Monday, March 31, 2014

April is not the cruellest month

April is National Poetry Month.

Did they choose this month in order to counter TS Eliot's "April is the cruellest month"? ;)

Here are thirty different things you can do to observe, celebrate, a month of poetry.

This prosaic person will sample a verse or two.

K. 453

By Karl Kirchwey

On May 27, 1784,
as he followed Vienna's back streets home,
Mozart paused, startled, by a pet shop door
and listened to the allegretto theme

from his own piano concerto in G-Major
repeated by a starling in a cage.
He'd written it only five weeks before—
had God given them both the same message?

He counted out thirty-four copper Kreutzer.
Pleasure was like the iridescent sheen
in the dark plumage: an imagination livelier,
perhaps, more fecund and ready than his own!

He entered this in his new quarto accounts ledger,
but where the price should go, he wrote the tune
instead—transcribed it a second time, rather—
and then, in his small hand, wrote Das war schön.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Once upon a time, I was an idiot. An idiot I continue to be.

A few years ago, I was at a social gathering where I was the only non-White.  An elderly gentleman, with whom I shared the table as we had cake and coffee, asked me "if you are from India, how come you are not wearing a turban?"

Whenever I tell such stories of interactions across cultures, and of people asking me questions like that, or "I bet you cook spicy food" only because I am from India, most people think that perhaps I get offended with each and every interaction along those lines.  I do not.

I am not offended when people ask me questions, or make remarks, if those came out of a sheer lack of awareness about the complexity of India, or because of their complete newness to who I am.  After all, we are not born with all the wisdom about this world and we have to consciously work towards learning about our fellow humans and our different ways in which we eat, live, love, die. Unfortunately, we are often too lazy to engage in this--it is way easier to stick to what we knew and how we want to view the world.

When I started graduate school, which was also my first ever exposure to people from the world over, it was humbling to realize that I knew nothing at all and that I was pretty much starting from a blank slate.  I found that most of what I knew--and I thought I was well-informed!!!--were atrocious caricatures.  In 1987, I was still thinking of Chinese women and their feet binding.  When a grad student from Syria was emotionally discussing with me "Zionism is racism" I realized that I had no grasp of the finer points other than the big picture of there are some serious issues out there.  I didn't even have a clue that Nigerians ate spicy foods.  Or that I would love Greek music.  It was quite a realization that it is a huge world out there!

Life since then has been a work in progress.  It is too damn slow a progress for my liking, but I do know for certain that I have progressed a little bit more than where I was, and am hoping that I am inching along in the correct direction.

Which is why I am not at all offended when people ask me questions because of the limited exposure they have had.

I certainly am offended when people who ought to know and behave better do not, and make comments to me or anybody else that piss me off.  Like how in my early years of teaching in Oregon faculty colleagues often chatted with me only on topics about India--they ought to have known better than that, and should have known that just because I am from India it does not mean that I know only all things Indian.  That they can chat with me about "normal" stuff too--about American sports and American politics and American movies and American music.  An American, am I not?  Or about the global topics.  Not talking with me anymore, and excommunicating me from their tribe, has certainly taken care of this problem ;)

A new academic term begins tomorrow.  I will try my best to provide students with opportunities to proceed along in this enterprise of understanding the world in which we coexist.  If experience has taught me anything, it is this: not to expect too much, and take even an itsy bitsy tiny positive change as a huge success.

Here is to looking forward to an itsy bitsy tiny positive change.

BTW, yes, I did find out that Chinese women bind their feet no more.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Sincere compliments are awesome

The road trip ended. If the fifty-year old body felt this exhausted after a week and two thousand miles, I suppose aging will not be all that exciting for the travel-loving me.

Getting back to normalcy included heading to the grocery store the following day. My chatty favorite was at the checkout counter.

"You have a spring break, eh" she said even while wrapping up the transactions with the customer who was ahead of me.  I nodded and smiled.

As she started processing my purchases, of course we engaged in a conversation.  "You been goofing around?" she asked with a big grin.

"That's a neat way to describe it, yes."  I am always surprised at myself.  I can be so closed about some things even as I openly talk and write about others. I didn't feel like telling her that I was on a road trip to California.  To spend time with the daughter and son-in-law. And to reconnect with old friends.

"And now it is time to prepare for classes" I said.  To some extent, I wanted to preempt any follow up question on how I goofed around.

"Oh, too bad."

"No, it is good. I like being in classes."

"Really?  You like being in front of students ..."

"Yes, I do. I love my work."  I didn't tell her that it is the screwed-up system and the atrocious colleagues that I cannot tolerate.

"Good for you."

"Yes, I am lucky."

"How about you?  Any plans?"

She told me about her upcoming trip to Hawaii, which is a home away from home for her.

"In my life, I have spent time in so many countries, because of my work.  I feel at home at most places" she added.

"I agree. The whole world is our home.  It is just that we choose to live in one place."  I was merely channeling Rudyard Kipling who wrote in Sussex that we are not able to call the entire world our home “since man's heart is small.”

"Who was it who said that travel is a better education than school?"

"I don't know who that was.  But, Mark Twain said that travel will make people get rid of bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and he also said that Americans sorely needed that travel experience.  To think that he said all that back when ..."

"That's so true."  She paused.  "You must be a good teacher" she added.

I don't know about being a good teacher. I don't know if I am even a teacher.  I tell students that I am merely a guide pointing them the directions at the appropriate moments.

"Thanks" is all I said.

She finished bagging, and I was done with the payment.  As I leaned forward to pick up the bag, she came over to the customer side, and patted me on the back and said "you are a great teacher."

I smiled and thanked her.

It is time to prepare for a new term.

The road trip is rapidly fading in life's rearview mirror.

We were young and sure to have our way

Life unfolds rapidly as we transition from the teenage years into adulthood. It speeds up even more as we live the life of adults with work and family and friends.

We look at ourselves in the mirrors and photographs. Rarely do we look anything like the youthful people we once were, and we imagine we are even now.

It hits us that time has sped by.

We wonder then what ever happened to the friends we used to hang out with when younger. The ones with whom we played backyard cricket. Went biking with.  Discussed movies and girls.  We wonder and worry whether life turned out well for those old friends who broke our young romantic hearts.

Reunions, thus, happen.

Two years ago, when I met with a college friend, after nearly 28 years, he offered me a profound perspective.  "As long as both the old friends have always wanted to reconnect, I am confident that they will meet again. Here we are."

Perhaps he is right--it is difficult to reject that conjecture when he had offered such an evidence.  I wondered then whether I would ever get to meet with a couple of other friends.  On the other hand, if that conjecture is true, then it would mean that I am completely off the mental radars of many?

What a delightful surprise it was when a few weeks ago I got an email, "Remember me?"

How could I not remember?  When did I ever forget?

A flurry of emails.

And in one, an old friend wrote, "Looking forward to the reunion!"

The last few years have been about reunions. Re-connecting all because of the shared memories. Memories of laughter and crying. Of dreams and despairs.  Of people we liked and hated.  Every reunion thus far has been phenomenal. This one, too, would be special.

