Monday, September 30, 2013

Grammar is the spinach between the front teeth!

At the lunch break while on a field trip during the conference, we got to our respective packets that we had picked up beforehand.  Mine was, of course, a vegetarian lunch.  As tasty as that wrap was, it also had quite a bit of greens and sprouts.

Houston, we have a problem!

When I am in the public, I prefer to avoid greens and sprouts for a simple reason--they tend to get stuck between the teeth. Especially the front teeth.  I sometimes jokingly advice students that they ought to avoid spinach at any working lunch because if they talked with a spinach growth on their teeth, then the audience will only be fixated on that ugly green thing and ignore the message.  There is also a distinct possibility that their entire presentation will be discredited.

All because of a green!

So, there I was, hungry as one can be, and devouring the vegetarian wrap, and wondering whether I was running into potential trouble.  As the field trip resumed, I remarked to the only other vegetarian-lunch participant that the only hassle with the tasty wrap was about the greens.

"Oh, show me your teeth and I will check" she volunteered.  And she certified me ok.

Perhaps people stay married only for the reason that a spousal obligation is to point out the spinach. Perhaps in a coded way such that when the wife smiles at her husband and taps on her tooth, the husband knows exactly where he needs to clean up.

Anyway, I didn't have to worry anymore.  Well, except that an incisor, which suffered a trauma after a high school punching incident, is turning yellower by the day and now I was left to wonder what she made of that yellowing tooth.  It is a no-win situation! ;)

Over the couple of days, I attended plenty of presentations.  Grammar errors in the presentation slides stood out like spinach in the front teeth.   Simple mistakes like "here" for "hear" and "censes" where it ought to have been "census."  Maybe I am cursed in that my eyes directly zoom into those errors and stay put.  As much as I consciously drag my eyes away from the annoying spinach, soon they pick up a broccoli somewhere else!

Of course, I give plenty for other eyes and ears.  As I joke with students, I am even capable of messing up pronouncing my own name.  Little do they know that I am not joking!  I can only wonder about the metaphorical spinach and broccoli in me when I was up front.  I am sure I offered a lot--after all, I am a vegetarian, mostly! ;)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

It was twenty years ago

As a high school student, and especially as an electrical engineering undergraduate, the urge within me was to understand the human condition and the economic deprivation that was all around me.

Naive that I was, I thought the answers could be explored through formal graduate schooling.  It turned out that much had been investigated and written about even those couple of decades ago.  The more I spent time in the libraries and the classes, the more I was convinced that there was very little--if any--for me to explore and contribute.  Unlike in electrical engineering, where revolutionary insights took us from the diode to the transistor to the integrated chip and Moore's Law, and the world of unknown that was ahead, for all purposes everything had already been explored about the human condition and the relative economic deprivation around the world.

Thus, it was not the pedantic understanding that was needed, I decided, but a way to connect the understanding gained with the people outside academe.  Sometime during my final year as a graduate student, in a conversation with a faculty, I outlined to him my interests in being an academic who does not engage in formal academic research but in scholarship that would be for a non-academic audience.  Like writing newspaper opinions.  .

He thought it was much needed.  But he warned me that academia would not care about any intellectual approach that did not conform to established protocols.  He said something along the lines of "they will get jealous of your public exposure, and you will not get any support."

A month after graduating, my first ever newspaper opinion piece was published.  That was twenty years ago, in July 1993.  Against the background of the Fourth of July fireworks, I argued that the American society ought to worry not about restricting fireworks but about restricting guns.  Twenty years ago, and I shudder to think about the number of people who have died from maniacal violence since.

Over the twenty years, the number of published newspaper opinions stands at 158, which averages to about eight per year.  I suspect that the rate would diminish as I go forward, particularly because of the rapidly decreasing newspaper readership.

So, as I get more into the twilight of a mediocre career, I wonder if this route that I consciously chose was any more constructive than the options that I discarded.  It is not easy to figure out counter-factuals.  It is what it is, of course.  However, I like to believe that it has all been worth it, and that I did not stray away from that goal of understanding the human condition and economic deprivation and doing my tiny little bit to address it.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Might be a good day to me. But not to all

It was a pleasure driving on the eastern side of the mountains after the rains on the windward side.  There was no need to worry about the rain affecting the visibility or the traction on the road.  I could afford to take my eyes off the road in order to scan the surroundings for interesting sights. And then stop whenever I felt like.

Life is never about getting to the destination.  It is all about what happens when we think we are headed towards it.  Life is, as they say, what happens when we are busy planning for it.  But, we rarely ever consciously live that way.  We get dejected, depressed, sad, heartbroken, and everything else when things don't develop the way we had imagined they would.

And even when we delight at something, well, it is that age old saying that one man's food is another man's poison.

I stopped at an intersection to fill gas.  When driving along lonely stretches, I get paranoid that the gas gauge might be faulty and that I might be better off if I added a few more gallons.  The ever cautious 'better safe than sorry" personality that I am.  Not much unlike Madan's cartoon character, munjaakkiradhai muthannaa (முன்ஜாக்கிரதை முத்தண்ணா,) who, when visiting an old fort walks behind the canon just in case!

It was a lonely rural gas station under the blue sky with a scattering of white clouds.  The air was crisp.  I stood for a few seconds to enjoy the sun and the air.  There was nothing to complain about.

The rural setting also meant that the pump was an older model without a credit-card reader.  I walked into the mini-store to pay.

"Please close that door and turn that knob. Otherwise it won't close" urged the woman at the counter.  Sure enough, the door opened wide behind me.  "Am getting a new door tomorrow" she said as I walked towards the counter after making sure the door closed.

"It is a beautiful day outside" I said.

"Yeeeeesss ..." she dragged as if she really didn't want to agree with that.

After a momentary hesitation, she qualified it with "not a good day with this wind when you are out farmin'"

I was reminded of an acquaintance back in my California days.  He had agricultural interests and often remarked that the good days for us city dwellers are often not the best conditions for those out on the fields.

I resumed driving. I figured that I pay my share of dealing with bad days and I had earned the right to enjoy the sights.  Like the red rocks that seemed like somebody had painted that as a sharp contrast to the landscape.  I am glad I stopped there, for I know not what life has in store for me and whether I might ever see that mountain again.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

My plans didn't work out. But, no complaints!

By now, I am rather resigned to the idea that we plan while fully ready for the plan to get distorted and many parts of it remaining only as ideas. Yet, we don't get paralyzed into inaction.  I suppose I will keep planning even as old plans don't come true.

I had chalked out a number of stops along the mountainous stretch of the forested Cascades during my drive down to the conference.  It is a remarkably scenic route and one could easily stop every few miles and not get bored at all.

I packed up enough eats for the long day on the road. After all, drives are a lot more fun where there are snacks of my choice.  I packed a grilled sandwich too--with cheese and pickled asparagus.

All those parts of the plan were within my control.  And then there is nature, which, obviously, had not read my plans.

As I started driving, it felt like the last days of Pompeii.  The dark clouds made it seem like nightfall even at nine in the morning and the rain limited the visibility.  This was on the valley floor.  The mountain stretch would be rainy and there would not be any stops by the scenic spots--it would be difficult to even spot the vistas!

