Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Just say hello

"I feel isolated" said my father in one of our recent conversations.

His feeling of isolation might seem to be an exaggerated statement when viewed via a framework that is not his.  Father's world was, and is, defined by the old traditions in the old country.  The traditions where even the second and third cousins were as close relatives as siblings were.  A tradition in which the extended family was one hyperextended set of networks.  Interestingly, one of his cousin brothers, who is  a decade and a half younger than him, apparently expressed a similar sentiment as well.  My mother joked that the two (cousin) brothers were consoling each other!

Emotions and feelings cannot be countered with objective measures.  Emotions are emotions.  Thus, there was no use, I figured, in pointing out the reality that his everyday reports to me include the conversations and visits he had with different people.  And here he was expressing that feeling of isolation when we were Skyping!  A technological miracle that allows us to remain connected from our locations on opposite sides of the planet.

Back when I was new to this country, telephone calls to India were mighty expensive, even during the off-peak times, and especially on a graduate student budget.  Now, a telephone call is inexpensive.  But, father is no longer interested in the telephone--he has recently gotten used to Skype.  And that has its own problems--when the video doesn't work, because of network speeds in India, and all we have is an audio call, he loses the interest to chat. (It was when the video worked, a couple of days ago, that he made that remark.)

Of course, father's comment was not merely about his interactions with this son.  It was about the first cousins who have drifted away.  The second cousins who might not even know that he still exists.  The children of those cousins who perhaps do not even know of such a person.  In other words, a current world that is vastly different from his own old world in the old world.

The old traditions held that nephews take after their uncles.  While I don't know how much that is true, it certainly is the case with father.  Like his uncle, father, too, recited from Bhaja Govindam to underscore his feelings.  There is something powerful in the argument when one recites from memory the most appropriate verse, more so when it is in Sanskrit:
यावद्वित्तोपार्जन सक्तः
स्तावन्निज परिवारो रक्तः |
पश्चाज्जीवति जर्जर देहे 
वार्तां कोऽपि न पृच्छति गेहे
távan-nija-pariváro raktaç

paùcáj-jivati jarjara-dehe

vártam kopi na pøcchati gehe 
And then came the translation:
So long as a man is fit and able to support his family,
see what affection all those around him show |
But no one at home cares to even have a word with him
when his body totters due to old age.
Thanks to having lived this long, I knew better than to intellectualize his comments right then and there.  My first thought was that if that was expressed by Sankara a long time ago, even then he was aware that old people were sidelined?

More than that, I did not want to make a point that economic development comes with many variations of a Faustian bargain, and a complete redefinition of relationships is one of the ways in which we have paid the price.  Of course, it is also thanks to economic development that we now have plenty of people his age, and older--and on Skype--when a mere two centuries ago the average life expectancy for humans was less than forty years!

While father might express his isolation in one kind of an old-world framework, isolation and loneliness are increasingly characteristics of our existential angst. Not only among the elderly.  This is one of the issues that Oprah appears to have taken on, in which Sanjay Gupta writes:
According to estimates by University of Chicago psychology professor John T. Cacioppo, PhD, coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, at any given time at least one in five people, or roughly 60 million Americans, suffers from loneliness. By this I mean both the acute bouts of melancholy we all feel from time to time, as well as a chronic lack of intimacy—a yearning for someone to truly know you, get you, see you—that can leave people feeling seriously unmoored
So, what is a simple thing that you can do?
Just Say Hello!
Especially to your aging parents.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Have we made this world a boring place?

The world was a mysterious place to me when I was a kid.  It was, after all, the prehistoric era--no television, no phones, and--most of all--no internet.

Those days, even a place that was a hundred kilometers away was a mystery.  America was somewhere out there.  And in that somewhere was my father's friend, who was a professor in a place called Pullman.

Once, he sent as gifts two sets of pencils.  One set had my name printed on each pencil, and the other set of pencils had my brother's name.  My brother and I thought it was the greatest gift ever.  The irony was that those pencils did not write well on the paper that we had in India, and we practically never used them.  But, we cherished them nonetheless.

The Pullman professor then topped that with a National Geographic gift subscription.  Glossy like I had never seen before.  Large sized maps.  Strange names of countries and peoples.  Stranger were the animals and birds.  And, hello, America was sending spacecrafts called Viking?
Against that kind of a backdrop from my much, much, younger days, there seems to be very little that is a mystery anymore.

Back then, we had to go different places in order to taste different foods.  Because, we did not know how to make rasgulla or the local market did not carry the ingredients or both.  It is a different world now.  We seem to get everything everywhere.  Even worse, increasingly every place looks and feels and sounds similar to every other place.  Commenting on the New Yorker's cover, the artist notes:
“I used to have to go to Rue des Rosiers to get a bagel—now you can get one anywhere in Paris,” says Charles Berberian, the Parisian cartoonist who painted this week’s cover, “Out and About.” Berberian’s image shows a couple at a café terrace in Brooklyn—or is it Paris?
The small town here in Oregon where my college campus is located has a bagel shop. Everything made right there.  And tastes pretty darn good too.  It's name?  "New York Bagel and Bistro."  There you have it--the confluence of NY and the French all in one shop name here in small town Oregon.
“New York has infiltrated Paris, and vice versa,” Berberian says. “The ambience in the street, the way people dress. The stores are the same now in Brooklyn and in my neighborhood, the 10th arrondissement. Ideas, trends are communicated instantly. Remember when you used to send packages by FedEx and had to wait two or three days?”
Everything is everywhere. And if not there at that very moment, can be had within a matter of hours.  Affluence has made life a tad boring.  Of course, I will take this affluence any day over the prehistoric era when ignorance was not bliss by any means ;)

Monday, April 28, 2014

I tell horrible groaners. I am not an entertainer!

"I am not sufficiently entertained by these materials" replied the student when I asked him for his views during the class discussions.  The entire class and I had a good laugh because it was directed at the dry subject content that the students had to endure even if they did not enjoy it.

While the students in that class are well on their way to graduating, that particular funny comment is also a tongue-in-cheek statement on contemporary higher education and the expectations that students have. Increasingly, students seem to be conveying an impression that if the classes aren't "entertaining," for want of a better word, then maybe they will shop around for a class that will be more interesting.

A couple of years ago, during the first day of introductions when a term began, I asked students why they had opted to register for that particular class.  One student said, "my friends told me you show Onion videos."  Indeed, I had used a few of the Onion's hilariously satirical videos in order to engage students in thinking about economic geography.  In fact, at one academic conference my talk was about how we faculty can use those videos as starting points in order to help students think about topics like economic development in sub-Saharan Africa or outsourcing.  But, I would never have expected students to sign up for a class only because of the laughs.

Rarely do I use those videos anymore, worried that students might be getting the wrong message.  I am not Sriram the entertainer, nor are my classes merely for fun.  Learning is a serious activity.

In such an educational context, we also have a system of students evaluating faculty.  What significant evaluation can a reasonable person expect out of a student who signed up for a class because of the Onion's videos?  How about the concept of students evaluating faculty on their teaching, even if we set that "Onion videos" student aside?

"Student evaluations of professors aren’t just biased and absurd—they don’t even work" writes Rebecca Schuman:
[Asking] students to evaluate their professors anonymously is basically like Trader Joe’s soliciting Yelp reviews from a shoplifter.
I’m sorry—a bigoted shoplifter. Because student evaluations aren’t just useless: They’re biased.
But, universities continue with the system of evaluations anyway.

Years ago, before the union leader issued a proclamation in which he directed other faculty from paying attention to me, I suggested to him that we rethink the purpose of evaluation.  In an email, in November 2004, I wrote to him:
As an institution, and as a society, our interest is in the outcomes, and not in directing faculty colleagues on how they should engage their students in the classroom.  
Of course, measuring the outcomes is not easy and we could get bogged down in highly contested issues.  But, isn't that all the more the reason for academics to take that up--aren't we interested in solving puzzles?