We met. We talked. We laughed.  We got caught up. With our own stories. With stories of the people we knew. "What happened to that good looking guy?" I asked about one.  "And the guy who had a car with a hand-cranking sunroof?"  I remembered that because a sunroof was so rare back when we were in graduate school.  "Who was the girl who coached us to sing Chuu kar mere man ko at the international night" I asked.  I had questions in plenty, and they had a lot more to ask me too.

We talked about the people whose lives had ended even before they could become empty-nesters. The fragility of life is all the more why I have always wanted to re-connect with the old and valued friends, for there might not be a tomorrow.

And, of course, we ate.

"It is like a dream you were here!!" texted one friend after I returned home.  Another wrote, "It was great seeing you and I am glad you are back in my life."

My thoughts, exactly.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Art is everywhere

A few years ago, a neighbor-couple invited me over to have lunch with them and another couple who had spent some time in India.

The conversation was mostly about our travels to different parts of the world.  My neighbor said something like, "I want to see art in Florence. And art in Rome. And art in Paris."

When she paused, I asked her, "does your husband know about this Art you want to see in those places?"

It took a couple of seconds.  And then it was haha all around.

Perhaps it is the art-challenged nature in me that makes me think that going to a place to look at art can be exhausting. It is like eating one too many chocolate bars in a matter of minutes.  But then one cannot fly over the ocean and look at only the Mona Lisa and return, eh!

It is not that there is no possibility of art in everyday life. If we do not find it, then it simply means that we are oblivious to it. Or that we do not care.

Sometimes, even the display of fruits and vegetables in the grocery stores is colorful and arty. Or, perhaps even in the basket one carries in the store.  That's what a woman told me as I was walking up an aisle. "Your basket is so colorful and arty, with the flowers, the oranges, ..."

I thanked her.  And then hurriedly turned a corner into another aisle, placed the basket on the floor and looked at it. It looked like plain old grocery stuff.

Perhaps art, too, is in the eye of the beholder.  Even though I didn't find my grocery stuff to be exciting, I was delighted that it made somebody happy.

I do get excited when I manage to create something that looks beautiful enough even for the art-challenged me.  Like this salad that I created from the tomatoes and cilantro that were in that grocery basket:

Even more exciting it was when the son-in-law loved both the look and taste of the salad. I suppose I, too, had traveled far for art.

People are hypocrites! Most of us.

I knew it was time for a second breakfast.  Yes, dear reader, I eat way too much!

I exited, and drove through the picturesque central part of the small town that was.  Nothing along the four blocks appealed to me.

I turned around to check the place one more time.  I suppose it is the gut instinct that comes with the experience of travelling.  Something told me that there was a place right along that street where the food was going to be tasty, and I was not ready to give up.

A sign said Bakery La Petite France.  That's it, I decided.

I parked, and walked in.  A young man, perhaps ready to crossover from the late teens to the twenty, greeted me with a French accent.  I scanned the menu and noticed that the choice of side dish for eggs included ratatouille.  Ever since I watched the movie, Ratatouille, I have not let go of any chance to order that dish if ever it is on a menu.

"How do you scramble the eggs?  Do you add anything?" I asked.  I hate eggs by themselves--they smell too eggy!  Which is why the eggs I make are always with vegetables and cheese.

"We make like an omelette and then piece up" the young man earnestly replied.

I struggled, successfully, to contain my laughter.  "I wonder if you add anything like onions or ..."

He shook his head to mean no.

I figured I would combine the ratatouille with the scrambled eggs.  And placed my order. With coffee, of course.

As I waited for the food while sitting outside by the street, I noticed that if I held my head a certain way, then the lights above looked like a halo around my head.  A selfie was born.

We men, or at least some of us, can be so easily amused.

I was about halfway through the tasty breakfast, and the tasty ratatouille in which the vegetables tasted delightfully fresh, when the chef walked up to me.

In an accent that makes women fall in love with the French instead of us with men with Indian accents, he asked me about the ratatouille after a bonjour.

"Bonjour" I said. "I love it."

"You seen the movie?"

"Of course."

"That mouse is in my pocket" he said with a laugh and pretended to yank the mouse out.

"Perhaps he is still back in the kitchen" I added with a big laugh.

We men folk, from India or from France, are born to make such jokes, which we think are hilarious.  I bet if he had tried that with a woman, she would have merely smiled a polite smile, thinking within that men are stupid!

We men can be so easily amused.

"Where are you from?"

"A long time ago from India. But been here for 27 years" I replied.  "How about you?"

"From Nice. In the south of France.  You been there?"

"Not there. But, a couple of years ago I was in the Dordogne ..."

"It is pretty. The river ..." he said while his hands acted out the meandering river.  He walked back into the kitchen.

I cleaned up my plate, and drank every drop of the coffee.  Life was, yet again, good.

The chef reappeared. "I want you to taste this" he said. "Freshly made tomato soup."

"Tell me the truth.  I can take it" he said pointing to his heart.  "You give people food, they say it is good. Even when they don't like. Damn hypocrites."

He could have cursed the worst curses ever, but his accent and pleasant demeanor will only make them sound like the best compliments ever. I, on the other hand, with my inability to smile, make even the best compliments come across like the worst insults.  I hate these people who can smile away at ease! ;)

As a small, small, small time cook, I could relate to his emotions. When I make anything that I share with others, I always look for honest feedback. Even if the feedback is that I have over-salted.

I took a sip.  It did taste fresh. And it tasted wonderful. I told him that. He walked back in with a smile.

I finished that soup. Sat for a while longer.

As I got up to leave, I looked into the eatery. Deep inside was the kitchen service window and I saw him looking towards the street.  I waved him a big time bye.  As if he was waiting for my action, he leaned out through the window as much as he could and waved back.

I walked towards the car thinking that I, too, hate hypocrites--not merely in food.

Don't worry over a distant journey

This fifty-year body, with a considerably lesser mental age, cannot handle all the eight hundred miles in one single day.  The spirit is always willing, but the flesh is damn weak, and is weakening with every passing year that is marked by fewer hair on top, more grey even down there, and wrinkles all over.  While I certainly would prefer at least a few of these signs of aging to be otherwise, I wear them proudly most of the times as my medals of having lived my own life.

Thus, I stopped to spend the night at a motel.

The older I get, it is also the case anymore that motels make me feel uncomfortable. As if I am in a shady place where drug deals happen and that at any minute my car can get busted, cops will come bursting in, and that I will have to run for my life.  I live way too much a sheltered existence, I worry, and I force myself to step out of my comfort zone. It ain't easy.

The always curious me explored the content of the drawer in the bedside table.  Surprise, surprise it was not merely a Bible but also this:

Jing Si Aphorisms?

Googling had to wait for a later time.  I had to look into that book, of course.  I picked it up and opened up a page.

Life is full of coincidences, which should not surprise us at all, given that we live in a probabilistic world. Inspirational coincidences are what the religious prefer to refer to as miracles.  My father, for instance, who believes in his gods, is convinced that miracles happen all the time but that we don't watch out for them.  The atheist me, on the other hand, is convinced that wonderful coincidences happen all the time but that we don't pay attention to them.

The reflective personality in me does watch out for those coincidences, and sometimes do spot them. Like when I opened the Jing Si Aphorisms and looked at a page in random:

Here I am on a 800-mile road trip, which at the end, with all the detours, could easily become a 2,000-mile round trip, opening a page in a book I had never seen before, and the content there tells me not to worry about a distant journey as long as one finds the way.