Driving in the rain is enjoyable in its own way.  As long as we are in no hurry, of course.  And I had no urgency.  At some places, I was driving so slowly that a young person would have cursed me for being the stereotypical old man on the road holding back a long line of vehicles.  But, I didn't have to worry--most of the time it felt like the entire roadways belonged only to me.

I had reached nearly 4,000 feet in elevation.  It was all clouds and rains and the only stop I made was at the gas station to fill the tank.  The temperature gauge reported that it was only 39 degrees outside.  39!  It was still September!

The road signs cautioned work ahead.  I slowed down and came to a complete stop.  Men at work.

If at all I had any temptations to complain that my plans had not worked out, by now even that remote complaint had been erased.  Why?  It was 39 degrees and raining. And, there were men at work.  Well, perhaps women too among the crew.  I was in a comfortably climate-controlled environment without any urgency. What grounds did I have to even mutter a complaint?

Life is that way.  We think our problems are the more pressing ones, and that we deserve to air out our worries and complaints, when in reality there are a gazillion others with problems of their own and many of them in worse conditions.

I waited for the "stop" to turn to "slow."  It did after a few minutes.  As I passed the worker, I waved out.  S/he waved back. At the other end of the work zone, I waved to the sign-holding person standing in the middle of the road on a rainy, cold, fall morning.

I went over the pass, and was on to the leeward side of the mountain.  The rain stopped after a while.  I was now back to my plan of stopping along the way to enjoy the scenery and take photographs.  I was back to being a man with a plan.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

We are what we eat. We are what we like?

It is football season.

No, I don't waste my time and money watching the games.

In the comics section of the newspaper, football season is always a reminder to good ol' Charlie Brown (yes, in reruns and, no, not the character 'rerun') not to believe that this time he will kick the ball that Lucy offers to hold for him.  Not to believe whatever Lucy says about no more cheating and lying.  Yet, he trusts her that this time it will be different.

Good ol' Charlie Brown.

We love the Charlie Browns of the world because they are Charlie Browns.  It will be a rotten, rotten world if there were no Charlie Browns.

I wonder if our preferences for cartoon characters also says something about our own personalities?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Why do we humans live so long? And, oh, the problems at old age!

From our own lives, from the stories of our own families, and from scientists, we know all too well that we humans are living longer and longer and longer.  This Scientific American piece explores why we live such long lives:
Most researchers chalk up our supersized life span to the advent of vaccines, antibiotics and other medical advances, the development of efficient urban sanitation systems, and the availability of fresh, nutritious vegetables and fruit year-round. Indeed, much demographic evidence shows that these factors greatly extended human life over the past 200 years. But critical as they were to extending human life, they are only part of the longevity puzzle, Finch warrants. Marshaling data from fields as diverse as physical anthropology, primatology, genetics and medicine, he now proposes a controversial new hypothesis: that the trend toward slower aging and longer lives began much, much earlier, as our human ancestors evolved an increasingly powerful defense system to fight off the many pathogens and irritants in ancient environments. 
We need to keep in mind that our lifespan even now is supersized:
Our kind is remarkably long-lived compared with other primates. Our nearest surviving relatives, the chimpanzees, have a life expectancy at birth of about 13 years. In contrast, babies born in the U.S. in 2009 possessed a life expectancy at birth of 78.5 years. 
Of course, those who do not believe that the chimpanzees are our relatives won't bother with such scientific inquiry anyway!

Apparently it could come down to one "apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene":
APOE e4's DNA sequences closely resemble those in chimpanzee APOE, strongly suggesting that it is the ancestral human variant that emerged near the beginning of the Homo genus more than two million years ago and thus may have had the earliest effect on our longevity. Differing in several critical amino acids from the chimp version, APOE e4 vigorously ramps up the acute phase of inflammation. It boosts the production of proteins such as interleukin-6, which helps to increase body temperature, and tumor necrosis factor–alpha, which induces fever and inhibits viruses from replicating. Equipped with this supercharged defense system, children in ancient human families had a better chance of fighting off harmful microbes that they unwittingly ingested in food and encountered in their surroundings. “When humans left the canopy and went out onto the savanna,” Finch notes, “they had a much higher exposure to infectious stimuli. The savanna is knee-deep in herbivore dung, and humans were out there in bare feet.”
Moreover, early humans who carried APOE e4 most likely profited in another key way. This variant facilitates both the intestinal absorption of lipids and the efficient storage of fat in body tissue. During times when game was scarce and hunting poor, early APOE e4 carriers could draw on this banked fat, upping the odds of their survival.
Even today children who carry APOE e4 enjoy an advantage over those who do not. In one study of youngsters from impoverished families living in a Brazilian shantytown, APOE e4 carriers succumbed to fewer bouts of diarrheal disease brought on by Escherichia coli or Giardia infections than noncarriers did. And they scored higher on cognitive tests, most likely as a result of their greater absorption of cholesterol—a dietary requirement for neurons to develop in the brain
How does this all lead up to the old age problems that the blog post title drew you in?  Blame it on the same apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene!
APOE e4 carriers, with their enhanced immune systems, tended to survive many childhood infections. But they experienced decades' worth of chronic high levels of inflammation in the pathogen-rich environment—levels that are now linked to several deadly diseases of old age, including atherosclerosis and Alzheimer's. ...“And while it might be pushing it to say the senile plaques of Alzheimer's are some form of scab, like the plaques on artery vessels, they have many of the same components,” Finch suggests.
The apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene might turn out to have been one heck of a Faustian bargain we made with evolution!

One of the awful downsides to this long life is Alzheimer's.  (Yes, an issue that I have blogged about before, like here and here.)

As lifespans increase, we can expect more of us to be afflicted with this awful disease:
More than 35 million people worldwide live with dementia today, according to a new report. By 2050, that number is expected to more than triple to 115 million. The majority require constant care; they're dependent -- and that dependence can impact their loved ones in unmeasurable ways.
You might think that 115 million in a population of nine billion wouldn't matter much.  But, it will.
the problem is getting worse. Increasing life expectancies and an aging population are creating a group of seniors that's bigger than the working-age population that supports them, the report says. Approximately 4% of the population in developed countries now is currently over the age of 80; in 2050, experts predict, that number will rise to 10%. ...
People with Alzheimer's live on average four to eight years after they're diagnosed, but some may live 20 years beyond their initial diagnosis.
So, hey, here is the bottom-line: Enjoy the good life and be thankful for it.  You never know how things might be when you reach 75.

And treat our chimp relatives well!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

When Autumn Came

It is almost as if nature read the calendar entry that summer ended yesterday and today is the first day of fall.  The temperature has taken a dive, the sun has gone into hiding, and the wind is gusty outside.

It is a brand new season.

For one whose formative years were in the hot and nearly-equatorial southern part of India, I now find living without the four seasons almost unimaginable.  Life then was under hot, hotter, and rainy seasons.  Leaves turning yellow and the trees going bare were, well, book knowledge.  At school, we studied about deciduous  trees that shed their leaves, while the mango and the tamarind and everything else looked green all the time.

