Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The times they are a-changin'

Once, during the annual summer vacations, from Sengottai we went to Trivandrum, where the highlight for this young kid of then, was the visit to the aerodrome, as it was called.  I am sure I had no idea then that I would one day step into a jumbo jet for the first time, and that from then on flying would become a part of life.

In place of the annual summer vacations of a life past to visit the grandparents, I seem to have developed an annual winter vacation routine visiting the folks in the old country.  I am now older than my parents' age when I went to the aerodrome, and my parents are older than my grandmothers were.

Years and decades have gone by, as if in a nanosecond.

The old country is less and less like the country that I once knew.  Understandable.  If I could have changed from a kid who was impressed by the aerodrome to a grey and balding old man, so can the peoples and the natural and built environment in India.

I saw five women walking along the crowded Usman Road.  All of them wearing niqabs.  Only their eyes were visible.  I had never seen women in niqabs when I was a kid.

A woman was ironing clothes on a cart by the roadside.  In the past, it was a man's job.  Now, it is a woman.  Even more interesting was that she was not clad in a sari, but was wearing the churidar combo.  As a kid, I would not have imagined a Tamil woman wearing a churidar ironing clothes on a cart by the roadside.

I am always impressed with the rows of Hindi-speaking guys waiting for customers--always women--to offer the henna services.  As a kid, all I knew was the simple applying the home-ground henna on fingers and the palms, without any intricate patterns--and that too by Hindi-speaking guys from somewhere.

Seemingly everybody is eating and drinking on the sidewalks, in the tea-stalls, in the cafes, in the "hotels" (as restaurants are referred to here.)  As a kid, it was always a special deal to get even a candy from the store--for which we had to beg and annoy the parents.

The three places--Neyveli, Sengottai, Pattamadai--that provided the backdrop for my childhood were all small enough that it seemed like I could not go anywhere without people knowing me.  The places were all quiet and peaceful.  The kid from those days would never have imagined the noisy, noisy, noisy, life in anonymity in this city that has been home to the folks now for more than the years that I have been away in my adopted land.

The niqab-wearing women, the ironing woman, the henna-workers, all of them would have reasons to be happy and would have their own reasons to be unhappy.  I wish them all happiness as this annual vacation comes to an end and as I prepare to leave on a jet plane from an airport.

Happy new year, dear reader!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A new year means a new highest paid "educator" ever at nine million dollars!

With fewer and fewer students choosing to enroll in my classes, soon I will be forced to blog for loose change.  So ... how much would you pay to subscribe to my daily rants and raves?

Of course you would not spare a penny, and would rather condemn me to the unemployment lines, right?

Because you--well, not personally you, but as a stand-in for an American--would rather be entertained.  I don't entertain.  Not even close.

So, you want to be entertained.  And that is how you would spend your money.  There are millions of Americans expressing such choices.

So, guess what?

Shit like this happens: Jim Harbaugh is done with the San Francisco 49ers.  The team that he coached was not entertaining enough this year.  Off with his head then!

But, oh, this is Jim Harbaugh.  So, guess what?  Shit like this happens:
Harbaugh is expected to become college football's highest-paid coach, earning more than the $8 million per-year salary that was originally reported, sources told Rapoport. Nick Saban is the highest-paid college coach at $7.2 million per year. Harbaugh's number could reach as high as $9 million per year, according to NFL Media's Albert Breer.
Are you now happy that nine fucking million dollars a year is what a public university will spend on a football coach in order to entertain the masses?  Are you not entertained?

As you the consumer make these choices, there are fewer dollars to spend on other things. Like, you know, education.  Who cares for those youth who come from low- and middle-income families with no trust funds for their education, right?  It is their mistake not to have been born into rich families.

It is only a matter of time before the university where I teach gets into a budget squeeze that has already affected other institutions.  You as the taxpayer will then point to classes like mine with three and five students and remark, "what a waste of money with only three students in a class!" because you are not being entertained with your tax dollars.  You would rather have that tax money back in your wallet in order to spend it on football coaches who will entertain you.

A liberal democracy means that you have the right to make these choices.  More power to you.  May you have enough and more entertainment in the new year and beyond.

Can you locate Michigan on this map and determine whether its needs to be updated? ;)

Monday, December 29, 2014

I know you are not a busy person. Why? You are reading this!

Back when I was young--ah, those years that were so long ago--even when I was merely agnostic, I was convinced that there was nothing after death.  A conviction that there was, literally, only life to live.  Then, kaput. Gone. And, therefore, I didn't want to live a life that I did not want to and do something for a living that did not interest me.

I thank the cosmos (though the cosmos couldn't care whether or not I exist) for such an understanding early enough in my life.  

The way I earn my paycheck now is exactly how I would like to earn my paycheck--of course, a few more dollars will always help, but this is plenty enough.  "Plenty enough" in dollars is nothing compared to what I could/would have earned had I continued on with engineering.  But, this plenty enough provides me with a hassle-free life.  And has always provided me with an abundance of a commodity that no amount of dollars can buy--time.
Everybody, everywhere seems to be busy. In the corporate world, a “perennial time-scarcity problem” afflicts executives all over the globe, and the matter has only grown more acute in recent years, say analysts at McKinsey, a consultancy firm.
Incredibly busy many affluent people are.

A couple, who are a gazillion times wealthier than I will ever be, commented to me when we met before my Ecuador trip, "you are lucky that professors have a long summer break for such travels. We have no time."  I thought to myself that with all their wealth they could easily not work for another second in their lives and travel all they wanted to; but they choose not to because they equate not working with gazillons foregone.
When people see their time in terms of money, they often grow stingy with the former to maximise the latter.
But, unlike what we think, the problem is not entirely new either:
Writing in the first century, Seneca was startled by how little people seemed to value their lives as they were living them—how busy, terribly busy, everyone seemed to be, mortal in their fears, immortal in their desires and wasteful of their time. He noticed how even wealthy people hustled their lives along, ruing their fortune, anticipating a time in the future when they would rest. “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy,” he observed in “On the Shortness of Life”, perhaps the very first time-management self-help book. Time on Earth may be uncertain and fleeting, but nearly everyone has enough of it to take some deep breaths, think deep thoughts and smell some roses, deeply. “Life is long if you know how to use it,” he counselled.
A wise Seneca observed the rich rushing around complaining about not having enough time, and this pretentious blogger also observes the same.  Perhaps we even observe these only because we are sitting quietly not rushing around chasing money!

