Saturday, May 31, 2014

The fridge is one cool invention ... and more people want it

I grew up in an India that is vastly different from what the country means to its current middle class.

Back then, in the upper-middle-class home and context in which I lived and thought and did stupid things, we lacked a great number of material comforts.  In the hot, hot Neyveli, we did not have air conditioning, which is not that difficult to imagine.  But, we did not even own a refrigerator.  No fridge at home meant that even a cold drink was, thus, a special treat.  A treat that my parents rarely ever made possible despite our pleas when we went to the only market in town--the Main Bazaar.

All because we simply could not afford those luxuries.  And to think that it was the case not even forty years ago; the changes have been rapid!

As a kid, I noticed that some of my classmates had refrigerators in their homes and wondered why we did not have one at ours.  Those days, the difference in professional titles did not translate to wide differences in the earnings, which meant that there was more than mere affordability at play.  Yes, as a kid I thought a lot about these issues, too, when I was not thinking about that girl!

You think you can identify me here?  I didn't think so! ;)

Whenever we visited with my mother's aunt in Madras, I loved the cold, cold, yogurt they brought out of the fridge.  Even now I narrate to them that experience--every single time I meet them, even if they are tired of hearing that!  But, hey, I tend to repeat things.  But, hey, I tend to repeat things.

Now rare is a middle-class home in India without a fridge.  It is a prosperous country for quite a few hundreds of million Indians.  The problem is the lack of electricity, but that is a different blog-post for another day.

A fridge is more than a device to cool food and drinks.  While a typical male might think of a fridge as nothing more than a beer-chiller,
Fridges are transforming women’s lives in India and other emerging markets, just as they did in developed countries decades ago. They are next on families’ wishlists after mobile phones and televisions, usually becoming affordable when household incomes pass around $3,000 a year. Take-up is swifter in places that are urbanising fast. According to Euromonitor, a research firm, ownership in China has leapt from 24% in 1994 to 88% today, whereas in Peru, which has similar GDP per head but is more rural, it is still only 45%. In India 27% of households own a fridge, a share that Tassos Stassopoulos of AllianceBernstein, a fund manager, thinks could double in less than a decade.
I often remark in classes that economic development is really a story about women.  We often fail to even spot the phenomenal transformations in women's lives as societies transition from the old ways.  Women in developing countries, especially the married ones with kids, know all too well how much their lives will be even more complicated with backbreaking chores if they did not have fridges at home. The ones that do not have fridges know how much those gadgets can make lives easier.

If you want more proof, then ask middle class women in developing countries whether they will be willing to give up the fridge or the washing machine--or, worse, both.  Be ready to be kicked in the groin for even asking them that! ;)

Make this a better place ... for you and for me

Perhaps I am also a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Aren't we all to some extent that way, in terms of how we display one personality in some contexts and a different personality when among a different set of people?

I am Mr. Hide, when I am on campus and in the context of faculty, and behave like Justice Clarence Thomas at a typical Supreme Court hearing--a silent presence, thanks to the union bosses telling their people (which is, for all I know, everybody except me) not to listen to me.  When with students, I--the Dr. Khé--am an animated, energetic, pun-loving pain-in-the-ass instructor, which is the real me.

Thus, there is a fair chance that the students know more about me and my penchant for discussions than do my peers.  Especially given that some of the students read, and even follow, my blog ;)

Discussions I love, and the internet has made possible discussions and debates that I would otherwise never be able to have.  With people halfway around the world, especially with this guy who, thankfully, does not leave me alone.

Towards the end of an email exchange with a fellow contemplator, where we disagreed a lot--after all, argumentative Indians we are--I wrote:
If the world looks awful now, I would contend that it has never been any better than this.  No way were the conditions in the past any close to how awesome the conditions now are. Can we do better?  I am convinced that we can, and we should try to do better.
My favorite example in talking about such a trend is a simple, yet a profound, measure--life expectancy at birth.  In that same email thread, I noted:
Even the poor live much longer lives than the 35-year lifespan that humans were typically restricted to, on an average, up until a couple of centuries ago.
In such a framework, of course, I find plenty of company.
The doubling of human life expectancy is one of the most remarkable achievements of the past century. Consider, Lomborg writes, that “the twentieth century saw life expectancy rise by about 3 months for every calendar year.” The average child in 1900 could expect to live to just 32 years old; now that same child should make it to 70.
The family stories in the old country are full of tragedies of lives cut short.  A grandfather whose death made my grandmother an 18-year old widow and the mother of two kids--one (my father) was a 40-day old newborn.  Uncles and aunts dying from tuberculosis. Children dead from mysterious illnesses.  One can easily imagine, therefore, the torture that the matriarch went through as she continued to live while people dear to her died one after another.

There simply has never been a better time than now.  And a lot more peaceful a world now:
children live in a world with fewer armed conflicts, netting what the authors call a “peace dividend.” Globalization and trade liberalization have surely contributed to this more peaceful world (on aggregate). An interdependent global economy makes war costly.
There simply has never been a better time than now.
Lomborg’s main message? Ignore those pining for the “good old days.” Thanks to the immense gains of the past century, there has never been a better time to be alive.
The "good old days" were mostly nothing but bad old days--paleofantasies those are.

Enough said. Stop reading this and go do your part to make this world an even better place, especially for the generations to come.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ich bin ein ... Obese?

In the summer of 1963, JFK rallied up the spirits of the people in Berlin and West Germany with some of the best lines ever:
Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum ["I am a Roman citizen"]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner!"... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!"
As always, being far more interested in the trivial than in the profound, we humans descended into a frivolous debate on whether or not JFK ended up referring to the residents of Berlin or to the jelly doughnut when he said "Berliner."

For all I know, JFK ended up making jelly doughnuts popular.  So popular that obesity, fueled by those delicious doughnuts and other fat- and calorie-rich foods and snacks, is not only an American problem anymore but a worldwide trend:
The percentage of adults who are overweight or obese has swelled from 29% in 1980 to 37% in 2013, according to a new study in the Lancet. People in virtually all nations got larger
Apparently Weird Al was a few years ahead of this development!

And, even in this obesity, China has overtaken the US:
China is home to the largest number anywhere—335m, more than the population of America. This is not just because of its sheer size, but also because economic growth led to cellulite growth: a quarter of adults are now overweight compared with one in ten in 1980
Damn, no more chanting of USA! USA! USA! when we are not numero uno.

There is good news in this global obesity trend (yes, of course I am being sarcastic. But, it is real news):
obese men and women who live in U.S. counties with high levels of obesity are much happier than obese men and women who live in slenderer areas. Nor do people of “normal weight” enjoy much of an affective advantage in neighborhoods with more flesh per capita. “This illustrates the importance of looking like the people around you when it comes to satisfaction with life,”
So, in a world of fat people, only the lean and hungry will be unhappy?  Get me a few truckloads of jelly doughnuts, please. Pronto!  And get me one of those feedbags.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I am in good company!

When I was a kid, the elders often appreciatively commented about the quality of writing in the newspaper that we subscribed to--The Hindu.  After coming to the US, however, I have always been shocked at the atrocious grammar there and wonder whether it was the case even back then, or whether the quality has really deteriorated over the years.