Of course, the journey that is referred to is not a mere physical journey, but it is life that is metaphorically being addressed.  And in that, the page tells me that it is never too late.  For blossom.

Wonderful inspirational coincidences.

I didn't worry much after that over the car being broken into or about the police sirens.

I slept well.

The morning came.  The car was there.  Without any damage.  So was the driver.

I resumed the journey, hoping I knew the way.  Or, hoping I can at least find my way.

The Bovine Comedy: Run, Elsie, Run!

It was a cool 37-degree morning when the long 800-mile drive down to Southern California began.  With low clouds. Perfect weather conditions for driving, I thought to myself, unlike the atrocious summer experience the last time around.

Of course, I knew that warmer temperatures awaited me on the other side of the mountains.

A road trip offers many lessons on life.  Travel helps me know more about what lies on the other side of any metaphorical and literal mountain.  I am, after all, continuing with the same curiosity to understand that world that propelled our human ancestors to venture out of the African Savanna.

I had no idea, however, that one lesson would be presented as an improvisational comedy.

A couple of hours past the summit, while driving on a much warmer 76-degree flatland on the other side,I thought I saw a cop car's flashing light on the right shoulder a few cars ahead of me.  A minute later, a flashing cop car on the left shoulder.  I wondered whether this meant that soon we would all come to a halt--I remembered an experience from a few years ago when a cop car ahead of me all of a sudden switched his siren on and started zigzagging across the lanes forcing us to slow down and eventually stop.

This time, too, we slowed down. And we stopped.

Curiosity being my middle name, I stepped out of the car.  No visible clues.

But, there had to be something--the traffic not only on our side was stopped but in the other direction too.

And then the reason made its appearance:

A cow on the loose.  And, what appeared to be a ranch-hand running towards it.

A hilarious sight, indeed. A cow managed to closed down an important north-south commercial artery!

Meanwhile, it was quite a sight to look at the long line of vehicles behind me.  I wondered whether the people in those vehicles had any idea at all about the unfolding bovine comedy.

And then for the final scene in the comedy, when the patrol officer managed to direct the cow towards the waiting ranch-hand:

Soon, life resumed.  We were back to speeding towards whatever we were speeding towards.  It was time for dinner.  I stopped at a California fast-food favorite of mine.  I felt terribly guilty thinking that it might be only a matter of time before the cow that stopped the traffic also became food for humans.

I hoped against hope that the cow made its great escape.

But then most comedies are nothing but tragedies presented as farce.  Such is life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

India's elections will usher in huge changes. Hopefully, for the better.

It will be the world's largest political spectacle ever when nearly 800 million eligible adults head to the polling booths in India's general elections in April and May.  The elections will be held in phases over a month because of the sheer complexity of the logistics involved, especially as the brutal summer descends on the Subcontinent.

All indications are that the country's people are ready for a change. A change from the usual way of doing business and politics, which, as they currently are, is riddled with favoritism and corruption, and with the average Indian feeling weakened both economically and politically.

The prevailing sentiment appears to be a combination of two recent successful Democratic slogans, "It's the economy, stupid" and "Yes, we can."  The "yes, we can." however, increasingly reflects a nationalistic spirit that is worried about India beginning to fall behind the world's larger economies, and particularly behind China.  India and China became politically the countries that they are now almost at the same time--India in 1947 and China in 1949.  For the first three decades, both these countries experienced slow economic growth rates and their respective populations lived seemingly comparable lives in material terms, with the Chinese having a lot less freedom than what was enjoyed by the Indians.

The economic balance started shifting in China's favor ever since Deng Xiaoping opened up the Chinese economy and openly stated that it was good to get rich.  India opened up its partially closed economy a decade later, and has found it to be quite a challenge to catch up with China's economic achievement.  India's economic growth rate has slowed down to about 4.8 percent, which is considerably less than China's 7.7 percent.  Interestingly, and ironically, the two countries even seem to be on a race for whose capital city is the smoggiest--Beijing or New Delhi!

Meanwhile, India's politics, from the federal government and Parliament down to the local levels, is increasingly corrupt, and with a bureaucracy that is as inflexible and antiquated as it ever has been.  Thus, to employ that famous phrase from the Hollywood hit "Network," it is no surprise that millions of Indians appear to be shouting in unison "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

So, who will the voters choose?  That is the six billion dollar question.  The campaign expenses are expected to exceed five billion dollars, and the government estimates the election logistics will cost slightly less than a billion dollars.

Odds are looking highly favorable for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader, Narendra Modi. Both the BJP and Modi have cultivated a nationalistic spirit, bordering on jingoism.  The party and Modi also have strong associations with Hindu nationalist groups.  Modi is alleged to have had a hand in the anti-Muslim riots in 2002, though subsequent government inquiries have cleared him of those charges. It is for these reasons that the US State Department has also denied Modi a visa to visit this country.  If Modi gets elected Prime Minister, I suppose we here would have an interesting and controversial political question to resolve.

It certainly appears that India will be in for yet another major transformation, which began with the first general elections that were held in the end of 1951 and early 1952.  During those elections, my father, who is now 84 years old, was a newly minted civil engineer and had started on his first post-college job in the public works department.   Like many government officials, he too was posted as a presiding officer to oversee the elections.  His assignment was in a remote village deep in the southern part of India. 

When I talked with father, he recalled the emotions in the country where the educated and the illiterate, males and females, the rich and the poor, were all equally excited about self-governance and selecting their representatives.  Father is of the older generation who are alive and who can personally relate it all to having been under the British rule, and witnessing as youngsters the struggle to free India and its peoples.  He is convinced that now the political system is broken, and is not what he imagined it would be when he oversaw the elections in that remote village 62 years ago.  But, at least he is free to criticize the system without worrying about any overlords--something that is not easy to do in China.

I wish him many more opportunities to exercise his political preferences, and wish him and his fellow citizens a corruption-free and prosperous future they deserve.

(If the editor likes this, it will appear as an op-ed in the Register Guard.  And, with this post, it is time for a break.  Don't start any rumors regarding my absence from the blog!!!)  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Were those injured in the Charge of the Light Brigade cared for by the Lady with the Lamp?

Back in our school days, the texts we read for the English classes often had essays by, or about, people who had made some serious mark on history.  Thus, we read about Florence Nightingale--the Lady with the Lamp--and her untiring contributions to treat the sick and the wounded and how she became the patron saint of nursing.

When growing up, and pretty much throughout my life, every so often my father, or his uncle, quoted from memory something from Shakespeare or Tennyson.

What connects the first paragraph on Florence Nightingale with the second on Tennyson?

Making those connections has always been what the life of an academic has been all about.  Years ago, I watched a few episodes of James Burke's Connections and loved the way he tied the stories together.  The world is one amazing set of interconnections. The tangled webs we weave, indeed. Living now as we do with the world wide web, we ought to easily understand that compared to when we were kids, right?

In my classes, too, I try my best to convey to students that understanding even a tiny, tiny bit of this world is not accomplished by merely studying a bunch of courses in any one single formal academic discipline.  Instead, we need to take courses in different disciplines and, more importantly, think through the connections.  And the way I teach, well, it is all about integrative learning where I am constantly highlighting to them the connections to poetry or science or anything else.  To me, there is simply no other way of learning

But, of course, all these are considered to be old-fashioned ideas--even the integrated curriculum that was in the place in the Honors Program was slowly and systematically dismantled because faculty and students saw no value in such an integrated learning.  But, I continue to march along to my own drum beat!