Years ago, when living in Southern California, where it is spring and summer most of the year, an acquaintance decided to quit her job and head back to Chicago--the place where she grew up. "I miss the four seasons" she said.  I couldn't understand it then. I now know what she meant.  I look forward to the seasons changing. There is something magical, profound, about it.

A summer evening by the Willamette

As the temperature continues to drop, the rains settle in for the long haul, and the sun becomes an occasional visitor, the more we get tempted to stay in and bake.

I always wonder where the hummingbirds and crows and robins and other birds go.  It will be a long while before I will see them darting about and making noises.  I will miss them. Until next spring!

When Autumn Came
By Faiz Ahmed Faiz

This is the way that autumn came to the trees:
it stripped them down to the skin,
left their ebony bodies naked.
It shook out their hearts, the yellow leaves,
scattered them over the ground.
Anyone could trample them out of shape
undisturbed by a single moan of protest.

The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.

Oh, God of May have mercy.
Bless these withered bodies
with the passion of your resurrection;
make their dead veins flow with blood again.

Give some tree the gift of green again.
Let one bird sing.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Will you smile while, and after, reading this?

Whenever I review the old photographs in the family collections, I am struck by how much there is a near complete lack of smiles in those photos.  I always shied away from the camera, and even in the few photos that I am in, well, it is no smiling face.  My father went even a step further than the rest--if he spotted a camera being aimed to include him, he would quickly get rid of his animated expressions and put on a serene look.

Smilers we were not, apparently.

Not merely my family. Even now, when I visit India, it feels like people rarely smile, especially for photographs.  Or, if they do smile, most come across as forced, stressful, smiles.

As I noted in my Costa Rica reports (like here and here) women there had some of the most gorgeous smiles that I have ever come across.  An easy, natural, smile that somebody like me would never, ever, be able to generate.

In a recent email to a friend, I wrote, "keep smiling--the world needs smiling faces like yours."  The last thing the world needs is yet another serious face like mine. Even when I think I am smiling, students think I am being stern and serious!

So, what gives?  How come there are those, like Mallika who have angelic smiles, and then there are millions of us who don't smile, and seemingly don't even know how to smile?

Did people always smile for the camera?

Perhaps by now you are thinking that I am wasting my time writing about this, and yours by tempting you to read it by splashing Mallika's photo!

Well, a lot wiser and enlightened thinkers have furrowed their brows on this topic:
[An] article by Nicholas Jeeves, recently published in the Public Domain Review, suggests that, when folks frowned, they did so for reasons as economic, social and historical as they were technological.
Mark Twain thought as much. In one of his letters, collected by Jeeves, he wrote:
A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.
Twain wasn’t the only believer in the idiocy of the style. Look back at painted portraiture — the tradition photography inherited — and you’ll rarely see a grinning subject. This is, in fact, Jeeves’s subject. “By the 17th century in Europe,“ he writes, “it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.”

If you are like me, I feel sorry for you!  Ok, seriously, if you are like me, then you are thinking, "hey, how about the famous Mona Lisa smile?  Does that mean that people used to smile in the past?"
Leonardo impels us to do this using a combination of skilful sfumato (the effect of blurriness, or smokiness) and his profound understanding of human desire. It is a kind of magic: when you first glimpse her, she appears to be issuing a wanton invitation, so alive is the smile. But when you look again, and the sfumato clears in focus, she seems to have changed her mind about you. This is interactive stuff, and paradoxical: the effect of the painting only occurs in dialogue, yet she is only really there when you’re not really looking. The Mona Lisa is thus, in many ways, designed to frustrate — and frustrate she did.

By now, you are probably ready to call it quits.  I bet I can make you smile with the following cartoon from the New Yorker ;)

Obama as Nixon, and Kerry as Kissinger? They just talk and look better!

So, there is the US seemingly flailing over the Syria issue. With Iran, there are problems. North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba have been needling the US for quite a while. And then there are the likes of Russia and Brazil with whom it is a dysfunctional relationship.

Overlay all the recent revelations of the NSA spying operations. And the drone-based killings in far away lands.  Think about the long-running Guantanamo issue.

Add to this the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and the very strange relationship with Pakistan and Egypt.

All set?

Now, try to put together a statement on what America stands for.

Confused?  You can't seem to figure out what exactly is the ideal for which America carrying is the torch?

There is a vast divide between the ideals that we think America represents and the reality of America, right?

This is not new at all. It has always been this way.

In my early years, back in the old country, I was dead set against the US because I could not understand how America could talk all glorious things and act like a jerk.  Which is why my parents were quite shocked when they came to know that I had decided in favor of graduate schooling in the US, with an even larger goal of making America my home.

It is just that I had made my peace with the fact that all the countries act like jerks and that there is no saintly country.

One of my earliest experiences with the disconnect between the American ideal versus the American realpolitik was during the 1971 India-Pakistan wars that led to the birth of an independent Bangladesh.  It was a simple question that my young mind had: if America is all for democracy, then wouldn't America support India instead of supporting Pakistan?

A simple question, a simplistic one, that only kids might have, right?  But, often we overlook those simple bottom-lines.  I suppose as adults we lead lives full of contradictions that we automatically begin to discount the conflict between the ideals and the reality.  How depressing that this is, also, a part of growing older and "wiser!"

All those memories of my growing up years in India seem to have been dusted off by this wonderful book-review essay by Pankaj Mishra, who writes about "Nixon, Kissinger, and the Bangladesh genocide." (sub. reqd.)

It jolts me, yet again, even after all these years, to read about the language that Nixon and Kissinger used, which reflects their attitudes towards the people of the Subcontinent, its leaders, and their priorities. Indira Gandhi was a "bitch," Indians are "such bastards" and "a slippery, treacherous people" and more.

How unfortunate that Kissinger is praised as a statesman, and even Nixon too!  As Shakespeare wrote, "For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men."

It is not only that they made such comments, but made them when the US ambassadors stationed in India and Pakistan were sending them cables that Pakistan was destroying democracy and committing genocide. Mishra offers this Nixon quote from one of the books he reviews:
Biafra stirred up a few Catholics. But, you know, I think Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan, because Pakistan they're just a bunch of brown goddamn Moslems."
"For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men."

And what was the larger purpose that Nixon and Kissinger were aiming for?  Even as Nixon dismissed Pakistanis as "brown goddamn Moslems" he was using the Pakistani dictator-general Yahya Khan as "the principal intermediary between Beijing and Washington, personally conveying to Chinese leaders the Americans' desire for a closer dialogue."

Nixon and Kissinger are celebrated for opening up to China.  You know, the Asian country of Mao that was a champion for democracy and human rights!  "It is like Nixon going to China" is now a phrase to describe major policy shifts.

"For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men."

In wrapping up the essay, Mishra writes:
[Many] postwar Administrations, Democratic as well as Republican, violated American ideals of democracy and human rights while pursuing what they saw--mostly wrongly--as national interests.
We have this profound image of America as a symbol for democracy and human rights. Time and again, we are reminded that reality has nothing to do with the symbol.