Here in the US, I have often commented to students about the wonderful writing styles in the New Yorker and The Economist.  But, recently, I have been noticing grammar issues in The Economist.  A few weeks ago, I even wrote a sarcastic letter to the editor:
Dear Editor:
I reckon the distinguished newspaper loves the word reckon so much that it reckoned it would make for an interesting reading by using four reckons in the Saudi America piece--two of those reckons in consecutive sentences in the same paragraph.
Who woulda reckoned that!
Of course, the magazine newspaper did not publish that letter.  If they had, you, dear reader, would have known about it by now!

Why write about some old story today?  Glad you asked.

I picked up the mail and the latest issue was in.  On the cover was the image of India's most powerful bachelor (ok, married but living separately.)  Over dinner, I read that lead article, and then glanced through the pages and ended up reading this piece on digital disruption on the farm.  Not really a new story, but a neat commentary that ties a few pieces together.  Which is when my brain caught a spelling mistake.  Do you see what I saw?

Yes, I checked the online version.  Thankfully, that error does not show up there.

Wait, are you still searching for the error?  Tsk, tsk! And I  thought the readers of this blog were incredibly smart people! ;)  Oh well, there is more to life than grammar, right?

BTW, don't even attempt to poin out the writhing problems that you find alot in this blog.  Their not paying me fur this ;)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In praise of the "Indian Model" in development


Take a good look at that photograph of India's newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, shaking hands and having a conversation with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.

The one in the photo below is Modi's Twitter BFF--Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe


And, finally, the president of China (PRC, not that other China!) Xi Jinping playing host to Russia's Vladimir Putin:


Notice that the leaders of Pakistan, Japan, and China are all wearing business suits, despite their own respective country's rich history of male attires?

As much as I hate do not care for Modi's views, I am delighted that his passion to execute a Chinese model of economic development in India did not lead him to switch to wearing business suits too.  Or that his bromance with Abe did not result in contacting the Japanese leader's tailor.

Of course, India has a long history of charting its own path, even when it comes to its leaders' outfits.

When that wonderful son of Gujarat, who is rarely ever remembered anymore, inspired India through his words and action, he systematically mentored his juniors, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru, to ditch the Western style of clothing in favor of a desi presentation--though he was the only half-naked fakir.  What a powerful statement that was to align his words and actions even in the clothing that he wore. I would have loved to meet with him, and worked with him.

Later as the prime minister, Nehru ended up making  his eponymous jacket famous in the Western countries that he visited.


What's the big deal whether they wear a business suit or the local cultural outfit, you ask?  It is a matter of personal preference, yes, in what I expect from a leader.  And, hey, be happy that at least in this context I am praising Modi!

But, of course, I am not fooled by what people wear; I am old enough, even if not wise, to know that clothes do not always make a man.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Snake-charming Indians we are not!

"Did you see that snake on the road?" I asked.

We had taken a country-road, a back road, instead of the highway.  After the tasty picnic-lunch by the lakeshore, when exiting I saw a board that indicated this other approach to the destination.  Of course, I was immediately tempted to take that route instead of driving on the freeway.  But, not driving alone meant that I had to poll the rest and factor in their views.  Damn this democracy! ;)

Every once in a while, democratic approaches do yield good, and correct, results.  The people agreed. We were off on the country road.

The pleasure of driving slowly, on a sunny pleasant day, in a setting with scenic views, far exceeds anything to be gained by speeding along with the masses.  Taking in things slowly, we notice the world around us that we certainly would not otherwise.  And even then, it all depends on where we are and what our window is to the world.  I had the front seat view, which gave me a perspective that was different from the passenger in the rear looking out on the sides.  It is a wonderful metaphor, by itself, on why our respective takes on various aspects of life also differs, right?

Thus, I saw the snake on the ground that the rest did not.  I am sure there were plenty that they could have observed that I would have missed out on.

None of the other four in the car had noticed the snake.  I had to show them that, even though I have an intense dislike for snakes.   I hate them.

A quick u-turn.

"It is in the middle of the road. Do you see that there?  Maybe a vehicle already has gone over it and it is dead now" I said as we watched from the safe shoulder space by the road.

And then it slithered.  Damn creepy it was!

As vehicles rushed by, the snake, which was smack in the middle of the road, seemed to want to get away from the danger to its life.  Of course; it is about survival. That instinct to survive which is in all of us.

The snake hating crowd we were, well, we started to worry about the snake.  We saw how one wrong move and it would be dead.  We started yelling loudly and were even shouting out instructions to the snake on where it should go, fully knowing we were of no help at all.

The snake, meanwhile, hissed at the passing vehicles.  The head often rose up and angled as if it wanted to bite the potential attacker.

The tension in all of us was way more than what we had bargained for.  It was clear that we did not want to witness the impending gory death.  Another u-turn and we were on the road again to enjoy the pleasant afternoon.

"Is there anything that we can do to help the snake?" asked one.

"I'm sure it is roadkill by now" I said.  "Every other week, I seem to see a dead deer by the roadside when I drive to campus.  This is what happens when we humans invade their territories."

We build roads.
Construct dams.
Dig up the soil.
We do everything in order to pursue our self-interest.
Roadkills are in plenty, literally and metaphorically.
If only there were a better way for that pursuit of happiness!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

If only Putin knew small talk!

"I am sure you guessed by now I am a native-born Oregonian" I quipped.

I think I am funny and the best part is that I am also the first to laugh at my own "jokes."  It doesn't take much for me to keep me amused!

That was at the haircut place a couple of days ago.  My best find ever--not because they laugh at my jokes.  If you think about it, the women--yes, I have not seen a male personnel there--hold the upper-hand during the few minutes there: I am seated without my glasses while they hold weapons.  Yet, I risk my life (ahem!) with my awful humor.

Rarely ever do I see the same personnel there.  I guess the turnover is high, which should not be a surprise given the $9.99 for a haircut.  But then not ever having the same people is an advantage for me--I can recycle the same old jokes!

One of my standard questions in the mandatory small-talk is "so, you been doing this for a while?"

"Oh, since December."

I wondered whether it was only in December that she got her licence and then started at the entry level position of the haircut business.  I know how it works in the teaching business--the fresh out of school are some of the worst providers of service, when it comes to teaching.  We don't have a freaking clue and we try to put on a show as we learn the tricks of the trade. "As long as she does not lop my ear off" I thought to myself.

She sneezed.  Which then provided another topic for small-talk.  I have come to understand that interesting small-talk is like improv comedy.  Like observational comedy.  The more the talk is about what is happening right then and there, the more engaged the people get.  That context, for instance, was not the place for me to ask her "so, how about that Putin in Crimea?"

When she sneezed, it then became an opportunity to talk about the pollen this time of the year.  "Allergies, eh,"

"Yeah. This year is the first time it is bad."

"Are you an Oregon native, or from somewhere else?"

"A true Oregonian. One of the rare ones" she replied.

Of course, small-talk etiquette means that you lob back the ball.  (Such a language coming from a sports-challenged person!)