Anyway, real life events are no different with connections in plenty.  Events do not happen in isolation. Case in point: how the Lady with the Lamp and Tennyson come together.  In Crimea.

One of Tennyson's poems, which we did not read back in the school days, but I have heard it recited more than once, was The charge of the light brigade.  One often recited verse from that is this one:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
   Left of six hundred.
To understand a poem like this means we have to dig deeper into the context that triggered Tennyson to write about it.  The tangled world wide web and Wikipedia make it so simple: "about the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War."

The Crimean War.

Aha, you say, because Crimea is so much in the news these days.

It was also during this Crimean War that Florence Nightingale became that famous Lady with the Lamp:
Florence Nightingale's most famous contribution came during the Crimean War, which became her central focus when reports got back to Britain about the horrific conditions for the wounded. On 21 October 1854, she and the staff of 38 women volunteer nurses that she trained, including her aunt Mai Smith,[9] and fifteen Catholic nuns (mobilised by Henry Edward Manning)[10] were sent (under the authorisation of Sidney Herbert) to the Ottoman Empire. They were deployed about 295 nautical miles (546 km; 339 mi) across the Black Sea from Balaklava in the Crimea, where the main British camp was based.
It is that same Crimea that is now the scene of intense geopolitics.

Of course, there is also that other famous Crimean connection: The Yalta Conference.

The question remains, however, on what we learnt, if anything at all, from such previous entanglements in the web that the world is.  I suspect we did not, and we humans rarely do.  Which is why ought not to be surprised when history repeats itself.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Balls to you!

Way back, as a married man and when the daughter had yet to leave for college, and in a life that also involved two dogs at home, one of my many jokes, which I found to be very funny, was about how the difference between me and the dogs was that I was not castrated in a world of women!

I was never at ease at having the dogs castrated.  It seemed unnatural and cruel. I imagined the situation being the other way around, like in the Planet of the Apes.  It seemed awful that I would have to live a castrated life in a cage or as a pet.  The intellectual discussion of the presumed supremacy of humans over other forms met a real life situation, and the intellectual argument was nowhere to be found.  The dogs lost their balls, and more.

I thought about those dogs, especially the long-haired chihuahua, Congo, who was the kindest dog ever, when I read this essay, authored by an animal doctor.  An essay that is like a contemporary equivalent of the animal (and people) stories that James Herriot made us think about.   The author, John Brooke, had one crazy week, it seems:
I review this week with some disturbance at the remarkable number of animals I have sterilised. I counted the castrations: 40 calves, two colts, three dogs, one cat, one ferret and a coatimundi (a raccoon-type thing from South America that has very long teeth). I counted the ovariohysterectomies (spays): two cats, two bitches and one rabbit.
All of these mutilations were elective, mostly for behavioural rather than medical reasons.
We need to note here that these were pretty much for the same behavioral reasons that I, like a gazillion other pet owners, got the two dogs neutered.  Because, once the testicles are gone, well, so is the testosterone:
The behavioural benefits of castration are enormous: dogs do not thrust themselves on anything that passes by; queen cats do not try to break out of the house when they are in season/oestrus; geldings will graze peaceably in fields, while a colt will jump fences to clamber on top of any mare that winks at him; rabbits will not mate with their siblings and those of the same sex are less likely to try to maim each other.
Some cojones we have to do what we do!
But what sort of brave new world is this in which we practise? If an animal’s sexual activity is problematic, it is either sterilised or euthanised. Animals are tied to our social contract. The development of dog breeds shows how natural selection has been undermined: some breeds can give birth only by Caesarean section; many have inherited disorders that can now be treated. The breed of the dog is an easy indicator of what conditions are likely to affect it.
So it is that many mutilated creatures with inherited defects roam the country.
I often remark in classes that many issues we can relate back to one question: what does it mean to be human?  And depending on the context, we can think through what it means to be human.  In this case, does being human mean that the entire world of living and non-living things is at our disposal for us to do whatever pleases us?  Or, does being human mean that we treat them all humanely.  Does treating non-humans humanely mean that we should not neuter or spay the animals--that we should treat them more than as if they are our toys?

It often feels like we have given up raising such questions anymore.  When secular groups like PETA address animal rights, they wildly make their point, no differently from how the uber-religious make their own points.  When religions address this, well, the answer depends on the religion, and it is then choose whatever answer that appeals to you.  The Judeo-Christian traditions seem to validate to their followers that god made humans in his image and told humans that everything on earth is for them to rule over. (Yes, I am simplifying.)  Jains disagree with this view. The Hindu tradition treats some animals as sacred and some are treated like, well, dogs!  The dog is always referred to in the Vedic texts as the impure one, writes Wendy Doniger (when will I be able to get back to that one!)

So, yes, there are multiple answers possible, it seems.  But, wouldn't it be awesome to raise such questions and have everybody discussing their own answers than not raising the questions at all?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Meat tastes good, ergo vegetarians must be idiots.

Until I arrived in this land of the free and the home of the brave, I was a strict vegetarian. Even when my vegetarian friends and siblings talked about having tasted animal food, I remained steadfast in my convictions.

That steadfastness extended well past my first year in America.  In one of those nonsensical conversations that apartment-mates have, we ended up talking about food.  We were all from South Asia--two from India and two from Sri Lanka.  Except one of those Lankans, we were all new to the country.  The fellow Indian was not a vegetarian, and was also a good debater who was quick on his feet.  He quipped that "even vegetarians eat meat, if you know what I mean."  I am sure I blushed then at that double entendre!

Even when I slowly drifted away from the staunch vegetarianism, it was not as if I could not live without getting animal protein in me every single day. I could not care if I didn't have a piece of chicken or a burger. But, it certainly made things easier, logistically speaking.

Once when talking about foods that we eat, my dissertation adviser commented that he ate pretty much anything--except chicken. Which naturally raised my curiosity--surely there was a story there. And there was. As a kid, he was at the farm where his uncle and aunt lived, outside of London, and he got to witness the uncle getting a chicken ready for dinner. Since then, no chicken.

As much as I have evolved into a confirmed atheist, amazed at the randomness of it all, I continue to ponder about the ethics of killing animals for food. Thus, I keep blogging about the topic, especially when triggered by an essay like this one:
Vegetarians themselves often argue that they make us feel uncomfortable because their existence is a reminder of the cruelty and carnage that the rest of us refuse to see; there’s probably some truth in this. But I suspect that the root of our hostility is more basic. It isn’t so much that they remind us of the slaughterhouse – meat itself does a pretty effective job there – as that they make a mockery of our unthinking preferences. What we’re protecting when we ridicule vegetarians isn’t our own ignorance about the way meat is produced – however it’s done, killing animals for food isn’t nice – but our taste for it: the smell of sausages sizzling in a pan, the charred umami crust of a good steak, the pink tender pieces of a rack of lamb. Meat tastes good, ergo vegetarians must be idiots.
To those raised on animal protein, the alternatives taste like cardboard.  My neighbor scoffed at the paneer dish that I had made.