I am reminded of this quote from a couple of years ago:
"Students are the inventory," Mr. Crumbley says. "The real stakeholders in higher education are employers, society, the people who hire our graduates. But what we do is ask the inventory if a professor is good or bad. At General Motors," he says, "you don't ask the cars which factory workers are good at their jobs. You check the cars for defects, you ask the drivers, and that's how you know how the workers are doing."
As I noted, even then, the analogy is crude, but the fact is that society does pay attention to the outcomes.  Society does not care whether or not I was entertaining in the classroom, but does deeply care about whether or not the graduates know what they are expected to know.

Thus, at the end of it all, when Robin can't put together a meaningful analysis, and when Leslie has no idea about India and China and the other emerging economies, I am not at all surprised that the world outside the academy largely discounts the college diploma.  And that is not an entertaining result, is it?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

No child left behind ... without a college diploma!

I have often remarked, cynically, that kids in elementary school are brainwashed into believing that the whole point of first grade is to get on that preparatory path to college.  In this modern world, the college degree is the holy grail.

My grandmother always reminded us about not joking about important things in life, especially cynically, because she believed that eventually they will come true.  Yes, some twisted logic about causation that is, but, hey, in this case it has come true!  An annual year-end kindergarten show has been canceled at a New York school (ht) because--hold on to your chairs, and look away from the screen if you are feeling queasy:
The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills ...
So, it turns out that I was wrong.  The brainwashing does not start with the first grade, but right at kindergarten.  Hey little boys and girls, can you say SAT?

What the hell is wrong with the system, you ask?

It is simple, dear reader.
This didn’t come out of the blue. Kindergarten (and even preschool) has increasingly become academic — at the expense of things such as recess and the arts — in this era of standardized test-based school reform. In most states, educators are evaluated in large part on test scores of students (sometimes students they don’t have) and on showing that their students are “college and career ready,” the mantra of the Obama administration’s education initiatives.
Yep. As simple as that.  The George Obama presidencies effectively want to make sure that no child is left behind without a college degree.  Johnny may not be able to write or think, and may not be interested at all in going to college, but, by golly, we will make sure that a college diploma is had by all!

That letter to parents informing them about the cancellation ends with this:
Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.
Oh yeah, in the best interests of all children.

If only the kindergarteners knew the real story that college screws everyone, not only the athletes

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Death Before Dementia

It has been a long-running fear of mine.  The fear, the worry, over Alzheimer's.  Or, any ailment of any name, for that matter, in which I could regress towards not knowing where I am and who I am.  A person exists, and yet that person does not exist.  What a tortured "existence" that is.

The logical brain--which is fine now--always reminds me that there is nothing that can be preemptively done.  If it happens, well, shit happens.  I have no idea how the faithful reconcile themselves to such possibilities but at some point they, too, surely recognize that it is all in the luck of the draw.  One can be rich, and one can be poor, but if the neurons go on a work stoppage, that is it.  A blankness sets in on the face.

A couple of hundred years ago, people did not have to worry much about such a state of existence.  How could they when the average life expectancy was no more than forty.  The typical person died well before the neurons could rise up in rebellion.  Now, as we live longer and longer lives, the threat of dementia looms large.  I can run, it seems, but there is no place to hide.

The tsunami of dementia is about to swamp us, writes Michael Kinsley in the New Yorker. (sub. req.) Almost from my first year of graduate school, I have been a fan of Kinsley's.  I loved his writing--the content and the style--in the wonky outlets that I meticulously read.  When he started Slate with Microsoft, in the early years of the web, I became a Slate faithful, which I am even now though Kinsley is long gone.

One of the reasons that Kinsley is long gone--an early onset of Parkinson's.  He was forty-three, and that was twenty years ago.  The fact that twenty years later he is still writing serious content, with that same old phenomenal sense of humor that he had, says a lot about how much Kinsley has been able to stave it off.  An outlier he certainly is.

In the New Yorker piece that is simultaneously hilarious and depressing, Kinsley writes that the ultimate race is this: competitive cognition:
The rules are simple: the winner is whoever dies with more of his or her marbles.
Which, therefore, leads to:
So "Death before dementia" is your rallying cry.  It is also your best strategy, at the moment, since there's no cure for either one.
As Kinsley notes, Parkinson's is not merely a movement disorder. It is not merely about the shakes.
[There] are three categories of Parkinson's symptoms. There are physical symptoms, cognitive ones, and psychiatric ones--depression, anxiety, and so on.
Understanding that Parkinson's is more than a mere movement disorder will generate additional issues:
As we get older, we're all going to lose a few of our marbles.  As the word gets out that Parkinson's disease is not just a movement disorder, there will be people whose careers will be destroyed because, on a particular day at a particular time, they can't recite a seven-digit telephone number backward.  Allowing someone's fate to depend on whether he or she can do well on some stupid test is just the reductio ad absurdum of the meritocratic machinery that has been pretty good to me (and to you, I suspect) over most of a lifetime.
All because we live in a different world from two hundred years ago.  A world in which we live long lives. A world in which the brain is worth more than the brawn.  And a world in which we cherish and reward meritorious accomplishments.

Quite a Faustian bargain we have made.

I am all for my death before dementia!

Friday, April 25, 2014

The world's most dangerous animal

In my groggy state yesterday morning, I thought I heard a familiar voice through the radio.  "I know this voice" I kept telling myself.

And then it clicked.

No, that voice did not belong to the most dangerous animal that I am referring to.

The voice was of the nerdy, wonky, super-rich Bill Gates.

I perked up.

In response to the question of how rich countries were able to get rid of malaria, Gates replied:
They're mostly near the equator and so they're getting malaria on a year-round basis. The thing we have in the U.S. where we had malaria was that during the winter we had very few people who were carrying the malaria parasite. In subsequent winters you had less and less people carrying it over until eventually had zero.
But we don't have winters around the equator, so it requires far better tools than it required for the United States.
Yes, a paradise for the parasite and for mosquitoes.  The mosquito, dear reader, is one heck of a dangerous animal. (ht)

There is an old joke about how big is not powerful; the comeback to that is, "you spend a night in a tent with a mosquito and let me know."

A few years ago, I listened to a science journalist talk about her book with Terry Gross--I recall the journalist was an Indian-American, who had written a book on mosquitoes.  She said something to the effect that if we eliminated mosquitoes from this planet, there would be no difference at all.  Or, actually, the difference will be that we humans will be healthier.  I don't know if she was being serious or if that was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but in any case I would rather pay taxes to kill all the damn mosquitoes on earth.

It turned out that it was all because April 25th is World Malaria Day.  We need to build on the good work that has been done:
Since 2000, there has been a 42 per cent reduction in malaria mortality rates globally, and a 49 per cent decline in the WHO African Region. This progress has led some malaria-endemic countries, even those with historically high burdens of malaria, to start exploring the possibility of elimination.
The world knows how to get this done.  Lack of resources is the number one reason.  Not having enough money to go after the pesky malaria is understandable; after all, don't we first need money to build better and better bombs and missiles, and to eradicate forever erectile dysfunction? As George Carlin noted it is "dick fear"--bombs and missiles are so much dick-shaped and it is no wonder we want to spend all the money we can on making sure that the missile and the penis are upright and ready!

For those of you who are not teetotalers like me, if you are wondering what drink you could have to celebrate the day, make yourself a gin and tonic. Why?  The story goes back to the era of the British Empire:
Quinine powder quickly became critical to the health of the empire. By the 1840s British citizens and soldiers in India were using 700 tons of cinchona bark annually for their protective doses of quinine. Quinine powder kept the troops alive, allowed officials to survive in low-lying and wet regions of India, and ultimately permitted a stable (though surprisingly small) British population to prosper in Britain’s tropical colonies. Quinine was so bitter, though, that British officials stationed in India and other tropical posts took to mixing the powder with soda and sugar. “Tonic water,” of a sort, was born. ...
It was only natural that at some point during this time an enterprising colonial official combined his (or her) daily dose of protective quinine tonic with a shot (or two) of gin. Rather than knock back a bitter glass of tonic in the morning, why not enjoy it in the afternoon with a healthy gin ration?
The gin and tonic was born—and the cool, crisp concoction could, as Churchill observed, start saving all those English lives.
Let us save a lot more lives--English or not.  Not the damn mosquitoes' lives though!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is boredom on its way out?