"How about you?" she asked me.

Which is when I quipped, "I am sure you guessed by now I am a native-born Oregonian."  And, of course, I chuckled.

"Oh, your accent is only mild" she was gracious.  She knows her trade secret--keep the customer happy.

If only in every interaction in life we brought with us such small-talk etiquette.  We would then always be paying attention to the goings-on and making contextual observations.  To a person who is celebrating, we might say something that will be different from a person dragging his feet--literally or metaphorically.

Maybe the real problem is that we do not know how to engage in small-talk.  Maybe that is the first lesson that Putin needs.  Somebody needs to start a conversation with him with "hey Vlad, it is "get rid of the tartar" and not "get rid of the Tatar."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Do you know what you were doing when ... you took that photo?

"After you take photos, do you remember the photos?  Do you ever go back and look at them?" asked the friend a few weeks ago.

Even my daughter would have responded on my behalf with a emphatic yes.  The daughter once commented, with a highly annoyed tone and look, that I perhaps even remember every damn thing that I ever learnt in school.  I would guess that I had ticked her off with some fatherly mansplaining.  Not now, but years ago.  But, I am sure it was not my fault--there is a high probability that every father is intensely disliked at some time or another by his teenage daughter ;)

So, back to the photos.  Do I go back and look at them?  Yes, ma'am!

It should be no surprise, actually, given my intensely reflective approach to life and the autoethnography that shapes my inquiries.  And, of course, I use many of those photos right here in this blog.  Even the selfies; especially the selfies!

I love digital photography for the very reason that I can organize them in directories and can easily pull them up whenever I think of any.  I look at a photograph that I have taken and I am immediately mentally transported to that time and place.

It turns out that even in this behavior, I am quite an odd man out!  NPR had a segment on whether we are experiencing less and recording more.  Not me--I think I am recording way more than I have done in my life and am experiencing way more than ever.  There is no "photo taking impairment effect" in me.

So, why might many others be recording more and experiencing less?  The explanation, which sounded more like a hypothesis to me, is:
when we rely on an external memory aid, you mentally count on the camera to remember for you. As soon as you hit click on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory and you've said to your brain, you know what, you don't have to process any more information 'cause the camera's going to remember for me. So, any time we kind of count on these external memory devices, we're taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own.
I have not outsourced the collection of my experiences.  But, I do worry about me increasingly choosing not to commit to my memory facts and factoids, like I used to in the years when my daughter got annoyed with me.  Instead, I outsource that memory aspect to Google.  And, yes, I have blogged about that before; back in January 2013, I wrote:
As access to information increased, I noticed that I was committing to memory less information than what had otherwise been my practice.  Over the years, I have changed my approach to make it easier for me to absorb a lot more ideas, without getting trapped into the mechanics of retaining the minute details. I worry mostly about retaining the big picture.
Did I think it was a good or a bad idea to use Google as my mental crutch?  I quoted Google's Chief Technology Advocate:
Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps. They don't give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they're smarter, because they can rely on these tools.
So, here is what I am convinced about: all these digital tools are awesome, but only when we know how to make them make us smarter.  Let me put it another way: we need to be smart enough to know hot to use these tools that can then make us appear smarter than we otherwise would be.

Here is the worry I have, especially with students--they seem to easily overlook the fact that they need to get smart before they can effectively put these smart technologies to use.  It is about using the digital camera that makes the experiences that much more enriching.  It is about knowing how to use Google so that we can make meaning more efficiently and effectively.  But, what if that getting smart in the first place is not happening via the education system?  What if it mostly is the case of (experiencing) learning less and (recording) web-surfing more?  They can have all the photos and all the Google results, but have they learnt how to make meaning of them?  And, to make things worse, they tend to equate the web-surfing and Googling to, cough, knowledge itself!

Of course, I won't discuss this with students--I know fully well that the probability is really high that every instructor is intensely disliked by students at least at some point, especially towards the end of the term ;)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Three neighbors with nuclear weapons ... surely nothing can wrong!

I have no idea whether Osama bin Laden chose 2001 for his ghastly plan because he knew that it would be the first year in office for a newly elected US President.  Given the evils that bin Laden schemed up, it is probable that the timing was intentional.

September 2001 was not the first time that the newly elected President was tested either.  On April 1st, only ten weeks into his presidency, Bush had to deal with the Hainan Island incident that became a gripping geopolitical news story for ten days.

I think about those incidents of April and September 2001 as I follow the news stories from India about the elections and now the upcoming inauguration of a new government led by Narendra Modi.  Modi, like Bush, comes with a couple of terms of governing experience in a state, and very little of international experience.  Bush was even quite proud of his regular guy life and how he had not spent time outside the US unlike those Democratic elitists.

Modi and his people have said and done enough to make Pakistan cautiously pessimistic.  As for the other nuclear neighbor,
Modi noted that Beijing would have to shed its “expansionist policies and forge bilateral ties with India for the peace, progress and prosperity of both nations.” India has in the past complained about China’s refusal to accept Indians from Arunachal Pradesh as Indian citizens and its insistence that Arunachal Pradesh is disputed territory.
Both Pakistan and China will closely watch every move that Modi makes over the next couple of weeks.

I would think that the US Ambassador to India will be one heck of an important position at this point, not only to keep track of the goings on, but also to play the role of an intermediary should situations arise.  Oddly enough, the Obama administration did not make it a high priority to nominate anybody even though the ambassador announced her retirement back in March?
 Kathleen Stephens, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, will serve as head of mission until a new permanent ambassador is nominated and confirmed.
With this oppose-everything Republicans in the Senate, who are also sensing control of the body come November, and with the summer lull fast approaching, the US might not have a permanent ambassador until the new year?  Why the low, low priority to that part of the world?  

A nightmarish scenario could be something along the following lines: crazy militants with ties to Pakistan strike terror in India, perhaps in Delhi or in Gujarat, in order to test the new prime minister.  Modi is pushed into retaliation by the very forces that worked hard to get him elected.  

Or, China tests Modi by placing a few military feet on India's side of the border.  Modi is pushed into retaliation by the very forces that worked hard to get him elected.  

O course, all the three have enough and more nukes to settle scores.  Don't be fooled into thinking that Mutually Assured Destruction always works as a wonderful deterrent--"states waging conventional wars might escalate to using nukes."

Why worry about this, right?  It will all be rosy as was September 10, 2001.

Tomorrow is another day!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Your favorite guru was what yesterday?

Over the weekend, in a conversation with the friend, I recalled the saying in the old country, "ரிஷி மூலம் நதி மூலம் ஆராயக்கூடாது (do not try to trace the origins of sages and rivers.)  The idea is that in both the cases, the origins can be quite unimpressive.  Or worse in the case of the holy men and gurus who actively peddle their "wisdom"--their past can sometimes be darn ugly.

In the contemporary world, with the Indian diaspora far away from the old country, there are quite a few gurus who sell their merchandise to those of Indian and other origins and--this is where the old saying came in to the conversation--many of them might have quite some blemishes in their past.  Like with this cult leader guru, for instance.

