some capitalist conspiracy:
There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.
Ryan Avent at the Economist counters with this as the point of departure:
 The place to start is to recognise that, romance aside, many of the industrial jobs that have been automated away were incredibly tedious and unpleasant for those doing them.
Indeed!  Can you imagine a job day after day of doing the same thing, like tightening the nuts and bolts of a part, day after day, year after year?  Isn't it better to liberate humans from that kind of awful work?

Avent continues:
One question is why today's workers aren't rewarded with high wages for their suffering. And one possible answer is that, well, they are. Real wages for today's clerical workers are far higher than they were for manufacturing workers a century ago, and the work, for all its tedium, probably isn't nearly as unpleasant. Administrative workers get to sit down in climate-controlled offices, tweeting and playing fantasy football on their desktop when time allows. If firms had to pay more to get a body in the deskchair, they would.
Technology continues to improve, however. Just as robots became ever better at various manual tasks over the past century—and were therefore able to replace human labour in a growing array of jobs, beginning with the most routine—computer control systems are able to handle ever more of the work done by human administrative workers. Jobs from truck driver to legal aid to medical diagnostician to customer service technician will soon be threatened by machines. Starting with the most routine tasks. Human labour will not be eliminated entirely from these sectors. Jobs that require a particularly high level of task flexibility, or creativity, or empathy may continue to employ people (for a while). Yet most office jobs will eventually go the way of the dodo.
And at that point advanced economies may find it necessary to address what is really the central complaint in Mr Graeber's essay. The issue is not that jobs used to have meaning and now they don't; most jobs in most periods have undoubtedly been staffed by people who would prefer to be doing something else. The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. 
I like the way Avent ends his argument:
there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all. Not because of the conniving of rich interests, but because machines inevitably outmatch humans at handling bullshit without complaining
So, there is hope, yet, that a future of not doing anything but to merely watch the day go by is not that far away.

But, wait, what if we end up in a Wall-E world? ;)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Are you afraid of ... nothing to do? Learn to enjoy it, instead!

I never liked engineering, in which I earned my undergrad degree--I had a compelling desire to understand poverty and development and how I could contribute to making the world a better place.  And, thus, I was off to graduate schooling in the US, to focus on topics that I wanted to understand.

It was humbling to realize how complex the issues were.  There was no case of any Occam's Razor solution to anything.  Add to all that a more fundamental question of "what for?"

A standard joke laid all these out.  A World Bank consultant (my adviser was one of them, yes) goes to Bangladesh to suggest strategies, and goes to a village where he finds a twenty-something able-bodied man doing nothing but lying under a tree by the water.

"Why don't you work?" the expert asks him.

"I am happy with this.  Why should I work?"

"You can start your own business and earn money."

"Ok, let us say I do that.  What will I do with that money?"

"You can send your children to good schools and college, and they will help expand your business."

"Ok, say I did that.  Then what?"

"You can earn and save a lot of money."

"But, what will I do with the money?"

"You can retire and spend your time simply watching the day go by."

"But, that is exactly what I am doing now" says the villager.

Of course, it is more than a joke.  It is a whole bunch of existential questions.  Why do we do what we do?  What is it that we want?  What is happiness?  Are poor people happy?  Is it ok not to do anything?

In the modern world, we have made a culture of doing something. In fact, we have even created a world of our own of doing more than one thing at one time and we prize that multitasking (I am miserable even at one task a time!)

But, why not do nothing?  Why not get bored?