Boredom other than in my classroom, that is.  No, it is not me who is bored, but apparently students are. We are just about completing four weeks and I have already seen quite a few heads dangerously nodding.  Many eyes seem to stare vacantly. Some students take off during the break and do not come back.  I have enough and more evidence that my classes are awfully boring places.

But, in the world outside of my classroom, it has become one app after another that competes for our attention.  We do not have enough time to keep up with the text messages, Facebook status updates, Twitter conversations, Instagram, Netflix, television, ... and the real world of people.  Ask yourself when it was the last time that you sat down feeling bored out of your wits.  Again, a reminder--bored when you were not in my class!

I have blogged more than once (especially this and this) about how it has become a luxury anymore to be bored.  The subject fascinates me to no end.  When waiting for the flights, for instance, I am very happy to walk about or to merely watch people coming and going.  But, most of the rest seem to be fixated on their gadgets. With their ears also plugged into their gadgets. When there is quite a lot of life and drama happening all around them.  Why are they so afraid of not really doing anything other than while away their time?  What is the rush--we are all going to die anyway and, as far as I know, there is no prize for being the first to exit this planet or if one is the last from the group.  We may as well take it all in at a leisurely pace, right?  The gadgets are changing us, and changing us rapidly:
Virginia Woolf famously said that on or about December 1910 human character changed. We don’t yet know if the same thing happened with the release of the iPhone 5—but, as the digital and “real” worlds become harder to distinguish from each other, it seems clear that something is shifting. The ways we interact with each other and with the world have altered. 
 "All the world’s an app," yes.
what about our changing perceptions of time and space? In The App Generation, Katie Davis remarks that her younger sister has never had the experience of being lost, and probably never will, unless she loses her phone. What does never getting lost do to someone’s experience of the world? With GPS everywhere, is a forest still a forest or is it just a collection of trees? And how many other states of being are vanishing? Boyd (refreshingly) insists that “the kids are alright”—but her book also suggests that they are never really alone. Are boredom, solitude and aimlessness on their way out, too? ...
For Martin Heidegger, the feeling of profound boredom—which he felt while waiting for a train at a provincial train station, for instance—brought one closest to the kind of active attention that separates human beings from animals.
 There's something happening here But what it is ain't exactly clear.
We need more writers thinking deeply about the way the internet reorders our experience of everyday life. Not just the ways it makes tasks easier or changes the way we socialise and communicate with one another, but the way it shapes our wants, our fears, our way of thinking and talking.
I don't understand why more people aren't engaged in discussing the changes.  Instead, we seem to be more and more eager, than ever before, to wait for the next big thing, or at least the next big update.We wait in lines in the dead of the night in order to get our hands on the latest gadget.  During the break in the classes, the room gets very quiet--even quieter than the library.  Because students are busy with their smartphones. Quite a contrast to the old days when the break would make the class one awfully noisy place and I would have to yell to get their attention and remind them to pause those conversations and allow me to talk.  Maybe all that conversation was why a few years ago, it was a rare student who fell asleep in my classes?

Wait a second; you read until here?  Oh boy, you must have been really, really bored! ;)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Homeless at home

Finally, after all the traveling, I am back in my own territory.  Sure, the bed at the Hilton was much better a quality mattress than is mine at home.  But, I slept much better here.  There is no place like home, indeed.

Not on the road meant eating at home.  I can have eggs with feta cheese then.  But, oh, I first have to get eggs and feta, and more.

It was time to visit the store.

The rain was back, with a blustery wind too.  But, the mind tolerates that because of the awareness that winter is now long gone.  The cold and dark days, and the long hours of the night, are already distant memories.  The days will get longer. And slowly warmer.  Life has returned.

As I walked into the store, I looked across at the checkout counters.  None of my friends were at work.  I suppose it was because I was at the store at an hour that I am usually never there.  The same store without my friendly checkout clerks seemed so much an alien place.  I hurriedly gathered the supplies and didn't bother to engage in any chit-chat with the clerk on duty with whom I have no relationship and nor did I feel like initiating one.

The drizzle and the breeze felt refreshing.  The familiar natural elements compensated for the oddly alien feeling when inside the store.  The rain has become so much a part of my life here that I miss it when it does not sprinkle for a few days.  I tire from the sun and the warmth, and look forward to the dark clouds.

A smallish figure on a small wheelchair approached me.  In the dimly lit parking lot, it was not clear whether it was a child or an adult.  As we got closer to each other, it was clear--a small built woman, whose arms and legs were either not fully formed or had gone through amputation maybe?

"I hate to bother you, sir.  I am homeless and new to Eugene.  Any way you can help?"

The richest country that the planet has ever known.  Yet such sights are far from uncommon.  How could this be possible?  How do we let this happen?  Why do we tolerate such injustice?  How am I supposed to respond?  At least if she were able bodied, I could pretend that I did not hear her and keep walking. Or, politely tell her a no.  But, she was no able-bodied adult.  Not only the wheelchair but a lot more.

I looked into my wallet. Will one dollar be enough, I asked myself.  How about two?  There was no way I was going to give her the only twenty dollar bill that I had.  I had established for myself that it was going to be number between one and twenty.  How does one decide in such a situation?

I cursed the government. I pay taxes. I expect the government to use the revenue to take care of my fellow humans in this country. Instead of doing that, my government spends gazillions on the military in order to bomb the shit out of countries and send them back to the stone age.  A gazillion for defense, but ask for a couple of millions for some homeless program and they cry poverty. And I am forced to then deal with this reality on a windy and rainy night at the grocery store parking lot.  Pox on the war-mongering demagogues!

I spotted a five-dollar note. So, that was the number between one and twenty. She said thanks, and rolled away.

At least I have my arms.
My legs.
A home.
A car.
A career.
Damn, I have everything.
I am one of the rich!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Racism in our dating and marrying preferences

Even before I reached my teens, I knew that I was against the tradition of arranged marriage.  It did not seem right.  Into my teens and as I passed those years, I was all the more convinced that the arranged marriage was a screwed up system.  Looking back, I am all the happier that I have lived out a life in which there has not been any place for that tradition.

Even if I leave alone the emotions of love and going after what the heart wants, I could not understand how one could restrict the choice of a spouse in that arranged marriage context only to a suitable mate from similar backgrounds.  It was nothing but a rigid institutionalization of us-versus-them.  A Tamil Iyer Brahmin will be set to marry only a Tamil Brahmin Iyer because the others are inferior?  Not worth a look?  Isn't such a narrow-minded approach nothing but racism by another name?

 If we want to systematically associate ourselves only with people who are like us, well, isn't that racism?  Yes, in a way I am returning to the racism topic; you thought I will leave my dear grandmothers in peace, eh!

Back when I was still in graduate school, I once wrote to The Hindu that inter-marriage is the key to harmony in India--harmony among people who are otherwise defined by differences.  Marriages across caste lines. Marriages across religions. Of course, that was one of the many unpublished essays that I have authored.  Blogging has at least taken care of that problem--after all, I am my own publisher ;)

Now, I live in a different country.  Thankfully!  (No offense meant to the readers from the old country ... hehe)  A country in which racism is not anything new either.  A part of life here too, though most people think of themselves, especially here in the white Pacific Northwest, as beyond racism.  In my adopted country, could one ask whether it is "racist to date only people of your own race?"  Reihan Salam raises that very question and the byline gives away the answer: Yes.