A day later came this email from the friend after re-reading Paul Theroux's "Africa's Aid Mess" in which he quotes Thoreau:
A rich white doctor in black Africa is a study in high contrast that puts one in the mind of the gallery of role models: Tarzan, Mr. Kurtz, King Leoplold, Cecil Rhodes... The overlords, the opportunists, the exploiters, the visionaries, the hunters, the care-givers, the baptizers, the saviors... Seeking a kingdom of their own, if not an empire. Henry David Thoreau believed that all such outgoing people had something discreditable in their past that through giving they wished to expiate.
I loved that phrasing: "something discreditable in their past that through giving they wished to expiate."

I am so thankful that I do not blindly chase after false gurus.  In fact, I joke that I have enough materials within me to market them to the gullible and live the life of money, sex, and drugs--like how that notorious guy from India lived in Oregon.  But then I am a dull, boring person and I merely blog! ;)

There is a huge difference between appreciating profound ideas, understanding them, and applying them to our lives versus appreciating, adoring and worshiping the messenger of those ideas.  The messenger rarely is faultless and clean, and even then to celebrate them when they are alive is a huge risk--we mortals err, and for all we know the human we adore today could be tomorrow's axe murderer.

Take the case of Khalil Gibran--a figure that I have quoted often, like here.  As much as I like his mystical thoughts, well, I knew enough not to worship him.  Because, like most mystical thinkers, Gibran, too, was a fraud in his personal life.
Most of Gibran’s life, as it emerges from these biographies, seems to have been spent in tête-à-têtes in stifling Boston drawing-rooms, or at not very successful New York private views, where the talk was usually of the Higher Life of the Mind and the special responsibilities of the Poet. In time, books like The Prophet made Gibran a wealthy man (Waterfield notes that his early contempt for money softened somewhat in later life). In his last years he took to drinking heavily and he died of cirrhosis of the liver.
"something discreditable in their past that through giving they wished to expiate."  Lovely phrasing Thoreau's is, right?

From the New Yorker

Monday, May 19, 2014

Yes, this atheist believes in miracles

"It's a beautiful afternoon" the friend noted in the email that popped up as I was getting into grading papers.

All the writing that I assign means that I am on a grading treadmill throughout the term.  It becomes an huge pile if I look away for even a couple of days.  Whenever I remark about this to students, they, of course, have a simple Occam's Razor-style solution.  As you can guess, the solution is that I can stop assigning them the work.  Oh well, if only I knew how to do that!

The email had a recommendation as well: that I go for my favorite five-mile walk by the river.

I weighed the alternatives--I could continue grading, or I could enjoy the sun and the river and the geese and ... I was off.

I am a huge fan of Richard Feynman's acute observation that the Big Bang and Darwin's insights and every inquiry into how things came to be do not make life dull and boring.  Not by any means.  Instead, "the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more."  That wonder of it all was what my later afternoon experience turned out to be.

The late afternoon sun into downward journey across the horizon, with nothing but a blue sky and puffy white clouds.
The river sparkling diamonds as it reflects the sunlight.
The trees and the bushes and the grass gleaming in various shades of green.  
Mothers jogging with their tiny ones carefully tucked into the stroller's bed.
Young lovers lying next to each other, soaking up the rays while whispering sweet nothings.

Every one of them.
The miracles are there for me to enjoy.
For them to enjoy.
For all of us to enjoy.

What a miracle that we are here. That I am blogging this. And you are reading this.

And to think that all of these came from the cosmic dust!   It is simply amazing a life.

I returned home. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang.

It was my neighbor. Delivering a slice of rich chocolate cake.

One miraculous afternoon.  Thanks to the miracle email.

Walt Whitman
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles, 
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, 
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, 
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of
   the water, 
Or stand under trees in the woods, 
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
   with any one I love, 
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest, 
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car, 
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer
Or animals feeding in the fields, 
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air, 
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so
   quiet and bright, 
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring; 
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, 
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with
   the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—
   the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

On the sex organ that controls your life

Ok, I employed the "sex" word to lure you.

This post is not about sex.  Though, I have blogged enough about sex.  About a hermit's penis and monkey sex too.  For that matter, even about vibrators.  Hey perv, don't click on those links--continue reading instead!

So, with the pervs gone, it is now only the really interested reader and me.

Now, you, the reader, are even better informed than this pretentious blogger is and, therefore, you know really well that the brain is the real sex organ.  The down there merely carries out the instructions from the big one up there.

It is time for another full disclosure: this post is not about the brain's role in sex.  Hey, hey, come back.

It is about the brain and food. The brain and obesity.  Yes, yet another post on "Sanitas Per Escam."

When we were kids, our grandmothers always implored us to eat quickly and not to make eating a long-drawn affair.  "Eat quickly and you will be big and strong" they said and we kids would race to claim the championship, for that meal at least.  Grandmothers might have had their own reasons for encouraging this behavior.  Or, perhaps they did notice a correlation between those eating quickly tending to look healthy (which, to them, almost always meant being a tad chubby) versus those who ate slowly being, well, lean and not looking "healthy."

There is a reason for that correlation.  It takes time for the brain to analyze the data it gets from the gut and the bloodstream before it can issue the "stop eating" instructions.  Eating quickly often then means that we end up ingesting quite some quantity before the brain can shut down the intake.  Such an approach meal after meal, day after day, means that before we know it, we end up carrying a few extra pounds.  The "spare tire" as we often referred to in the old country.

Once that fat is stored, it triggers a set of biochemical processes that lead to even more unhealthy outcomes.  While this essay is not about eating quickly versus eating slowly, here is an explanation of what happens after the fat deposits accrue:
What if it’s not overeating that causes us to get fat, but the process of getting fatter that causes us to overeat?
The more calories we lock away in fat tissue, the fewer there are circulating in the bloodstream to satisfy the body’s requirements. If we look at it this way, it’s a distribution problem: We have an abundance of calories, but they’re in the wrong place. As a result, the body needs to increase its intake. We get hungrier because we’re getting fatter.
We get hungrier because we are getting fatter.  Or, as the essay notes " we overeat because we’re getting fat."  And thus a vicious cycle gets established.
According to this alternative view, factors in the environment have triggered fat cells in our bodies to take in and store excessive amounts of glucose and other calorie-rich compounds. Since fewer calories are available to fuel metabolism, the brain tells the body to increase calorie intake (we feel hungry) and save energy (our metabolism slows down). Eating more solves this problem temporarily but also accelerates weight gain. Cutting calories reverses the weight gain for a short while, making us think we have control over our body weight, but predictably increases hunger and slows metabolism even more.
The essay is, therefore, a discussion on why "diets that rely on consciously reducing calories don’t usually work."
obesity treatment would more appropriately focus on diet quality rather than calorie quantity.
... Addressing the underlying biological drive to overeat may make for a far more practical and effective solution to obesity than counting calories.
Indeed; merely counting calories is pretty darn stupid!  It is all about what we eat and how we eat.  My grandmothers had it half-right by cooking healthy foods.  But, they didn't factor in the role that the brain plays in this.