More from Mishra:
Obama was expected to restore an ethical sheen to post-9/11 foreign policy, but he has intensified drone warfare in Yemen and Pakistan, pursued whistle-blowers, and failed to close down Guantanamo.  It is difficult to imagine him risking Israel's security by taking a hard line against the Egyptian generals--especially not while he weighs the appropriate response to Syrian war crimes, copes with the human costs of Iraq occupation and of the intervention in Libya, seeks peace with honor in Afghanistan, re-starts peace talks between Israel and Palestine, and controls the fallout from Edward Snowden's revelations.
Who cares for the millions of real people who get killed, tortured, driven out of their homes, in the process, right?

Aren't you happy that you are also older and "wiser?"

Friday, September 20, 2013

My old friend is back!

I did swing by the optician's.  And I did tell her about the problem with the new glasses.  And, yes, she laughed a good laugh.

"Did you have a good week?" she asked.

"More like did I have a good summer.  It is over" I said referring to the light rain that was falling outside.  "I suppose there is a time for everything."


We knew it would happen. That the summer would come to an end.  Our days on the porches and patios would soon become a distant memory.

When the sun shone brightly and with enormous warmth, and even when we complained about the terrible heat, we were fully aware that it was a passing phase.

Without fail, it happened.

Like that, summer is gone.

The clouds are back. The rains are here.

"I don't have to water my yard anymore" remarked the clerk at the grocery store, which was my intended destination.  "It will save me at least twenty dollars a month."

Always the party-pooper, I reminded him that it would also mean something else. "You will pay a lot more than that in heating bills" and I smiled.

"Ah, yes, any which way nature gets you to pay" he added with a nodding head.

In a way, we are glad that the seasons change when they are supposed to change.  Else, it is trouble.  To everything, "turn, turn, turn."

The gentle wind that invited me to keep the door open through the summer evenings is now cool enough for me to lock up the doors and windows.  My memory reached back into my school years in the old country and desperately tried to recall a poem about the wind. Growing old means that there is gradual fading. A word here and a word there is all I could recall.

But, I remembered the poet's name: Christina Georgina Rossetti.

Google and "transactive memory" to the rescue!  Here is that poem:

Who has seen the wind?   
By Christina Georgina Rossetti

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Oh, now I remember you" ... it helps to be funny?

The haircut for $9.99 was tempting as I neared the traffic intersection.

I swung into the parking lot.  After all, even if the the people there think I am old enough to be retired, at least they don't charge me much!

"How do you want your hair cut?"

"With a lawn mower" is what I wanted to tell her with a big laugh.

I was polite instead.  "A regular cut to even things out" as I placed my glasses on the counter.

And then, of course, small talk began.

I smiled recalling the cartoon in a recent issue of the New Yorker:

"I've been here before" I told her, though she was not the one that I blogged about.  I guess now it is her turn to feature in my blog!  If only people knew about such crazy Andy Warhol moments!

"You kind of looked familiar" she said.  But, the hesitation in her was obvious.  She was trying to sort through her database of the faces of the people whose hair she has cut over her career.

We talked about the usual stuff.  About the rains in the forecast and the end of summer. About a new academic year beginning. About Thanksgiving. New Year.

"Time goes by so fast" she said.

I shared with her how I had made that kind of a remark about time going by faster as I get older, to which my mother's response was "wait till you get to my age; it gets even faster."

"That is exactly my grandmother said when I was little" she said.

"Ok, you are all set for your classes" she said.

As I reached out for my glasses, I thought I would get back to the wisecracking that I had stayed away from.  "So, when I put these glasses on, will I look like George Clooney?"

Her response was not what I had expected.

"Oh, now I remember you.  You said the same thing last time too."

"Darn!  I should figure out some new lines then."

"No, no. I thought it was funny, and that's why I remembered it."

I bet she said that to comfort me that I am not getting old and repeating myself.

I bet she said that to comfort me that I am not getting old and repeating myself.

I bet she said that to comfort me that I am not getting old and repeating myself.

Ha ha!  Am I funny or what?

After looking at myself in the mirror at home, I think I have a game plan for humor tomorrow.  I imagine going to the optician, who was laughing at everything I said only a few days ago.

"Hey, I have a problem with these new glasses."

"Oh, sorry.  What's wrong?"

"After I started wearing these glasses, the hair on my head fell off and I am now really bald!"

That will make sure the optician never, ever, forgets me, right?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What do Wal-Mart and Tamil Nadu have in common?

One wonderful aspect of the work-is-hobby-is-work life that I have is how every single day I can be impressed with something or the other.  Well, in case there is no something or other, there are always redheads to be impressed about!

Yesterday, thanks to a tweet, I read this:
A leader in wind energy, Tamil Nadu is all set to claim at least the No. 2 slot among Indian states (after Gujarat) in solar power, as the State is gearing up to signing power purchase agreements for 698 MW.
Hey, the heart warms up every time there is any positive story about the old country, especially Tamil Nadu where I grew up.  I remember how impressed I was, during the sabbatical stay, with the windmill farm near Nagercoil.

A few kilometers outside Nagercoil

And, yes, with the harsh sun beating down on the land day in and day out, there is plenty of potential for solar power.  The science and technology to convert the sunrays into flowing electrons is getting better, and getting less expensive, by the year.  Well, getting less expensive in dollar terms.  But, with the rupee sliding down the slope,
Pashupathy Gopalan, Managing Director, SunEdison, says that rupee depreciation raises project costs by at least Rs 50 lakh per MW. Solar module prices have also gone up in the last few months and could raise capital costs by not less than Rs 12 lakh per MW. On the overall, project costs have gone up by 7-8 per cent, while the tariffs have remained low.
“It is going to be very hard to make it work,” says Gopalan.
The dollar cost going down is all the more the reason that private production of solar power is on the increase in the US.  Among the corporations going solar, the biggest one is Wal-Mart.  Yes, that same Wal-Mart that the solar-loving left typically loves to hate.  Unlike the left that pushes expensive solar for reasons other than a dollar bottom-line, Wal-Mart does that precisely because it sees money in it:
Since 2007, when the first solar arrays went up on its store roofs in California, the installed costs of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s solar systems have dropped from $6 or $8 per watt of capacity to about $3.50 per watt, said David Ozment, the company's senior director of energy management. He said he expects the retailer to be paying as little for solar power as utility power "in less than three years," opening the floodgates to solar expansion.Wal-Mart produces about 4% of the electricity it uses but intends to make 20% by 2020, taking advantage of idle acreage on thousands of store rooftops.
Should not surprise us, right?  After all, if the cost of energy goes up, or if there is an increase in the risks with the energy supply, then it makes economic sense to seek alternatives.  A textbook case of how we expected, and expect, a growth in solar and wind and other sources of energy that will slowly draw us away from carbon-based sources.

Now, before you think all is well, life is rarely ever without downsides even in positive news.  What can be the drawback here, you ask?  After all, isn't it a good thing to generate more solar power?  Yes, indeed. But ...
State and federal regulators say they are worried that utilities could end up with fewer customers to pay for costly transmission lines and power plants. Utility executives, meanwhile, are asking themselves a disquieting question: "Am I going to just sit here and take it and ultimately be a caretaker of a museum, or am I going to be part of that business" that's emerging, said Nick Akins, chief executive of American Electric Power Co.,
I say this is a better problem to have.