First, about Salam.  I have been reading his commentaries for a few years now.  A sharp thinker.  Well informed.  And, of course, I am especially excited that he has made himself a name even when young for one reason--he is a fellow South Asian.  Well, his parents immigrated from Bangladesh.  BTW, is it racist to get excited about some stranger all because he comes from that part of the world?

Anyway, Salam seems to be slowly evolving in his own views.  It appears that he is not as sharply conservative as he once seemed to be.  Or am I imagining it?

So, back to the issue of racism and dating only people of your own race.  Salam writes:
Is a strong same-race preference something one ought to be ashamed of? Or is it enough to say that the heart wants what it wants and to leave it at that? This is a more important question than you might think.
Now, ask yourself this.  Our hearts might like whatever our hearts want, yes.  Perhaps the heart likes slim people. Or fat people. Or short people. Or tall people.  Notice how I have only referred to "people."  But, even before we allow the heart to fall for a person, if the brain is screening out people from "other" races, then, well, isn't that racism?

Salam writes:
To be sure, dating is about more than the sharing of bread, and OkCupid users who express strong racial preferences may well be doing the world a favor by being open and honest about their wants. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask those who do express such preferences, and those who live them in practice, to reflect on them, and on how there might be more to fighting racism than voting “the right way.”
My grandmothers lived long lives for their generation, but not long enough to witness the changes in the lives of some of their grandchildren, when it comes to this spousal issue.  It was well beyond an arranged marriage in my case.  One cousin wed an Oriya. Another is married to a Marathi. Yet another is married to a Christian.  A pretty darn good record, though the number of cousins with arranged marriages to Tamil Brahmin Iyer spouses outnumber those of us who did not care to remain in that box.  A healthy start, nonetheless.  If the rest of the Tamil Brahmin Iyers and entire world begins this practice ... hey, a man can dream, can't he?

Monday, April 21, 2014

No more Borlaugs if smart ones rush to Wall St and the Silicon Valley?

As I have often remarked in this blog and elsewhere, a primary trigger for me to get to doing what I do now was the context in which I grew up--born into relative privilege with a great deal of material deprivation all around me.  I did not know how I could ever contribute to help in reducing that deprivation; but, I wanted to at least understand it.

Thus, even in the early semesters in grad school, I was impressed with how much people had invested their time and energy into not only understanding many of those issues but even doing something about them.  Oddly enough, even though it was Marx who urged philosophers to go beyond interpreting the world and into doing something about it, it was more often than not the anything-but-Marxist ones that seemed to have done a great deal, and doing quite some work to change the world.

One of those was Norman Borlaug.

The readers of this blog are way informed and they know the name all too well.  But, in the world outside of this blog, most likely the response will be "Norman who?"

In 2014, especially in the obese and overweight US of A, it might be difficult to imagine that not too long ago there was a real threat of food shortages. And famines.  While there were political reasons, such as Mao's crazy policies, the threat of undernourishment was real.  Which is where Borlaug's contributions in developing better varieties of staples take on remarkable weight:
Mexican wheat production per hectare leapt from 1,400 kilogrammes in 1960 to 2,700 kilogrammes in 1963. ...
Borlaug repeated the trick in India and Pakistan, despite initial resistance from farmers wary of planting a crop developed by Americans that might (so they had been told) introduce foreign pests to the sub-continent. However, the new seeds were soon embraced and Indian wheat production jumped from 12million tonnes in 1965 to 17million tonnes in 1967, while Pakistan soon became self-sufficient in wheat seeds.
And, just like that, conditions changed in a matter of a generation.
Borlaug’s single-minded devotion to his task and his optimistic belief in the possibility of improving the world demonstrate what can be achieved by science as a humanist and humane endeavour.
Secondly, Borlaug is a wonderful example of a life lived well. Touched by poverty and hunger both in his native United States and in the developing world, Borlaug devoted himself to the task of finding solutions to problems that were ruining or even ending lives. We can only marvel at the intelligence and stamina of individuals like Borlaug who persevere to make innovations that change the world.
Even now there are plenty of real problems that we humans face in the contemporary world, which is vastly different from the one more than fifty years ago.  However, I do not get a sense that there is a commitment to innovations that are driven by "science as a humanist and humane endeavour."  As has often been reported, the attraction to earn gazillions juggling numbers at Wall Street or by making us waste time are luring plenty of scientific and technological talent.  Do we have the likes of Borlaug in the works at all?

I worry that our priorities are messed up.  Which, perhaps, is all the more why Borlaug's contributions are impressive.
For all you did, and all you represent: thanks, Norman. RIP.
Yes, thanks, in this centenary year.
A fitting epitaph is a line from a poem by Matthew Arnold: a man “who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I commented about a woman's nail polish. And lived!

The restaurant was busy.  The patrons at the tables reflected the name of the restaurant and the cuisine it served.  Our table was no different--all of us family folk with Indian origins.

The waitress, who seemed to be in her mid-twenties, handed us the menu.  I noticed her nail polish, which was all in blue.  Well, not all.  The nails of all the fingers except one were in blue.  And one nail had white with what I thought were some patterns.

It was a year or so ago that I noticed a young female student in one of my classes having one finger nail in a color that was different from all the other fingernails.  She explained to me--yes, I was curious enough to ask about that in front of the entire class--about this fashion trend.  Not that I always ask such questions publicly.  Ahem, I know better.  For instance, a few years ago, there was a male student in class with all his fingernails painted black.  I did not ask him anything.  I did not even convey to him that I had noticed it.

As we were well into eating, the waitress swung by the table to ask that annoying question that the wait-people always ask: "is everything ok?"  At least, she did not add "guys" to that question. I did not tell her that my balding head was sweating from the spices and red chili.  I did not tell her that the portions were way too huge.

"I am fascinated by your nail polish" is what I told her.

She smiled a wide smile.  Her eyes lit up.  She said quite a bit about her nails and the polish.  After the waitress left, my cousin was curious and wanted to know why I made that comment.  "Chumma" I replied with a shrug.  "I felt that it would make her happy.  If I can make a stranger happy with something as simple as that, well, why not?"

A waitress is a person, too.  She might be rushing from table to table, doing the same job shift after shift, day after day.  Maybe it is a temporary job until she moves onto something else.  Maybe it is also her business, her career.  To her, too, there is more to life than the mere wages and tips that the job provides them.

It was a similar experience at another restaurant that we went to the following day. No, it is not another nail polish story.  It was a family owned business.  When the young woman, who seemed to be the owner or a part-owner, came to pick up the plates and give us the bill--which I left to the others to pay, haha!-- I asked her "how did you decide to locate the restaurant here?"

She, too, like the waitress the previous night, smiled big time.  And she said a lot about having come to this part of the country as a tourist and thinking that she and her family would love to live in a charming and scenic small town like that where they could run a restaurant.  "We were confident that people will drive to this small town if we provided quality food and service" she beamed with pride.

Chances are high that I will never run into those women again.  It is even more likely that they do not even remember any of these conversations.  But, in the blip of a life we lead in this cosmos, for that fraction of a second, I think I made them feel a tad good about themselves.  And I meant them well.  With good food and good service, they certainly made my fraction of a second in this universe that much more enjoyable.

In our short lives, we meet plenty of people--most of them for very, very short periods.  If every meeting, or at least most of those meetings, will only make us smile, imagine what a wonderful world this would be!

Where are the mile high Indians?

Not that mile high!  What a dirty mind you have, dear reader!

In all my flights within the US--either entirely domestic or the domestic segments of international flights--I have never, ever, been in a plane with a flight attendant--male or female--who looked Indian-American.  In the international flights--even on Lufthansa--there have been quite a few Indian personnel, yes.  But, for that matter, even when waiting at US airports, which I have done a lot, I have not seen Indian-American flight attendants rushing around.  Ground-staff I have seen in plenty, yes.  But not the flying kind Indian-American staff.

Of course, there could be a huge sampling error at play.  But, within this sample, when I have seen flight attendants who are Chinese-American, Korean-American, Japanese-American, Filipino-American, well, how come no Indian-American?