He is not alone.  It turns out that as people get richer, they consume more and more animal protein.
If the meat industry looks ugly now, it is nothing to what it might be like if and when India and China catch up with the levels of meat consumption in the West. One of the major consequences of an expanding middle class in Asia has been a huge rise in meat-eating. By 2022, China will be importing more soya for chickenfeed than the whole of Brazil currently produces: 102 million tonnes. One of the surest signs of affluence is and always has been eating more meat. It’s the way you celebrate having risen above the carbohydrate-eating peasant classes. ... Currently, the whole of Asia gets through around 18 billion chickens a year. If consumption continues to rise at current levels, by 2050 this figure will have increased more than tenfold to 200 billion chickens. But China and India will never be able to live like this – ‘simply because there isn’t enough to go around’. Lymbery appears to hope that higher meat prices will force consumption down, but since meat-eating is a consequence of wealth, prices would need to rise astronomically to have an impact. 
It simply will not be possible to "humanely" raise and kill animals--how much ever an oxymoron this concept is--in order to feed the affluent hundreds of millions in the future, which means that the raising and killing will only get uglier.  Because, we need to keep in mind the consumption that affluence brings:
 even though eating meat has become more popular in India, ‘the average Indian consumes a thirtieth of the meat that an Australian or an American does – around 4.4 kg in 2009’ whereas in the US it is ‘120 kg per head per annum, as much or more meat than anyone’.
If only we can get more and more carnivores to be significantly less carnivorous. And, what an amazing effect it would have on the world's natural environment and on the under-nourished:
 Nearly ‘a third of the planet’s land surface’ is devoted to ‘rearing farm animals or growing their feed’. If the cereals fed to animals reared for meat went instead directly to humans, an extra three billion people could be fed – roughly the number currently at risk of malnourishment.
So ...?
There are few signs that we genuinely want to eat less meat, or enough less to make a difference. Perhaps we could start with a hard-hitting ad campaign, like the ones they run against drink-driving at Christmas, showing what happens when a bad batch of chicken livers collides with a wedding marquee: the vomiting, the misery, the hospitalisations. But who’s going to pay for it?
To think that I am blogging this after having had a wonderful evening of food and conversation at my neighbors': the food included a gorgeous salad, an awesome cabbage dish, creamy potatoes, and a steak that my neighbor grilled to my exact specifications.

Like most of the posts here, this one, too, is yet another in my own experiments with truth.  All because I am so convinced that there is no the truth!

If it is spring, can winter be far behind?

The cold, cold days and nights are already are now a distant memory. 

A few days of sunshine, warmth, blue sky with puffy white clouds, have so easily erased from the mind the weeks of cold, overcast, rainy, windy, and even snowy and icy existence.

Life, itself, is like that. We so easily forget the bad in times of good and plenty.  The horrors of the past we forget and enjoy the moment.

If only life were an eternal spring.

by Edna St. Vincent Millay
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots,
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ketching up on the Ides of March

The bodybuilder woman at the checkout smiled a big welcome smile as I neared her counter.  If only I felt this welcomed wherever I go!

"What did a big tomato tell the small tomato?" she asked me even without saying a hi.  She knows that I love groaners and now has made it a habit to keep collecting them so that she can share that with me.  If only everybody I interact with took this much interest in making my life pleasant!

"What did it tell the small tomato?"


I chuckled and said that only a couple of days ago a student told us a variation of this, and proceeded to tell her that.

"Papa tomato, mama tomato, and junior tomato are crossing the road.  Papa darts across. And so does mama. The son is halfway across when a truck smashes him."
A pause for the effect.
"So, what did papa tomato yell out?"
"Ketchup son."

We both laughed.  "I like that imagery even better" she said.

"If you were here yesterday, I had one for Pi Day" she added.

Of course, I wanted to know that one too.

"Studies show that 3.14 percent of all sailors are PIrates." Haha!

"Did you get to enjoy the day today?" she asked.

It was a gorgeous spring-like day.  Perhaps it even reached a high of 70 degrees.  Brilliant sunlight. A gentle breeze. When I did my usual five-mile walk by the river, it felt as if the entire town was out and about. And everybody was talking loudly.  We missed the sun and the warmth and nothing was going to stop us from being outside.

"Yes, I did.  What an awesome day it was."

"Do you completely get away from work though?"

"Not really. But, I have no complaints about it because I love doing what I do."

"My husband is the same way.  He loves what he does."

A few lucky ones we are to enjoy the work that we do--so much so that we don't find any need to disconnect from it even as we partake in other enjoyments that life offers.

"What is your name?" she asked.

I told her like how I typically introduce myself.

"Next time I hope to remember your name when I say hi" she said.

"Of course. See you next time, Wendy" I replied to the bodybuilder.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Genome + connectome = you. Wait, who are you?

I have never cared for science fiction set in some distant future.  When my high school friend was reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories, I gave it a try and gave it up for good. When it is set that much into the future, it is as imaginary or as real as are the events in the Ramayana!

On the other hand, I love science fiction that makes me peek just a little bit out into the future. A future that can easily become the case in a few decades, if not a few years.  Almost always, these stories then provide a fictional background in order to explore the real issue--what it means to be human, and what if that sense of humanity is threatened by supremely intelligent computers.

A few weeks ago, it was one of those opening the curtains just a tad in order to peek into what might be a possibility.  I watched the movie Her.  The "her" is not a real person but the operating system that communicates via free language with the user. In its communication it is so human-like that the main guy begins to talk and relate to her as if she is his best friend.  Meanwhile, "she" keeps learning and improving herself--remember, this is exactly what artificial intelligence entails.  "She" becomes so human-like that he begins to have a relationship with her and refers to her as his girlfriend.

It is not that difficult to imagine such a man-machine interaction within a mere few more years.  After all, even now talk with plenty of machines.  When we call customer support, we bark so many words to, yes, a computer.  Some talk with Siri, which comes with iPhones.  Right now, they are a tad too dumb, but they are getting smarter by the day.

As we rush towards this artificial intelligence, it is not impossible to imagine that at some point those machines will be smarter than us. We will then find it to be advantageous to simply merge with the machine. Welcome to singularity!

At that point, it could become possible to transfer--upload--our memories into a machine.  And continue to live via the machine. And live forever.
Imagine a future in which your mind never dies. When your body begins to fail, a machine scans your brain in enough detail to capture its unique wiring. A computer system uses that data to simulate your brain. It won’t need to replicate every last detail. Like the phonograph, it will strip away the irrelevant physical structures, leaving only the essence of the patterns. And then there is a second you, with your memories, your emotions, your way of thinking and making decisions, translated onto computer hardware as easily as we copy a text file these days.
That second version of you could live in a simulated world and hardly know the difference. You could walk around a simulated city street, feel a cool breeze, eat at a café, talk to other simulated people, play games, watch movies, enjoy yourself. Pain and disease would be programmed out of existence. If you’re still interested in the world outside your simulated playground, you could Skype yourself into board meetings or family Christmas dinners.
If you think this is not possible, well, think again. How much of your memory already exists as bits and bytes?  Those photographs as your memory? The videos of your people?  Your thoughts?  We have been on this digital memory path for a while already.