My grandmothers will be very happy, I bet, that I make and eat stuff like this, though they would have wanted me to eat it quickly ;)

The Jasmine Revolution that did not reach Tiananmen Square

There was one brief period in my life, in my early life, when I understood what it means not to have the freedom of expression.  I was barely into my teenage and I knew I hated the very idea of government clamping down on that glorious freedom.

It was when federal rule was imposed as a result of a declaration of national emergency.  The prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and her minions--especially her second son, Sanjay Gandhi--turned India into a police state.  One of my favorite magazines, Thuglak, carried blank spaces in its pages--the blank resulting from the government censors axing out paragraphs that, one would assume, were critical of the government.

A fearful life was not worth it even though trains ran on time and workers actually worked.  It became the beginnings of the doubts about the communist ideas that so much fascinated me, though it took me a few more years to completely rid myself of the red within.

A little more than a decade later, I, like hundreds of millions of others on this planet, watched transfixed the protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.  Pro-democracy protests by students who were in my age cohort.  The rawness of the emotions!

Recalling the protests, Nicholas Kristof writes:
A quarter-century has passed. The bullet holes in the buildings along the Avenue of Eternal Peace have been patched, and history similarly sanitized....
The great Chinese writer Lu Xun once wrote, about an earlier massacre: “Lies written in ink cannot disguise facts written in blood.”
I have to remind myself that it has been 25 years since those protests.  Twenty-five years!

Individual freedom is way too valuable for me to give up.  I empathize with those who yearn for it.  When the Arab Spring spread, I hoped that the protests in Tunisia and others in the Arab world would reach China and trigger a Jasmine Revolution.  It never happened, of course.

If you can read this blog post, tweet, update your status on Facebook, or even yell out loud that your government is fucked up, those are all evidence that you--and I--have freedoms that did not come easily.  A great many made this possible for us, and often they paid for it by suffering torturous deaths.  For now, it might seem as if the deaths of the Tiananmen protesters was all in vain.  Not by any means.  For one, it reminded millions like me that freedom is precious.  Further, as Kristof writes:
As China prospers and builds an educated middle class, demands for participation will grow. I’ve covered democracy movements around the world, from Poland to South Korea, and I’m confident that someday, at Tiananmen Square, I’ll be able to pay my respects at a memorial to those men and women killed that night.
I can only hope that we are not far from that day in the future.

Here is the late poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz:
Speak, by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.

See how in the blacksmith's shop
The flame burns wild, the iron glows red;
The locks open their jaws,
And every chain begins to break.

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, 'cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Only Modi can go to Pakistan. Will he?

At the carefully chosen auspicious midnight hour in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru famously spoke on India's "Tryst with Destiny."  Sixty-seven years later, it does have the feel of yet another tryst with destiny, with the election of Narendra Modi to the office of the prime minister as a mere formal act that is pending, after the thumping victory in the recently concluded long-drawn election.  (Modi will become the first prime minister who was born in independent India.)  

Such is the margin of victory, and such is the magnitude of loss for the scions of the Nehru family, that the Congress Party might not rise again. Finito as they say in the Congress Party's president's old country. Coincidence it will be if Modi gets sworn into office on the anniversary of the death of the last of the Nehru-clan's prime minister--Rajiv Gandhi.

No doubt about the gravity of the political development. It is a marker in history.  What might be in store?  Que sera sera is not what we bloggers and commentators say. We attempt to read the tea leaves. We express our excitement and concerns. In this case, given my long track record, like here, of anything but a Modi sympathizer, concerns are in plenty.

A friend, in/from India, reminded me about Khalil Gibran's poem, Pity the Nation
Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.

Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.
Khalil Gibran (The Garden of the Prophet - 1934)
The concerns about Modi are about the very traits of the leader and the country that Gibran notes: " the bully as hero," whose statesman is a fox," the nation divided into fragments" ... And the poem itself, therefore, serving as a contrast to the wonderful dream that Rabindranath Tagore dreamt for an independent India, Where the mind is without fear:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Of course, Gibran's poem was the later one and could easily be his response to Tagore.  Both the mystical thinkers were expressing similar sentiments about countries and their leaders.  The biggest worry of mine is about the fragments and that Modi, even if not a uniter, might end up being even more divisive.  A future where the walls narrow, the minorities live in fear, and the neighbors get even more ready to push that red button.

Yet, I hope against hope. After all, human existence over the thousands of years has been propelled by hope, if nothing else.

The hope is this: Modi will become India's equivalent of Nixon going to China.  With his long documented association with the RSS, Modi bleeds more saffron than anybody else can. Thus, if he were to engage in opening up relations with Muslims--internally and with Pakistan--his supporters will not have the slightest doubts about the strongman, the Hindu, that Modi is.  Modi will not be accused of treason by his fanatical followers. The huge parliamentary majority that Modi has, which is such that there might not even be a formal Leader of the Opposition, means that Modi does not have to try to appease any coalition partner and can go about mending fences with Muslims within India and with the ummah.  

For now, good luck, Mr. Prime Minister!  And good luck to my old country!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Every student is way above average. Exceptional!

I had a few minutes to kill, and I checked in with, and there was a new entry, from May 7th, that began with:
HE IS SOOOOOO FREAKIN HARD!! I am trying soo hard in his class but i feel like he cares more about what you know than the effort you put in your essays.
And a couple more sentences after that.

I do not feel insulted at all.  On the contrary, this is one of the best compliments ever that the student could have given me.  "he cares more about what you know than the effort you put in" ... Awesome. Thanks.

If only my faculty colleagues--not only here at WOU, but faculty colleagues across other teaching universities--would also make it clear to students that ultimately their grade depends on what they know.

Years ago, less than a year into my teaching career, a student complained to me that the grade "I had given" she noticed was way lower than what she was expecting.  I told her that I don't give grades and that students earn them.  The grade reflected the quality of the work, I explained.  "But, I came to class everyday.  Doesn't that count?" her voice an octave higher now.

We live in an education culture in the US in which pretty much every kid in the K-12 system is an achiever in some way or the other.  "You are special," "You can do whatever you want to do" are the only kinds of feedback K-12 students seem to get these days.  Back when my daughter was in high school, as much as I loved watching the kids perform, I hated the end of every single performance for the ultra-loud applause and whistles and standing ovations from the audience.  I could not, and still do not, understand how every single performance could have been exceptional!  Every town has become Lake Wobegon where " all the children are above average."

I have been complaining about such trends for years. The result is that students, not only this student, but right from my first year of teaching, have been complaining that I am one of those hard ones.  The reality is that I am not.  But, I do worry about the reputation.  After all, in a higher education system that is run like a ponzi business, if my classes do not bring in the students--who are walking ATMs, as far as the university is concerned--then I am not bringing in the money.  I then become a financial liability.

Even back in California, when commending me on my "hard professor" reputation, Lee, a much older colleague in a completely different field, noted "as long as students continue to register for your classes, you will be ok with this reputation.  But, watch out if the numbers begin to drop."

Am I not expected to care more for what students demonstrate as what they know than to merely award grades based on how much they tried?