It could be that Indian-Americans are chasing other occupational opportunities:
Indian Americans lead all other groups by a significant margin in their levels of income and education. Seven-in-ten Indian-American adults ages 25 and older have a college degree, compared with about half of Americans of Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Japanese ancestry, and about a quarter of Vietnamese Americans.
Seven-in-ten!  No wonder that my friend is impressed that every Indian-American I know seems to have at least one graduate degree!

The American story is full of one kind of "group" having its glorious moment.  In a country that was long dominated by the WASP elites, then came different groups with economic success.  Five decades ago:
In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. 
A couple of generations later, the "group" is no longer statistically different from the mainstream averages.  Perhaps it is the Indian turn now.

The picture of the Indian-American is certainly not narrow anymore to being a motel owner (Patel motel) or being in a science/engineering occupation.  The recent Pulitzer Prize in Poetry is perhaps the most recent piece of evidence:
Bangalore-born Vijay Seshadri’s volume of verse, “3 Sections,” won the Pulitzer prize for poetry on Monday.
Mr. Seshadri lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College. When he was five, he moved with his family from India to the United States.
It is a huge achievement--an Indian-American stating to his parents about his wish to be a poet, when the "norm" is to enter the more traditionally high-income occupations.  Of course, Seshadri is not the first of such off-beat success:
Mr. Seshadri is the first Indian-American to win in the poetry category. He joins a growing list of Indian-American writers to have won the prestigious Pulitzer. In 2000, Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel “Interpreter of Maladies” in the fiction category. Then in 2011, cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” won in the general non-fiction category.
We have had Indian-American motel owners, 7-11 caricatures, physician and engineer stereotypes.  On to literature also.

But, how about the Indian-American plumbers and electricians? Flight attendants?  Are there any?  Surely not all Indian-American kids have the abilities or the interests to be surgeons and programmers and poets.  Where are those Indian-Americans?  What lives do they lead?  I would love to read a profile of a flight attendant who was born in the US to parents who immigrated from India.  Wouldn't you too?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The checklist manifesto works. Except when it does not!

My plan was to fill gas at one of the regular gas stations where I stop.  The gas gauge made it clear that there wasn't enough fuel in the tank.  With my eyes on the road, I reached into my bag for the wallet.

No wallet.

Perhaps in the computer bag?  My hands crawled in the ouch pouch there.

No wallet.

In my mind, I replayed the day.  There was only one possibility--the wallet was at home.  The home that I was driving towards.

But, not enough gas.  For sure.  There was a fair chance that I would reach home.  But, what if I don't make it?  It is not like I can pull into a gas station and fill up--no wallet to pay for the gas.  Even worse, if a cop stopped me for whatever reason, I will be in even more trouble for driving without a valid licence!

I continued driving.  Constantly doing the math on how many miles remained.  And scanning for patrol cars.

I wondered how this happened.  I had to figure this out.

To understand what went wrong is an important part of life.  Way back, when we were kids, my siblings and I loved going to the local outdoor club to watch movies every week.  Every once in a while, before the movie began, they ran short films, some of which were almost like public service announcements.  It being an industrial town, one of the short films was about industrial safety. The film was done with great humor, with a clear bottom-line: accidents do not happen, but are caused.

Not having the wallet with me was also an accident.  How did it happen?

It did not take much to solve the mystery.  I had somehow forgotten to do one thing that I always did before I drove out of the garage.  This one time I forgot and it messed me up.  I forgot to do my mental checklist.

I had my own checklist system to make sure I was not forgetting anything, and this became even more rigorous a habit after reading Atul Gawande's essay in the New Yorker a few years ago.  In the context of medical care, Gawande wrote:
The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When you’re worrying about what treatment to give a woman who won’t stop seizing, it’s hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes.
My regular life checklist approach, therefore, got reinforced.  After pulling out of the garage, the routine was to press the remote to close the door, and then run through a series of checks: gas gauge, work bag, lunch and snacks, water bottle, wallet, cellphone.  It worked very well.

Except this one time when I had forgotten to go over the checklist itself.  Which is why I didn't realize that I didn't have the wallet with me.

Which means I now have a new problem.  How do I make sure that I have gone through the checklist routine?  A checklist for the checklist itself?

I turned into the driveway.  The gas gauge light lit up to indicate that I didn't have even fifteen miles left.  I didn't worry anymore--I pressed open the garage door and I was safely home.

End of the blog post?  Check!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

When academics go nuclear. Wait, they don't!

A long, long time ago, when I was imagining graduate schooling in these United States, it was nothing but the ideal--lively debates and discussions, vigorous exchange of ideas, and camaraderie.

It didn't take long to understand that the reality was anything but that. Faculty, and students too, carved out their own small little corners where they mingled with like-minded people and it was almost always a case of affirming each other's convictions.  No debates--after all, when there is no disagreement, how can there be debates?  The disagreements were over the significance of the regression coefficient!

Thus, in Timur Kuran's economics class, he didn't bother to even bring up the issues that Thomas Biersteker talked about in the international relations class.  And Biersteker made sure to dismiss the ideas that were addressed by Kuran.  I wondered what might happen if Kuran and Biersteker were to sit down and discuss their competing narratives.  The two heads would spontaneously explode?

Over the years, it has become painfully clear that academe is not some Socratic gathering of inquiring minds.  It is a workplace, as much as a Chinese factory is a place where people punch in and punch out.  It is a profit-oriented nonprofit enterprise.  There is, it turns out, no business like show higher education business.

Despite such an understanding, and as if I want to prove that stupid is as stupid does, I go to academic conferences hoping there would be awesome debates and arguments.  Even though I come back without having experienced any, I continue attending conferences hoping there would be something.

This time, I almost had one such experience.  Imagine that!  I am excited because a debate almost happened.  Yes, even the "almost" is that rare!

It was a highly reputed academic who was scheduled to talk about one of the hottest (ha, pun intended) issues of the day--climate change.  A special session that would undoubtedly include his contributions via the IPCC.  The spacious room looked full.  A few were even standing, leaning against the walls.

After his talk, it was time for Q/A.  A couple of softball questions.  Nothing exciting.  And then came a guy with a British accent.  He referred to a NY Times op-ed that had been published the previous day.  As he started talking, I remembered having read and even tweeted about that very op-ed:
The Brit wanted to know why the speaker not only dismissed views like the ones expressed in the op-ed, but also why the speaker was concluding that the op-ed authors were also anti-science just because the policy prescriptions differed from the ones the speaker endorsed.

Now, it is not as if the Brit was able to get all this across in one piece.  The speaker frequently tried to cut him off.  The Brit persisted.  The speaker had the floor anyway, and had the last word on the issue.

So, here was the golden opportunity for a meaningful debate on the substance of the issues and the speaker could not be bothered with taking that up.

I decided against sticking around for the rest of the Q/A, if that's how the speaker was going to deal with dissenting opinions.  A few minutes of wandering around, and I spotted the Brit chatting with a couple of others.  I butted in, and talked with him and others about the exchange in the hall.  I told him about how the op-ed referred to, for instance, the need to think about nuclear energy in the context of non-carbon sources, and that such a thought would typically not be welcomed--even for discussion--by most people like the speaker.

"But even his idol, Hansen, came out in support of nuclear" said the Brit.  I nodded, recalling that.

Today, yet again, the Scientific American reports on nuclear being a part of the non-carbon mix.  And this time, even citing the IPCC itself:
"A mix of low-carbon energy from renewables, nuclear, or fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage [CCS] are going to need to grow to 80 percent of the electricity supply by 2050," said Ryan Wiser, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a lead author of the energy supply chapter of the IPCC's recent Working Group III report.
As a share of global energy supply, nuclear power has actually contracted since 1993, and not just because of high-profile setbacks like the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan.
"The major roadblocks to expanding nuclear power have been more or less the same for a long time—the cost of large, capital-intensive plants, the question of waste management and worries about proliferation," said Neil Strachan, a professor of energy and economic modeling at University College London and a co-author of the Working Group III report.
Of course, nuclear energy is not the answer, but summarily excluding it from discussions when the renewables are not sophisticated enough to meet the energy needs does not seem like a good idea, especially when billions of people in the emerging India and China and and sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere are yet to even get connected to the grid, so to speak.