But, once I turn my attention away from the affluent population, which includes me, and consider, for instance, the lives of the non-traditional students in my classes, then I notice a difference--those students are also incredibly short of time because they juggle school with work and family, and barely have any leisure time.  They, unfortunately, seem to lack both money and time.
Ultimately, more people at the top are trading leisure for work because the gains of working—and the costs of shirking—are higher than ever before. Revealingly, inequalities in leisure have coincided with other measures of inequality, in wages and consumption, which have been increasing steadily since the 1980s. While the wages of most workers, and particularly uneducated workers, have either remained stagnant or grown slowly, the incomes at the top—and those at the very top most of all—have been rising at a swift rate. This makes leisure time terribly expensive.
So if leisureliness was once a badge of honour among the well-off of the 19th century, in the words of Thorsten Veblen, an American economist at the time, then busyness—and even stressful feelings of time scarcity—has become that badge now. To be pressed for time has become a sign of prosperity, an indicator of social status, and one that most people are inclined to claim.
Let's see: those with gazillions are working even harder because they value their "free time" as way too much money to be lost, and those struggling for paychecks are working even harder because they cannot afford to take time off.  Isn't something seriously wrong with this picture?
Alas time, ultimately, is a strange and slippery resource, easily traded, visible only when it passes and often most highly valued when it is gone. No one has ever complained of having too much of it. Instead, most people worry over how it flies, and wonder where it goes. Cruelly, it runs away faster as people get older, as each accumulating year grows less significant, proportionally, but also less vivid. Experiences become less novel and more habitual. The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.
The faster does time fly as we age, and as we rush around.  But, it will all end; after all, as I like to say, we all come with our own expiration dates.  Perhaps there are those who will think in their death-beds,  "instead of watching the sunset, I am so glad I spent a couple of additional hours in the office in order to earn more."

I, for one, am so glad that I have the time to watch the river flow by, the birds chirp, the sun set, the children scream, the adults yak in their cellphones, the older folks shuffle along.

If you behave well, I will even spend some of that time with you ;)


Saturday, December 27, 2014

The globalizing Indians

A few years ago, I authored an oped in which I noted that Indians integrate well into the American way of life, thanks to India's long and rich history of global interactions.  Later, in another op-ed, I pointed to Sri Srinivasan's nomination to the DC Court of Appeals and the unanimous Senate confirmation as further evidence of this integration.

Despite all that, I was shocked--pleasantly, of course--to read that:
Indians, especially in the UK and US, are prevalent in business, academe, the media, medicine and the arts. In 2008, Indians accounted for 38% of doctors in the US, 36% of scientists at NASA, and 34% of employees at Microsoft, 28% at IBM and 17% at Intel.
More than a third of the doctors in the US?
More than a third of NASA's scientists?
More than a third of Microsoft employees?
WTF is the only way to respond to it ;)

Indians integrating well into the economic and social fabric of alien lands is not really new.  In the modern world, India is India, and therefore we refer to Indians, thanks to those who led the struggle for independence from the British Raj, of whom Gandhi was most influential.

Gandhi was a global migrant himself during his years in South Africa, before he returned to India for good a hundred years ago.  If Gandhi hadn't had that experience, history would certainly have been different from how it unfolded.
After one year of a none too successful law practice, Gandhi decided to accept an offer from an Indian businessman in South Africa, Dada Abdulla, to join him as a legal adviser. Unbeknown to him, this was to become an exceedingly lengthy stay, and altogether Gandhi was to stay in South Africa for over twenty years. The Indians who had been living in South Africa were without political rights, and were generally known by the derogatory name of 'coolies'. Gandhi himself came to an awareness of the frightening force and fury of European racism, and how far Indians were from being considered full human beings, when he when thrown out of a first-class railway compartment car, though he held a first-class ticket, at Pietermaritzburg. From this political awakening Gandhi was to emerge as the leader of the Indian community
To stay back in one's own community is the easy thing to do.  But, to venture out requires guts.  To have accomplished what he did, especially in an entirely different country thousands of miles away from where he grew up, Gandhi had guts that we lesser mortals cannot even dream of.  We need to dismiss Gandhi as off-the-charts so that we don't get discouraged comparing our pedestrian existence to his life ;)

Despite the long history of the wandering Indians, it appears that there are a few countries without people of Indian origin.  Perhaps before this century ends, there will be no such country in the listing, eh!

For all we know, the day is not far away when an Indian-American might even be elected as the president of the US of A!  Looking forward to it all.

The Indianizing Indians

Slowly things are changing in this part of India.  It is Indianizing.

A few days ago,
before the mysterious fever with aches and pains like I have never had in my life--which miraculously disappeared in 24 hours--and before
the horrible experience of traveler's diarrhea--my first in all these years of traveling in the US and different countries, including India,
I walked around the uber-congested shopping areas of the infamous Ranganathan Street.  In the heart of traditional Chennai.


I was shocked to hear languages and dialects that I am sure were not from the Dravidian south, nor were there any Hindi words.  I couldn't pick up any Bengali sing-song either.  In the heart of traditional Chennai!

Even more shocking was to see people who were clearly not from the Dravidian south, nor from the Hindi Belt.  From the northeastern parts.  Walking around casually in the heart of traditional Chennai!

Another day, my brother and I were in an autorickshaw when the driver pulled into a fuelling station--an LPG fuelling station.  As the driver pushed his vehicle along in the long line, another auto driver attempted to cut in. The station attendant came charging and let out yells--in Hindi!  The guy obviously was from another part of India, and was working here in the traditional Chennai, and hadn't learnt the local language to yell in Tamil!  Hilarious it was.  And one more evidence of the India that is slowly changing and mixing.  I call it Indianizing.

People from other parts of India moving to Chennai is easy to understand.  It is a combination of demographics and economics: economic growth rates are not enough in areas with high fertility rates, whereas Chennai and the Dravidian south are experiencing economic growth while the fertility rates have fallen well below replacement levels.

My ground-level observations match up with this report:
Internal migrants in India are expected to touch 400 million in the 2011 census, over half the global figure of 740 million and almost twice as many as China's estimated 221 million.
A third of the country's population are internal migrants.  What a phenomenal change from even two generations ago!
According to the report, internal migrants faced discrimination as 'outsiders', which excluded them from access to legal rights, public services and social protection programmes accorded to residents. This is despite the migrants providing cheap labour and typically doing the most dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs that locals do not want to do. Far from being a burden on society, migrants' cheap labour provides a subsidy and contributes to the national GDP, stated the report. Moreover, remittances from migrants lead to increased expenditure on health and education helping human capital formation.
To be viewed, discriminated, as "outsiders" is not an unusual experience for migrants--internal or international.  Change from the old is not easy for us humans to handle.  But, as this migrant will attest, we migrants are a hardy bunch.  I am sure even the Hindi-yelling LPG gas station attendant will survive and prosper--even in the heart of traditional Chennai!

Friday, December 26, 2014

An ad about a piss pot in the New Yorker? WTF!

After I reach home with the latest copy of the New Yorker in my hand, I first flip through the pages for the cartoons hoping there will be some good laughs.  And then I settle into reading the essays.  Even when reading, I scan the margins for ads--over the years, I have bought two gift items from the Museum of Contemporary Art thanks to those ads, and a book.

I chuckled quite a bit when I saw an ad for a piss-pot.  Yep, a pisspot.  Of course, it is not a piece that you would buy and pee into.  It is a collector's item--a chamber pot from decades/centuries ago.  Imagine that!  One not be bothered to step out and take a leak, and instead peed right into a pot that the chambermaid carried out.

After a few chuckles, I forgot all about that.  Until today.

It is not that I have become lazy to walk to the restroom and I want to make use of a pisspot.  Life in the old country is not all that bad ;)  It is just that a blog in my feed has a post about this very ad:

I like that blog because of its intellectual approach to expletives.  The title of the blog makes that clear: Strong Language.  Though I am not a fan of expletives, I occasionally use shit and fuck when no other word would convey that meaning.  But, Strong Language is not merely about throwing expletives into sentences.  No sir.  It is way more than that.