Even the grades we--all across higher education--award are highly inflated anyway.  The following image accompanying Rebecca Schuman's piece says it all about grade inflation and student expectations:

Now, having said all these, I do sympathize with the student in many ways.  Most students would rather not be in college if they truly had a choice.  The uninterested and the unable together constitute a significant percentage of the student body.  The situation then becomes a lose-lose for all concerned.

Oh well.  I will learn my lessons when I am jobless, when I no longer bring in the student revenue.  For all I know, that day is not far off!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Let's give 'em something to talk about!

It is summer-like conditions here in the valley.  I drove with the air-conditioner on--during the morning drive to campus.  The temperature gauge displayed 88 as I drove back home and the air-conditioner seemed to be on strike.  It is almost as if I went to sleep in Eugene and woke up in Chennai!

Somebody please send us a piece of that melting Antarctic ice sheet!

Of course, I exaggerate; the heat here is nothing compared to the conditions in Chennai.  Even glancing at the weather report for Chennai makes me suffer a severe heat stroke--the unusual high temperature of today is only a tad higher than the low temperature there.  Ouch!

Calling up my parents every day does not help either, because the heat there is one of the conversation items.

"It is very, very bright, and very, very hot" father said yesterday.  "The humidity is so bad that I am sweating even when doing nothing" he added.

Listening to him, I started sweating here in Eugene.  The power of suggestion is for real.  But, apparently the power of suggestion does not work when I read about the cold Antarctic ice sheet.  I suspect that when I read about it, I end up relaying the heat, causing it to melt even more ;)

Father and son wondered how we dealt with the heat in the old days, when we were both younger.  He in his middle age, and I as a teenager.  When there was no air conditioning.

"But, no point complaining. It is Agni Natchathiram time" father sighed.

"Exactly. That is how it will be when you are that close to the Equator" I responded, as if there was a subconscious need to make up for the formal geography credentials that I do not have.

A student showed up in my office, which is a shocker anymore.  I thought I was successfully driving students away with questions to them--like about their futures, their career plans, and their absences.  Darn, some survive it all; some masochists they are!

He complained about the heat, and the sweating from having biked to campus.

"I know all about that feeling, man.  Back in India, all through my younger years, I biked all over the place in the heat and the humidity" I replied.

Changes in the weather conditions certainly do give us something to talk about.

Maybe I ought to thank nature--always described in the feminine as if to reflect the unpredictable behavior--for turning up the heat like this; if it were nothing but a pleasant day every single day, perhaps we will even lose the appreciation of the wonders of a pleasant day.

Thanks to the Indian summer today, I can now drool for the cool morning and a pleasant day that is forecast for Friday.

And then complain about the cold and the rain on Sunday.  After all, what are we if we do not complain! ;)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Has income inequality increased or decreased? Yes!

When eminent economists at the world's elitist of elite universities disagree, then it all comes down to a simple question: who you gonna believe?

Income inequality is one heck of a hot topic now and even normally the dismal scientists would have had plenty to say about it.  And then came a French dude, with a name that I didn't really know how to pronounce and was going about butchering his last name as I butcher any word that I come across.  At least, thanks to the New Yorker, I know that even Nobel Laureates had some trouble with this:
The economist Paul Krugman burst into an office at the CUNY Graduate Center one recent evening with a pronunciation question. “Is it Pik-etty?” he asked, so that the name rhymed with “rickety.” “Or is it Pikit-tay? And are we going with Tho-mah, or Thom-as?” Three academics stood nearby, clutching wineglasses. They had assembled as part of a welcoming party, but no one knew how to pronounce the name of the guest of honor, the French economist Thomas Piketty. “How about Dr. P.?” Chase Robinson, the interim president of the Graduate Center, suggested.
So, really, how is it to be pronounced?  Tell us, Dr. P.:
Peek-et-tee,” he said.
That is the only easy thing about the storm that “Peek-et-tee,” has kicked up!

It turns out that there are long lines of reputed economists on either side of the issue.  I have no idea how to make sense of it all.  I am inclined to believe the pro-Piketty crowd, only because my emotions tend to sympathize with that.  After all, there is still that remnant of the commie spirits that flooded my teenage brain.

But, my rational mind wonders why there is that other line, also with economists of the highest calibre.  Take Kenneth Rogoff, for instance. A Harvard economics professor and a former chief economist with the IMF.  Enough cred for you?  Rogoff writes:
Reading Thomas Piketty’s influential new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, one might conclude that the world has not been this unequal since the days of robber barons and kings. That is odd, because one might conclude from reading another excellent new book, Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape (which I recently reviewed), that the world is more equal than ever
Which view is right?
I say the answer is via another question: who you gonna believe?

If you believe Rogoff, well:
The answer depends on whether one looks only at countries individually or at the world as a whole
Why does that make any difference?
The same machine that has increased inequality in rich countries has leveled the playing field globally for billions. Looking from afar, and giving, say, an Indian the same weight as an American or a Frenchman, the last 30 years have been among the greatest in human history for improving the lot of the poor
Indeed, over the last thirty years we have seen tremendous improvement in extreme poverty.
In 1990, 43% of the population of developing countries lived in extreme poverty (then defined as subsisting on $1 a day); the absolute number was 1.9 billion people. By 2000 the proportion was down to a third. By 2010 it was 21% (or 1.2 billion; the poverty line was then $1.25, the average of the 15 poorest countries’ own poverty lines in 2005 prices, adjusted for differences in purchasing power). The global poverty rate had been cut in half in 20 years.
The story of India and China now having a significant middle class also happened over the thirty years.  Which is why Rogoff says the answer depends, and concludes with this:
In accepting Piketty’s premise that inequality matters more than growth, one needs to remember that many developing-country citizens rely on rich-country growth to help them escape poverty. The first problem of the twenty-first century remains to help the dire poor in Africa and elsewhere. By all means, the elite 0.1% should pay much more in taxes, but let us not forget that when it comes to reducing global inequality, the capitalist system has had an impressive three decades.
So, who you gonna believe?

I turned to my favorite when it comes to income distribution issues: Branko Milanovic.  He writes:
When we look at the global population rather than at countries, however, there is a positive side. The unprecedented growth of China and, from the early 1990s, of India, as well as much of the rest of Asia has lifted millions out of poverty. For the first time since the industrial revolution, income inequality among world citizens has fallen.
See, again, from a global perspective, things have never been this good.

Milanovic concludes thus:
What is the role of national inequalities? On a purely arithmetic level, if real growth is given, greater inequality slows poverty reduction and probably the expansion of the middle class. But those who believe in trickle-down economics argue that without greater inequality there would not be strong growth. While this might have been true for China in the past 20 years, it is doubtful that further growth in inequality there will be so benign. China’s Gini – a measure of inequality – at about 44 is already greater than America’s. Can it rise further, deepening regional and urban-rural divides, without slowing the expansion of the middle? India’s inequality, long thought to be in the mid-30s Gini range, may if assessed in terms of income rather than consumption already be as high as 50, practically at the Latin American level.It is therefore growth with redistribution (a familiar development formula from the 1970s) that should be our objective in the years to come, if we want both global poverty and global inequality to continue their downward trend. 
So, who you gonna believe?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Life is never, ever, about the ratatouille

"Because this is evening, I suppose I should ask for tickets to the Dinner Box" I said as my friend bought the tickets to The Lunchbox.