Yes, this is a topic that fascinates me.  When my neighbors joke that I don't seem to work for a living, I am always tempted to engage them in this kind of a serious discussion.  But, thankfully, I know to recognize small talk when I hear one!  Thus, I blog (previous posts on boredom: here and here) and this post is the latest in the series, triggered by this article:
What if you answered the question “What do you do all day?” with “Nothing”? It isn’t as if that could possibly be true. If you spent all day in bed watching television, or staring at the clouds, you wouldn’t be doing nothing. Children are always being told to stop doing “nothing” when they’re reading or daydreaming. It is lifelong training for the idea that activity is considered essential to mental health, whether it is meaningful or not. Behind the “nothing” is in part a terror of boredom, as if most of the work most people do for most of their lives isn’t boring.
It is bizarre that people would rather report to work that they will openly admit to something they hate, while turning around to make negative comments about people who prefer not to do that and instead do nothing.  They drive to work with bumper stickers along the lines of "I would rather be fishing" when they could, instead, like the Bangladeshi fisherman, spend all day and life by the waters.

We do not like to live like that Bangladeshi because we like to have iPhones, watch ballgames, or travel.  We, therefore, engage in Faustian Bargains of our own: we are willing to put up with wasting away our lives doing things we really do not want to do, and cursing our daily lives, all because we can earn a few dollars in order to spend on things that we think will bring us happiness?
There is an argument to be made against the prototypical life of hard work as the inevitable lot of humanity. In 1974 the Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published Stone Age Economics. He proposed the idea that individuals in many “simple” societies, far from working themselves to death merely to exist in their nasty, brutish and short lives, were actually members of the “original affluent society”. He suggested that, in those parts of the world where co-operation and social exchange were paramount, once people had done the few days’ hard work of felling a tree and carving out a canoe, there were large amounts of free time to lie about daydreaming, exploring, telling stories: doing “culture” or just skiving. You’d fish in the canoe you’d made, and by preserving and sharing the catch with others, who also shared theirs with you, you could then take a few days off before you needed to get any more. Decent members of those communities did what they needed to do and then when they didn’t need to do it, they stopped.
Only when you worship the idea of accumulation and status based on its perceived wealth-giving properties do you have to work hard all the time. Accumulation was hampering; you had to carry it about with you when you moved from camp to camp, or find ways of storing and securing it if you were sedentary. Without the idea of surplus as a value beyond its use value, when you needed/wanted something you got it, and when you had it, you enjoyed it until it was time to get some more.
What a bizarre existence that we have designed for ourselves!
Leisure, not doing, is so terrifying in our culture that we cut it up into small, manageable chunks throughout our working year in case an excess of it will drive us mad, and leave the greatest amount of it to the very end, in the half-conscious hope that we might be saved from its horrors by an early death.
This weekend, ask yourself this question: what do you really want in life before that death happens?  Surely it is not the latest iPhone, is it?  Your wish is not to watch the latest movie, right?  So, what exactly are you so busily spinning the wheels for?  Sit down for a while. Figure it out. You will reward yourself with a rich rest of your life, even if that only means doing nothing at all.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Tashkent and the forgotten Central Asia

Even before we studied in school anything related to the Mughal Empire and their Turkic origins, I had heard about Tashkent.  A mysterious Tashkent.  A city that was somewhere far away beyond the Himalayas.

All because that was where Lal Bahadur Shastri, who followed Nehru as the prime minister, died of a heart attack a day after signing a peace treaty with Pakistan.

Shastri's death, which happened well before my schooling began, was talked about often because there were always suspicions that it was not a natural death. Conspiracy theories were in plenty, enough and more to put to shame the theories on JFK's assassination.  After all, Shastri's death in 1966 was against a global backstage of the intense Cold War and, therefore, any number of interpretations seemed plausible.

Throughout my years of life in India, Tashkent was somewhere out there in the USSR.  In one of those republics that was far away from Moscow.

And then the world changed. The Berlin Wall fell. The mighty Soviet Union collapsed like it was all a facade. The different republics of the USSR became independent countries.

The strangest thing is that even now most people, in India and anywhere on the planet, wouldn't be able to spot Tashkent on a map. Most of us cannot even name the country where it is located, and nor will be able to name its neighbors.  Somewhere in Central Asia will be our best guess, as much as my impression was way back when I was a kid.