Because, there are some really energy problems in the developing world.  How serious?  Here is a neat way to compare the excesses that we indulge in against the acute shortages elsewhere--comparing the electricity demand at the Dallas Cowboys stadium and the entire country of Liberia:
During moments of peak demand on game day, the 80,000-seat stadium may consume up to 10 megawatts of electricity, Bernstein said. Liberia has the capacity to pump less than a third as much power into its national grid.
So, celebrate Tamil Nadu and Gujarat and Wal-Mart and others tapping into solar energy.  The more they do, and the more the technology develops, the more we can then also address the energy shortages in Liberia and the developing world.  Like the proposal to construct the world's largest solar power plant in Rajasthan.  

And maybe even put some solar panels on the Cowboys stadium ;)

Eat dirt, suckers!

Not the humble pie. But, the real stuff. The real dirt.

Well, dirt as in not grabbing a handful of dirt and having that for dessert.  But, to get into a mindset of a little bit of bugs is good for your system.

We increasingly live in sterile conditions here in the US.  We wash our hands, a lot. We have hand sanitizers everywhere we turn and have made Purell one profitable product.  A couple more steps and as a country we will join the ranks of Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson.

But, hey, a bit of the bad stuff is good for us:
[A] great deal of research has shown that exposure to diverse bacteria or even parasitic worms helps to train and regulate the immune system, preventing it from becoming over-active.
In the old country, we were never too far away from unclean conditions.  Even within the home, even the food could get freaky.

It was only recently that I understood why my sister never cared for cauliflower when we were young.  I mean, those days, cauliflower was a treat.  It was not an everyday vegetable.  But, my sister could not be tempted.

A couple of years ago, when an aunt was visiting and we were recalling the old days, the aunt said that she hated cooking cauliflower because of the tiny worms that always seemed to be present deep in the florets.  And that is when my sister admitted that it was the possibility of worms that turned her away.  Aha!

Yes, tiny worms in vegetables. In the rice. Bugs in the lentils.  Ants seemingly in everything.

There was no point complaining to the grandmothers.  "That's ok, if you swallowed ants, your eyesight will get better" was one of the responses.

Agricultural practice without chemicals meant that other life forms coexisted with the vegetables and fruits.  They hitched a ride home with the produce that we bought.  As simple as that.

Washing hands and feet we did a lot. But, in the tropical "heat and dust" dirt and bugs were always around.  Sterile conditions it was not.  Babies crawling on the floors routinely ingested all kinds of crap as they licked their hands and sucked their fingers.

I am willing to buy into the idea that all those tiny doses of dirt in the air and the food helped me develop my immune system, and I now worry that I will live way too long for my own good!  And that the absence of that from my regular life now is why I have to be ultra-careful when I visit India.
Even in the absence of a full-blown immune response, exposure to different populations of bacteria can have a significant impact on the way that our immune system responds to other threats.
Totally sterile conditions, I have always believed, are unhealthy.  It just ain't nature.  Yes, we need the cleanest possible spaces at ICUs and ORs and food preparation places. But, not every single second of our existence.
During most of human evolution, humans have been consuming microbes from the environment, and it’s clear that this exposure shapes the populations of microbes in our guts. A experimental link between microbes consumed in the diet and specific health conditions has not been shown, but it’s quite plausible that at least some of the observations linked to the hygiene hypothesis aren’t just due to passive microbial encounters, but because of what we put in our mouths.
For all I know, in a few years, Purell will sell a profitable product--dirt.  "A teaspoon of dirt everyday will keep the doctors far away."  After washing the hands, of course.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What women want ...

Our annual summer holidays were almost always spent at grandmas' villages.  (My mother would argue that Sengottai, unlike Pattamadai, was no village but a modern town with piped water and electricity even back when she was a kid.)

During one such vacation, I watched with a mix of fascination and sadness my father's cousin sister pleading with her father that she be allowed to continue with her college education.  She had completed the undergraduate program in economics, which itself was a notable achievement for those days, and wanted to work on the master's degree.

A more recent Pattamadai--in 2005

She was one strong-willed woman, but her life was severely circumscribed by the role that men had in society.  Thus, when her father flatly negated her plan for higher studies, well, that was the end.  I remember getting teary-eyed myself when she was crying--hey, I was a kid!

As a male, I will never truly understand what women went through, and what women go through even now.  I merely have a feel for some of the issues they have to grapple with.  Issues that typically might not even blip in my male life.

Conditions have changed a lot for women over the decades since that summer when my aunt was devastated that she had to terminate her college plans.  Many of my own classmates, for instance, went on to become doctors and scientists and managers.  The generations that followed have had more and more choices to choose from.

The array of choices does not mean that life for women has gotten any better.  Given the biological aspect that only the female can reproduce, well, it is all the more a struggle to figure out what it is to be a female. It seems very easy for them to get damned if they did and to be damned if they didn't.  It is one tough life, I would imagine, to be a woman in this contemporary settings.  Perhaps in a strange way even tougher now than it was a few generations ago?

Take the case of Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.  Ever since she went on her book tour promoting Lean In and her version of feminism, it has been one heck of a controversy.  Of course, that itself is happening while we were still trying to understand whether women can really have it all, or should they simply admit that there are some serious tradeoff decisions to make.  Even a question of whether or not a young woman should decide in favor of an MBA is far more complicated than how that same question would be for a typical male.

All these facets--India's villages, women, MBA, corporate executives--interestingly came together in a story in the Wall Street Journal about "Chhavi Rajawat, the current sarpanch of Soda village in Rajasthan, who left a corporate job to help her ancestral village develop."

"Lean in" of a completely different kind.
WSJ: If you’d had a family and children to look after, would you still have been able to take up this job?Ms. Rajawat: I have been able to do it because I have my family’s support. I am single, but there have been so many women who have been able to do things despite having families to look after. If there is family support, it is easy to do a lot of things.
WSJ: As a woman leader, what message would you give to young girls and other working women?Ms. Rajawat: I think each one of us is a leader in our own capacity. We just need to realize that. As women, we have tremendous inner strength which enables us to take on multiple roles and do well even as we stretch beyond our comfort zones.
A long, long way have we come since that summer when my aunt sat crying.  Here is to hoping that it is a much shorter distance ahead.

Monday, September 16, 2013

More on the meaning of life ...

Sometimes, even I am amazed at myself for how easily I seem to swing from the profound to the funny and inane!

If, perchance, you don't recognize the source of that cartoon, yes, it is from the New Yorker.

Sometimes, I tell students not to be fooled by my warped sense of humor.  "It is a facade to hide the insanely serious guy" I say and laugh, which probably makes the students wonder all the more whether I am being serious or not.  Years ago, I routinely offered students a chance, at the very last meeting of the term, to come to the front of the class and make fun of me and my teaching.  Rarely ever did they take up the offer.

Gandhi was apparently a guy with a wonderful sense of humor as well.  Back when there was an artificial controversy over Hillary Clinton's bad attempt at a joke involving Gandhi, a New York Times oped pointed out that the "half-naked fakir" would have chuckled at her joke:
"If I had no sense of humor," he wrote in 1928, "I would long ago have committed suicide."
It is relatively easy to get along with people with a sense of humor. Humor that is harmless, that is.  Like the neighbor who shared with me the word "exhaustipated."  Doesn't matter what our ages are--we can share quite a few laughs over the time we are together.