Some day, maybe academics will engage in honest discussions about all these.  If we live past all the climate change, that is!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A bad moon rising is no loony tune

My eyes were ready to shut down for the day, but my brain would not allow that to happen.  It was past my regular bedtime, and way past the bedtime in the Eastern and Central timezones in which I spent the last few days.

All because of a lunar eclipse.  I suppose my behavior was further evidence linking the moon and madness!

But this was no ordinary eclipse and the blood red eclipse.  So they said.  Thus, of course, it was a blood red madness to stay awake.

Stay awake I did.  There is indeed something about the natural drama that unfolds.  It is magical.  One minute it was a bright full moon--yes, we had a clear sky even here in Oregon!  A few minutes later, it was as if somebody had bitten into the lower corner of the white fruit.  And then more chomp.

The eclipse is a drawn-out affair, which might have worked well back in the prehistoric era.  In the contemporary world where people seem to do ten things in one nanosecond, the eclipse was the slowest of slow motion, even for the slowpoke that I am.

So, to keep myself occupied, I checked the Twitter feed.  For the hashtag on the eclipse.  One caught my attention; I then read the news and tweeted about it:
If I thought I was a lunatic to waste my sleep time to watch the lunar drama, here were the real lunatics.  Cannibalistic at that!
Two brothers in Bhakkar, Pakistan who were imprisoned for cannibalism have now returned to eating human flesh, it has been reported, after the head of a boy was discovered at their house.
So, whose bright idea was it to release from prison two cannibals?  Looks like the prison and justice officials are even more lunatic than the cannibals themselves!

The crime: "they were found to have disinterred and devoured up to 150 corpses from a local graveyard." 

The punishment:
Pakistan has no specific laws against cannibalism, alarmingly, but the pair were arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order section of the Pakistan Penal Code and sentenced to two years in prison along with Rs50,000 in fines.
I had to keep reminding myself that I was not reading The Onion.  Real life is certainly stranger than the fictional world.
Police raided their home this week and recovered the head of a human boy, according to District Police Officer Ameer Abdullah, with Arif being arrested and admitting to his cannibal recidivism, while Farman is still on the loose.
Police have now begun a search to find the missing brother.

Boy am I glad that I live far, far away from this cannibal on the run!

Meanwhile, the moon was being gobbled up by the god-eating Rahu/Ketu, and was now only a sliver.  I stepped out on to the middle of the road.  "Is it red yet?" asked a neighbor from her porch.  It is not only misery but also such lunacy that likes company!  Her husband joined her on the porch.  They went back and left me the lone lunatic.

The Rahu/ketu duo finally ate up the entire moon. But, the moon didn't turn dark.  It was colored.  Madness completed, I left it to the gods above to clean up the celestial gobbling up and went to bed.

A long day lay ahead for me as the madman in the classroom.  I worried that I will be madder than ever.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Where is home, when born in one place, raised in another, lived elsewhere?

Over the last month, I have been meeting with, and re-connecting with, wanderers like me who have settled down in places far away from the places of birth.  Far away from the countries in which were born and raised.  The reconnecting happening at the homes that we have made for ourselves in a new country.

I have often wondered, in this blog too, on what home means in such a modern world where moving around is not unheard of.  Though we relocate and make our lives in completely alien settings, we more often than not forget that this is a new practice in human history.  Through her first forty-plus years, my father's mother barely got around to even forty miles away from her birth place.  Forty miles!  And her parents knew a world that was even smaller.  And here I am ten thousand miles away from all those settings.

Not all migrants and immigrants are at home in their new territories.  "I am so homesick all the time" said a friend a month ago, and the home that she referred to is far away from California in the land where Nikos Kazantzakis called home.   A friend decided to head back home, to India, after all his multinational living.

There are moments, yes, when it hits me hard that I am an immigrant. The reminders coming remembrances of things past, of places and people and foods and music and everything else.  As the author of this essay notes:
Still, no matter how settled, a queasy unsettledness, an existential ambivalence, haunts the immigrant.
An existential ambivalence.  How wonderfully she has articulated that emotion. Damn these writers who can write so well!

The author is no novelist. She, Ruth Behar, is an academic. An anthropology professor at the University of Michigan.  A daughter of Cuban immigrants, Behar writes:
I have surprised myself by ending up becoming more of a rooted creature than I ever imagined I’d be. I have held on to the same job, the same house, the same address, the same husband (I, who never expected to marry). I gave my son, my only child, who is now the age I was when I thought I was never going to settle down, the gift of an immense stability – firm and steady ground on which to stand.
But when I travel and a stranger asks if I’m from Michigan, I immediately reply: ‘I live there, but I’m not from there.’ I feel compelled to tell everyone about my immigrant past: ‘I was born in Cuba, my ancestors were Jews who spoke Yiddish and Judeo-Espanyol, and I grew up in New York. I live in Michigan because it’s where I work.’
I suppose I fear that people might get a mistaken impression of me if they think I am from Michigan. It’s a desire to tell the truth of who I am, to assert I am a person of many diasporas, I come from somewhere else, I don’t have a firm allegiance to any single place. I am passing through, grateful for a place to rest my wings.
This existential ambivalence might not understandable at all to those who have not moved around a whole lot.  But, it is real.  It is an everyday struggle even if one has merely moved from "home" in one part of the country to another.  When I lived in California, an acquaintance missed her home so much that she quit her job and returned home to Chicago.  She missed the "home" that Chicago was, even though it was merely a couple of hours of flight away.

Rudyard Kipling remarked that we are not able to call the entire world our home “since man's heart is small”.  Kipling, too, was a wanderer—he was born in India to British parents, and spent his early childhood in Bombay (now Mumbai), which he described as “mother of cities to me.”  Of all the places he had been to, and lived in, Kipling felt that one place was special. He wrote about that in a poem entitled “Sussex”:
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!
May we all find the Sussex of our own lives.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sex and the single guy. Well, married guy too.

Back in the early years of graduate school, when I was beginning to understand the libertarian political economy, an opportunity came up in class discussions for me to see how far that can be stretched.  I suggested to the class--this was before the days of NAFTA, the Berlin Wall was still there, and China was just about waking up--that in the global division of labor, perhaps we can also think of the spatial distribution of sex work.  And that as much as the US specialized in the silicon industry, well, Thailand specialized in the sex industry.

Of course, discussions at the graduate level are often to test the limits of a theoretical interpretation, but in this one maybe I went too far. Or, for all I know, thanks to my accent, nobody understood a word of what I had to say.  There were no discussions, and we moved on.

The sex industry has morphed in so many different ways now.  Like I mentioned in this post two years ago, I was thrown for quite a loop reading about the vibrator in the New Yorker and in the Atlantic.  If these two magazines that I have subscribed to for years could mainstream sex and the vibrator, then there must be a great deal happening and, as always, I am the last one to know!

Last night, I was flicking through the options on the telly--back home I get only the basic channels and the 49 channels here was mindblowing. One of those was HBO.  The channel surfing me was shocked when I reached HBO.  A completely nude woman was demonstrating various types of vibrators and other sex gadgets.  On regular HBO. Not even some special HBO.  And definitely not some adult pay channel.  When did the puritanical America become so open about sex and vibrators and sex toys?  Did I miss a memo update?