The author of that above excerpt continues:
It is tempting to ignore these ideas as just another science-fiction trope, a nerd fantasy. But something about it won’t leave me alone. I am a neuroscientist. I study the brain. For nearly 30 years, I’ve studied how sensory information gets taken in and processed, how movements are controlled and, lately, how networks of neurons might compute the spooky property of awareness. I find myself asking, given what we know about the brain, whether we really could upload someone’s mind to a computer. And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly. That raises a host of further questions, not least: what will this technology do to us psychologically and culturally? Here, the answer seems just as emphatic, if necessarily murky in the details.
It will utterly transform humanity, probably in ways that are more disturbing than helpful. It will change us far more than the internet did, though perhaps in a similar direction. Even if the chances of all this coming to pass were slim, the implications are so dramatic that it would be wise to think them through seriously. But I’m not sure the chances are slim. In fact, the more I think about this possible future, the more it seems inevitable.
Murky in the details is one heck of an understatement when it comes to understanding what this technology will do to us psychologically and culturally. It is difficult to predict beyond Singularity.

Science being science, it marches on and there is no turning back.
 In 2005, two scientists, Olaf Sporns, professor of brain sciences at Indiana University, and Patric Hagmann, neuroscientist at the University of Lausanne, independently coined the term ‘connectome’ to refer to a map or wiring diagram of every neuronal connection in a brain. By analogy to the human genome, which contains all the information necessary to grow a human being, the human connectome in theory contains all the information necessary to wire up a functioning human brain. If the basic premise of neural network modelling is correct, then the essence of a human mind is contained in its pattern of connectivity. Your connectome, simulated in a computer, would recreate your conscious mind.
Yep, like your genome there could be your connectome. You can become a complete digital being.  A brave new world, indeed!

The essay is a wonderful read.  The examples he gives on the murkiness when it comes to psychology and culture will make you think a lot.  Here is one of those examples:
Then there are the issues that will arise if people deliberately run multiple copies of themselves at the same time, one in the real world and others in simulations. The nature of individuality, and individual responsibility, becomes rather fuzzy when you can literally meet yourself coming the other way. What, for instance, is the social expectation for married couples in a simulated afterlife? Do you stay together? Do some versions of you stay together and other versions separate?
All that is from the scientific world--the author "is a neuroscientist, novelist and composer. He is a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University."  Meanwhile, there was a related theme that I came across in the fictional world last night when reading the latest issue of the New Yorker.  T.C. Boyle's short story (sub. req.) is all about a father and his teenage daughter. His wife (her mother) had left them years prior and had moved in with a guy in Hong Kong.  The story is about the father, primarily, reliving the past via a gadget--something like a video game box.  The title of the story is The relive box.  The user--the father, for instance--can tell the box to go to a certain date and time in the past and then watch his own life as an observer.

Where are we headed, right?  All we know is there is no way but onward.  I want to hold on all those aspects of what it means to be human. I want to hold on tightly the humans who matter to me. In this real world, and not via some simulation as ones and zeros. Maybe the Luddites were not that wrong!

In any case, the fictional world is already ahead of us--by thinking of modern day Luddites in this context. Coming soon to a theater near you, straight from Hollywood: Transcendence.

Have a good weekend. Even if it is only with your operating system ;)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Food Movement's “omnivore’s contradiction": “ethical butchers”

A few months ago, the New Yorker featured this awesome cartoon:

A punchline that would have anybody laugh and think.  Perhaps laugh first, and then think for a long while.

I was reminded of that cartoon, even as I started reading this essay in The American Scholar.  That cartoon is a wonderful example of a picture being worth a thousand words.

Anyway, the essay notes that the food movement (yes, think of the likes of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters) simply refuses to even acknowledge a basic question:
How do you ethically justify both respecting and killing a sentient animal?
It is one thing for the foodies to rail against the agro-industrial complex.  And there is a lot of merit to it.  But,
The Food Movement’s popularity is built upon this idea: that animals raised in factory farms have qualities that make them worthy of our moral consideration. Animals are not objects, and their welfare matters to the extent that they should not suffer the abusive confines of factory farms. They deserve the time, space, and freedom to exist as the creatures they were born to be. These concerns assume that farm animals—given their ability to experience suffering in industrialized settings—have authentic emotional lives and intrinsic worth. Our belief that they should not suffer abuse in confinement recognizes their fundamental moral status as sentient beings. They can suffer, and as a direct result, we should, whenever possible, avoid inflicting suffering upon them. If animals didn’t matter to us in a moral sense, then the harm systematically inflicted upon them in industrial operations would pose no ethical concerns whatsoever. We’d be indifferent to their abuse.
If the Food Movement’s stance on animals raised in factory farms is clear, it grows murky when applied to nonindustrial, more humane, farms. Indeed, that’s where the omnivore’s contradiction comes into sharp focus. The Food Movement’s premises about farm animals are (we will assume for now) adequately met on most small, sustainable, humane farms. Still, there’s no denying that even on the most impressive of these farms—no matter how much their owners talk about a respectful death—animals are raised for the ultimate purpose of being killed and turned into commodities. The Food Movement habitually minimizes this reality, but the fact remains: just as on factory farms, animals on humane farms are, on slaughter day, transformed through raw violence into objects, after which they are commodified, consumed, and replaced with all the efficiency of car parts.
Why is the killing of animals justified when a Michael Pollan kills one?  BTW, I wonder if Pollan has ever killed a cow. Maybe he did, eh!

Thus, the hypocrisy of it all:
the elevation of how animals are raised as a moral consideration (poorly in factory farms; well on humane farms) above why we are raising them (to kill and eat them in both cases). It is at this crucial moment in a farm animal’s life—the human choice to slaughter the beast against its will—that the moral consideration so effectively deployed to condemn the factory farming of animals loses its punch and its plausibility.
So, if the foodies are really, really upset at the atrocious treatment of animals in the industrial process--and there any number of undercover videos one can watch till the point of puking is reached--then why don't they call for an end to killing animals, whether in the food factories or on the organic farms?
But they are not prepared to take that stand. This decision—this curious dodge—is bound to rot the movement from within. It’s a typical sleight of hand of which Pollan is a master. To wit, he explained to Oprah Winfrey in 2011 that after deliberating about the legitimacy of eating meat, “I came out thinking I could eat meat in this very limited way, from farmers who were growing it in a way that I could feel good about how the animals lived.”
How is it possible to ethically raise, love, and then kill an animal “in this very limited way”? If Pollan really does want to “feel good” about an animal’s quality of life—much in the way he would, say, his pet dog’s—then what’s the exact justification for cutting that life short (by something like 75 percent) for a menu choice? Wouldn’t it be better to spare the pseudo-philosophizing and just admit (as Comis did, until he announced on his blog in February that he had become a vegetarian) that he likes meat too much to stop consuming it? And if that’s the competing consideration—loving meat—then all humanitarian ballyhooing over animals in factory farms becomes meaningless, as do the arguments over animal suffering in general.
The likes of Michael Pollan have found a neat niche for themselves: they peddle a story that makes their faithful feel great about how they are being righteous about the whole damn thing.  That is all.  It pisses me off when they are all high and mighty about how they are a gazillion times better than those getting the "regular" meat.  Of course, there are plenty of those preachy types right here in Oregon, which is also why Portlandia did that awesome episode about the chicken order in the restaurant.
Owning animals for the purposes of slaughter and consumption means that ethical corners will be cut to enhance the bottom line. As competition for privileged consumers increases, this corner cutting can only be expected to intensify.
A short list of routine and sometimes unavoidable problems prevalent on nonindustrial animal farms, all noted by farmers themselves, includes the following: excessive rates of pastured animals being killed by wild and domestic animals, mutilation of pig snouts to prevent detrimental rooting, castration without anesthesia, botched slaughters, preventive (and illicit) antibiotic use, outbreaks of salmonella and trichinosis, acute pasture damage, overuse of pesticides and animal vaccines, and routine separation of mothers and calves. Animals granted a little more space, in other words, still suffer the negative consequences of being owned for exploitation. Given that they are destined to be commodities, not companions, this should not come as a surprise. Hence the ultimate cost of failing to address the omnivore’s contradiction: the ongoing suffering of the animals that farmers and foodies say they care so much about.
Yep, the foodies "say" they "care" about the suffering that the animals go through.