Here in the US, we have a good reason why we have not bothered to find out anything about Tashkent and Central Asia--they have not attacked us nor have we have gone to war against them.  Apparently, wars are how even begin to recognize that there are other countries and peoples!

But, there are plenty of reasons why we ought to pay attention to those Central Asian countries.

You notice that Tashkent is not that remote, after all?  Central Asian countries are not somewhere in outer space?

The US presence in Afghanistan for twelve years ought to have made us familiar with that part of the world, one would imagine.  But, that is asking for way too much when we are so busy entertaining ourselves with everything from college and professional sports, to reality television, to video games!

Ahmed Rashid writes, in reviewing a few books, about "why, and what, you should know about Central Asia"
Since September 11 and because of Central Asia’s borders with Afghanistan, the big powers—Russia, China, and the US—are showing a renewed interest in the region. Until now the Central Asian leaders have manipulated one big power against another in an astute and ruthless game of trying to extract the maximum benefit in loans, investment, weapons, or rent for bases.
As in 1991, Central Asia has reached a turning point and what comes next really worries it. Will the Taliban return to conquer Afghanistan and open the way for the Central Asian Islamist groups that are closely linked to al-Qaeda and have increased their forces while based in Pakistan? Will populist riots reminiscent of the Arab Spring sweep through the region? They have already done so twice in Kyrgyzstan, in March 2005 and April 2010, bringing down two presidents.
Will the weaker states, lacking economic resources, become hostage to China or Russia? Will the most important regional organization they all belong to—the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—help them overcome instability or will it continue to help them avoid making serious reforms?
I suppose the region has been having a resurgence of sorts after the decline since the days of "conquerors of the world—Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babar."  Babar, of course, was the invading conqueror who founded what became the Mughal Empire.

The region has all the ingredients for geopolitical drama: population of various ethnicities, religions, languages, political ideologies, and a couple of dictators.  Rashid reminds us about that old idea in political geography:
Sir Halford Mackinder, the nineteenth-century political theorist, viewed Central Asia as “the pivot region of the world’s politics” and “the heartland” because, he said, “it is the greatest natural fortress in the world.” He reckoned that whoever controlled Central Asia would exercise enormous power. But no power has achieved control there and the battle for influence will take different directions after 2014. One of the great dangers for the US and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there
Oh well, it is time to watch some ball games on television, while stuffing ourselves with inexpensive calories!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

There is no business like the higher education business!

The mornings are not as bright and sunny as they were a month ago.   The long days of summer are clearly in the past.  Yes, we will have a month more of summer, but, hey, even the blackberries are all gone! 

Thus, in sync with the seasons, my mind has started thinking about the academic issues.  I know it will be another year of tilting at the academic windmills that seem to be getting only getting bigger and more powerful with every passing day.

I will continue to be shocked at how the system works not to benefit the students nor the taxpayers, but itself.  Voiceless and useless that I am on campus, I will probably blog a bit here and write an occasional op-ed on issues, which will all be ignored anyway.

The repeat of the same set of issues will make it seem like some twisted version of an academic Groundhog Day! Might as well regale you with some of those old stories for now ;)

A few years ago, a new provost joined the university where I work.  As much as I was unimpressed with the man upstairs, I met with him a few months after to talk to him about the university's Honors Program for which I was the director.

I had the typical data one would have needed for such a meeting: number of students, average SAT scores and high school GPAs, basic demographics of the students, and the like.  I briefed the provost about these and highlighted a few areas where the university might invest in Honors.

"How many Honors students do study abroad?" he asked.

"Not many. Study abroad is very rare here because it is expensive and most of our students cannot afford to."

"How about graduate school?  How many go on to professional schools?"

"Again, not many. Perhaps an MAT for those going into teaching."

"I need to see that kind of outcomes before we can spend more money in Honors" the provost flatly stated.

The rest of the meeting, I made sure I didn't show how pissed off I was and I exited.