The "piss" in the ad is what the intellectual analysis is about:
Piss is a pretty old word in English: late 13th century, from similar words in French and Latin, according to the OED
Would you have guessed that the word is that old?  Doesn't it make you wonder how old shit and fuck are?  For now we have to stay with piss:
Some piss- compounds are almost as old as the original word. Pisspot goes back to the mid-15th century; piss-burnt (discolored by urine, which was often used in tanning and dyeing) dates to the mid-16th century; piss-prophet (one who diagnosed diseases through examination of urine) and piss-house (a privy) appeared in the 17th century; piss-proud (having or designating an erection due to a full bladder) is from the late 18th century.
We men are familiar with the full-bladder salute; but, I wonder how many of us knew about piss-proud prior to this blog-post! ;)

You are probably thinking, "I don't give a shit!"  Tell you what; in that case, you need to read this post ;)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The old and the new countries hate round numbers!

When I was a kid, which seems like a gazillion years ago, we didn't go shopping any and every day, but bought clothes only for specific occasions--birthdays, Diwali, weddings, and, yes, for the re-integration into everyday life after a death in the family.  Oh, yeah, also ahead of the new school year.  Those were the days of frugal living, highly constrained by the limited household budget.

In the old traditions that were practiced at home, the new stuff was typically placed in the "puja room" for the divine blessings.  I recall that as a kid, I once placed the new shoes from Bata in the puja room for the gods to bless the footwear, and was told that new shoes were not allowed in the holy space.

What a contrast to the contemporary life in which shopping makes every day seem like a birthday, a Diwali, a wedding, and newness does not have the appeal that it had back then.  Heck, we don't even have to go to a store to buy anything that we might want to buy any given moment.  We complete the purchases via mouse-clicks at home.

Buying shoes and "chappals" at Bata always triggered conversations about the pricing there: prices like 19.99 rupees or 24.99 rupees.  Like everybody else, we made fun of that pricing.

It was not until I went to the US did I realize that this strange pricing approach was not that unusual.  Of all, gas prices were the most hysterically funny with numbers that went into the third decimal for which there wasn't even a coin!  Extreme versions of the Bata pricing.

And then through the graduate school dabbling in economics and chatting with serious econ students did I understand that this mania even had a name of its own.  It is a strange world in which we live!

Now, I find it to be a relief when, for instance, a restaurant lists the menu items with round-number prices and without any decimal.  To heck with psychological pricing.  I feel sorry for the gullible customers who are tempted to buy something at $24.99 but who would walk away if it were listed at $25!

It is not merely the capitalist marketing technique that has such craziness.  I am willing to bet that every traditional culture has its own idiosyncrasy.  The old country has its own tradition that donations and gifts should not be round numbers but should end with "1."  Thus, a thousand rupee donation is not good and, therefore, the donation will be 1,001 rupees.

The other day, when I was in a certain part of the city, I remembered reading about a kiosk where they sold tshirts with Tamil phrases.  I went looking and located it.  The shirts were not anywhere as impressive as the ones that I bought a couple of years ago.  But, hey, at least this much for this American whose heart always has a very special place for Tamil.

"How much?" I asked the young woman as I handed her the two shirts.

"Thousand two, sir" she replied.

I gave her 1,200 rupees.

"No sir. Not two hundred.  Only two."

"You mean one thousand and two?" I was surprised.

"Yes, sir.  Like the old Tamil culture, a tshirt is 501 rupees.  No round number."

I fumbled around for two rupees.  I gave her a ten and collected the change.

I can wear the tshirt at any time, without placing it in the puja room ;)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When science and technology work "miracles" do you thank god?

Back when I was a teenager, I loved going to the Park Club in order to watch movies in the open.  Well, ok, it was also look at that girl.  As one classmate put it during the reunion thirty years after high school ended, I was "besotted with her" ;)

Every once in a while, before the movie--usually a decade or two old--began, a short documentary or information piece for a few minutes played.  One that I remember all too well was about industrial safety.  I suppose they showed that because of the setting--a company town that it was.  The bottomline in that was "accidents do not happen but are caused."

It is a surprise that I paid attention to it despite my "besotted" mind ;)  

Thinking back about it, I suppose that bottomline stuck with me because those were also the days when I began to systematically think about cause and effect, and doubting the powers of the "divine" and "astrology" and all such, ahem, crap.  "Miracles" slowly stopped appealing to me, and "saints" working miracles were mere master magicians.

Thus, when disaster strikes, when people "thank god" for sparing them, the cause-effect exploring person in me feels so compelled to ask them for evidence and, even more, reasons for why their god saved them but killed the other person.  

Our life now is phenomenally miraculous.  Life expectancy is long, way too long for my liking!  We speak into the air and a person on the other side of the planet hears us, and even sees us.  We get into a heavy container that lifts up by itself and floats through the air at previously unimaginable speeds.  And more.  When a gazillion such "miracles" happen, nobody thanks god.  Nobody!  Because, we know god did not create them. 

In such a setting, I find it fascinating that the mother of a son, who was in a horrible car crash but suffered not even a scratch, wrote a letter to Honda expressing thanks:
I want to extend my thanks to the engineers who used their intelligence and skill to create a car that safe, to the crash test dummies who have died a thousand horrible deaths and to your executives who did not scrimp on safety. Thank you, Honda.
She did not "thank god" for saving her son but, understanding and appreciating the science and technology that saved her son, wrote to thank Honda's commitment to safety.  
over many years of thinking about religion and faith, I have noticed that something sad and somewhat strange happens when we thank God: We tend to stop there. We simply overlook the decisions, the science, the policies and the people who contributed to the “miracle.” To put it another way: When we focus on supernatural deliverance from harm, we often ignore all of the human ways we can improve our own safety. I am concerned that we may associate survival of serious accidents with the unpredictable hand of Providence, not with airbags, safety testing and the regulations that have put them in place.
Accidents also are not an act of God. No matter what you believe about a divine creator, I think most would agree that an all-poweful and all-loving being would not need encouragement to do the right thing. Unlike people, God does not require regulations and oversight – or even thanks – to be sure that human beings are never sacrificed for profit. The truth is, we cannot make our roads and our cars safer if we ignore what makes them that way: science, regulations and corporations that prioritize safety.
How about an "amen!" ;)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Trust me, it's a blessing to be a foreigner everywhere!

A few years after moving to Oregon, I authored an op-ed on how I have come to appreciate one part of my identity as India's ambassador.  Unlike early in my American life when I used to tire of people asking me inane and profound questions about India just because I look and speak like one from that country, I later started enjoying that foreigner status--an irony that the wisdom dawned on me after gaining US citizenship.  At least then it dawned, eh!

I know well that I am almost always viewed as an "Indian" at work, at stores, and even in my neighborhood.  A foreigner who is an American.

When visiting India, this "Indian" is again a foreigner--on the streets, in the stores, and even in my parents' eyes.  The other day my father said "you don't know things here.  You are talking like an American." ;)

Of course, when I visit Costa Rica or Ecuador or any country, I am a foreigner.  It is not about how I feel, but about how I am perceived.