Like how ninety-year old Jack, who had been silent while the other five of us chatted away. When he heard us talk about Bombay, he jumped in at a pause in the conversation and said, "yes, Bomb-bay.  Brings back a lot of memories from where I was" he chuckled. There was a reason for the joke--Jack was a bombardier in the Second World War.

So, are you wondering what the deal is with "exhaustipated" and thinking that surely is a made-up word?  Of course, it does not exist in the dictionary.

To cut a long story short (refer to the cartoon below for the female version of that phrase!) exhaustipated is derived by combining two words--exhausted and constipated.  So, what does this newly created word mean, according to my former neighbor, Jim?  "Too tired to give a shit."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The meaning of life ...

A friend is heading to Amritsar, to the Golden Temple.

"Will you go to Jallianwalla Bagh?" I asked.

"Of course, yes."

"Thanks. Include me when you observe a moment of silence there for the tremendous sacrifice they made so that we can now enjoy this life" I said.

"I am getting goosebumps thinking about it."

"I hope to make it there someday" I said.  I meant it.

The afternoon at Jallianwalla Bagh almost a hundred years ago was one of the darkest of the darkest moments of the British Raj, when civilians who had gathered at the park were mercilessly gunned down.  And to escape from the bullets, some--men, women, and children--even jumped into the open well there and died.

When watching Gandhi, the movie, thirty years ago, it was not his assassination that made me emotional, but the awful events of Jallianwalla Bagh and the protest at the salt works, where they line up to get beaten by the police, and the injured then rejoin the line after getting first-aid treatment.

If you want to see a grown man cry, just play these two scenes for me, when I feel even slightly vulnerable.

Those events were not fiction. They were powerful events, propelled by non-violence and non-cooperation. Even now it seems unbelievable that the Raj was defeated not with guns but by Indians getting beaten up and killed and jailed.

I know I owe all those people big time. In my atheist framework, it is not the gods that I thank but real people like the ones at Jallianwalla Bagh.  To think that they made that kind of an ultimate sacrifice makes me feel guilty sometimes wondering if the life I lead now does even a little bit of justice.

After that interaction regarding Amritsar, I have been flipping through the e-pages of Gandhi's autobiography and, yet again, I am reminded of Einstein's homage:
Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth
During the sabbatical weeks in India, I did go to visit the Gandhi Memorial in New Delhi. As I neared it, after a rather tiring walking around, a police officer stopped me and said that the memorial was closed to the public.

It seemed rather odd that a memorial to Gandhi would not be open to the public.  So, of course, I had to ask him for the reason.  In retrospect, I would have been better off not knowing why.  I, and a few others, could not go near that memorial because a foreign dignitary was scheduled to visit and pay respects.

I viewed from a distance and wondered at the tragic irony.  That is life!

Beware of pundits. Especially in the New York Times op-ed pages.

Once upon a time, before the dawn of everything-is-on-the-web era, for a while I was a subscriber to the New York Times.  The Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the local paper--the Bakersfield Californian. Sometimes the Los Angeles Times too!  All at the same time.  It was always quite a haul of paper to the local recycling collection bins.

Then, not only did the web happen, everything was for free too.  It was down to the local paper alone.  

Given the three hour time zone difference, it was also fun to read the following day's east coast papers as pre-bedtime reading, and blog about them.  I was, of course, keen on the op-eds and columns there, with the exception of the crazy William Kristol experiment that the Times did.  Come to think of it, those Kristol months was also perhaps the beginning of the end of my daily habit of reading the Times.

The Times erecting a paywall, therefore, didn't bother me one bit.  By then I had pretty much stopped reading that paper, and there was nothing I was missing anyway.  Every once in a while, our local paper reprints a Times column by Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof or Paul Krugman and I am all the more relieved that I am staying away from the paper.

The rare occasion that I read a Friedman piece, I am amazed that he gets to say such remarkably stupid things on an international stage and get paid gazillions for it.  I suppose there is a sucker born every minute.  Over the years, the guy has become nothing but a master manipulator of metaphors and cliches.  I guess punditry means that the more one is incorrect and inane, the more airtime and money they get!

A couple of days ago, I came across a Kristof column urging the US to actively intervene in Syria, with our military might.  It didn't surprise me that he too has gone off the deep end of punditry!

The Onion, which is in many ways America's Finest News Source, described the New York Times quite well:
New York Times, daily newsletter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Founded in 1851, the New York Times newsletter is an indispensable source of information for AARP members, with articles tailored specifically for persons 55 and older, as well as news and views from columnists such as Frank Rich, Thomas Friedman, and Maureen Dowd, who provide an elder perspective on issues of the day. 
Of course, it is not merely the political pundits whose celebrity status increases with yet another incorrect pronouncement.  Ronald Bailey quotes the late Julian Simon:
“How often does a prophet have to be wrong before we no longer believe that he or she is a true prophet?”
That was in the context of the famous debate between Simon, the optimist, and Paul Ehrlich, the doomsday prophet whose predictions about famines, deaths, shortages, and price hikes never came to pass. Not only did all those predicted horrors fail to happen, our collective prosperity continues to increase, with more food than ever and all kinds of fancy goods being manufactured with resources that never seem to be in shortage at all.

Yet, society seems to favor the wrong pundits, more often than not.  Even when time and again the huge errors of the pundits are difficult to ignore.  My guess is that it is all ideological and preferential.  The liberal left, for instance, continue to echo the views of a Ehrlich or a Kristof because these pundits are theirs, while the conservative right celebrates the punditry of a Kristol because he is theirs.  All are nothing but the variations of the old political bottom-line of "he may be a sonofabitch, but he is our sonofabitch."

Oh well.

I know, I know--I am preaching to the choir.  You, the reader, know better.  Which is why you read this pundit's daily rants--after all, he comes from the land that gave the English language the word "pundit" ;)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

If at first you don't succeed, .... make aval again!

In the elementary school years, we read many stories that explicitly drove towards guidelines for life.  (Yes, as my daughter used to find it annoying, I remember many of the lessons from elementary and high school years quite well, thank you.)  One of those was about Robert the Bruce.

Remember that story?

No?  Let me refresh your memory.  I bet it was one of those fables that was spun (you will see it is pun intended) to make him come across as larger than what he was.

The story is that Robert the Bruce was hiding in a cave after one of his military losses when he observed a spider spinning a web, but failing in its attempt to connect the two ends across and was slipping down.  The guy had no TV or internet and, therefore, found this way too entertaining.

It then struck him that the spider was remarkably persistent in trying again and again, and he was impressed by its perseverance.  So, of course, Robert the Bruce got motivated--if a spider can try again and again, then certainly he can.  He gets re-energized for the next battle and the rest, as they say, was history.  Well, Robert the Bruce is history, of course!

Like him, we, too, try and try again.

After all these years of cooking, perhaps I had expected a simple puli aval (புளி அவல்) to be, pardon the mixing of an alien food metaphor, a piece of cake.  And when it didn't feel fluffy on the tongue as I had imagined it would be, I was disappointed, naturally.