His yardstick of study abroad and graduate school is not the metric for the university whose mission is very different from a Harvard.  Many of our students are first in their families to attend college and earn a degree.  Most have not traveled more than a few hundred miles from their hometowns because they can't afford to.

Yet, that was the provost's yardstick.

As depressing this conversation was, it was even more disappointing when I debriefed about this with a couple of faculty colleagues.  They thought that we ought to encourage students to think more about study abroad and graduate school.  It was quite a "et tu" moment for me.

Of course, those were still the days when most of the faculty had not gotten over their fascination for the new provost.  I was in a tiny minority who was not impressed by any means.  Slowly and steadily, these colleagues also started seeing things differently.  But, of course, he was soon off to a presidency :)

Faculty and administrators alike measure the work we do in educating students in very strange ways. Like in terms of the numbers they have sent to doctoral programs, or law and medical schools.  "Oh, I have these letters of recommendation to write" is a fancy complaining way to let others know that their students are applying to graduate schools.

It is bizarre! 

Success is not defined by whether we added value to students' knowledge-base. Universities do not typically showcase their success by profiling alums who lead happy middle-class lives, but the spotlight is only on those who went on to medical school, or to politics, or earned a gazillion dollars even though they earned only gentleman Cs in school.

What about the great majority of students who complete their degrees in four, five, or even seven years, work hard, pay taxes, raise families, volunteer their time, and lead productive lives?  Are these then nothing but the metaphorical chopped liver? 

The irony is that pretty much every college, including mine, will boast something along the lines of how their mission is to produce well-rounded individuals who will be productive members of society.  Where in this is a requirement that students have to do study abroad and/or go to graduate school?

To make things worse, faculty compete to offer graduate programs.  It is deemed more prestigious to teach graduate courses and engage with grad students.  As one colleague, who has since retired, uttered out of sheer frustration, "it is all about the faculty who can then talk about the number of graduate theses they have chaired."

I suppose there is no business like the higher education business. What a tragedy, especially when a good chunk of the higher education business is built on criticizing the different kinds of "real" businesses out there in the do-or-die competitive environment!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I can't afford to eat out. Nor go to movies. Yet, I travel?

My neighbors enjoyed the Pink Martini concert and were relating their experiences when they asked me whether I had been to a live performance by that group.

I told them I have not.

"You know their music, right?"

Yes, I know about the group and the music they make. I love it. A few years ago, when a cousin got married and relocated to New England, my gift to her included a Pink Martini CD.

"Oh, I love their music" I told them.  "My favorites are when they do their covers of older songs.  And I love their Hang on little tomato."

Seeing my neighbors' expressions, I clarified: "I just cannot afford the tickets for a live performance."

"Yes, you can" replied my neighbor.

Honestly, I cannot afford.

It is the same reason I cannot afford to eat out either.  I feel terribly guilty if ever I spend money eating out.  And, as much as I love good movies, it has been a long, long time since I watched a newly released one--heck, even the two-dollar movies are not affordable anymore.

Yet, it is the same me who spends his fortunes on travel.  Like the recent budget-busting Costa Rica trip, for instance. Or the visit to India that is only a hundred days away.

It is all about priorities.

Travel to, and in, a strange place is worth immensely more than the money I spend on it.  The visit to spend a few days with parents has returns that far exceed the cost of the air ticket.

We differ in our interests and priorities.

"I save the pennies and when they add up to get myself somewhere far away, I take off" I told another neighbor who is still sitting on a travel prize she and her husband won more than a year ago.  That couple don't have any burning desire to explore another part of the world.  "Can I buy that prize from you for something like 50 cents on the dollar?" I joked with them.

George Orwell wrote about priorities and expenses in the context of cigarettes and books.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a newspaper editor, was firewatching with some factory workers. They fell to talking about his newspaper, which most of them read and approved of, but when he asked them what they thought of the literary section, the answer he got was: “You don't suppose we read that stuff, do you? Why, half the time you're talking about books that cost twelve and sixpence! Chaps like us couldn't spend twelve and sixpence on a book.” These, he said, were men who thought nothing of spending several pounds on a day trip to Blackpool.
With that introduction, Orwell goes on to compare his personal costs of reading against the spending on cigarettes.