Why is this an advantage?  There is no way I will be able to articulate the idea like how Pico Iyer states it:
It’s a blessing to be a foreigner everywhere, detached and able to see the fun in things.
The older me does not worry about it the "foreigner" that I am, and in fact views this special status as a tremendous advantage.  :
As some are born with the blessing of beauty or a musical gift, as some can run very fast without seeming to try, so I was given from birth, I felt, the benefit of being on intimate terms with outsiderdom.
Of course, my travels and experiences are nothing compared to Iyer's, but his essay absolutely speaks to me.  
It’s fashionable in some circles to talk of Otherness as a burden to be borne, and there will always be some who feel threatened by—and correspondingly hostile to—anyone who looks and sounds different from themselves. But in my experience, foreignness can as often be an asset.
My op-ed that I am an ambassador for India, for instance, is the "asset" statement that Iyer makes.  When students ask me whether I am burdened by the otherness, they almost seem ready for me to trash the system and talk about the horrors of being an "other" and are then surprised when they hear me talk positively.  But then, when younger, I would have offered only criticisms ;)
nearly everywhere I knew was foreign, which meant that nearly everywhere had the power to unsettle and surprise me, forever.

Damn these writers who can convey ideas so well; I wish this "iyer" could write like that Iyer! ;)

The foreigner iyer in a "veshti"

Friday, December 19, 2014

All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up

Spending time in the old country includes visiting with quite a few older members of the extended family as well.  Some I have interacted with a lot, and minimally with others.

One of them is unwell and bed-ridden, as they say.

Looking at her, a stranger who had never known her, would never be able to imagine her as a charming and lively young woman that she once was.  The evidence is right there--across from her bed is a photograph of her with her husband.  An image that dates way back to when they were married decades ago.

When we don't know a person from the time they were young, then we are perhaps left with nothing but an image of them being their older selves.

All of us age.
We go grey, bald.
Our skin dries up and wrinkles all over.
We return the teeth to the cosmos.
The eyes that were once bright and mischievous become dull and lifeless.
The ears hear not the faint sounds as if there is no more sweet whispers in life.
The fancy colognes of the youth make no difference to the nose that does not pick up any scent, including our own odor.

But, when we are young and energetic, we do not pause to think that we, too, would one day begin to look like those at the old-age homes, and like the bed-ridden extended family relative.  And, worse, we fail to understand deep within ourselves that after the appointed hour, we will cease to exist even as the wrinkled, toothless, bald, grey, shuffling, smelly versions.

Near my home--yes, the only home I have, which is in Eugene--is a complex that houses quite a few super-senior citizens.  When I see them shuffling along on the bike path, or in their motorized transport, all I see are the old people.  It is not easy to visualize them as crazy kids diving into the river, or as young men and women in love.  We forget that they also went through childhood, adolescence, and youth, and everything else like the rest of us mortals.

We are deluded.  We are all Norma Desmonds living our own imaginary Hollywood lives!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The poor problems of longer life expectancy

The December days in India are about family and friends, yes.  But, it is also about guavas.  Every day, I eat a guava with breakfast, a guava or two after lunch, and a guava in the evening.  I suppose it is a pedestrian fruit to the locals who don't seem to care for it at all.  The locals do not know what they are missing out on ;)

A couple of days after landing in Chennai, I walked--bag in hand--to the guava vendor at the street corner. He said it was forty rupees for a half-kilo.

"Forty?" I was genuinely surprised because I think it was only thirty a year ago.

"Usually it is fifty, sir.  Because you are a regular customer it is forty."

The guy was trying to humor this customer!

Two days ago, I walked over there to restock.  He was not there.  No guavas.  I came home empty-handed.  As if the cosmos were watching out for me, my sister came home with a bag of "farm-fresh" guavas.

I wonder about that vendor.  His livelihood is from selling guavas.  If he is sick and is unable to work, then he loses the day's income.

That's is no different from the story of the tailor whose business is nothing but a foot-pedaled sewing machine and needles and threads on the sidewalk.  He has been gone for a few days now because of an appendectomy.  The guy is now financially set back that much more.

Or, take the case of the maid, er, domestic help, at my parents' home.  An older woman, she has been off and on this past week because she is not feeling well.  Even though I have no idea about the local protocols, I told her that she need not come to work if she is not well.  My father joined me.  "At some age, you need to retire and let your sons and daughter take care of you" he said.

She snorted.  "Like they will take care of me.  If I don't earn my livelihood, I won't get any food."

I think about these real people as I consider the celebratory news on the global increase in life expectancy:
Global life expectancy for men and women has increased by about six years over the past two decades, according to one of the most comprehensive studies of global health done so far. The rise in global life expectancy is mainly the result of dramatic advances in health care.
In richer countries longer lifespans are spurred by a big drop in deaths related to heart disease, while poorer countries have seen big declines in the death of children from ailments such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.
In the old country:
In India, which is on track to become the world’s most populous country in less than two decades, life expectancy at birth rose from 57.3 years to 64.2 years for males, and from 58.2 years to 68.5 years for females, according to the Lancet study.
Which is wonderful, indeed.  But, who takes care of the living? In the bad old days, when average life expectancy at birth was a low number, one really did not need to worry about the burdens of old age; there was no need when even living until forty was a big deal.  But, increasingly the worries of the old maid will be the stories all over the world.  As a species, and like other animals, we would have died much younger.  We have artificially lengthened our life spans and created hassles along the way.  I love the fact that we have been able to conquer many ailments that killed us by the millions.  But, am I in the minority to be concerned about the individual and collective responsibility over the tail end of our unnaturally long lives?

"I won't come tomorrow because I am going to the doctor" the maid said as she was leaving.  "But, I will be back the day after that."

All I could do was helplessly nod my head.

Later today, I hope to see the guava vendor.


If 2+2 = 4 in math, what is the answer in maths?

When I was a school kid, one grandmother lived with us for a few years till her death.  She was mighty pleased with whatever we said we did in our classes.  As one who was not schooled beyond the third grade, she was unfamiliar with many words we used that were from the English language.   We kids, of course, would immediately correct her, to which one of her responses, in Tamil, was "I didn't go to a fee-paying school system."

For instance, she referred to "maths" as "maks."  If only she knew that in the US, it was not even maths but math; I wonder how she would have pronounced "math."

The self-appointed spokesman for the "Queen's English" often harasses me for my American spellings, way more than the trouble I gave my grandmother.  So, what is the deal with maths v. math, right?
Americans and Canadians tend to say math while Brits and Australians opt for maths.
The welfare queen, er, Her Majesty, might think that maths is the correct contraction for mathematics.  Not so fast:
In the 17th century, English speakers fell under the spell of a peculiar linguistic fad. With some exceptions, they started to use a seemingly plural form of a field of study to refer to it in the singular. Enter physics, acoustics, economics, acrostics. The rule wasn’t applied uniformly: Disciplines that had been around for a while, such as arithmetic, had already rooted deeply enough in people’s minds to avoid the trend. But mathematic, the classical and somewhat arcane science of all things numerical, acquired an S.
Are you thinking what I am thinking after reading that?  "What the hell is acrostics?"  If you are "puzzled" then go figure that out yourself; I Do It Only Tuesdays!

Where was I?  Yes, about mathematic.  
Math as an autonomous term for mathematics came first to the United States, in 1890.
So, what about in Britain?
The British maths cropped up in 1911, and both terms leapt in usage for their respective countries during the second half of the 20th century.
Wait, so all these mean that there is no damn logic in why and how usages like math and maths developed?
Really, though, fate and chance factor into linguistic trends as much as anything. It only takes a few solemn Oxford whizzes talking about maths before much of London catches on, and then Australia, and then … you do the maths.
Which means if there were enough people like my grandmother, then we might have as well ended up with "maks"?  Well, you do the math! ;)

PS: remember how 2+2 =5 in 1984?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Psst, is it ok to drink? Drink water, that is!