I imagine I will be punning awful groaners even when on my death bed.  "If I am dying when sitting on a recliner, why is it my death bed?" will be the kind of horrendous jokes I would tell as I exit.

Whether it is the bed or the chair, and as long as I am conscious, and as long as the neurons keep firing, I know what will fill my mind--the warm memories of experiences with people.  As Roberto observed during the day tour that in Costa Rica, "when you are lying nearing your death, you cannot take your car or house or clothes.  You have only your memories with you when dying."

Memories.  Especially of people who cared for me.  People with whom I broke that proverbial bread. The people who fed me.  With anybody who is close to me, there is always at least one unique and special food memory, even if that person couldn't care about food.

Thinking about food and the people who fed me is not anything new in this blog.  Because I blog about food, and because of the growing collection of food-related photos on my Facebook page, some, mistakenly, conclude that I am a foodaholic. Yes, it is about food. But, it is more than merely being about food. It is all about memories.  Not memories of the taste of the rasgolla or the vadai or the erisheri, but about the life that it was all about. About the people.

There is a wonderful saying in the old country, உப்பிட்டவரை உள்ளளவும் நினை.  In its literal meaning, well, we need to remember forever those who fed us salt.  But, of course, it is not really about the salt itself. It is about the people who provided the food that we eat in order to sustain ourselves, and that food becomes palatable only with the appropriate amount of salt.  But then it is not even about the salt nor the food itself--it is yet another statement on what it means to be human.

The Lunchbox is a movie that is not really about the lunch. Nor is is about the "dabbawallahs" whose highly efficient and reliable system was studied by a professor at the prestigious Harvard Business School.  The Lunchbox is about the human condition.  Men and women trying to make sense of their existence.

We create and share experiences through food. As we get older, we even relive experiences through food. Like Anton Ego and his ratatouille, we too realize that a cheesecake is more than a mere cheesecake.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Proudly Made in the USA. Ha!

I bought a kitchen gadget, a pepper mill, as a gift item.  Amazon delivered it on schedule and the package was waiting for me on the front porch.

Yes, I live in a neighborhood where homes have front porches. Like in the old days. When neighbors stood around or sat on their porches and actually talked with neighbors.

So, where was I?  Oh, yeah, on the porch.

I brought the package in, and made sure that it looked the same in the real world as it did on the computer monitor.  Which is when I noticed the American flag sticker on the package.

I was pleasantly surprised that the gadget was made here in the US, when I thought such small things (as is the case with most big things too) are typically made in China.

Curiosity being my middle name (no, that is not my legal middle name; I don't have a middle name) I looked at it again.

Do you see what I saw?

Not made in the USA, but "PROUDLY FILLED IN THE USA".

That is correct; we are immensely proud to have developed the capability to know how to fill in the peppercorn.  Can't you hear Springsteen singing, "Filled in the USA!"

What a cheap gimmick to try to fool the consumer who might be a fan of "buy American."  Pathetic.

So, where was it manufactured?

Of course, right?

But, did you notice how the label makes it clear that pepper is not from China?

I wonder which executive came up with this brilliant idea!  Yet another instance when we need to be reminded about the market economy--caveat emptor!

BTW, I wonder where the pepper came from.  Could not have been proudly grown in the USA.  Come to think of it, shouldn't they have made clear where the pepper is from?  "Proudly imported from Kochi, India" maybe!


Saturday, May 10, 2014

The disgustingly unique American economic activity in the world: college sports

Most of my leftist colleagues, some who even proudly call themselves as "socialists," are ardent fans of college sports.  It is hilarious to me when I hear them in the hallways using "we" when talking about their favorite teams, usually the university where they earned their doctorates.  However, in all these years, I have never heard them loudly discussing and condeming sexual violence and college sports. And, boy, have there have been some cases!  Maybe they discuss them only the days I am not on campus (yeah, right!)

The latest violence?  In the very town where I live.

The university associated with the massive sports corporation called The Ducks is all over the news now after it was reported that three of its basketball players had been investigated over rape charges but are not being prosecuted because "the crimes cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt."
The female victim told police that on the night of March 8 she went to basket­ball player Johnathan Loyd’s house, where Dotson and Austin allegedly took her into a bathroom and forced her to have sex with them, according to a Eugene police report released Monday night. Artis stayed in a hallway outside the bathroom, the report said.
The victim alleged that the three players then took her to an apartment and continued to take turns forcing her to engage in unwanted sexual activity, the report said. The players allegedly stopped only when the victim began to cry.
What the hell is wrong with these student-athletes?  

The three have been kicked off the team, even though the criminal justice system will not pursue the case.  One of them apparently has a past record as well:
Austin originally signed with Providence last year but was suspended for the season and transferred to Oregon in January. He was not eligible to play last season. It was announced in March that Austin is being investigated in a sexual assault in Rhode Island.
Nobody bothered to ever find out why the player was suspended by a university?
What the hell is wrong with the coaches?

Sports in colleges as a big time economic activity, which is disgustingly a uniquely American thing, has taken over higher education.

On Facebook, I do not see status updates from users who usually otherwise post a great number about "their Ducks."  Fanatical sports fans yet strangely super-silent now.

Meanwhile, the real purpose of higher education--you know, education--gets maligned, and is thrown whatever crumbs are left after the party is over.  The people in all their wisdom enthusiastically support college sports, professional sports, and anything that is sheer entertainment, and are eager to pay for all that even with taxpayer money. Especially with taxpayer money.  But, ask them to spare a dollar from that for education, and it is murder.
The richest nation in the history of the world subsidizes all sorts of luxuries and inefficiencies. Football stadiums, bridges to nowhere, bases and planes that even the military does not want, churches, temples, cathedrals, and vacation homes. Yet in the present consensus on the future of our higher learning, the notion that perhaps we can afford a reasonable level of public investment in the inefficient institutions that gave us the Green Revolution and Google is deemed unrealistic. The public debate is locked on measurable outputs. But the opportunity costs of failing to reinvest never come up. What is the public expense, for instance, if we continue to gouge funding for research on communicable diseases or climate change? How do we measure the cost of failing to inspire and guide the student who might write the next great work of political thought that can guide us safely through the challenges of this century? Why can’t the richest country in the world afford to adequately support passionate potential scholars in the pursuit of their calling? We make explicit value choices in this republic. We have chosen tax breaks over history, poetry, and science. Nothing is inevitable. We can choose otherwise.
I suppose in condemning this supposedly market behavior, I will side with those "socialists."

Oh well, this local rape story will go away.  The college football season will begin. "My team" people will only care about the wins, and not care a shit about education, and not care a shit about violence--physical and sexual.  As long as "we" win!  "Just win, baby!"

I hurriedly clicked this guy wearing a "I love my Ducks" ...  when waiting for the crosswalk green light ...
in Tampa, Florida! Diagonally across the continent!

Friday, May 09, 2014

What has size got to do with it?

I often joke around that I am an American who was accidentally born in India.  Such is the ease with which I live here.