I then appealed to the highest authority.

No, not god--remember that I am atheist.

I asked my mother where I might have gone wrong.  After all, unlike Bruce, I was not stuck in a cave and had access to a telephone.

"It perhaps just needed a little bit more water, which you can add in the cooking process too, in case it hadn't soaked well enough."

Aha, that simple.

Then she said that I might prefer something else, even more than the puli aval.  Mother remembered that I have a fondness for dishes made with black pepper.  The recipe she suggested was way, way simple.  I am going to miss such feedback from her in a few years from now; such is life!

I blasted music and got to this project after a five-miler by the river.  Of course, I had to improvise.  "Maybe I will dice up carrots and quickly sautee it for both the taste and the looks."

And I did.

This urge to improvise, and never strictly follow a formula, needs to be psychoanalyzed, I would think.  Why not simply do it the way mother described it, right?  Why not simply do engineering, then go to an MBA program, marry a brahmin girl, and ...!!!  I suspect all these are inter-connected.

I couldn't wait to taste the food.

It aced the olfactory test with the highest of the grades.

Now the tongue.

It was awesome.

I sat down with a fresh brew of coffee, and opened up the latest issue of the New Yorker.

I am mighty glad that the elementary school curriculum included that story about Robert the Bruce and the spider in the cave.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The radical left. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!

So, there I was on the bike path, when I noticed graffiti on the path that was actually readable.  Graffiti, normally, is like some awful hieroglyphics, which leave me wondering what the point is if the intended audience cannot get the message.  But then maybe the graffiti artists are not talking to me, eh!

Anyway, this one was readable because it was in simple, no nonsense, English.  In big bold letters, which would have made any eager four year old try to read that out, with the accompanying parent having a tough time helping the kid read!

Thinking of the hapless parents dealing with their kids asking them "what does fuck mean?" reminds me of the "Mr. Robinson" parody skits that Eddie Murphy did in SNL.  Hey little boys and girls, can you use this word in a sentence?

Where was I?

Yes, that graffiti is so Eugene!

People in other places might have other things on their minds, but here in Eugene, we certainly have more than anybody else's share of the radical and the environmental left.  Old timers say that this is nothing, that it ain't the hippie town it once used to be.  Every old timer seems to have at least one favorite hippie story to tell, and as exaggerated as they might seem, well, they are not!

The folks on the left think I am one of 'em Republicans, while from the right they view me as a damn liberal.  I can't live with either, and can't live without either.  But, any day, I would rather live in a hippie town than at Stepford ;)

And there was another:

More vocabulary lessons for little boys and girls.  This one is a mix of politeness--"I am discouraged"--and the big verb there--"rapes."  You think it was a result of some serious thinking by the graffiti protester?  I don't think so ;)

Monsanto has made quite some enemies.  At this rate, pretty soon, perhaps the thesaurus will include Monsanto as a synonym for evil! As I have blogged before, in plenty, such extreme positions, however, prevent us from engaging in constructive discussions on genetic modification and the undeniable future demand for agricultural products. (Two, within the last two months alone: here and here)

I suppose it takes all kinds of people to make up this world.  If everybody were like me, it will be one hell of a boring planet of non-drinking, non-socializing, hermit bloggers!  But then that will be a neat way to keep the aliens from ever visiting us!

Snoopy on my introverted happy life! No, not the NSA snoopy ;)

My father once commented that I have an ashram in Oregon.  I reminded him that years ago a person from India with a beard made quite some noise in an ashram in Oregon and that, therefore, we need to underplay the ashram description.  A friend wrote not too long ago that I am a hermit blogger.

But then when one reviews the blog posts and find that I delight in small talk, well, wouldn't that contradict the image of a loner, a hermit, in an ashram?  I suppose it is a reflection of the mix of introvert and extrovert within each that then plays out differently.
Even Jung didn't think people could be completely introverted or extroverted. "There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert," he reportedly said. "Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum."
The stereotypical view is that serious thinkers are introverted, and that extroverts are often flaky.  But then, mirror, mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the happiest of them all?
Extroverts, those outgoing, gregarious types who wear their personalities on their sleeve, are generally happier, studies show. Some research also has found that introverts, who are more withdrawn in nature, will feel a greater sense of happiness if they act extroverted.
I like that phrasing: "if they act extroverted."
"If you're introverted and act extroverted, you will be happier. It doesn't matter who you are, it's all about what you do," said William Fleeson, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C
I like to think that I have hit the jackpot then.  All my small talk and kidding around is like that of an extrovert, when in reality I like to crawl into my shelter and stay put and think and blog.  Awesome. See, even this is an extroverted emotion from an introvert ;)
"We live in a culture that very much subscribes to the extrovert ideal of being bold and assertive," said Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer who wrote a book last year called "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," which argues that introverts are unfairly maligned. Rather than trying to get introverts to act more extroverted, she argues that society should be drawing on their natural strengths, which can include being a good listener and working creatively.
That extrovert cultural version of the bold and the assertive is also one that easily leads to the Bullshit culture that we have all around us.  We need to somehow get the idea across being quiet and listening and saying "I don't know" are also good qualities. Right?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The contemporary irrelevance of a small island where the sun never set

I blog in the English language, while living in what was once a colony of Britain, after having immigrated from a country that was also a British colony.  All thanks to Britain having colonized huge territories.

It boggles my mind how Britain managed to achieve all these and more from the tiny outpost it is in the northern seas.

It is not merely the conquering of lands along, which, I still have a tough time believing was possible at all.  I mean, think about it.  From far, far away, crossing the waters, and then ruling over countries with populations  large enough to have easily overrun the rulers!  Yes, we can talk forever about the advantage of guns over swords, and the cunning divide-and-conquer approach, and whatever else.  But, at some point we have to assemble that jigsaw puzzle and wonder how that ever happened, yes?

It is not merely the conquering, and ruling over, distant lands.  Britain's empire achieved way more than that.  It has made millions like me think in the English language.  Thinking in a language has profound consequences:
‘It is hard to realize,’ Coomaraswamy writes in The Dance of Shiva, ‘how completely the continuity of Indian life has been severed. A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots—a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West.’
If you cannot imagine the sheer geographic aspect of this, look up in a world map the locations of the UK and Sri Lanka, which was home to Coomaraswamy.  Think about a world before modern ships and planes and emails and telephones.  Britain's rule forever changed the histories of the lands colonized in the name of the crown.  That historical continuity was gone. For eternity. 

When I visit India, there is far less Tamil literature anymore when compared to my growing up years.  When the Tamil nativists worry that Tamil is slowly dying, their concerns are not baseless.  Students there seem to be a lot more familiar with the British and American histories, for instance, than about the Sangam literature or even the Chola Empire.

Now, look at the same world from the British perspective.  Since the end of the Second World War, Britain's influence on the rest of the world has been in a rapid decline.  The sun, which once never set in the empire, now rarely shines.  The colonies in the past wondered whatever happened to their power and influence; that same set of questions preoccupies their erstwhile masters.