A few years ago, before my trip to Tanzania, I went to get the yellow-fever shot and medication to keep malaria away from me.  The doctor advised getting a bunch of other precautionary shots as well, which seemed reasonable to me.  "Let's do a blood test first and see where you are" he said.  "Because you grew up in India, chances are high that you already had a Hep A infection" the doctor added.

What the what?  I had Hep A?  I remember a typhoid infection during my undergraduate years, which then relapsed as well.  But, Hep A?  When did that happen?  Why me?  Woe is me!

I forget now what the blood tests revealed.  But, there is a good reason why the doctor conjectured about Hep A:
Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. The virus is primarily spread when an uninfected (and unvaccinated) person ingests food or water that is contaminated with the faeces of an infected person. The disease is closely associated with unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor personal hygiene.
Food or water "that is contaminated with the faeces of an infected person."  Gross, right?  But, ahem, remember the crap floating in the tasty Thamirabarani River back at my grandmother's village?  And who knows what else!

These days, there is bottled water everywhere in India.  Huge containers of potable water are delivered to homes, though I have no idea whether these are safe to drink.  I trust this is ok.  At this stage in my life, I don't want to know either ;)

My daily American life is a total contrast to this life in the old country.  There, I open the water faucet, place a glass under the clear flow and drink that tasty, sweet, cold water.  No worries about germs, infectious diseases, and crap.  One of the very, very few countries in this world where drinking the water from the faucet poses no health risk.  If Rome wasn't built in a day, water that is safe to drink did not happen overnight either; it began a century ago in the US:
The first standards for drinking water in America were developed by the Public Health Service in 1914, two years after the famed aviation brother Wilbur Wright died of typhoid. The federal standards addressed bacteriological threats, but the PHS’ powers were limited, so the standards applied only to interstate common carriers such as trains, buses, and ships. Water providers to these carriers had to use chlorination, and this soon covered all the major cities.
There are paranoid environmentalists and health-nutcases who, even now, think that chlorination is harmful to humans.  Maybe. But, I don't care.  Because, unsafe water is a gazillion times worse than chlorine in water.
Our tap water is safer than it has ever been. But continued protection of our drinking water for the next 40 years will require vigilance and perhaps a transformation. It should not be surprising that something as fundamental and pervasive as drinking water cannot be fully protected by a single statute. We are used to enjoying safe water and paying monthly bills as “consumer drinkers.” Fundamental protection of our drinking water will not occur, however, unless we take on the role of “citizen drinkers,” using our political process to demand effective protection through better enforcement of our laws and renewed scrutiny of activities threatening our source waters.
I will drink to that.  After I reach home, that is ;)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Is the middle-class American Dream dead?

"How's the US economy?" asked an old high school friend.  That is one of the questions he asks me every time we meet.  I suppose there is a professional interest too for him--his executive career is tied to the outsourced back-office operations of a US-based financial firm.

"The economy has definitely picked up" I replied.  And added the commentary that is not new in this blog: "but, the middle-class jobs are not there, which is a big problem."

A couple of days later, it was a similar question from a couple and I replayed my reply.  I continued with "my favorite examples are Facebook and WhatsApp.  They have created billions of dollars, but next to nothing in terms of jobs."

The American model that dominates our thinking is the experience for two generations from the early 1940s.  With a high school diploma, one clocked in and clocked out at work and was assured of a successful middle-class life.  Now, the US and the world are full of வேலையில்லா பட்டதாரிகள் (unemployed college graduates,) as an autorickshaw driver commented two days ago.

What happened?

Offshoring and automation happened.  The old middle class model has been obliterated.
Yes, the stock market is soaring, the unemployment rate is finally retreating after the Great Recession and the economy added 321,000 jobs last month. But all that growth has done nothing to boost pay for the typical American worker. Average wages haven’t risen over the last year, after adjusting for inflation. Real household median income is still lower than it was when the recession ended.
Make no mistake: The American middle class is in trouble.
I have been delivering this bottom-line of the middle class in trouble for a number of years now.  But, hey, who cares about what I say, right?  So, will let some other person say that instead!
Millions of American jobs disappeared during the 1990, 2001 and 2008 recessions. That’s what happens in recessions. But for decades after World War II, lost jobs came back when the economy picked up again. These times, they didn’t. And it was a particular sort of job that disappeared permanently in those downturns, economists from Duke University and the University of British Columbia have found: jobs that companies could easily outsource overseas or replace with a machine.
Economists call those jobs “middle-skill” jobs. They include a lot of factory work — the country is down about 5.5 million manufacturing jobs since 1990, according to the Labor Department — but also a lot of clerical and sales tasks that can be handled easily from a country where workers make a fraction of what they make here.
The sophistication in automation, which seems to have a Moore's Law equivalent of its own with the automation getting better and better every single day, means that there will be lesser and lesser demand for the "middle-skill" labor.  The American middle class model is doomed.  I don't see a way out of this at all.

Which is also why I increasingly find it very, very difficult to deal with students--at my university, they typically come from lower-middle-class and lower-income backgrounds, with the hope and promise that a college diploma will vault them into the prosperous lives promised to Americans.  If I give them my take along the lines of this and many other posts at this blog, I will not be even a little bit encouraging.  On the other hand, not telling them means wilful concealment of the truth as I see it.  Hopefully, some read this blog and the warning:
Even if they all earned degrees, who would hire them?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My life as a middle-class academic ... is one gross lie!

Back when I was a kid, I gathered from family conversations that my people in Pattamadai and Sengottai were rich.  Which confused me because I didn't see any evidence of that wealth.  At our home, heck, we didn't even have a fridge because we couldn't afford one.  The old beaten up car had already been sold and my father bicycled to the store even though he was a part of the upper management in the company town.  "Rich, my ass!" is what I would have said if I had known such language back then ;)

I suppose they were framing it within the contexts of Sengottai and Pattamadai and Neyveli, while my yardstick was, well, my classmates and schoolmates, some of whom had cars and scooters and bikes and, yes, refrigerators.  "Rich" is a relative concept.

Poor and poverty is easy to define, but once past the abject poverty, are we poor or rich?  I, therefore, settled on identifying my family as "middle class." Sometimes I said "upper-middle class."  Of course, now I know better, but wisdom is always a day late!