I am certain that had I been born and raised here in the US, I would have been one heck of an Indophile.  India is simply way too fascinating, and I cannot imagine why millions do not have that level of an intense curiosity about India.

To a large extent, one (of many) of my disappointments with the people in the old country is that even they do not seem to have an intense curiosity about India.  The "mera Bharat mahan" (My India is great) is, more often than not, a superficial statement. A hollow sentiment. An empty rhetoric. Even worse than the jingoistic "USA! USA!" that is chanted here in my adopted country.

As much as I am innately curious and passionate about my family's stories, I am equally curious and passionate about all things about the old country itself.  As much as immigrating to the US did not mean a disassociation from the family and the stories, there is no disconnecting from the old country and its rich stories.  And, therefore, the shocking disappointment every time I find that there is not a great deal of genuine interest among most people in the old country about their own respective family stories nor about their own country.

One of the ways in which as a kid I came to understand the rich past of India's was through the stories, literally stories, that were presented in comic book format--the Panchatantra.  The stories appealed to the kid in me, but one did not have to be the proverbial brain surgeon to know that there was more to the stories--serious philosophical and moral undertones.  

The older I get, the more I find simple and powerful timeless messages in many of those verses from the old country.  Like this one:
हस्ति स्थूलतरः स चांकुशवशः किं हस्तिमात्रोंऽकुशः
दीपे प्रज्वलिते प्रणश्यति तमः किं दीपमात्रं तमः ।
वज्रेणापि हताः पतन्ति गिरयः किं वज्रमात्रो गिरिः
तेजो यस्य विराजते स बलवान् स्थूलेषु कः प्रत्ययः ॥
- पञ्चतंत्र - मित्रभेद

An elephant is very big. But is controlled by a very small hook. Are they both of the same size?
A small lamp destroys mighty darkness. Are they both of same size?
A diamond can bring down a mountain. Are they both of the same size?
He who has courage will become a winner. What has size got to with success?
- Panchatantra, Mitrabedha

I think that I am the luckiest guy on this planet to have been an American who was accidentally born in India, so that I could get to experience and understand the world the way I do.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Make hay while the sun shines

"Here in the valley, the rain returns tomorrow" said the familiar voice on the radio.  That meant that there was one thing I knew I had to do immediately after reaching home--my favorite five-mile walk by the river.

Only after moving to this part of the world do I truly experience the "make hay while the sun shines."  Back in the old country, with the abundant sunlight and heat for most of the year, it was not the rare sunny day that we looked forward to.  Here, I seem to have become a sun worshiper. No different from the Swedish student who, when she visited with us during my California years, struck a pose in the middle of the road with her face pointing upward to absorb the sun.  "This is how we stand when the sun comes out" she said.  It is up here in these latitudes that we really need to do the surya-namaskaram.

I am always amazed that people would walk by the river and not listen to the sounds all around.  The sound of the river, especially when it crashes over the boulders.  The birds chirping. The kids expressing delight, and some crying.  Instead, they prefer to plug their ears with the artificial sounds from gadgets. To each his or her own, yes, but ... seriously?

As always, lost I was in my own thoughts when a couple of bikes whizzed past me with one yelling to the other "don't bike with your mouth open in spring time."  I am assuming that was an advice a tad too late for the other. In cultures where eating bugs is a part of everyday life, will they worry about biking with the mouth open?

I had to pass two women, but had to pull back when I heard a voice yell "bike on the left."  The sound rushed in and faded out.  That was one speeding bike, whose sounds could have easily demonstrated the Doppler Effect!

As I drew even with the women, the one talking on the phone said, "so, you are in the hospital now?"

I suppose every one of us by the river have our own stories.  It just so happens that our respective paths intersected for those brief seconds.  I wondered who was having a bad time that required a hospital visit. A hospital is no Disneyland, I thought to myself.

"Sure, put her on" she said as I started outpacing them.

I didn't have to wonder too long--her voice shifted into the higher pitch and a slower delivery that we typically use when talking with kids.  "I'm sorry you're not feeling well, sweetheart" she said.  I was soon out of earshot.

Not the Disneyland that the kid would have hoped to go to.  On a wonderfully sunny spring day, the kid is in the hospital instead of rushing around and having a great time.

But then the cosmos doesn't stop for anything or anybody. Misfortunes occur every single day, every single minute. And when they occur, even the best day in paradise could be worse than the worst day in hell.  All the more why we need to make hay while the sun shines.

Tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

I stink in the classes because ... I am ageing!

I checked my blood pressure the other day--I can't resist the call of that machine whenever I go to the store that liberals love to hate. (No, I am not that kind of a liberal; I am, if I have to choose a label, a Libertarian Democrat.)

I slid my arm into the slot.  The arm band puffed up. And slowly released. Then the numbers appeared on the display--numbers that would put primary care physicians out of business if we all had such good readings!

Even as I felt reassured, I worried yet again that I will be condemned to a long life, unless I pick up some bad habits real fast.

Even more worrisome is that my habits apparently line up really well with some of the common characteristics of many centenarians:
"They engage in physical and mental activity on a daily basis, often cleaning, walking, gardening, cooking, reading, writing and memorizing passages of poetry, stories and life events. Learning never ends for them. They always hang around with people much younger than them. Even with a child, they find something to talk about.”
Many of the centenarians he has met practice careful eating habits; most are vegetarians who consume fresh vegetables and fruits, spices and herbs in small but regular quantities. Physical and mental activities and practices such as bathing in cold water and watching the sunrise in the early morning are common.
Aha, there is one where I am different: I do not bathe in cold water!  Ok, I might live only until 99 then; big deal ;)

Meanwhile, another essay that I read alerts me about the old man body odor:
Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Research Center in Philadelphia examined sweat-stained pads from the armpits of a cross-section of ages and, it appears, were able to tell by smelling them which had belonged to the old. It confirms what we all know but hesitate to say: old people smell. Apparently it isn’t an unpleasant smell – like ‘cucumbers and aged beer’ or comparable to ‘old book smell’ – but it’s there.
Hmmm ... so, when students tell me that I stink, they are not referring to my teaching?

Anyway, the author--a senior citizen, a woman--writes about ageing:
We all risk loneliness in old age if we live long enough – it is a terrible thing to be the last of your friends to die – but there is a special dungeon of isolation for women alone, mad old bats, pathetic creatures, talking to themselves and their cats, waiting out their lives. Being alone is as much of a stigma to be feared as losing sexuality. Old, lonely, unwanted, invisible. We learn about these sorry creatures in the books we read as small children, we see them repeatedly on the television news, dying of solitude and neglect, even in the crowded day room of a care home..
To live a long life is a blessing?  A curse?  A mixed bag?  Come on, any advice?
The advice seems to me to be to do what will prevent you from despairing, because being old and having been young, we are very well aware of the world’s capacity to remain utterly unchanged by our efforts. And that awareness alone is enough to make the end of life grim and disappointing unless you have the capacity to grin and bear it.
Grin and bear it,  or grim and disappointing?  That's all you got?

Tomorrow I better start drinking and smoking and bungee-jumping and ... nah--ain't gonna happen!

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