Orwell concludes that wonderful essay with:
if my estimate is anywhere near right, it is not a proud record for a country which is nearly 100 per cent literate and where the ordinary man spends more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for his whole livelihood. And if our book consumption remains as low as it has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.
It is all about priorities, and not necessarily because something is too expensive.

It is the same thought I have when I see see students, who complain about the cost of college, holding in their hands five-dollar Starbucks concoctions that I simply cannot afford.

It is priorities that I think about when society prefers to spend gazillions on entertainment while criticizing education as prohibitively expensive.

It is my own set of priorities when I admit that I cannot afford to watch Pink Martini at a concert--despite the fact that I love their music :(

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On the death of a friend's parent ...

A dear friend's father died.

He had seen a thousand moons, and a couple more.

A death is also a reminder to the rest of us to make the best of the moments that remain in our own lives.

Any death serves as an opportunity for us to re-think our own priorities. In this case, because it was a parent who died, one way to re-think our priorities is to carefully weigh whether do set aside enough time to visit with the parents.

In this context, I am reminded of a post that is not even a month old:
this piece at Slate: It is "a calculator to to tell you how many times you'll see your parents before they die."
The site is to nudge us about this very issue:
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.
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.  

Before death happens.  

I know it will--the friend's father's demise is a reminder that soon it will be our turn.

I owe the friend's father for this reminder.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The "superfluous man" travels ... Indeed!

The evening prior to flying out to Costa Rica, I was at an event where I met a guy who had done quite some traveling himself.  We talked, among other things, about VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux.   Not unusual at all for people with wanderlust to have read Naipaul and Theroux.

We wondered who, between the two of them, would be a more pleasant person to chat with one evening.  From what I have read about Naipaul, having tea with him is not how I would prefer to spend my time.

It seems like accomplished writers are not necessarily the most pleasant people around.  Snarky, backbiting, egomaniacs they often tend to become.  But, boy do they have insights on life!

So, I set aside the messenger and focus on the message, of which there is plenty.  Even in this short interview with Theroux.

Consider this take, for instance, on traveling itself:
When I’m traveling, I feel small. You see how big the world is, how small you are, how you don’t really matter, how you can’t effect much change, you can’t bring something back.
Exactly!  If ever students ask me what I gain from travel to places that are very different from what I am used to, I tell them it is one humbling experience.  As Theroux himself said in a different context, which I noted in a post a few months ago:
A traveler may have no power, no influence, no known identity. That is why a traveler needs optimism and heart, because without confidence travel is misery. Generally, the traveler is anonymous, ignorant, easy to deceive, at the mercy of the people he or she travels among. The traveler might be known as “the American” or “the Foreigner,” and there is no power in that.
Traveling is one heck of an educational experience about life; it certainly gives us that perspective which might be hard to gain when we stay put in our own respective villages where we have the identity, the influence, the power.

Travel is a phenomenal way to understand how much we don't really matter in this cosmos.  I mean, if I go to Costa Rica and feel that way, then imagine how we humans ought to feel about living on this planet, which is, as Carl Sagan so poetically put it, "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Theroux notes:
At least I can say “I put in an effort and I tried to see it.” To see things as they are makes you free—to see things as they are, not nostalgically, not as you wish they were. Just to see them.
So, why the " "superfluous man" in the title?  Over to Theroux, again:
There’s also a Russian expression that my son passed on to me, the idea of being superfluous. Not temporary, but the “superfluous man.” It’s a 19th-century concept that you don’t really matter. You’re just drifting, like a ghost figure....
If I don’t have something that I’m writing, something to think about, something to direct my attention, then, yeah, I feel temporary and superfluous.
Aren't we all temporary and superfluous drifting along on the grand cosmic stage!