Who might be the middle-class in India now?  A fairly straightforward question to ask, right?  The older I get, even simple questions become difficult, it feels like.
The rapid growth of the Indian economy over the past three decades has led to a substantial expansion of India’s “middle class”. This has triggered a robust debate over who in India actually belongs to the “middle class,” its size, composition, and political and social behaviour.
A "robust debate" means that this is no simple question.
But even if acceptable measures and hard data could be marshalled, they would still be ill-equipped to nail down a rather elusive concept: whether Indians actually believe and behave as if they are part of the middle class. Self-identification of class status is important because it suggests the possibility that Indians may behave in ways that are actually at odds with material realities.
To investigate this, the latest Lok survey asked respondents from across the country whether they considered their family to be a “middle class” family.
"the possibility that Indians may behave in ways that are actually at odds with material realities" is an interesting phrasing that immediately signals that there is something exciting coming.  So, what is that?
To our surprise, nearly half (49 per cent) of all survey respondents believed their family is a middle class family. There was, as one would expect, great variation in responses across states. For instance, while 68 per cent of respondents in Karnataka believed their family belonged to the middle class, just 29 per cent of respondents in Madhya Pradesh felt the same. Self-identification as middle class is expectedly more prevalent among urban respondents (56 per cent) but the share of rural individuals claiming to be middle class is also remarkably high (46 per cent).
It is a surprise because:
But the extent of “middle class” identification is striking, not simply because of its size or the fact that it seems to run counter to households’ own economic realities, but also because it appears to have powerful experiential effects on respondents’ social attitudes.
If only somebody would say all these in easy to understand words, right?  Here it is:
The results show an extraordinary tendency for people to consider themselves middle class even if they are in fact very poor. The study defined the "lower" annual income bracket as those earning RS 36,000 per year or less, which works out to approximately $1.50 per day. And yet 46 percent of urban residents in that income bracket reported that their families were "middle class," as did 44 percent of those in rural areas.
That's right, folks--even those earning a buck-and-a-half a day identify themselves as middle class.

The economic well-being is a state of mind, once past that horrible, abject poverty.  You are as rich or as poor as you think you are.

Which is why we folks who are rich--yes, you and I are part of the global rich, despite what my "poor" socialist colleagues claim--feel like we are sliding down from the middle class.  After all, our frames of reference are, well, those Facebook and Wall Street people we read about, who earn gazillions.  The football coach at the university in the town where I live earns in a year twice the total amount that I hope I will be able to earn before I die!  Won't I feel poor then?  Am I not justified in thinking, believing, that I am slipping down to the category of low-income, after having lived a life of "upper-middle class?"  Woe is me!

If only!

I am one heck of a rich man.  My parents were right (dammit!)--my people were rich.  To think otherwise is the grossest of insults to the happy "middle class" that earns even as low as $1.50 a day.

Monday, December 01, 2014

If only the Tea Party activists ate rice every single day!

Margaret Thatcher famously commented that there is no such thing as society, in her articulation of a political economic thinking that promoted the individual and individual's rights.  Thatcher and Reagan set the world onto reexamining the role of the individual and the individual's contract with others.  As we look around, it is hard not to notice that we are yet to arrive at any definitive version of the contract--in fact, our disagreements appear to be getting more and more intense on the issue of individuals and society (think Obamacare, for instance.)

An anthropology professor notes in the NY Times forum, "The Stone":
modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.
"Plus" is the operative word there.
The sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals. There was never a time in history before civil society when we were each totally free to do whatever we elected to do. We have always been social and caring creatures. The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today.
I don't imagine the patron saint of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, reading that essay and thinking about the ideas discussed there.  It is a shame that from the intellectual weights of a Jefferson and Franklin and more we have now arrived at the likes of Palin as powerful leaders.  This surely cannot be evolution! ;)

So, why the rice, you ask?  There is a reason, dear reader.  Keep in mind that this blogger does not simply rant like how Palin does!

Here is what a report in the Scientific American notes:
research from the U.S. and China indicates that northern Chinese may have a mind-set closer to individualistic Americans than their southern compatriots. And the reason is rice.
Got your interest there?
Farmers north of the Yangtze predominantly grow wheat, and those to the south grow rice. Cultivating rice is very labor- and water-intensive, and it therefore requires sharing resources. Communities have to cooperate to plant and irrigate. Growing wheat requires half the labor and depends more on rainfall patterns, so it can be managed with much less reliance on one's neighbors.
Sets up well for the question, which is:
[University of Virginia doctoral candidate Thomas Talhelm] wondered if agricultural practices could help explain the more individualistic, or Western, mind-set he found in the north compared with the more holistic, or Eastern, way of thinking in the south.
Aren't you dying to know what Talhelm found?
As expected, the researchers found that holistic thought and loyalty were higher in provinces with rice cultivation and that individualism was more common in wheat-farming areas. To see if the rice theory applied beyond students, the researchers also looked at provincial divorce rates, another indicator of individualism. “Wheat regions had a 50 percent higher divorce rate than rice regions,” Talhelm says.
Aha!  There is more:
The rice theory jibes with other cultural research into how agriculture influences thinking, explains Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study. For example, Nisbett found that in Turkey, farmers (an interdependent occupation) were much more holistic than herders (an independent occupation).
If only Sarah Palin and the Tea Party nutcases would do some serious reading and thinking before they opened their mouths, and if only people across the political spectrum engaged in reading and thinking!

Yep, from the New Yorker ;)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Where do we go from here? Start with watching BookTV!

All of man's troubles have arisen from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.
That was what I read when I opened a page in random after the friend gifted me with E.O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence.  A very strange i-ching reading, if there is anything at all in that divining practice!  But, hey, that is all I needed for that day--the observation that we humans are in a whole lot of trouble because we have no clue where we are and have no agreement on where we want to go.

If I had even a little bit of brain, I would love to be the kind of polymath intellectual that Wilson is.  He is up there in my preferred pantheon of intellectuals, along with Dyson, Feynman, Hitchens, ... too bad they simply don't make more like them.  Another reason for me to suspect that I am really made for a generation or two prior, and that I was accidentally born later ;)

The i-ching revelation of the world continued.  The day began with that random page, and ended with me watching Wilson on BookTV.  Bored out of my wits, and drooling for McDonald's French Fries, I picked up the fries, and turned on the telly to the BookTV channel.  There was Wilson chatting with the host about the very book.  Turned out that it was at the National Book Awards--a big time red carpet affair for the literati--ah, I so wish I were one!

Given that I was watching at a late hour in the night, it was obvious that the show was not live.  So, even as Wilson was responding to questions, I checked online for who the nominees and winners were.  And, was so excited that I immediately tweeted:
I doubt whether your life is as exciting, dear reader ;)

I have no idea about the book on Tennessee Williams.  The rest, I can vouch for them.  Awesome they are.
Last spring, I gifted Roz Chast to three.  Yep, three people.  And just last week I recommended to a fourth and she has also placed the order, she emailed me.
Earlier in the spring, after watching an hour-long interview with Osnos, I emailed the big time China admirer to watch the video and almost bought him that book as a gift.
I watched Gopal talk about his book in a BookTV program a few months ago.  I was doubly thrilled because, well, he is also an Indian-American and, ahem, of Tamil origin too!

Yet again, evidence that a tool--the television--depends on how we use it.  While BookTV is streamed online, I find more pleasure in watching it on the "idiot box."

If only those who watch television only for the idiotic and dumbing programs were forced to watch BookTV and C-Span for at least an hour every week!  Then, we will begin to understand how we got here, and we might even begin to develop a game plan on where to go from here :(

Friday, November 28, 2014

The shitty modern medical treatment!

One of the attractions for us kids when going to Pattamadai--grandma's village--was the thought that we would go to the river a few times.

The village was a couple of miles away from the riverbanks, and it was one awesome morning picnic trip of sorts.

We didn't walk to the river, the Thamirabarani, but went in the bullock-cart.  If my father's cousin was also visiting at the same time, then it was all the more fun because when he "drove" the bullock-cart, we went at top speeds, with kids shrieking with delight and the older women fondly cursing the driver as the heads and pots and everything banged against everything.