And then today, I scanned at one of my favorite websites ever--the nerd that I am, I have to check in there even when on the road--and there was a link to an article with this teaser:
Prostitution used to be a bad thing – degrading, retrograde and to be opposed. Now sex work is just another service job, like being a waitress...
What was even more interesting was that the link was not to a libertarian publication but to The Nation. So, of course, I had to read it.
On the left, prostitution used to be seen as a bad thing: part of the general degradation of the working class, and the subjugation of women, under capitalism. Women who sold sex were victims, forced by circumstances into a painful and humiliating way of life, and socialism would liberate them. Now, selling sex is sex work—just another service job, with good points and bad—and if you suggest that the women who perform it are anything less than free agents, perhaps even “empowered” if they make enough money, you’re just a prude. Today’s villain is not the pimp or the john—it’s second-wave feminists, with their primitive men-are-the-enemy worldview, and “rescuers” like Nicholas Kristof, who presume to know what’s best for women.
What the what?  There is a group on the left that argues that sex work is just work?  Really?  From the left?  When did I miss this memo?

The author, the ever fiery feminist Katha Pollitt goes for it:
It’s one thing to say sex workers shouldn’t be stigmatized, let alone put in jail. But when feminists argue that sex work should be normalized, they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area. They accept that sex is something women have and men get (do I hear “rape culture,” anyone?), that men are entitled to sex without attracting a partner, even to the limited extent of a pickup in a bar, much less pleasing or satisfying her.
I think I should get back to my ashram soon and stay away from these updates.  Nah, that won't happen--I will continue to investigate this strange world from the protective ashram that my home is.  Stupid is as stupid does, whether on the road or at home!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What a cheesy life!

It is about time I came out of the closet.  And openly admitted to who I really am.

So, here it is.

Out and aloud and proudly in the open.

I am becoming a health nut. A health foodie.

There, I said it!

Even normally, when home, I try to start the day with at least a little bit of protein.  On the road, and when I have to sit in a room and listen to presentations, I knew I had to have more than mere carbs and fat.  Which meant that I needed eggs to start a working day.

But then I am picky about how to eat eggs.  There is no way that I can force myself to eat those scrambled eggs at buffet that they leave sitting there for hours.  Well, unless I have no choice whatsoever.  And this time I had a choice--I just had to locate it!

I did find a place, eventually. I decided to go for an omelette.  

"What do you want in the omelette?" asked the fair-skinned waitress who seemed at least five, if not ten, years older than me.

"Vegetables and cheese.  What options am I looking at?"

"Spinach, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, peppers."

"Everything except mushrooms" I told her.  Perhaps it is all in my imagination, but sometimes those mushrooms seem to trigger strange dreams.

"How about the cheese?"

"What do you have?"

"Cheddar or Swiss?"

I could not decide.  I am so much used to feta and gruyère in my egg preparations at home that all of a sudden I was stumped that the options were so pedestrian.  Maybe I chose the wrong place to have breakfast after all; what kind of a place has only cheddar and Swiss as options!

But, apparently she interpreted my hesitation differently. Very, very differently.  

"The yellow cheese or the white cheese?" she asked me in a much slower delivery.  

Could it be that a dark-skinned Indian guy came across as one who did not know the difference between cheddar and Swiss?  Could it be that the fair-skinned waitress assumed that people like me are ignorant about cheese?  Should I be snarky and tell her something like, "I hoped you would have feta?"

"Swiss please.  And not a lot--I don't want it all gooey and cheesy."  Yep, that is all I said.  There are very few moments in life when a retort is ever worth the time.  This one was not one of those moments.  

As I kept sipping the dark elixir of life, a kitchen-staff brought out the omelette.  The yellow omelette was colorful, with the spinach green, the tomato red, the onion purple, the peppers green and red and greenish-yellow.  I took a small piece.  It tasted great, exactly like what I was looking for.

I was set for the day. A long day of work and fun lay ahead for this health-nut.

Fame is a Fickle Food
By Emily Dickinson

Fame is a fickle food 
Upon a shifting plate 
Whose table once a 
Guest but not 
The second time is set.

Whose crumbs the crows inspect 
And with ironic caw 
Flap past it to the Farmer's Corn – 
Men eat of it and die.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The drama of life will be an awful tragedy, without humor

"It is a 100 percent full flight" the announcement said as the pre-boarding procedures began.

Let the drama begin, I thought to myself.  I have traveled enough to expect crazy things whenever it is a full flight.  People go bonkers, and so do the flight staff sometimes.

The drama began on the ground itself!

"Oh, my coffee and everything else" yelled out a mother to her husband and everybody else as the stroller toppled--that baby was, thankfully, cradled in the father's arms.  I hoped that this mother would not end up next to me on the plane.

As always, I had an aisle seat.  A mild claustrophobia that I counter with the openness of the aisle and by being as much in the front half of the plane as my dollars can possibly get me.

I waited for my seatmates.  First came the window seatmate--a guy about my age.  The middle seat occupant finally walked in.  Slender, tall, with a smile.  Perhaps in her early- or mid-seventies.

We watched the procession of passengers go past us to the rear of the aircraft.  People jostling for space for their carryon bags.

And just like that the plane went dark and emergency lights blinked on.  "Shit, we will be stuck here" I cursed myself for having opted for a red-eye flight to get across to the other side of the continent.  There was a collective gasp from the passengers.

A few seconds later the pilot cleared his throat in the public address.  I now worried about what was to come.

"As you realized the power went out.  But, it was not anything with the plane.  The entire airport lost power.  Our backup system will kick in anytime now."


The lights came back.

Meanwhile, two people in the row behind me claiming to have the boarding pass for the same seat--23A.  An airline staffer threaded her way through the bodies in the aisle and asked to see the boarding passes.  "You have 28A" she told one, who apologized and went away.  "23A ... 28A ... at least in the twenties" she was being sarcastic.  With her role in the drama done, it was exit stage rear for her.

A young man wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt, and with a whiff of curry about him to signal his Indian origin perhaps, re-arranged a few pieces in the overhead bins and successfully loaded up his huge carryon bag.

When it seemed like everything had settled down, the woman in the middle seat in the row that was immediately to the front got up, grabbed her things and left the plane with one of the stewardesses.  And she did not come back.  She could not have boarded the wrong plane. So, then what?

I turned towards the woman in the middle seat.  "Quite some drama" I said.

"Always interesting" she said with what seemed like a trace of a British accent.

"Where are you off to?"

"Of course, Chicago.  And from there to Iowa."

"You returning to Iowa, or ... ?"  I could not imagine somebody with a British accent returning to Iowa.  Perhaps visiting there. But, returning?

"Yes, returning.  After four months in Maui. It was 45 below zero when I left Iowa."

"I have never been to Iowa."

"I would not recommend it" she said with a smile.

"Since the nineties, I am involved with the Transcendental Meditation center.  Do you know about it?"

I nodded my head to convey a yes.  What I did not tell her was that during my undergraduate days, two friends--Nari and Ravi--and I went to the local TM center because we were curious.  We sat through a thirty-minute video presentation that urged us to "contemplate not concentrate" as we meditated.  We figured we had contemplated enough and never went back.

"How about you?"

"I am off to Florida for a conference."

"In Maui, I was also at a conference for four months.  I was conferring with the ocean" she chuckled.  Aren't we all funny!  We might come here from India or from the UK, but apparently we all become Americans in how we love silly humor.  The humor that makes a red-eye flight less painful. The humor that makes life's melodrama tolerable. The humor that will also make the conference presentations a lot less dull than they otherwise will be.

O Me! O Life!
By Wall Whitman

O Me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who  more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Ah to be young. But, jobless? Ouch!

For years I have been expressing concern about an issue on which I have always hoped that I am dead wrong.  But, I am yet to come across substantive evidence that will convince me that I am worried for no reason at all.

It is about (un)employment, especially among the youth.  

I am returning to the topic only after a few days because, well, I have come across way too many commentaries related to this and none is encouraging.

First, the numbers:
While the overall unemployment rate stayed at 6.7 percent, the unemployment rate for 20-24 year-olds increased from 11.9 percent to in February to 12.2 percent in March. For workers ages 16 to 24, the unemployment rate rose marginally to from 14.4 percent in February 14.5 percent.
That is bad. Very, very bad.