I have blogged enough here (like this one) about trying to make peace with killing animals for food. It is an ongoing issue for this atheist.  When everything fails, I turn to the New Yorker:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Even Gandhi has been forgotten. Yet, you think you are important?

As the story (sub. reqd.) in the New Yorker came to an end, I could not wait to see how the author, Yiyun Li, tied everything up. I remembered one of her stories in the same magazine a couple of years ago--it was awesome. I was confident, therefore, that she would do justice here too.

Boy has she crafted some sentences together to end the narration:
She could become a fugitive from this world that had kept her for too long, but this urge, coming as it often did in waves, no longer frightened her, as it had years ago.  She was getting older, more forgetful, yet she was also closer to comprehending the danger of being herself.  She had, unlike her mother and her grandmother, talked herself into being a woman with an ordinary fate.  When she moved to the next place, she would leave no mystery or damage behind; no one in this world would be disturbed by having known her.
A chilling sentence that is: "no one in this world would be disturbed by having known her"

As I lay wide awake, after reading that, the  "no one in this world would be disturbed by having known her" reminded me of John Updike's Requiem:
It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
"Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!"

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
"I thought he died a while ago."

For life's a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.
Most of us ordinary mortals are forgotten even when we are alive. We matter not.  As BB King so emotionally put it, "Nobody loves me, but my mother / And she could me jivin' too."

Today was another day.

The sun was out in all its glory, and after temperature over the past few weeks in the 40s, the 60-plus today under the sun felt like an Indian summer.

I was walking towards my car when a female student waved at me. I am too old to fall for this--I know well by now that when a young woman waves at me, there is somebody else behind me and it is not me that she waves at.

But, she kept waving and walking towards me and stared at me. I politely smiled. I had no freaking clue who she was.

"You don't remember me?"

I wonder if there is a polite way to state the truth. "You are ... "

She then (re)introduced herself as one of the students who met with me a few months ago when preparing for their trip to India.  Now it clicked.  "Oh yeah, I remember now."

Meanwhile another young woman joined us. She too was in that group.

During the conversation about their experiences, the second one said, "I am so much a fan of Gandhi and his non-violence.  When I was in India, I tried to talk to people about Gandhi and his ideas. But nobody really cared to talk with me about Gandhi."

I know what she means. It is a land of a billion-plus, but there are fewer and fewer, it seems like, who genuinely appreciate, respect, and discuss Gandhi and his ideas.  I didn't have the heart to add to that youngster's disappointment. As we parted, I told them that I wanted to hear more of their stories of India. "We want to hear your stories too" they said.

If a Gandhi, the father of the nation, could not leave behind a living memory of his life among his own people, no wonder then that Auntie Mei in Li's short story feels that ""no one in this world would be disturbed by having known her."  Or, at best, as Updike writes, a couple of them might shrug their shoulders and comment "I thought he died a while ago."

Such is our fleeting existence on this planet.

It is no wonder then that we turn to BB King for comfort!


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Guns v. butter. No, make that shoes v. butter!

Remember this chart from a few days ago?

I am sure you forgot all about it and went your ways. Because you have way too many other things to worry about.  But, you--whether living in the US or in Chennai--cannot "afford" to forget it!

The Economist offers an interesting example for why the military budget is tough to tame.  Before getting into the example itself, these comments from the magazine newspaper:
[Harnessing] austerity to reform the defence budget will be dauntingly hard. Congress will have final say over Mr Hagel’s plans and something about camouflage gear has a strange effect on politicians. Even in this era of cuts, the Pentagon’s budget is vast: America accounts for about four of every ten dollars spent on defence worldwide. The temptation is always there to play at industrial policy or simple favouritism.
The scale and the complexity of Pentagon spending make it hard to assess the real prospects for reform.
You ready for the example?  Consider military boots:
 The plant in Big Rapids is still more unusual: every component used there is American, from leather (a Minnesota tannery provides most hides) to shoelaces, eyelets and the yarn used for linings.
 When we live in a world where the shoes we buy might have been manufactured in Cambodia, and shirts from Bangladesh, interesting to note that even the shoelaces for the military issued boots are red-blooded American. Why so?
 This patriotism is explained not by sentiment, but the law. Military footwear is governed by the Berry amendment, passed by Congress on the eve of war in 1941 to ensure that troops would be given home-grown wool and food. Today the amendment applies to most uniforms, tents, flags and processed food bought with Pentagon funds. These must be entirely American-made or -grown, unless domestic firms simply do not make the product.
Make up your mind: do you want to laugh or cry about that?

So, that was about those tough military footwear. If only the politics stopped with that!
 a bipartisan clutch of senators and members of Congress—notably from states with some domestic shoe production—has spent years prodding the Pentagon to start buying a product that does not exist: all-American military running shoes. Under orders from Congress, defence officials formally asked domestic shoemakers in January to report if they could make “Berry-compliant” athletic shoes. The inquiry was made through gritted teeth. Market forces do a fine job of supplying comfortable, cheap running shoes to recruits. Defence officials argue that costs may rise if trainer choices are limited, and that injuries may even follow. The signals are clear enough: the Pentagon has no desire to get into the sneaker-design business.
Yes, even the Pentagon is opposed to the very proposal from the lawmakers
Again, make up your mind: do you want to cry or laugh?

All that was over shoes. And then there are tanks. Aircraft carriers.  Submarines. Fighter planes. Bombs. Missles. ...

Meanwhile, we fight over scraps to maintain soup kitchens.  USA, USA, USA!!!  As Paul Krugman recently put it:
The total failure to accept that the poor face real physical hardship, that affluent politicians have no business lecturing people having trouble buying food or having trouble paying for health care about dignity, is just stunning.

For the final time: do you want to cry or laugh?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lost and found at McDonald's

I was hungry.  I knew it would take me at least an hour to put together any decent food at home--after all, I had already done the easy egg route and, as tasty as it was and as arty as it looked, I didn't want to have it all over again.

So, yes, Virginia, every once in a while I do the unthinkable.
The unimaginable.
The unforgivable.

I drove up to the golden arches.
With a coupon for free fries!

At the register was a pretty young girl, perhaps a high school junior. With a tight smile.  She was not at ease.  Was she new at her job, I wondered.  No small talk with her than.