The river water was even sweeter than the water at Neyveli.  We loved drinking that water.  We ate the pooris that we would have purchased at the local cafe, or the idlis or dosais made by the older women.  

The horrible truth is this: there was always all kinds of crap floating in that river.  Sometimes it was literally crap!  We simply pretended that we did not see them.  We didn't talk about the crap. Ever.  But, the sighting of crap never stopped us from drinking that river water as if it was honey.

Of course, I would never, ever drink that river water again.  But, sometimes, I do wonder if those kinds of activities contributed to the relatively good health my people and I have.  Especially after I read an essay in the New Yorker.  No, it was not about the river back in India.  The essay is about fecal transplantation.  Yep, transplanting one person's shit into another person.  
No one knows how many people have undergone fecal transplants—the official term is fecal microbiota transplantation, or FMT—but the number is thought to be at least ten thousand and climbing rapidly. New research suggests that the microbes in our guts—and, consequently, in our stool—may play a role in conditions ranging from autoimmune disorders to allergies and obesity, and reports of recoveries by patients who, with or without the help of doctors, have received these bacteria-rich infusions have spurred demand for the procedure.
It was one of the most difficult essays that I have read in that wonderful magazine.  Difficult not because it used big and fancy words, but because I felt squeamish throughout.  The very thought that shit from one person is introduced into another!  

So, why is this being done?  It is all because of our digestive tracts, which:
house about a hundred trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other tiny creatures. (As one gastroenterologist put it to me, with only mild exaggeration, “We’re ten per cent human and ninety per cent poo.”) Collectively, this invisible population is known as the gut microbiome, and lately it has become an object of intense scientific interest.
You can already guess where this is going, right?  What if somebody's microbiome is messed up and the microorganisms are out of whack?  What if we introduced the missing tiny creatures?
It's possible that no Americans have gut microbiomes that are truly healthy. Evidence is mounting that over the course of human history the diversity of our microbes has diminished, and, in a recent paper, Erica and Justin Sonnenburg, microbiologists at Stanford, argue that the price of microbial-species loss may be an increase in chronic illness. Unlike our genes, which have remained relatively stable, our microbiome has undergone radical changes in response to shifts in our diet, our antibiotic use, and our increasingly sterile living environments, raising the possibility that “incompatibilities between the two could rapidly arise.” In particular, the Sonnenburgs stress the adverse effects of a standard Western diet, which is notoriously light on the plant fibre that serves as fuel for gut microbes. Less fuel means fewer types of microbes and fewer of the chemical by-products that microbes produce as they ferment our food.
How fascinating, right?  The essay is an awesome read--it has rich details on how the FDA is responding to this, the pharmaceutical research on "crapsules," and on the growth of a "stool bank" where, yes, anonymous donors bring their stool that is less than an hour old.

I am now all the more convinced that drinking that tasty Thamirabarani water during all those visits to Pattamadai was a mild fecal transplant every single time, which helped the microbe population in my gut ;)

The path to cyborg weirdness is paved with novel gadgets

I need better hobbies.

Hobbies that won't make me feel all worrying about where things are going.  Hobbies that won't make me long for the simpler days of, oh, even five years ago.  Well, ok, any hobby other than the one that takes up all my life, it seems--the hobby of reading and thinking!

I had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal, hearty laughs and conversations, and I could have called it a day with all that.  If only I didn't have that nasty hobby!  So, stupid is as stupid does and I ended up reading this piece on how algorithms are messing with our lives.  Like I really needed to be reminded about this when I have blogged enough about this already, including only a week ago!
A single human showing explicit bias can only ever affect a finite number of people. An algorithm, on the other hand, has the potential to impact the lives of exponentially more.
Reading those two sentences, you probably think, "meh!" and move on.  If you did not worry about it, well, you ain't thinkin' enough.
we “trust algorithms, because we think of them as objective, whereas the reality is that humans craft those algorithms and can embed in them all sorts of biases and perspectives.” To put it another way, a computer algorithm might be unbiased in its execution, but, as noted, this does not mean that there is not bias encoded within it.
We humans write those programs, yes.  The programs are then used not merely to calculate the totals at cash registers but in a gazillion ways that we don't even pause to think about:
Consider the story of black Harvard University Ph.D. Latanya Sweeney, for instance. Searching on Google one day, Sweeney was shocked to notice that her search results were accompanied by ads asking, “Have you ever been arrested?” These ads did not appear for her white colleagues. Sweeney began a study that ultimately demonstrated that the machine-learning tools behind Google’s search were being inadvertently racist, by linking names more commonly given to black people to ads relating to arrest records.
Yes, humans wrote that program that was targeting her with those nasty ads.  And this was at the crème de la crème of the computing world.  Now you can begin to imagine how awful biases might creep up really lower down the computing food chain, right?  Are you beginning to worry now?
“We are all so scared of human bias and inconsistency,” says Danielle Citron, professor of law at the University of Maryland. “At the same time, we are overconfident about what it is that computers can do.”
You want more examples so that you, too, can begin to worry about algorithms (software agents is the phrase that I prefer) taking over our lives?
an algorithm may falsely profile an individual as a terrorist: a fate that befalls roughly 1,500 unlucky airline travelers each week.
Imagine the plight of a regular Joe Schmuck who, thanks to big data mined from various sources, is incorrectly identified as a terrorist.  Now, the burden is on that poor Schmuch to prove that he is not a terrorist.   I don't want to be that Joe Schmuck.

As if all that weren't enough, I then read another that covers a lot of the issues related to artificial intelligence that I have gone over even in my blog posts.  The essay ends with this from Peter Diamandis, who is the "co-founder of Singularity University and founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation":
Peter Diamandis is right that we’re at the beginning of “a transformation in what it means to be human and how society works and thinks,” maybe even “a rapid evolution of our species as machines begin to become parts of our prefrontal cortex.” But, he asked me, “Do people want to hear that? No.”
A lot do want to hear that, I told him—that’s why you guys have bestselling books and sellout conferences and an oversubscribed university built on NASA property and sponsored by Google and G.E. It’s just that a cyborg near future also weirds us out.
He nodded. He shook his head. “Why does it weird us out?”
It "weirds" out some of us, while a few others can't seem to wait for that weirdness to be here already, with a vast, overwhelming majority ignorant and apathetic about the whole damn thing because they love one novelty after another in the path that we are on towards ultimate weirdness!

If only shopping on Black Friday were my hobby--I would have never read those essays then and, instead, would have been in the line to buy the latest gadget!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

'Tis Thanksgiving. Remembering the year that was ...

As we sit down for the Thanksgiving meal with friends and family, perhaps all of us can be thankful for one thing—the year with strange and unexpected developments is coming to an end.

Who would have thought that this country would ever end up panic stricken about Ebola? So panicky we became that the photograph of a nurse biking in a small town in Maine caused quite a few, who were thousands of miles from the Pine Tree State, to worry that they, too, caught the dreaded virus infection. We became so involved with the panic over nothing that we even forgot the thousands in West Africa who continue to suffer from the illness.