Of course, even two years ago, I blogged about the jobless youth:

The only consolation is, well, at least we are not Greece!

No work.  Not many are hiring.

One of the commentators I often read, Tyler Cowen, lays out the bottom-line early in his opinion piece:
technologically related unemployment — or, even worse, the phenomenon of people falling out of the labor force altogether because of technology — may prove a tougher problem this time around.
Hey, this is exactly what I have been worried about for some time now. This digital, information, revolution is not like the Industrial Revolution that unleashed plenty of new jobs that never existed before in order to manufacture products that never existed before.  This time it is different. Mighty different.

Cowen adds:
A new paper by Alan B. Krueger, Judd Cramer and David Cho of Princeton has documented that the nation now appears to have a permanent class of long-term unemployed, who probably can’t be helped much by monetary and fiscal policy. It’s not right to describe these people as “thrown out of work by machines,” because the causes involve complex interactions of technology, education and market demand. Still, many people are finding this new world of work harder to navigate.
Sometimes, the problem in labor markets takes the form of underemployment rather than outright joblessness. Many people, especially the young, end up with part-time and temporary service jobs — or perhaps a combination of them.
It is an employment world that is unlike, well, as Cowen puts it: 
what we’re facing isn’t your grandfather’s unemployment problem. It does have something to do with modern technology, and it will be with us for some time.
The technological revolution underway, along with the rapid globalization, will make it harder and harder to generate meaningful jobs that pay the middle class wages we have come to expect in America. 

I worry that the youth are not being told all these.  Instead, they are presented with nothing but rosy scenarios.  Follow your passion, they are advised.  A wonderful advice, yes, but only if the youth are also warned that the route they choose might lead them to an economic dead-end.

When I engage students about the possible economic misfortunes that lie ahead, they readily dismiss my concerns because, after all, they do not hear anything like my warning sirens from others.  Maybe I should start talking with them about the pots of gold where the rainbows end, about unicorns, and, perhaps, about Santa Claus too!

Eat More
by Joe Corrie

’Eat more fruit!’ the slogans say,
’ More fish, more beef, more bread!’
But I’m on Unemployment pay
My third year now, and wed.

And so I wonder when I’ll see
The slogan when I pass,
The only one that would suit me, -
’ Eat More Bloody Grass!’

Monday, April 07, 2014

Size isn’t everything. Especially when you are thinking with it

Because of my electrical engineering background, most graduate school faculty expected me to get into working with numbers and computers.  My first year assignment was to be a research assistant to a professor who wanted to develop a GIS-based approach in her project, back when GIS at the personal computer level was quite a joke by today's standards.  It was soon clear to her that I was not planning to be a data geek in the social sciences.

I was not after numbers by any means.  I was in graduate school to learn about ideas.  I was blown away that so much had already been said and written down.  Yet, I had not known even the tiniest bits of those ideas when I was led down a narrow alley called electrical engineering.  It is not that I did not value the empirical approach--after all, the background in science and math and engineering had provided me with enough and more evidence on the importance of empirical data.  But, theories and ideas mattered more to me than what the numbers could reveal.

Over the years, I have watched with fascination the rapidly growing collection of data at all levels.  The Big Data, as it has come to be called.  And how mining the Big Data will be the digital world equivalent of the oracle at Delphi--the data will tell us everything we would want to know.

Thus, with interest I read two lengthy opinion pieces on the flaws with Big Data.   The conclusion in one is:
Big data is here to stay, as it should be. But let’s be realistic: It’s an important resource for anyone analyzing data, not a silver bullet.
And the conclusion in the other is:
“Big data” has arrived, but big insights have not. The challenge now is to solve new problems and gain new answers – without making the same old statistical mistakes on a grander scale than ever.
Both the essays methodically lay out their arguments, and I urge you to read them.  I especially liked the following:
we almost forgot one last problem: the hype. Champions of big data promote it as a revolutionary advance. But even the examples that people give of the successes of big data, like Google Flu Trends, though useful, are small potatoes in the larger scheme of things. They are far less important than the great innovations of the 19th and 20th centuries, like antibiotics, automobiles and the airplane.
Yes, the hype of it all!

Big Data's cheerleaders claim:
that data analysis produces uncannily accurate results; that every single data point can be captured, making old statistical sampling techniques obsolete; that it is passé to fret about what causes what, because statistical correlation tells us what we need to know; and that scientific or statistical models aren’t needed because, to quote “The End of Theory”, a provocative essay published in Wired in 2008, “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”.
So, what about those claims?
Unfortunately, these four articles of faith are at best optimistic oversimplifications. At worst, according to David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge university, they can be “complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense.”
Bollocks. Nonsense. I love such clear and succinct opinions!

All these remind me of a short reading that I assign students to read.  Well, it is an actually an interview with George Dyson--yes, he is Freeman Dyson's son.  George Dyson offers a profound observation that "information is cheap, meaning is expensive":
We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives.
Go figure!  With or without Big Data, that is ;)
A Measuring Worm
Richard Wilbur

This yellow striped green
Caterpillar, climbing up
The steep window screen,

Constantly (for lack
Of a full set of legs) keeps
Humping up his back.

It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant

To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I, too, don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Reading a "bad" news story can be encouraging. Sometimes.

The headline for the news story in The Hindu that made me feel good?
Chennai commuters ask for more AC buses to beat the heat
The details were even more heart-warming:
With the summer heat intensifying, bus commuters in the city are desperate for the Metropolitan Transport Corporation’s (MTC) airconditioned buses.
No, this is not any case of schadenfreude.  It is genuine happiness on reading that. Why?

It is a measure of how much people have come to expect in their daily lives. And this rising expectation is a reflection of the increasing levels of affluence in the part of the old country that was once home to me.

Back when I lived in Chennai, to begin with the city was called Madras then.  I bet that the summers were no less hot and muggy as the summer is now.  But, those were the years when rarely did a home have AC, and one of the greatest thrills was to watch a movie in an AC theatre for the cooler temperature for those couple of hours.  Thus, the best we could do then was to seek comfort under the ceiling fan, or sit as close as possible to a table fan.

We didn't know any better than to live that life in the heat and humidity.  A life in which mothers and sisters (yes, terribly sexist it was then) prepared hot foods and snacks in the hot kitchens on hot days. Fathers and brothers went to work on hot days too.  And we youngsters, whose only worry was about school and college, grabbed a couple of rupees and headed to spend time with friends.  To meet with friends, meant using the bus.  The crowded bus.  We sometimes clung on to the crowded bus, hanging out with the feet barely on the foot-board.

There were no air-conditioned buses then.  There were air-conditioned undershirts--that's what we called the undershirts that had holes in them.  Holes as in tears, or holes as in the design of the undershirt with patterns of openings in them.

So, you see, to read about people asking for air-conditioned buses is, thus, really a measure how much the living conditions have improved over the years.

It is, after all, the increasing expectations that propels not only economic development but the forward progress of humankind itself.  Otherwise, we would never have reached this stage of me blogging and you reading--our kind would not even have ventured out of Africa.  "Ask and you shall receive" is a defining characteristic of the modern economic existence, though we do not receive anything for free but for a price.  And if we are ready to pay the price, miracles happen--air conditioned buses to iPhones to Armani suits to anything we can make happen.

I wish the people in the old country demanded more. Demanded more from their political leaders. From their businesses. From their schools. And, most of all, if they demanded more from themselves it will be even more encouraging to this American whose heart continues to beat for his old country.  May a thousand AC buses bloom!

I scanned through the copy of Poems from the Sanskrit for an appropriate poem for the Indian summer.  Turns out that the good old Bhartrhari, whom I had quoted at least once before, was quite naughty as well ;)
On sunny days there in the shade
Beneath the trees reclined a maid
Who lifted up her dress (she said)
To keep the moonbeams off her head.

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