There was no other customer as I waited for my to-go to be assembled.  The young girl at the register stood cemented without any noticeable movement. She didn't partake in the conversations in which the others were engaged--at least two of them, guys, seemed to be high school students.

She saw me watching all of them, including her. She gave me that same tight, awkward smile.

One of the customers, who seemed to be all done with her meal, was a teenager as well.  She asked one of the boys who was working, "you graduating this year?"

He was.

The girl at the register didn't flinch. I could not but wonder why she stood so aloof.  Perhaps not very social?

Meanwhile, the young fellow continued with his high school stories.  I turned my attention to him.

Life is one huge live improv theatre.  I never know which actor would come up with the best lines at any given moment and, therefore, have to constantly shift my attention from one actor to another.

"So, are you going to college after you graduate" the customer girl asked him.

My curiosity reached an even higher level.

"No .... I am taking the year off ... to find myself" he said, while doing the air quotes around find myself.

Little does he know that we never find ourselves in a year. If we are lucky, we might manage to do it before we die, which is a tad too late, to put it mildly. Finding ourselves is always a work in progress. To find oneself can, in fact, be even more of a challenge if all we do is try to find oneself.  We do the best we can in the here and in the now.

I could have lectured him a great deal about the old Hindu philosophical quest of "who am I?"  That question of finding oneself has dogged one too many Hindus--the real and the pretentious alike.

But I did not.

When even the youth who pay tuition and fees do not have the patience to listen to me in the classroom, I know fully well that life is better lived with the mouth shut, like what the pretty young girl at the register was doing--maybe she is well on her way to find herself.

I came home with the food from McDonald's.

It sucked.

I should have known better!  But then, I am yet to find myself.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

We atheists, too, are awestruck by this universe. So what?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I caught a wonderful break that the weather gave us and headed to the coast.  It was a sunny 60-degree-plus with nothing more than a light, caressing wind.  Looking at the vast ocean while at the foot of the old lighthouse, I--an atheist--and she--a believer, of sorts--were both equally awestruck by it all.  The trees were also awesome, and so were the hills.  I imagined that it will be one awesome paradise when the rhododendrons are in bloom.

Yes, it is with design that I used "awe" that many times in the previous sentences.  For one, it is true that I am simply awed by everything around me.  I don't even have to venture far away from home for such a feeling.  The river that is close by and I see everyday. The young lambs that have been only recently birthed, and the older sheep too. Blue sky with puffy white clouds. A toddler's laughter. A dog's wagging tail. And more.

I am awestruck all the time.

But, I don't have to see god's hand or face in any of these.

We atheists, too, are blown away by all these.  Just because we don't see any creator behind all these, and just because we theorize that these resulted from the randomness that the universe is, doesn't mean that we are not awestruck.  I would, in fact, think that we go about exploring and understanding only because we are so much awestruck.

I have blogged before about Richard Feynman's wonderfully profound observations on "the pleasure of finding things out."  As he noted, "the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts."

In the latest issue of the Scientific American, Michael Shermer has more to say on "the soft bigotry of those who cannot conceive of how someone can be in awe without believing in supernatural sources of wonder."  I like how he brings that word "bigotry" into it, because it is such a strongly prejudiced view of atheists that makes people imagine the craziest things about us.

Shermer writes that in the context of a research that showed that feeling the emotion of awe "elicits uncertainty and a subsequent desire to resolve that feeling by explaining events in terms of purpose-driven causal agents."  That awe, therefore, leads the believers to believe that there was a causal agent, or more, behind those. "[In] the moment of awe, some of the fear and trembling can be mitigated by perceiving an author's hand in the experience."

And that is where we atheists take on a different interpretation to all those "awe" moments. As Shermer writes:
Instead of fear and trembling, we feel wonder and gratitude in discovering that the author's hand is nature's laws and nothing more, but also nothing less.
Aaaaaawww! That is one heck of a well-crafted thought and sentence.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

I am not a contrarian. Irreverent is the word!

During graduate school, I was a student intern at a public agency.  Right from the first day there I knew I would not survive in such environments. But, of course, life is one cruel joke after another, and I ended up working for another public agency for more than five years before I returned to academia.

Even on that first day, I was reminded of a comment a graduate school professor made about how he became a libertarian.  It was all because of the summer internship he did at the Los Angeles County government when he was an undergrad.  After one day, I could certainly relate to him, though, even now, I am not a libertarian, but a Democrat who leans that way.

Anyway, a couple of weeks into my internship, during a discussion with my supervisor, I presented a view that was not what she apparently wanted to hear.  "I noticed you are a contrarian" she remarked.

The lowly intern that I was, I did not want to correct her that I was not taking such a stance because I wanted to argue but because what she claimed was wrong.

The irreverence--towards people and false ideas alike--is also why I think I naturally gravitated towards the likes of Christopher Hitchens.  Though, I had always wondered why he chose the title of "contrarian" for his Letters to a young contrarian. His questioning of accepted wisdom was not as a merely debating strategy but because to him there was no sacred cow.  It was sheer irreverence. Who else would have gone after Mother Teresa like how he did!

As Hitchens notes towards the end of the interview,which is when Charlie Rose gets to the book itself, living that irreverent (or contrarian) life is living a life, as opposed to having a career or a job.  It is truly who we are that we live.  And, yes, Hitchens, too talks about leaning towards libertarianism.

I would think that when in pursuit of truth, we naturally become irreverent. The progress of science has nothing but been one instance of irreverence after another.  In the old days, when irreverence was religious blasphemy, heresy, well, a philosopher like Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake.  While irreverent explorations in science are no longer questioned, irreverence in the pursuit of understanding social aspects is far from tolerated, as the recent controversy related to Wendy Doniger's The Hindus demonstrates.

The academic world is no different from the rest of society.  As long as one holds hands with the rest and sings the preferred version of Kumbaya, then all is well.  There is no place for the irreverent, which is a complete contrast to the idealized version of academe that I had in mind.

But, hey, I never set out to win the popularity contest anyway!  So, today's question: whom should I piss off? ;)

Friday, March 07, 2014

I don't care about the uselessness of what I do

I am amazed, and sometimes even envious, of people who are single-minded in their approach to life. There might be that one thing which is their thing, which they know and do well, and they care not to spend time on anything else or even know about anything else.

I am very much unlike them.

If only I knew how to confine myself within some narrow walls, is what I think every once in a while. Quickly those thoughts vaporize, thankfully.

Which is why, as informative and a great reading experience as Wendy Doniger's The Hindus is, I had to take a break from it and look around at the rest of the world.

Not only look at the world, but also blog about it!

Not that the blogging about all things wonderful (and not) about this world yields any tangible and positive results.


The world being such a fascinating place, there is no shortage of topics to blog about.  But, I can see that sometime in the future, I will, for certain, feel like how Philip Roth explains his retirement from writing:
Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-­preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.
Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.
Yes, keeps me out of trouble, as I like to say.  Though, there are times when I wonder if I my identity is so wrapped up with such a behavior that not engaging in what I do will then be a cause for a complete breakdown. Thankfully, those thoughts also quickly vanish.

I am stuck with reading, and thinking, and commenting, for a long, long, long time to come, I hope.  What a wonderful problem to have!

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