Ebola came in time for us to worry about the state of the world just when the Israel-Gaza conflict ended. Of course, the end of the bombing campaigns does not mean that peace has descended upon that troubled geography. Not far away, a ruthlessly barbaric outfit that grew out of the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has quickly become a force to reckon with. And the number of name changes this outfit has had in a matter of few months—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State (IS)—has made the casual observer feel like there are multiple versions similar to the number of Agent Smiths in “The Matrix” movie series.

The big European story is, of course, about how Russia swallowed up the Crimean Peninsula. One day Crimea was a part of Ukraine, and the next day it became a Russian territory. Russia is not done with gobbling up Ukraine’s land, with more military incursions expected.

The perils of Pakistan continue, with the same old formula of a weak and ineffective government that is constantly trying to keep the powerful military away. The story of its life ever since its birth in 1947! Meanwhile, suicide bombers continue to strike, with a recent one near the border with India killing nearly sixty and injuring another estimated hundred. Terrorists have warned that the next incident will be in India.

If you are like me, every once in a while you wonder whatever happened to the more than 300 girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria. Remember all that Facebook and Twitter activism to “bring back our girls”? But then that was such a long time ago and Ebola has completely taken over our panic-stricken collective consciousness.

The global economy continues to be in a state of flux. Economists keep warning about the Euro area on the verge of a recession and, perhaps, deflation as well. An economic contraction while prices keep falling is one awful combination, which will surely be worrisome to the millions of unemployed youth, especially in the southern countries of Spain, Italy, and Greece.

While we in the US might feel sheltered from such an listing—however incomplete it is—of less than pleasant developments around the planet, the Ebola virus was a nasty reminder that we live in an interconnected world and that what happens in a remote part of West Africa will not necessarily stay in West Africa. The military conflicts around the world will force the US to act—a burden that comes with being the sole global superpower. Economic slowdown in Europe will affect us, given the highly interdependent economic web that links us to countries that we might not even be able to identify on a world map.

An old idea that is often mentioned, especially in academia, is that “war is God's way of teaching Americans geography.” We need to update that for the contemporary contexts. Now, any crisis is apparently how we Americans learn geography. Thus, thanks to Boko Haram, we were forced to look up Nigeria on a map. With Ebola in the news, there is a good chance that a few Americans were suddenly thrust with narratives about the historical connection between Liberia and slavery in the US. But then, if history provides any guidance, we perhaps passed on all the chances to learn geography.

Whether or not we learnt anything, not unlike my students, we are thankful that the tumultuous and eventful year is coming to an end. But, of course, just because the calendar year is ending, all those problems won’t simply go away. It will be a long while before the public health professionals declare an end to the current Ebola outbreak. The geopolitical tensions in the Levant, Ukraine, and Pakistan, will continue irrespective of the month and the year. Above all, there is really no respite from one certain scary development—when the calendar flips to 2015, the campaigning for the November 2016 elections will begin!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Forget "Fair & Lovely." I want a thick skin to fight the assholes ;)

Thanks to the friend chatting with me about my favorite topic--the pathetic state of higher education--I was reminded of an event from eight years ago.  Almost to the very date.

On November 22, 2006, I got a lengthy email from a faculty, who shall remain nameless but who continues to "teach" at the university where I work, in which he defended his unprofessional and rude behavior with the following sentences:
maybe I have experienced so much criticism from all angles that I did lack a bit of courtesy; however, if you are going to exist in an administrative/director position at any level at any university I suggest you quickly develop a thicker skin...faculty are frequently, mostly without intention, discourteous and disrespectful.
Eight years later, I continue to be shocked that one would write, among other things, "faculty are frequently, mostly without intention, discourteous and disrespectful."  How awful that "discourteous and disrespectful" are considered to be standard operating procedures!

I now think that I should add this to my list of unfinished business; I have a nagging feeling I have plenty more to add to that list :(

We all suffer misfortunes in life, no doubt.  But, it is one thing if a tree falls on your home in a windstorm, and another when a fellow-human behaves discourteously and disrespectfully.  And, worse, believes it is ok to behave that way.  As Aaron James calls them, well, there are too many assholes!  Now, before you jump on James for using that word, keep in mind that he has a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard and is a tenured professor ;)

Before James writing about assholes, there was Robert Sutton, with his memorable The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.  Sutton's book was published soon after my own November 2006 encounter with the asshole.  Warning again: before you quibble with Sutton, note that he was a tenured professor at Stanford when he wrote that book ;)

Sutton authored a brief note in the Harvard Business Review on why he wrote the book, and why he used the word "asshole."  He lists seven reasons there, of which:
The most important reason that I wrote this book is that demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies. And even though there are occasions when being an asshole helps people and companies “win,” my view is that if you are a winner and an asshole, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to be around you!
Exactly!  I have no desire to be anywhere near assholes.  They may "win" and consider me to be a "loser," but I go to sleep with a clear conscience aware that yet another day in this short life I was not an asshole and, more importantly, stayed away from those who are assholes.

BTW, Sutton notes that a TV show about workplace assholes might be in the works!  If that happens, well, it will be a never ending show, won't it! ;)

The Bhagavad Gita in the killing fields of the Mahabharata

When I wrote about "do the right thing," I was, of course, channeling a thought from the Bhagavad Gita.  In the conversation that I mentioned in that post, my old friend referred to the Gita and the larger story of the the Mahabharata, as from more than four- or five-thousand years ago.  The nerd that I am, well, even in that friendly conversation I had to hem and haw and dissent about the Mahabharata being way more recent than that.

To engage with a religious text without being blinded by faith is a feature of religious studies.  Religious studies is not merely for those who are religious. If only many more among us studied the religions of the world; but, I digress!

The context for the Gita is far from what an uninformed person might imagine.  It was in the context of one of the biggest battles ever in Hindu mythology.
The text is in the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna, who, on the eve of an apocalyptic battle, hesitates to kill his friends and family on the other side, and the incarnate god Krishna, who acts as Arjuna’s charioteer (a low-status job roughly equivalent to a bodyguard) and persuades him to do it.
What might one make of such a setting in which Krishna convinces Arjuna that his duty is to, ahem, kill his friends and uncles and cousins?  What would Gandhi do?
Confronted with Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to engage in a violent battle, Gandhi argued that by urging him to “fight,” Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty. “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action; therefore, actions such as murder and lying are forbidden, because they cannot be performed without attachment.
To a true believer, the Mahabharata is not any mythology, and, therefore, the Gita is not anything metaphorical.  Gandhi appears to have waffled there, eh.

Wendy Doniger--yes, that Doniger--has authored an essay reviewing a "masterful new biography of the Gita" from which I excerpted the quotes.  She writes:
How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.
Doniger sketches how this transformation happened.  I will leave it to the interested to read that argument in its entirety, which is a must-read especially for those interested in the political economy of India and "the role of the Gita in the rise of Hindutva in India today."

I have no doubt that the Gita has plenty of lessons for us mortals to think about in order to lead a good life.  I remember my great-uncle reciting, as he often did, the following verse:

At the source of that image is a translation of the verse:
One who has studied the Bhagavad Gita just a little,
drunk even a drop of Ganga water,
has worshipped Murari (Krishna) just once,
does not meet with Yama (lord of death).
This atheist cares not about worshiping Murari, is convinced that there won't be any encounter with Yama, and will not dare to drink a drop of the highly polluted Ganga water.  But, yes, I believe that I immensely gained from the Gita that I read, even if I understood nothing, way back during my angst-filled undergraduate years.