Thus, I bet it hurt their sentiments a lot when Vladimir Putin's aide brushed aside the UK with a single statement about Britain's irrelevance in the ongoing Syrian drama:
“a small island … no one pays any attention to them”
The old teenage emotions on colonialism and anti-Britain have never gone away inside me and, hence, I was delighted with that statement.  I wish somebody a lot more acceptable had uttered that and not one of the minions of the maniacal Putin.

The Telegraph reminds us that this is merely the latest in a rich tradition of insults directed at Britain, including this one that I particularly like for the obvious reason:
A demon took a monkey to wife – the result by the Grace of God was the English.
Indian saying 
Thinking about Britain along these lines reminded me of the tshirt I bought two years ago when I was in Chennai.  The young entrepreneur was impressed with my fondness for the Tamil language despite my life that is anything but that of a traditional Tamil.  We continued to chat even after I bought the tshirt about which I have blogged before.  I told him about the "Veera Vanchi" stories that I grew up with.  As he got a sense of how much I hated the fact that the lands became somebody else's colony, and how history was disrupted, he brought out another tshirt and said, "this is the last piece I have, and I didn't want to sell it.  But, I think you will like it."

I bought that thsirt too. 

That young fellow's website for the tshirt advertising and sales exists no more.  I bet his business failed because there is no interest even among Tamils in Tamil Nadu for tshirts with Tamil words, and even Tamils in Tamil Nadu prefer English words and sentences instead on their tshirts--the very social problem that the entrepreneur wanted to address via his tshirts.

That is one mighty legacy for a small island that no one pays attention to.

ps: I located this translation of the verse in the tshirt ... sounds good enough to me
Like the men,
who failed to think beyond the next meal;
who find pleasure, in the faults of the rest;
whose souls toil in constant despair - mind
tangled in desparation and agony;
who wish ills to their neighbour;
who subject themselves to luck's mischief;
who live burdened with miseries,
and passed life as a burden
Born human,
did you wonder, if like those men,
I would also fall for fate's follies?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

It is mumbo jumbo. It is science. It is, wait for it, Economics!

Way back in graduate school, which is when I started picking up a little bit of economic jargon so that I can pass of as an informed person at a social gathering, and as an expert in a freshman class, I was full of questions.  Or, full of it, as some prefer to characterize me, even now!

I recall asking a graduate student, who was also from India and who was working on the doctoral thesis, a question, and the response was intriguing then as it continues to be even now--"oh, that is a macro question."  As in macroeconomics.

If I as a reasonably curious and intelligent person could not understand what I thought was a simple issue, and if a soon-to-be-Ph.D. was not informed about it to explain to me, then there was something seriously wrong.  It simply was not adding up well.  It was one of those instances when economics seemed like mumbo-jumbo.

At least Ben Bernanke talks about the American and global macro-economy in ways that lesser mortals like me can at least pretend to know what it is going on. With Alan Greenspan, it was not even mumbo-jumbo, but gobbledygook!  Which is all the more why economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz appeal to me and gazillion others--we are even able to disagree with them only because they talk and write in ways that we can understand.  Recently, Krugman even commented on the need to clearly articulate ideas and arguments:
What every economist, and for that matter every writer on any subject, needs to realize is that unless you are a powerful person and people are looking for clues about what you’ll do next, nobody has to read what you write — and lecturing them about what they’re missing doesn’t help. You have to provide the hook, the pitch, whatever you want to call it, that pulls them in. It’s part of the job.
Exactly!  It is a damn challenging task, however, to write well.  And even if well-written, macroeconomic issues ... well, consider the following, from an op-ed by Raghuram Rajan, in his new capacity as India's central banker:
An increase in gold imports placed further pressure on the current-account balance. Newly rich consumers in rural areas increasingly put their savings into gold, a familiar store of value, while wealthy urban consumers, worried about inflation, also turned to buying gold. Ironically, had they bought Apple shares, rather than a commodity (no matter how fungible, liquid, and investible it is), their purchases would have been treated as a foreign investment rather than as imports that add to the external deficit.
I bet that the first half of that paragraph is easy to swallow.  It just slides down without any effort.  The rich and the poor alike, whether they live in cities or villages of India, view gold as a safe investment.

And then you reach his observation that the macroeconomic accounting of rupees and dollars changes if Indians had bought Apple shares instead of gold.

That's when I throw a flag and rule that economics is not a science.  Economics is more like some version of a gentleman's agreement on how to think about something.  There are many instances where it feels like they simply made up the rules as they went along.  It is like questioning the offside rule in soccer or the ineligible receiver rule in American football.  That is how it is and you don't ask questions.

I don't care if all my observations here are nothing but bullshit--this is my space for my opinions.  That is how it is and you don't ask questions. :)

We men are programmed to be funny. We try!

"Now for the next drops" the medical assistant said.  The first ones were to numb the eyes and this one was to dilate them.

I could taste the damn drops in my throat.  Maybe I was imagining it.  While I sat with my eyes closed, she read out from the check list on any medical issues I have.  Thankfully, it was one "no" after another.

"You didn't ask me whether I am pregnant" I interrupted her.

"It is coming" she replied with a chuckle.

She continued to read off the list, and I realized it was alphabetical.

"So, are you pregnant?" she asked.  We had reached "P."

"Maybe" I said.

She laughed even louder.

At the end of it all, she remarked, "with so many "no" you will be an easy case."

"Will I get a candy bar then? A lollipop at least?"

More laughter.

Back when I was young, and whenever father brought home a copy of Readers Digest I would rush to read the humor sections first.  As a kid, I don't recall being funny at all, but I loved humor. Especially humor in daily life.  Not pranks.  I hate pranks because that humor is at somebody else's expense.  I like only harmless humor.

I suppose this humor in daily life is also why I naturally feel at home here in the US.  There is a great deal of humor in small talk that makes transactions that much more painless, human, and lively.  I rarely ever attempt this when traveling in India though--my idea of humor never seems to work there.

The optometrist asked me to perform the tasks and wrote me a prescription for new glasses.  When we were done, the assistant directed me to take the paperwork to the front desk.

"Anything else?" she asked.

"Yes, a cappuccino, please."

"I too would like to have one" she laughed.

I handed the paper at the front desk.  "The doctor said I can get a free cappuccino here" I told her with a straight face.

"Ha!" was her response with a big smile.

It is almost as if we had all rehearsed our lines.  There was no pause in anybody's delivery of those lines. Even if we have heard them before, we participate in this give-and-take without rolling our eyeballs way up.  Well, mine were dilated anyway!

Next door was the optician, where I had already selected the frame before getting my eyes dilated. Sometimes I am smart that way!

"I like this frame on you" she said.

"Of course you would say that when you want to sell it" I replied.

She laughed.  "There are more expensive frames that I want to sell, but this one is you."

"Given the cost of the lenses, you may as well advertise as free frames."

She laughed again.

I told her the same line that I use in class with students: "don't encourage me by laughing. It will make things worse."

She laughed again.

"I think we men are programmed to be funny" I told her.  "Well, we try."

I was actually channeling Lynn Redgrave's sarcastic lines from an awesome movie, Gods and Monsters:
Oh, men! Always pulling legs. Everything is comedy. Oh, how very amusing. How marvelously droll.
Comedy for men, and drama for women, eh!